As Dylan sang, 'The Times, they are a-chaaaangin'… ' and this can certainly can be applied when it comes to the recording process. We've made a transition from using tape reels, to recording zeros and ones right into the computer. You can rent massive warehouse studios with millions of dollars in recording equipment and a staff of twenty, who will cater to your recording and chocolate fancies (“roll off the frequency of my guitar in the 1.5 k range, and no red M&M's please”). Or you can sit in someone's basement with a Mac laptop next to the laundry trying to get some reverb from a dryer drum.
There are benefits to pro studios and home recording each in their own right. But the one thing that never changes, even if you're a music legend, is the budget. Even if you decide to try out home recording, there are going to be costs involved, and if you're not prepared it can still cost you more in money and time than you expect.
Here are some pointers to help you prepare for that recording, and make the most out of your time, and money.
1. Come up with honest and realistic numbers for time and budget
First things first: create a budget. Put it on paper, make a spreadsheet, write it on a napkin, whatever you do, figure out exactly how much you have to spend, right down to the last cent, not a penny more and then… STICK TO IT. This step is critical and it is often the most brushed off in terms of priority because nobody likes to do it. But if you’re organized, this shouldn't actually take long. It will keep your expectations realistic, and will be the benchmark that keeps you from sinking the music ship because of money.
Remember, you are not going to be spending all of your budget on recording, or at least you shouldn't. There are other things that cost money with records, including duplication, promo, websites, photos, graphic designers, etc. Recording is only one part of making a record - you may have made the decision to cut corners on some of these things or maybe you’re getting some good deals with a designer for the album cover, so a budget will help you keep track of this, and give you a better idea of what you can spend on recording.
2. Record your own demos, apply critical listening, then serve the songs.
There's a weird misconception that when artists go into the studio that everything will sound incredible no matter what they record, simply because of all that wonderful technology. Many bands fail to actually listen to their material as a whole beforehand, then go into the studio and can't understand why it doesn't sound as good as they thought it would.
The best way to beat this problem is to make a demo. Knowing and mapping things like key, tone, tempos and arrangements in a basic recording while making good notes and revisions well ahead of time will save you recording time, and thus a lot of money.
3. Like the scouts, be prepared.
To prepare for your recording session, meet with your band and / or your engineer or producer regularly and discuss influences and sound as well as what is actually involved when you track. Bring mp3s and CDs of artists and albums that you feel could be an influence and share them with who you are working with. If you're booking time in a studio, listen to other recordings that have been recorded there, and see how their recordings match up to what you are looking for. Think of this as preparing your ears for what to expect, because it’s way easier to hear what you are talking about than trying to describe that ‘wooshy’ effect you want on your keyboards to your engineer.
You should also spend a good chunk of time thinking about what instruments get used for what parts, right down to the guitar, the snare, amps, keyboards, etc. Find out what instruments the studio has available that will compliment your ideas, they’ve always got a gear list available. Visit music stores and play a few different instruments with specific areas of recording in mind. Do the same with amps if you feel you need them. This is a free and fun exercise, and you'll be expanding your sonic horizons by doing it!
4. Practice, practice, practice!!! Oh, and practice.
I don't really have to go into this one too much do I? Practice makes perfect, with both gigs and on records, and it's cheaper at a rehearsal space than at a studio. It will translate to less takes when recording if you've already developed your muscle memory for the songs, and it's so much more satisfying nailing that take in a couple of goes, rather than trying to edit a part in post so it sounds right in mix.
Think of yourself as a musical athlete. Marathon runners don't just decide to run a marathon in record time out of the blue, they run marathons every day for years to prepare for the big event at the Olympics. They spend hours just psyching themselves up for it. The recording process can be both musically, mentally, and physically challenging, so the more you practice, the more in shape you'll be for the big event. You will get better results in less time, and as a result, will spend less money.
5. Studios are not for experimenting or socializing, they’re for recording
There's always the possibility that you can spend some experimental time on your record, like tracking alternate solos and tones, or re-recording your guitar solo note for note on that really weird looking Harmonium in the corner. But save it for when everything else is done, at the end, as a potential icing on the cake, and don't count on it happening.
Also consider leaving practices that you would do in the privacy of your rehearsals, well... at the practice space. Less messing about in the studio will pay you dividends when you're listening to your incredible songs over a thumping PA at your CD release, when partying and socializing actually counts for something, and you will also find you get in touch with your recording that much more, which feels pretty good too.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
These suggestions often come back to the same refrain: plan rigorously in all areas, make sure you’re ready musically, mentally and physically, then start your recording. It may seem obvious, but many of these points are regularly overlooked by artists both successful and up and coming. A recording can be a huge undertaking even on a small budget, so planning a record wisely can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. And by getting a lot of things taken care of at the beginning, you will make the experience of recording more fun and creative.
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