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Whether you want to record a single song or a full album, it’s going to cost some money. There is a reason people flock to Nashville to record music; this city has built its name on mastering the art of recording music. When I first moved here I was confused by the task of recording my own music, and I wanted to know all the details rather than trust someone to do it all for me. I was an unusual case for many producers because they usually handle the entire process without having to explain all the details, but I eventually carved out a way to accomplish what I moved to Nashville to do.
The reason I write this blog is to provide people outside of Nashville with genuine information to help them get started recording their own project without getting ripped off by sharks or big-talkers. I’m writing this with the independent songwriter in mind; obviously if you have a recording contract or a publishing deal, you would have your label handle your recording project using their own specific processes. Furthermore, if you are in those shoes, you are probably not even reading this right now because you have already paid a lot of dues to get where you are.
Home studio or commercial studio?
Home studios are a dime a dozen and they produce great results. Few people have the money to afford the luxury of a commercial studio. Many home studio engineers have devoted a lot of time and money into making their home space as close to a commercial space as possible. They probably don’t have a million dollars worth of high end gear, but that doesn’t always matter. They are the sole producer and engineer, and usually they play many of the instruments for clients who don’t have their own bands. In Nashville, home producers/engineers can play a wide variety of instruments very efficiently. Whether you hire musicians or have your own band, a home studio will certainly be acceptable.
Commercial studios are scattered all around Nashville; they don’t always have flashing neon signs that say “Open for Business”. Some of these bigger studios have extravagant websites, numerous big flat screens and leather couches, but those things are just aesthetics. What you really gain by going to a commercial studio is its recording space and the gear, and likely, the people. These recording studios usually have huge rooms that are acoustically designed, which are filled with a million dollars of the most advanced recording gear that exists. More often than not, great producers simply work at these studios, and the musicians are regular session players who are called upon frequently. These places operate like businesses, and the producers, engineers, assistants and musicians are employees. But there are no hard and fast rules and every situation differs from another.
How much does it cost to record in Nashville?
Nothing in life is free, and if it is, there is a reason. Bottom line, it’s tough to give a price because everyone can make their own price — it’s a creative service they’re selling. The running joke is when people with home studios get random phone calls asking how much it costs to record an album, they’re tempted to just blurt out, “$10,000″. It probably will never cost that much, but it’s such a subjective question. For instance, are you wanting a full orchestra or just two acoustic guitars? How long are your songs; how complex are they? So many studios have tried to give a finite cost, but there are still so many unknowns for both the songwriter and the studio that it remains a difficult question to answer. Just remember that you are the customer, and don’t forget that.
The range for recording a demo of one song could be anywhere from just $25 all the way up to $1,000. It really comes down to how good the people are, how efficiently they can perform in the studio when they’re on the clock, how much work you’re asking for, and how well prepared you are for studio time. If you are recording at a producer’s home studio, then his fees usually include the use of his studio as well, and you can find a great producer for around $25 per hour. If you go to a commercial studio and hire an additional engineer, that will probably be another $25 per hour plus the facility costs. If you want truly professional musicians to play on your songs, expect to pay them about $25-50 per track, depending on how many tracks you are recording that day and how complex the music is. A mastering engineer will probably charge $25-100 per song, and any of these people could work by the song, or by the hour. There are no hard and fast prices because these are creative services.
Even if someone gives you a fixed price for all of it, you will still be surprised by something you didn’t expect before it’s all over with. You could actually make friends in Nashville who will do it all for free, however, when you hire professionals they will always deliver solid results and there will be no squabbles or extended timelines, because you are the customer and you are paying them to provide a service. Getting things for free usually means people will eventually flake out on you, so go ahead and hire professionals and invest in yourself.
Know what all the moving parts are:
In no particular order of importance, the recording process involves the following elements. Keep in mind that a person can take on multiple roles. For instance, with small budgets/home projects, often the producer will also be the engineer, the session leader, and usually can play many of the instruments.
