Q: How much does it cost to make a record?
A: As much as you've allotted for the project... and then some.
Local and unsigned records usually cost between $500 and $2000. Indie label budgets vary between $5000 and $40,000. Anyone who spends over $70,000 making a record is, in my view, completely out of their head and has almost no chance of recouping their investment.
Nearly all major label records cost over $100,000 and the top artists spend up to $500,000 and sometimes as much as a million. Not including videos or hospitality. This is a large part of the reason the corporate music business is dying. More so than downloading.
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Q: How long does it take to mix a song?
A: As long as you care to spend. A song that is just a piano and a vocal could easily be mixed in a half an hour or less. If you were being a tweakhead, you could spend an hour and a half or more mixing a song like that. A full band mix can take a minimum of an hour or two, and there is no maximum. I've seen people spend a week or more mixing a single song.
A good rule of thumb is that any time you spend translates into results. That is, the longer you spend, the better it sounds. It is possible to overmix a song beyond the point of diminishing returns, but in the world of low to medium budget indie records, that's not a problem I see very often. More often, the problem I see is the opposite: bands only allotting six hours to mix an entire album. Is it possible? Yes, but barely. Will it sound good? Probably not.
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Q: Do you charge for setup time?
A: Yes. From an audio engineering perspective, the sound and overall character of your finished recording is shaped primarily during setup time. Microphones are chosen and placed, levels are set, instruments are tuned, amplifiers set, headphone mixes determined, etc. Once setup is complete, most of my job consists of little more than pressing record and keeping an eye on input levels. You don't want an engineer who isn't being paid rushing through one of the most crucial stages of your recording so he can start the clock.
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Q: How long should I anticipate for setup time?
A: For quick projects on a small budget, at least 60 to 90 minutes for a four piece rock band, including setup, miking, headphone setup, "getting sounds," and everything else up until we roll tape. This is about as fast as it can be done competently and is only a quick guide.
I've worked on longer, more expensive projects where setup took most of the first day, and I've witnessed mega budget major label projects where setup took several days. These are the exception, not the rule.
The good news is that once setup is done, tracking can often go very quickly if the players are competent and well rehearsed. I've worked on a few projects where setup took two hours, and then the band went on to track five songs in the next hour.
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Q: How long will it take to track 5 songs?
A: There is no easy answer to this question. I will say that, once setup is done, I can record good takes as fast as you can play them. Another quick answer is: "twice as long as you think it will take."
I have seen bands work all day on two songs and still not have it right. I have also seen bands cut 14 amazing, flawless tracks in a single day. These are both extreme cases. It's more common to see bands cut between four and seven basic tracks in an average day.
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Q: Should we track one part at a time, or record live with everyone playing at once?
A: I am able to do it both ways and do both regularly. I will tell you that I think cutting things one part at a time usually yields higher quality results, mostly because I am able to focus on the one instrument at hand, rather than having to concentrate on the sounds of five instruments at once.
At first blush, you might think that tracking one instrument at a time would take considerably longer than cutting live. Really, it doesn't unless you're among the most skilled and well-practiced players in the world. When you're cutting just drums, or just guitar, or just bass, you only need one player to play a perfect take, and once he does, you move on. When you're tracking live, you need all four players to play a perfect take all at once before you move on. This sometimes leads to endless frustration in cases where, for example, the guitar player has played the song perfectly three times so far, but he has to keep playing (losing those perfect takes) because the drummer hasn't quite gotten it yet. With live tracking, I've seen three average players drag a stellar player down, and I've seen one less than stellar player drag down three great players, leading to all sorts of wasted time, arguments, stress, and unnecessary tension.
Do the math: If each player plays a perfect take one out of five tries (and thus is able to record and keep a perfect performance in five takes or less), how many takes would the band have to play together before all four musicians played a perfect take at once? The quick answer is: I have no idea. But the likely answer is: More than five.
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Q: Should we play to a click track or not?
