The world of recording music has changed a lot in recent years, especially for the indie musician. But one thing still remains the same. Whether you’re recording your first album or your tenth, it still costs money.
In this article, I’m going to walk you through some of the expenses you should be budgeting for on your first few albums, and some easy ways to cut costs. Keep in mind, this only covers the actual recording costs. If you’re releasing your album you also need to be thinking about distribution, marketing, artwork, and packaging.
If you’re trying to record a professional album or EP, studio costs are probably going to be unavoidable. There are, of course, a ton of great at-home recording programs and tools that are quite affordable, but unless you’ve got quite a bit of experience in the home studio, you’re not going to get the best sound.
You don’t, however, have to record in the top-of-the-line studio that your favorite top 40 artists use. There are probably a bunch of awesome, local studios nearby that will better fit your tight budget. The key is to do your research. Take a listen to some of the songs and albums recorded in the studio to make sure it meets your quality standards. Most studios will also let you stop by and take a look at the equipment. Another option is to record the big parts that require a live room in a professional studio and then track the vocals in a smaller studio or a home studio.
If you do choose to go into a studio, they charge by the hour, sometimes by the day, so if you want to save money you’re best bet is to cut down on the number of hours you need to record. And that doesn’t mean rushing and coming out with a sloppy album – it means being prepared.
Make sure you have all the parts 100% figured out before you even step into the studio. Writing in the studio may seem cool, but especially if this is your first album your nerves will probably block any creative ideas. You could also record demos at home on whatever you have available to work out any problems and get a better idea of how everything will fit together. Plus, you can give these demos to the producer or engineer so everyone is on the same page.
Producer / Engineer
Another inevitable cost is hiring a producer / engineer. Even if you think you know your way around the studio, trying to do everything yourself will probably take more time and cost more in the end. Your one job is to give the best performance, leave the recording to someone else.
Think of a producer like a film director. They work with the artist to direct the creative vision, songwriting, and arrangement, they work with the engineers to direct the sound and the mix, and they act as the project manager, keeping track of time and budget. The engineer is responsible for the actual recording – setting up the equipment, levels, mixing, and so on. Both are usually paid hourly, sometimes by the project, though there are other deals you can negotiate if you’re really strapped for cash.
Especially if this is your first album, your best bet is to hire an engineer who also has production experience, or an engineer with a good ear. If you’re going to forego a producer, make sure you go into the studio with your creative vision fully ironed out. That way, your engineer can give some general advice as a fresh set of ears, but you won’t need any major hand-holding when it comes to the overall creative direction, songwriting, or arrangement.
Without a producer keeping everything on track, it’s your job to do everything you can to make your engineer’s job easier. Record a demo, have reference tracks so they know what kind of sound you’re going for, write up lead sheets, let them know the instrumentation and makeup of the band, and get all this to them before you hit the studio.
Mixing / Mastering
Mixing and mastering are two completely separate things. A mixing engineer will take all the tracks you recorded, find the best bits, combine it all together, and make it sound as good as possible by adjusting the levels, EQing, and adding effects like compression and reverb. A mastering engineer will take those mixes and make a cohesive album. It involves balancing song levels, controlling the dynamic range, and adding space between songs.
Mixing and mastering is generally priced per song. If you want a professional sounding album, it’s advisable to do both, and get them both done well. With that in mind, there aren’t too many ways to cut costs here. Some engineers may give you a bit of a discount per song if you give them more than one or two songs at a time. Automated digital mastering services like LANDR may work if this is literally your first shot at recording your music, but if you’re doing anything professional, it’s well worth spending a bit more on your mix.
If you’d like to learn more about turning your music into a career, you can download my most popular ebook, Hack the Music Business for free here. It will take you through some of the best strategies for indie musicians to help you grow your fanbase and your career.