This person will work with you to understand your overall goal for your recordings. They understand how to effectively communicate with everyone else involved. They know the lingo, they know how to achieve the best results in various environments, and they will have the sole responsibility of ensuring that your project is a success. They will listen to you and hear the big picture, and while the musicians are recording the rhythm beds today, the producer will be thinking about the guitar overdubs that will be recorded tomorrow. They will be thinking of how to make your song the very best it can possibly be. Long after the musicians leave, the producer will be investing more time into overdubbing, editing and mixing all the tracks.
This is the person who is responsible for making sure all the musicians are scheduled to record your music. This person usually writes out all the song charts which will be followed by all the musicians. The session leader will be someone who is very familiar with how a recording session happens, and most likely he is the person who will select all the musicians to play on your music.
Just like there are different types of doctors called “specialists”, there are different types of engineers.
This person runs all the equipment; he mans the board and makes sure all the levels are set, that the mics are placed properly, and that the musicians and producer have exactly what they need to accomplish the goals. The tracking engineer is a quick problem solver when the equipment isn’t operating properly, and having a good engineer can prevent a project from derailing if something goes wrong with the equipment.
Sometimes people are just really good at doing a certain thing extremely well. While a tracking engineer is really good at tracking a session, some engineers are really good at editing. Even though producers typically take on the role of editing a project, it’s not unheard of to have a specialized engineer make the edits and mix very quickly as the producer directs him.
Mixing engineer adjusts the levels of each instrument, adds effects, adjusts the EQ, sets the panning, and basically puts all the final puzzle pieces together.
This person takes the final tracks and adjusts the frequencies and EQs so that your music sounds incredible to the ear. This person is rarely involved during the full process. Once the editing and mixing are finished, it’s the mastering engineer’s job to smooth everything out so that it can compete with everything else out there.
These are professional instrumentalists. These people make their living from being highly efficient at playing their instruments. They understand how to play in a studio environment, which is much different than playing in a live situation. They will all understand how to read Nashville charts, and they can quickly play a part according to how the producer wants them to perform it. If you are a band looking to record, then you are the musicians.
A Recording Space
This can be a home studio, or a full-blown business with a million dollars of high end equipment. Typically, studios have many different types of gear that make it possible to capture sounds onto a digital or analog medium. These spaces are usually specifically designed with acoustics in mind, and often there are several different booths in which musicians are placed to prevent sounds from bleeding into other microphones. A good recording space most definitely affects the quality of your recording.
This person is the reason why everyone shows up. “It all starts with a song.” as they say. A songwriter has spent many painful hours writing a song which they wish to share with the world with hopes to move people emotionally. Without a songwriter, there is really no reason for everyone else to get together to record. In situations where a label or publishing company is backing the project, there is usually a separate vocalist singing the song, rather than the actual songwriter. But again, there are no hard and fast rules because every situation is unique.
As I said, people can take on multiple roles. This is actually very common. For example, a producer can be the session leader, and most often in home studio situations, he’s also the engineer. If you are the songwriter, you may also be a musician on the recording. A producer/engineer often plays one or more of the instruments that you hear on the final recording. Even in the big-time productions, people can share or take on multiple roles. I’ve seen the owner of a studio jump in and play steel guitar because he said, “Hey, I’m hearing a steel guitar part on this; hold on.” And he got into the booth and tracked it, while there were three other musicians there who could have done it.
A few of the many ways you could plan your recording project:
In my opinion, I think it’s best to start by finding the producer you want to hire, because a producer can help you plan your entire recording project. There are several ways you might approach your project, none of these options are cut and dry, but I’ve tried to separate them the best I can.
Find a good producer with a home studio whose personality you really like, and hire him to lead your recording project. He could even be your session leader; he’ll listen to what you want and will gather all the musicians for you. If you are recording bluegrass, he’ll know the best bluegrass players; if you are recording rock, he’ll know the best rock musicians. He might even play most of the instruments all by himself. Typically in this scenario, you just pay the producer an agreed upon rate, and then he hires, schedules and pays the musicians with the money you pay him. This is a very hands-off approach, leaving you only one person with whom you have to conduct business.
