With recording budgets constantly being downsized, it becomes increasingly important to use studio time as efficiently as possible. Through many years of experience watching musicians and bands come to the studio to record, I have several suggestions that will save you money, yet still help you create a recording you are happy with.
Expectations of Studio Time
Many new bands and artists go into the studio for their first time with a false expectation of how long it will take to record their song(s). It is extremely common for a recording studio to get a call along these lines: “Our band is looking to record our 12 song album and we were wondering if we could schedule to record it tonight from 7-9 p.m. Oh . . . and what happens if we don’t use all of that time?”
If you have recorded in the studio before, you are probably chuckling at the ridiculous expectation of recording 12 songs in fewer than two hours. In defense of most of these phone calls, I can see where a band would think, “We can play our 12 songs in 45 minutes, so two hours gives us plenty of time to play them several times, if needed.” But in reality, it would be miraculous to record, mix and master one song within two hours.
One of the most common questions asked is, “how long will it take to record my song?” This is such a tough question to answer because it varies greatly from project to project. Obviously, not all recordings are the same, but being able to perform to the level of your expectations is also an important factor. For example, if you expect the recording to be perfect, but are recording with inexperienced musicians, you will likely find you will need a lot more studio time. In the opposite scenario (great musicians with low expectations), you would likely be fine with everyone’s first take. But the ideal scenario is to have great musicians with high expectations to match.
Other factors that determine the duration of a session are the number of instruments, the complexity of the recording (e.g., live drums, string sections have bigger setups), how many layers of vocals, guitars, etc. you are planning on recording.
Here are some very rough estimates you can use to get a rough idea of how long a recording should take. Every studio will be different and time will vary greatly based on the musician:
- Live Piano: 1 hour
- Live Drums: 2 hours
- Bass: 30 minutes
- Vocals: 1.5-6 hours (depends on the amount of layers, such as harmonies and doubles)
- Electric Guitar: 1-2 hours
- Mixing: 1-5 hours (depends on the complexity of the arrangement)
The Recording Process
The recording process is broken down into four stages.
Each of these stages are important, but since each stage relies on the stage before it, early problems can really compound. Unfortunately, many, many people skimp out on the first stage and then heavily rely on the latter stages to save them from their neglect of planning and preparing. Unfortunately, this approach is often costly and results in a project that could have been much better. Let’s discuss these first two stages in more detail.
There are many things you can do in this stage to set you up for a great recording. I am going to briefly talk about the following: songwriting, key, tempo, session players, instruments, setup, references, recording yourself, and finally, choosing the right studio.
Make sure your song is the best it can be. This is the foundation of your recording. Production can only take it so far. If the songwriting isn’t great, you are starting at a great disadvantage. Here are a few things that deserve special attention:
- Do you have a great song form? For example, most popular songs follow variations of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, (optional verse), chorus, chorus.
- Are your lyrics finalized? Review lyrics with the band or songwriting friends. Ask them what they understand the song is about (you would be surprised how often your lyrics are not as clear as you think).
- Do you have strong hooks? A hook can be any unique, catchy part of your song. It is often the creative idea(s) that make your song memorable and interesting. A hook can be a catchy lyric, melody, drop, etc. Definitely take the time to make your hook as awesome as it needs to be.
Try out different keys to make sure you have the key that works best for your vocalist. Pick a key that challenges the voice, but is not out of range (too high/low). Keys can usually be changed pretty easily be using a capo, or using the transpose function on a MIDI piano.
Come into the studio with the beats-per-minute figured out. Many songs stick with the same tempo throughout the whole song.
It is common that people think their choruses should be faster and their verses slower. However, this is usually a result of people fighting the typical tendency to rush when things get more exciting in a chorus. If possible, find a tempo that works great for verse and chorus. The vocal should be the most important factor in determining the speed, so make sure you check it with the singer.