A: I can't answer that. Only you can decide. I recommend it because, from a production standpoint, it opens up a world of possibilities that simply isn't available without a click track: things like splicing sections from three different takes together to make a single good take, or having delays and echoes that are in tempo with the song, or adding loops and samples or triggered gating.
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Q: What are the differences between analog and digital mixing? Which one is right for my project?
A: First let me clarify that, at Denial Labs, all recording is digital. What I'm discussing here is the difference between mixing on an analog console and mixing digitally in ProTools. I used to think that analog summing sounded better, hands down, and my early experiments supported this conclusion. Lately, I've come to the conclusion that analog mixing sounds better quicker but, in the end, they sound comparable. Aside from what I believe is a comparable level of sound quality, each method has advantages and disadvantages.
Beginning with the advantages:
Analog - With analog mixing, the ProTools rig is used pretty much like an analog 2" tape machine: as a playback device only. Each output channel is then routed to the analog mixing console, where all of the mixing and summing takes place. The primary advantage of mixing analog is that, on a very tight time schedule, it's pretty easy to get a decent sound and good balance of levels very quickly. Some people believe that analog summing simply sounds incomparably better than digital summing. I think this is mostly true with analog consoles costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in studios that cost thousands of dollars a day. In the real world, I think the playing field is a lot more even. So mostly analog is just quicker.
Digital - With digital mixing, the ProTools rig is used as both the playback device and the mixing console, and all mixing decisions are executed from within the ProTools environment. The primary advantage of digital mixing is mix automation and recall. With automation, complex mixing maneuvers are made very simple and precise. Staggering levels of detail and control can be achieved with digital mixing. Automation also offers the ability to save a mix and recall it later and make changes. The other potential advantage to digital mixing is that I am able to mix up to 64 tracks at once, whereas the analog desk is limited to 24 simultaneous channel inputs, which is almost always enough. But if you need the extra channels, digital mixing really helps.
And the disadvantages:
Analog - The primary disadvantage to analog mixing is the inability to recall the mix later. With analog mixing, if you decide after the mix is done that you need to add a harmony vocal or that the kick drum is not loud enough or the vocal needs to come up a little bit, you have to start the mix again from square one, and there's absolutely no guarantee that the things you LIKED about the old mix won't be lost in the new one. In short, you have to get it right the first time, which is much harder. The only other potential disadvantages to mixing on the analog console is that you're limited to 24 faders at mixdown, whereas digital mixing offers up to 64 tracks.
Digital - The hardest part about digital mixing is mixing with a mouse. Putting your hand on a real fader that you can feel and move with your arm is much easier. It isn't that mixing with a mouse is inferior or limiting, but it means that digital mixing takes longer.
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Q: My friend has a lot of the same gear as you and offered to record us for free in his living room. If he has the same gear, won't we get pretty much the same sound?
A: Probably not. Unless your friend has more than a decade of experience as a working recording engineer.
Let me be absolutely clear. I support the "home recording revolution." Most of my friends and clients have home recording rigs of varying quality levels. In many cases, I have helped them set up their home recording rigs and/or given them advice about what gear gives the best bang for the buck. The great thing about home recording rigs is immediacy. A musician or songwriter can capture an idea while it's fresh and record when inspiration strikes.
For demos, and "sketch pad" writing, home recording is fantastic and has revolutionized the way musicians think and work. That said, for actually making records you intend to release, or any situation where you need to put your best foot forward, the disadvantages to home recording or self recording are many, and some of them are not so obvious.
