So you’ve decided it’s time to record an album, yet you have no label backing you. It’s a great idea overall: presenting a finished album to a label is much more interesting for them as all the work is already done. They just need to put it into production and onto the store tablets.
Although there are other methods of recording, we’ll be looking at the track by track method, the most commonly used method of recording as it’s the one which produces the best results. Also, we’ll assume that you’re not rich, so you’ll be doing most of the work on a home computer.
The Track by Track Method
What’s great about this method is that the other musicians don’t even need to know the song beforehand. And that’s one of the main reason it’s so widespread. Generally, the guy who wrote the song goes into the studio first and does a quick recording. It won’t be kept, but it will serve as a guide.
In today’s world, you can do this, or at least most of it, in the comfort of your living room. Using a computer and a multi-track software such as Cakewalk or Cubase, you can achieve the same results as any studio (most studios today use these softwares). But it’s a lot of work…
Obviously, if you’re doing it yourself, you don’t have a large budget. Believe me, if you did, you’d be in someone else’s studio with a producer and a sound engineer letting them do all the work. I’ve recorded a lot of demos in my time, but this is my first experience at recording an album; it’s not the same thing at all. I never could have imagined this was so much work!
In an effort to help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, here are a few helpful hints. This is by no means the end-all and be-all of album recording, perhaps you have had similar experiences and have come up with different solutions. If so, by all means, write in and share them with us.
A lot of this is psychological. So in order to avoid a psychosis, be well-prepared.
Sked-jule, or was it Shed-yule?
Make up a realistic schedule for recording your album. And stick to it. You shouldn’t spend more than three or four months on it. More than that and it starts to seem like a chore. And as you’re not seeing the end of it, you put less and less energy into it.
Three to four months is a comfortable maximum. If everybody in the band works full-time, well there go the weekends!
Of course, this is assuming that most of the people in the band have full-time jobs. If that’s not the case, you can easily cut this to three or four weeks.
Production usually ends up being done by one person in the band, usually the person who knows the most about sounds, electronics, computers, etc. Or the guy who owns the computer. Or it could be the one who doesn’t have a full-time job. This poor sod’s life is going to be a miserable one for a while.
But you should decide in advance who will be the Producer. Better to choose one person rather than make it a band thing. Remember in school how it was with team assignments? Usually, one person ended up doing most of the work. The same goes here. A twosome can work, provided both people can work well together, but the best way to go is with one person only.
You’ll have to trust this person’s judgement. He’ll be sitting in on all the recording sessions. He’ll be pressing “stop” in the recording software if he doesn’t like what’s being played. He’s the one who will say “OK, this take is good”.
Of course, if you’re it, don’t be a tyrant. If the drummer says he doesn’t like his take, let him do it over. But make sure you like it too.
The Producer will also have to decide if more tracks are needed and will have to convince the others to record them. So he also has to be a diplomat…
And an administrator…
So the task has fallen on you. Great! How good is your memory? Figure that most recording software can take up to 256 tracks. Although you won’t be using that many, you’ll likely end up with anywhere between 16 an 40 tracks per song.
How will you remember every detail of every track? Suppose the rhythm guitar uses multiple effects at different times? Then you’ll use a different track for each effect (example: track one has the rhythm guitar with reverb, chorus and flange, track two has the rhythm guitar sections without the flanger). You’ll also want to double the rhythm guitar. Imagine the main rhythm guitar playing to the right, the second rhythm guitar should be less loud and to the left.
Also, anything with distortion on it should be recorded on a different track. Solos should also be on a different track (but all solos and leads on the same track). You will end up with five to eight guitar tracks (at least) per song.
Then there’s bass, drums, keyboards and whatever else you might decide to throw in. Have a good memory? Don’t count on it.
Suppose that in a certain song you wish to add a picking guitar using a different guitar. Can you be absolutely sure which guitar you used for the other tracks? I know it sounds obvious, your guitars don’t sound alike. But once you’ve added effects, it’s not always obvious.
Spend a few dollars on a spiral notebook. Preferably one with at least 200 pages in it. You’ll identify the cover page first of all (you’d be surprised how often one doesn’t think of doing this). Make sure you add contact information. Suppose you’re heading to another studio and you drop the notebook in the subway? You’ll be very happy if someone finds it and gives you a ring.
Page 1: Give your project a working title. This is like an album title, only it’s not definite (that’s why it’s called a “working” title). It doesn’t matter whether or not the album will end up with this title, it’s psychologically sound to say you’re working on “Voyage of Mercy” rather than working “on an album”. If, somewhere down the line you decide you’d rather call the album “Voyage of the Damned”, don’t change the working title. It should remain the same until the album is mixed.
Write down the name of the software you’re using, where you’re doing the recording, which software you’ll be using for effects, etc. Think of it as archival information. Something to refer to ten years from now. Could be useful if your second album happens only in five or six years. You just might not remember all the details and it’s good to have them.
Write down all relevant information: Song titles, production, engineering and mixing credits. Anything you can think of that might be useful. Leave yourself several blank pages for things to add on later down the road.