In some cases, the song may not work with a metronome because it calls for purposeful rubato. Many people have a hard time playing to a metronome. If this is your situation, you should not assume your song has rubato just because you can’t play to a click.
The musicians you choose will make a huge difference in how everything turns out. Great musicians don’t just perform better, they also sonically sound better because they typically know how to make their instruments sound great in the studio.
Get the best musicians you can afford. Bringing in your neighbor’s daughter who is learning violin in middle school is going to be more costly because she will likely need way more takes and there will be much more editing required in the studio. Even then, it still won’t sound great.
Choose the right musician for the song. Don’t assume a musician who is great at one genre is automatically great at everything else. Match musicians to the genre of your song, and you will be right on track to getting the sound you are looking for.
Take the time to make sure your instrument(s) are in their best condition. For example, guitar strings and drum heads should be replaced a day before you come into the studio. Check each instrument’s intonation. If you are recording piano, make sure it has been tuned recently. Finally, make sure the instrument functions as expected and doesn’t make any excessive noises. If your instrument is in bad shape, check with the studio to see if they have an instrument you could use that you feel comfortable with, or borrow the best one you can find from your friends.
Don’t assume the studio will have everything you need. If you need specific pieces of gear, check with the studio before the session. If you are recording a large ensemble, give the studio a “heads up” so they can make sure they have enough headphones, microphones, microphone stands, chairs and music stands.
Consider how you are going to track the song. Are you going to track all together? Separately? With a scratch track? In smaller groups? Tracking all together does not necessarily mean it will go faster. In fact, I’ve seen many sessions go faster when the parts are tracked separately. There are advantages to all of these types of methods and some studios are better at certain approaches. Ask for advice if you are not sure which would be best.
You should also consider what order you want to record the tracks. I highly recommend recording drums or percussion first. The more percussive instruments help define the groove. This will make it easier to have everyone lock in for the tightest possible recording.
It is wise to find song references that are similar to what you are going for. Don’t assume people will understand your descriptive words. Many musicians have a different vocabulary that means different things. Nothing gives better direction than listening to an example. Also, I would stick with 1-3 examples. Too many typically starts clouding the message you are trying to communicate. Generally, the fewer, the better.
Song references are great because they can remind you of things you can do to make your song better. Sometimes people worry this will take away from their originality. It won’t. You are not going to end up sounding exactly like the example; you are still going to sound original and unique because you and the musicians will all add something new and different to the mix. However, it can help realign everyone’s vision if things start heading in the wrong direction.
Record Yourself Before You Come
Make sure you are totally prepared with your performances by doing a demo recording prior to the studio. It can be a simple recording from your phone. You may think you sound like you are playing in time and in tune, but listening back to a recording is always much more revealing. This step is analogous to looking in the mirror before you get your picture taken.
Choose the Right Studio
Not all studios are the same. I often get phone calls where the only question asked is, “how much do you charge per hour?” There is so much more to consider. A studio with a cheaper hourly rate may take twice as long, and therefore, cost you a lot more money. Studios with higher rates may also own better equipment and software that will greatly speed up the process. But beyond that, seasoned studio engineers are going to be able to deliver a more professional end product. Many people make the mistake in thinking that it is all about the gear; but in reality, it is all about the engineer. A great engineer can make things sound great with minimal equipment. A less experienced engineer will deliver subpar results—even with great gear.
The Recording/Editing Stage
Once you are in the studio, there are four things I advise:
- Don’t waste time on less important things.
- Don’t rush important things.
- Don’t stifle creativity and spontaneity by being too strict with the schedule.
- Have Fun!
Don’t Waste Time on Less Important Things
I can’t tell you how many sessions I have recorded where the shaker gets more time and attention than the lead vocal. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in something that is going to have little impact on the song, which detracts from spending time on things that are much more important. Make sure you prioritize your time for the most important things.
Don’t be afraid to put something on hold. For example, if your guitarist hasn’t played a competent solo after 20 takes, jump to something else and come back after he has had time to practice it.