1.) The gear does not make the record sound good. The best gear in the world will sound like absolute shit in the hands of someone who doesn't know how to use it. Audio manufacturers are making money hand over fist selling musicians on the idea that, if they buy nicer gear, their home recordings will sound better, when what musicians are really lacking is audio engineering chops. A vintage C12 microphone that costs $9000 won't make your home recordings sound releasable unless you understand pickup patterns, proximity effect, transient response, and a host of other microphone placement techniques. Does a ribbon microphone need phantom power? You'd better be absolutely sure, because not knowing could cost you thousands of dollars in an instant. Similarly, having a vintage Neve or API mic preamp won't help you sound better if you don't have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of gain staging and signal flow. When you book time with a professional engineer in a professional studio, most of what you are paying for is knowledge and experience. As a former boss of mine used to tell his clients, "It's a hundred dollars. Five bucks for turning the screw, and ninety-five for knowing which one and how far."
2.) Aside from being able to work at your own schedule, to put it plainly, recording yourself is a pain in the ass. Placing microphones, setting levels, running cable, and troubleshooting are hard work, and nothing sucks more than having to do those things and worry about what to play and how well you're playing it at the same time. As a musician, I can tell you that trying to be an audio engineer and a performer at the same time is incredibly distracting. Both jobs are full-time jobs, and doing both at once can often make the results suffer. It's also less fun. It's harder to enjoy playing if you're watching input levels while you play.
3.) Many bedrooms, living rooms, and rehearsal spaces are not ideal acoustic spaces for recording or mixing. So often, musicians overlook the room as a factor in the way their recordings sound. The room is a huge factor, and its profound impact on the recording and mixing process cannot be overstated. And buying expensive room treatment products is absolutely hopeless as a solution without a fairly sophisticated grasp on the physics involved. The hardest part of room treatment is diagnostics. If you don't know exactly what is wrong with the acoustics of a room (comb filtering, lobing, cancellation, excessive reflection, over absorption, etc.) then how can you know exactly how to fix it?
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Q: What are your strengths or specialties as an engineer and producer?
A: It's hard for me to say, but I will share with you some things I have heard from clients:
1.) Drummers love me. I don't play the drums, but I have a detailed understanding of drumming techniques, legendary drummers, great drum sets, the history of drum recording, odd time signatures, strange drum tricks (like pellets in the kick drum and pennies on the cymbals), etc.
2.) As an engineer, I have a thorough understanding of gain staging. Setting levels and gain staging is far more than just cutting a signal that doesn't overdrive the tape machine. Each different component in the signal path performs best at a different gain level, and understanding what to cut hot and what leave headroom with is a huge part of getting a great sound.
3.) Compression. I'm shocked at how often I meet people who don't understand what compression is, what it does, and what it sounds like. I know this seems silly and like something that any competent engineer wouldn't even mention. But, sadly I meet more and more engineers and musicians who have no grasp on what compression is and how to use it. Not only do I understand how to use it and when to use it but, more importantly, I understand when not to use it.
4.) Tuning. I have a thing about tuning. Apparently, I'm much ore sensitive to slightly out of tune instruments than most people.
5.) Digital Editing. There is practically no digital editing stunt that I can't perform seamlessly.
6.) Localization and stereo field. I'm very good at using the tools at my disposal to realistically place an instrument at a given location within the stereo field. I have a good grasp of the stereo image and how to maximize the space it has to offer, whether it be through advanced use of stereo miking techniques, or using panning, eq, and digital effects to simulate placement within the stereo field.
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Q: What are some things we can do in advance to make sure we make the best use of our time while we're in the studio?
A: The number one thing musicians should do before recording is PRACTICE... to know the songs backwards and forwards and inside out and be able to play them flawlessly in their sleep.
Speaking of sleep, get some. Showing up to a session on four hours' sleep is not wise and will cost you money.
Drummers - Change your heads. For recording, I recommend Ambassador coated heads for snare, and for toms I recommend coated Ambassadors or clear Emperors. Some people prefer coated Emperors on top and clear Ambassadors on bottom. This works fine as well. Heads definitely matter. It's also helpful if the front head of the kick drum has a microphone hole. Also, and this is so important, make sure your drums are properly tuned. A poorly tuned kit will sound terrible on tape, and there's no amount of studio magic that will make them sound good. If you don't know how to tune your drums well, do yourself a huge favor and find someone who does and get them to either tune them for you or show you how to do it right. It makes a huge difference. for a quick guide to drum tuning, check out
Also, try to get rid of any rattles and oil squeaky pedals. Chasing these things down in the studio can be time consuming and expensive.
