Studio Recording Basics

I've been asked about studio time a lot lately, so I thought I would share some thoughts.

"We're recording ourselves!" Been there, done that. It's really not easy, nor are you likely to
have the appropriate environment and/or equipment to do so well. Do you have a space
that is dead sounding? Probably not. This is extremely important to allow the recorded sound
to be pure, perfect and not contain other sounds [e.g. bleeds from other instruments]. Do
you have the appropriate equipment? Again, odds are you don't. If you didn't swallow hard
when you bought microphones, you aren't there. The good stuff is expensive. And those
downloaded VST files you obtained for free? Well, there's a reason they were free.
[I'll now proceed by removing my own pancreas... Not something you are likely to hear
a doctor say.]

"How long does it take?" For a single vocalist doing an a cappela song I usually allocate
a couple of hours for recording. We usually end up doing several takes, and
"punches" for parts that weren't quite right the first time. For bands, the way it works in the
studio is that lay down some basic rhythm tracks - drums, base, guitar or keyboard - first.
These are set to the correct tempo - usually through a metronome. Trust me, you can't keep
time that well on your own. We then start adding tracks via overdubs. We do NOT record
the entire song at one time. Some days only 1 or 2 of the musicians are there. You'll be
adding these tracks by listening to existing recorded tracks in headphones. It will all sound
pretty dead at this point as final EQ, dynamics and EFX have not been added. You'll want
to go over it and fix all or parts [punching] of it. Punching requires some skill as you must
play/sing along with the part before the part being replaced, and end such that at the end
of the punch it blends seamlessly with what was recorded before. It takes a LOT of time.
Figure 10-50 hours for recording a single song. I typically average closer to 20. It then
goes to "post-production." This is when final EQ, dynamics and EFX are added. This is a
delicate, time-consuming process. It is not unusual to take 10-20 hours for this phase.
After this point, final mastering occurs. This process is done to ensure that the piece will
work with others - typically a process designed to make the song work in the context of a
multiple song collection [e.g. a CD]. This can take another 2-20 hours per song, depending
on the state of the material after the final mix. It is also when the song is listened to on
multiple play-back devices to ensure that it still sounds good. Those great dynamic kick
drum sounds may vanish on an iPod. The engineer will engage in some magic to make
sure that the dynamics are still there even when the playback method severely constrains
the dynamics. Recording at 32 bit float and taking it down to "Red-Book CD standard
(16/44)" will often result in a very flat result unless this is taken into consideration. It may,
therefore, be a couple of weeks to get it right.

"How much does it cost?" It is pretty typical to see studio rates of $50/hour. To add an
engineer may cost another $50/hour. If you do the math you'll see that it is easy to spend
several thousand dollars on a reasonable recording. And, at some point you need to
decide what your limits on time and money will be. And, somewhere along the line
you'll probably want to pay a producer to tell you "the truth." "That sounds great" can
quickly turn to "I wish we had fixed that in the recording" after you hear it played
somewhere else. A producer will do his/her best to keep that from happening. But remember
that all recordings are a compromise. It isn't going to be perfect in most cases. People
will generally understand and approve if it's a good song, performed reasonably well.
[Side note: Steeley Dan was criticized for many of their recordings sounding "too
perfect." People are fickle about these things.]

Some key thoughts:
1) make sure you are ready. The costs in time/money go up rapidly if you aren't.
2) practice until you can all play the song together perfectly, many times in a row.
In the studio you may play it 10-30 times in a day.
3) have the money available to cover "worst-case" costs. Doing this on the "cheap"
is going to sound like you did it on the cheap.
4) make friends with a studio engineer/producer. They will often cut the charges or
even help you out if there is the potential for repeat business, successful results or
some other delayed compensation. Most of these folks want to see you succeed. Ask!
Anyone in the arts knows you are starving if you are serious. They've been there too.
5) don't let mommy or daddy buy you a recording contract. You may seriously regret
it by friday (!).