Don’t Rush the Important Things
Sometimes the stress is so high in the studio, people rush parts of the process that shouldn’t be rushed. When people get in this mode, I often start hearing things like, “good enough,” or, “we’ll fix it in the mix.” Here are some areas that you should slow down.
Tune, Tune, and Tune
I don’t know if I need any more explanation. Just realize that, YES, you should tune the guitar again (even though you tuned it before you left for the studio). Check your tuning often between takes. Mixing does not fix bad intonation. Drums also need to be tuned. Nothing will slow you down more than having to come back later and do the part over because you were too rushed to check your tuning the first time around.
Get the Instrument to Sound Right Before You Start Recording
The sound of drums, electric guitar tones, bass tones, synth tones, and everything else (even the sound of the voice) should be dialed in as close as possible before you hit record. Although there are tons of great tools that can help with this in mixing, I guarantee you will get a better result if you focus on getting it right at the start. My experience is that people subconsciously react to the way they sound and will therefore play better if their sound matches the music they are playing to.
Get Enough Takes
I’m not going to say you always need tons of takes. Some tracks really are great on the first take. However, I would advise that, most of the time, you should consider having more than one take. For example, let’s say the guitarist nails the acoustic guitar part on his first take. I would suggest getting at least one more pass. I’ve often seen somebody come back later when they noticed something in the part (like a guitar buzz in a chord that was only played once). It is nice to have at least one other option in those moments. Imagine if something like that happened with drums after you leave the studio. It would stink to have to go through all of the drum set-up all over again to fix a part.
Lead vocals especially should have multiple takes. Sometimes you get such a great vocalist, their first take just seems amazing and you may be tempted to just go with that. However, keep in mind that the more talented somebody might be, also means their ears are more in tune to things you may not hear. I try to always keep vocal takes at a minimum of three passes and I have never regretted it. Most vocalists take a couple takes to get to their best take.
Take Your Time With Drums
Because of the complex set-up of drums, they typically take quite a bit of studio time to get set-up and recorded. Because of this, people are typically very antsy to jump to the next thing. However, it is best to take the time to make sure the drum take is solid and that all necessary time editing has been done before you move on. The drums will be the foundation of the song; so if you delay making the drums tight, you will later have to adjust all of the tracks instead of just the drums in those parts.
Don’t Rush the Engineer
Sometimes it may seem that the engineer is wasting time when he is color coding tracks or spending a little bit of time mixing something before the actual mixing process. These are often good things to do. If a recording engineer is rushed to the point that he becomes less organized, than it is far more likely that he will start making recording mistakes which can lead to downtime. Also, if he does some mixing early on, it will help people to perform better because they will have a more inspiring track to record with.
Don’t Stifle Creativity and Spontaneity
You have probably heard of magic happening in the studio. Well, if the session gets too stiff, it may be easy to let those magical studio moments slip by. Sometimes they happen when somebody accidentally makes a mistake, but it sparks an idea that becomes a genius moment for the song. Be on the lookout for these moments. They can’t be planned or prepared for; they just kind of happen. Make sure the environment allows for these moments, and don’t be afraid to spend a little bit of time exploring where they may take you. If it really changes things, don’t be afraid to end the session, take what you have, and take some time to think through the changes before you come back to the studio.
Having fun is one of the most important parts of the whole process. When things get too stressful, too organized and too critical, we can miss out on the amazing experience that recording can be. Some of the best-sounding recordings I have worked on have come from environments where everyone is having a great time.
As you put these different pieces of information into practice, I’m convinced that you will be much more efficient in the recording studio and feel good about the progress you are making on your music.
Dave Zimmerman is the owner of Noisebox Studios in Provo, Utah. While his main passion is recording and producing music in his studio, he is also a private instructor at BYU and has ample experience as a FOH engineer. Dave holds a degree from BYU in Media Music.