Guitarists - Change your strings. But don't do it the day of the session, or you'll be fighting tuning problems for your entire session. Try to change your strings a day or two before your session so they have time to stretch and acclimate. Also, make sure your action and intonation are set properly before coming in to record. A good setup job from a qualified guitar tech can be had for about $30 and will pay for itself in the studio. If you don't already have a favorite guitar tech, contact me, and I'll be glad to recommend someone.
Also, check your cables and make sure they're all working. Nothing wastes time like having to chase down a bad cable in a guitar rig with 18 cables.
Bassists - See above. Although I don't necessarily recommend changing strings, since recording with brand new bass strings can sometimes give an overbright, rattly tone with lots of fret buzz.
Singers - Try to avoid alcohol, caffeine and dairy. Caffeine, alcohol, and smoking will dry out your vocal chords. Dairy coats your vocal cords with mucous. Both conditions are not good. You want to be hydrated but not swimming in mucous. Spend a couple of days drinking Throat Coat tea (available at most health and nutrition stores) before your session. Also, drink lots of water for a few days before your session. Ten glasses a day if you can.
Oh yeah, don't forget to LEARN THE WORDS! If you're reading them off of a music stand, your performance will suffer.
Also, all moral judgments aside, smoking pot before or during a recording session will absolutely END a vocal session. Don't do it. Nothing useful gets recorded after that. If you don't believe me, I can play you several "before pot" and "after pot" vocal takes of different singers I've recorded.
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Q: What is your policy on guests at recording sessions?
A: Within reason, I welcome guests. Some engineers and producer frown on or prohibit having guests, or girlfriends or boyfriends, at sessions. I don't feel that way. I think if musicians have a friend or significant other around, it can sometimes ease tension and keep people relaxed. On the other hand, it's very easy for this to get out of hand and become a distraction, particularly at my place, where we don't have a seperate lounge. I don't have any hard fast rules on this, but a good rule of thumb is: if you have more guests than you do musicians, odds are you probably have too many guests, and you're certainly going to spend more time (and pay more money) than necessary. Also, if your friends are drug addicts or psychotic emotional cases, please don't bring them into the studio. I'll be watching them like a hawk and the sound of your recording will suffer because I'm distracted.
I'm also not wild about having managers, agents, lawyers, and label people around for the whole time. Occasional and brief visits from these people are both necessary and welcome. But having them around for the whole session adds an unbelievable amount of tension and pressure to sessions, both for the musicians and for me.
And a word about cell phones. Cell phones cause massive electronic interference with speakers, headphones, microphones, and guitar pickups. A cell phone doesn't need to be in use or ringing to cause problems. Simply being turned on is all it takes to completely ruin a take. You and your guests are welcome to bring your cell phones into my studio, but do so at your own risk. I guarantee you that my cell phone will be turned off during your session, so if a cell phone ruins your earth shaking perfect take, where trumpets blow and angels descend on gold chariots, but we have to re-record it because of interference from a cell phone, I promise that it won't be my fault.
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Q: I'm a junkie, and I have an impossibly unaffordable drug addiction to feed several times a day. Would it be okay if I stole some of your stuff and pawned it for drugs?
A: Don't even think about it. I've met dozens of you over the years and, by now, I can spot you coming from miles away. The odds of you making it out of my studio with my gear without going to jail or worse are practically zero. You may think I'm not watching you, but I am, so please spare us both the awkwardness and potential embarrassment and show some respect.
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Q: What do you think of our stuff?
A: This is the most common question I hear from bands. Please don't ask me this. It's completely irrelevant to whether or not I can help you make a great sounding record.
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