Same as option A, except hire the musicians separately for whatever reasons. For me, I wanted to have more control and I really liked the players whom I met. Once you agree on payment with the musicians, then you can make a separate agreement with the producer. The reason I chose this method, is because my songs have complex arrangements, and I needed to ensure that enough time was spent on each song to accomplish what I wanted. In a situation like option A, the songs usually have simpler arrangements, so musicians will be paid a flat session rate and they could easily record 8-10 songs in a single day. In that scenario, it’s best to let the producer negotiate the payment for the musicians based on his working relationships with those musicians.
Rent a high-end studio with a million dollars of state-of-the-art equipment and let them handle everything, although you could mix this option with option A or B. These studios usually have a day rate; depending on the studio, you can expect to pay anywhere from $500-2,500 to rent the studio for a day, although many of them have packages such as, “$3,200 for 4 songs”. You can use the studio’s producers, engineers and musicians, or you can bring in your own team for your session. In this scenario, if you bring in your own producer/engineer, it’s likely that he has his own home studio as well, so you should have a discussion with him about how much of your project will be completed at the rented studio and how much of it (if any) will be completed at his home studio. It’s completely acceptable to rent a studio for a day to take advantage of all their expensive gear, and then finish overdubbing, editing and mixing it at your producer’s home studio. You will ultimately either save money this way, or get more time in post-production, and this is a decision that you should make with your producer.
Each producer has their own process; their own bag of tricks and secrets. Essentially, a producer thinks about your project on a holistic level. He may also engineer your project, but ideally there is a separate guy who will engineer as the producer calls the shots. The producer directs the musicians to record their parts; they usually start with the “rhythm” beds (bass and drums), and then afterwards they record all the additional instruments (overdubs). After all the parts are recorded, the producer/engineer will spend several days editing and mixing the project. At this point you will be excited by how great your music sounds, but never skip the final “mastering” phase. The final step involves a separate engineer called a mastering engineer who makes the final adjustments to make it “radio-ready”. You don’t have to understand anything about mastering, except that it’s a crucial step, and that it’s a separate engineer who does this. In fact, by the time your project gets to the desk of a mastering engineer, it’s usually the very first time this guy has even heard your project. Mastering is your final phase, which brings your music up to the radio-ready levels to make your songs shine, baby :).
You are the customer:
Major artists have tens of thousands of dollars to record their albums, so of course they will be able to afford the absolute best, and they can also afford ample time to make things sound perfect. Besides using extremely expensive, top quality gear, what goes into making a recording sound incredibly professional is time and expertise. Just like in college, when you wrote a rough draft of your term paper, your final draft had more time and editing invested, which is what got you that “A” instead of a “B”.
We all wish we could record our songs with the budget of the major artists, but don’t discount the value of a home studio, because at the end of the day, if you can simply pop in your recordings and enjoy them without cringing at the quality, then you have accomplished your goal. Any good producer/engineer has the ability to create a product that will move people, regardless of your budget. At some point you have to understand that even with less expensive equipment, you are paying for their time and expertise, which is how they achieve good results regardless of the equipment.
Most importantly, it comes down to the song being good or bad. I’ve heard beautifully recorded songs that just plain suck, and I’ve heard rough recordings of masterfully written songs. Take Ani DiFranco for instance, she puts out very raw recordings, yet people love the songs. Then you have Toby Keith who puts out super-produced songs that have all the marketing power behind them to make them soar into huge sales; even though Red Solo Cup makes me want to puke, I am in no position to critique the song because it’s made his camp a ton of money.
The music business is just that — a business. Think of it like Starbucks and the coffee industry: I am completely satisfied with a cup of Folgers Black Silk in the morning, but Starbucks has commercialized the industry and made it cool to spend $5 on a cup of coffee. Both music and coffee are subjective to one’s taste, no matter how much it costs to make.