Split the rest of the book into as many equal sections as the number of songs you plan to record. For example, if you plan to record 10 songs, you should leave about 10 pages for the overall section at the beginning and leave 19 pages per song. Much better to have too many than not enough.
Use some method for separating the sections so they’re easy to find. Then, for each section, on the first page, write the title of the song, in big easily-readable letters. Then write the name of the songwriter(s).
Once you start recording, you should put in all pertinent information relative to the base track (the one that you’ll be deleting down the line). You should also note all tempo changes and time changes. If you’re starting at a tempo of 105, in 4/4, then switching, at measure 17, to a tempo of 110 in a 3/4, it’s important to note this. You can easily make a mistake somewhere down the line which will change the tempo and key settings. If you have them noted down already, it’s easy to set them back again to what they should be.
Once you start recording the actual tracks, start by the date (it gives you an easy method of seeing the changes the song may have gone through.
Then note anything of importance; settings used on the amp, on the guitar itself, on the pedal effects, etc. Take a note of everything. If, for some reason, you should accidentally delete a track at some point, you’ll have all the settings already to redo it.
Don’t bother with things like the amount of takes necessary. This could be embarrassing to the guy who got his part right on the fiftieth try. Some musicians are like that. I know I am. I can play the same part flawlessly twenty times in a row, but once you press “record”, I start making stupid mistakes. Many musicians are this way, don’t be too hard on them.
Every time you make changes, even if it’s just adjusting track volume or panning, make a note of it. This spiral notebook will be your bible during the project.
It Took How Long?
Another important thing to take note of is the time spent on the project. Write down your hours. You should reserve a page for each track just to write down your hours. As most freelancers will tell you, hours should be split in 30 minute segments. From 0 to 30 minutes becomes 30 and 31 minutes to 60 is rounded off to the hour. If you’ve worked on a track for 3 hours and 12 minutes, you should right down 3.5 and 2 hours and 47 minutes should be 3 hours. But don’t start making sure you work 2 minutes over the hour every time. Try to be fair.
Now, it is extremely important to know how much time you spent on the project. Software like Cakewalk will tell you (in the properties submenu), but these numbers are not accurate. They only count from the time you press record to the final save. There’s work to be done before you press record and after you save.
Why is it so important to have accurate timing? If you sell your album to a label, you need an advance. The advance will be set upon the amount it cost you (or should have cost you as you’re not charging for your time) to record the album.
Suppose you finish with a total of 836 hours spent on the project. You multiply this by a reasonable hourly rate, say $25. 836 x $25 = $20,900. To this you add actual costs: CD’s (for backups, etc), tapes if you use them. Actual studio costs if you’ve used the services of another studio. If your recording the album on a home PC, you’ll have a problem with drums and vocals if you’re living in an apartment. Let’s just say that the neighbours might not appreciate. And you won’t get good sound results anyway. Better to pay for time in an actual studio.
Let’s say you have spent 26 hours for vocals and 17 for drums and the studio cost you $30 an hour (with the services of an engineer). That’s (26 hour + 17 hours) x $30 = $1,290. So $20,900 + $1,290 = $22,190. Round it off at $23,000 for incidentals and that’s what you should be charging a label if they want to sign you. And that’s not excessive. Major label advances are usually of the order of $150,000 (they consider that you have to pay things like rent and food to live on while you’re making the album and before it gets released).
If you’re producing the album, it’s only natural that you should get paid. This is where it gets a bit tricky with the other band members. The standard rate for a producer is 4% of the final sale price of an album (if the album is sold for $23.99, the producer gets $0.96 per copy sold). This is standard for any producer for any album. And the 4% comes out of the band’s cut. That’s also standard. Look at the amount of extra work you’re doing. You should get paid for it, it’s only fair. Try and get the point across to anyone in the band who is reluctant to yield. Offer them to produce the next one. Or tell them to get someone else. Although all producers make 4%, any producer you call will ask for an advance. Once the reluctant parties see that they can’t pay it, they should yield to the 4%.
Anyway, if you sign with a label, they’ll automatically make the checks out to the person who’s credited for producing the album.
Overall, producing is a tremendous amount of work. At times you’ll hate it. It will seem like the project’s going nowhere and that there’s no end in sight. But it’s also a lot of fun and a great learning experience.
Keep a written record of everything that happens. Don’t go overboard. It’s easy, when you have so many tracks to work with to start adding 40 guitar tracks, 3 solos at the same time, etc. My advice is keep it simple. Record the basic tracks first: Rhythm guitar, lead guitar, main keyboard track, bass, vocals and drums. Then add only what’s needed. If you end up with only 8 tracks on a song and it sounds great, then don’t touch it.
Always record drums last. It sounds backwards, but it the best way to go. You’ll get your timing from the software’s metronome. This way the drummer has a better idea of when to add his punches so that he doesn’t bury the voice, but instead supports it.
And have fun! Remember that if it’s not fun, might as well go work for the government…