A couple of months ago I wrote an article about what you should expect to pay for a recording (If you didn’t see it, you can find it here: http://conti.net.au/rehearsalrooms/what-should-you-pay-for-your-next-recording-project/) where I compared recording costs to buying a car. And more recently, one on recording in a pro studio as compared with doing it yourself. (which you can find here: http://conti.net.au/rehearsalrooms/recording-with-your-own-equipment-vs-recording-at-a-diy-recording-studio-vs-recording-in-a-professional-recording-studio-with-an-engineer/)
A number of people spoke to me after reading these. Some were in mild shock at the car one thinking that it seemed very expensive to record something. So I thought I would walk you through a recording project to give you an idea of the time and money that’s involved in doing something to “release standard”.
To those of you who haven’t recorded anything before, it’s understandable that you may not know what really goes on in a studio and how quickly the hours and the costs can add up. Especially if a) you’re fussy (and you should be) and b) you’re unprepared (which you absolutely shouldn’t be.) The thing is that there are a hell of a lot of variables. You can do things a myriad of different ways and either get out with only a small dent in your hip pocket or a massive hole. You can do things quick and cheap and live with the little bugs that might not matter to you in the overall scheme of things or you could, as we did on the following example, go to town leaving no stone unturned, no i un-dotted and no t un-crossed.
So the recording project we are going to use for our example is my own album. All the songs are originals penned by myself and recorded by my band Nikk Carmichael & The Perspective. This is my second album. The first one I released four or five years ago and was quite different. That one took me over twelve years to complete. Not twelve years of constant work, rather it just took me twelve years from starting it to actually finishing it. Sometimes there were long periods where I didn’t touch it, sometimes I immersed myself in it for weeks at a time. This one I chose to have done in about five days. It actually took more than two years. Once again, I didn’t work on it for two years but it took that amount of time between the first day of tracking and the final day of mixdown.
So lets wind back the clock to slightly before the first day of tracking and look at the pre-production. The songs had been written over a pretty long period. A couple of them are about 14 years old or so, others about five years. I already knew the songs inside out but most of them had never been played with a band. When I recorded the first album I went a little nuts with the production. It had everything but the kitchen sink in it: guitars, bass, drums, vocals, backing vocals, keyboards, cellos, tablas, violins, samples of the Queen Mary, etc, etc. Every track was a complex soundscape filled with a plethora of different noises to assault the senses. All mashed into what I truly believed would be a massive work of art to live on throughout the ages. End result? I kind of hate it to be honest. I often groan when I hear it. A close friend described it as “fatiguing” to listen to. (and he was right) It was way too much to squeeze in. The filling of every track of my mixing console just because I could meant it struggled for breath and left the listener feeling mostly exhausted after it. The songs were lost amongst the production and it became an ugly monster that should have been stripped of its bells and whistles before getting pressed onto a piece of circular plastic. But it didn’t. Mainly because I decided I’d do all the producing and engineering myself instead of getting in an objective set of ears to be a more sane influence on the project. A lesson I learned from for the new album. In fact, I went in the complete opposite direction with this production, deciding that it would be a three piece band and only a three piece band. No fancy overdubs, no instrumentation outside of what could be done live. The songs presented as they would be on a stage. No bells. No whistles. (by the end of it though, there were some bells and a couple of whistles but they were kept to a bare minimum.)
So I approached super-drummer, Alex O’Toole of Captain Kickarse & the Awesomes fame for the job and called in Paul on bass and backing vocals and we started turning what were originally acoustic guitar and vocal songs into songs that would work with a three piece band. We should have spent more time doing this but, being busy folk as most quality musicians are, we got the basic formats banged out in four or five, three hour rehearsal sessions and honed them in two live performances before heading in to track all eleven songs.
I vowed I also would not be the engineer on this project. I was wearing enough hats as the songwriter, guitarist and singer. I didn’t really even want to produce it, although I did have a certain amount of that work remaining in my hands as well. The band was named Nikk Carmichael & The Perspective, not because I thought it sounded cool but more because I didn’t want it to become solely about me, my ideas or my execution of them. When it came to what the drummer and bass player were going to be doing on the songs, I left it to them. If I really didn’t like something, I spoke up but for the most part, I left them to their own devices. The same went for the production side of things. I asked my good friend, fellow band member from another project I’m in (Groove Casino, our jazz band) and legend engineer, Owen Reynolds to do the hard work. Owen has been an engineer for longer than I’ve been alive and his list of credits reads as a who’s who of Aussie artists. I won’t bore you with his resume. Suffice it to say that he’s recorded plenty of stuff and I’d bet my bottom dollar that you would have heard something (if not many things) that he has had a hand in from behind a mixing desk. It was a safe bet that he would be able to capture what I wanted with minimal fuss and provide a finished product I would be proud of. So we set aside three days right after New Year’s a couple of years ago to begin the process.
Now, you need to remember that I own the studio. We pay rent for the premises, electricity and pay for all the gear we use. I’m going to set those costs aside for now and not include them in this blog as part of the pricing. What I didn’t have to pay for was studio time, use of that equipment, Owen’s time or the musicians’ time. All of that came for free. (Well, free is not really the word. It’s taken a lot of work to get where we are as a recording studio so I figure I’ve paid my dues enough to allow me some time to work on my own projects). BUT, if it were a customer coming in to do a recording on this scale, they would obviously be paying for the process and that’s what I’m going to draw the price comparisons from so that you get a clear indication of what these things would cost you if you were to do them yourself.
And so it begins!
Day One: Tracking of drums, bass, guide guitar and guide vocal.
We decided that the basic rhythm beds would be recorded to analogue tape. We had our Otari, 24 track, two inch machine for this process which is still one of the nicest sounding pieces of recording equipment to use in my opinion. We had five second hand reels of two inch tape to use for the whole album. Now, this isn’t a lot. There are two speeds the tape machine works on: 15 ips (inches per second) and 30 ips. The former doubles the amount of tape you get to a reel, grabs a lot of bottom end but the drawback is that the tape hiss is really prevalent. At 30 ips, the tape gets chewed through at twice the speed, you lose a little in the bottom end, the high end is a bit sweeter and, as the hiss is played back at high speed its use of the frequency spectrum is in a much higher bandwidth and therefore is a little less obvious. I like tape hiss. It’s something that lacks from totally digital recordings and I think it sounds nice. You don’t notice it for a long time when you listen back as your brain adapts to it being there very quickly and it just becomes part of the sound. Having said that, you can have too much of a good thing in my opinion, so we decided that 30 ips was the way to go for our recording. A reel of two inch tape at 30 ips lasts about 16 minutes. Not a lot of time when you’re doing a few takes of a song. Especially if your songs are over seven minutes long as, in my case, some of them were. New tapes are expensive too. Since the rise of digital recording, the old tape machines have been mostly phased out of use in favour of cheaper to run, computer based equipment. Not that they have died off completely. There are still plenty of big name artists who insist on using them purely because of their beautiful sound. But for the most part, the cost of their maintenance and the cost of tape as compared with the cost of hard drives that can fit considerably more recorded material on them has meant that to use these sort of machines is a luxury that most recording artists cannot afford. The trickle down effect of this phase out meant that the two major companies that were making tapes went broke and shut down. There was a period where it looked like you wouldn’t be able to get tape at all until finally some smart cookie swooped in and bought them out. This was great except that they now had a monopoly and it was easy for them to jack the price of a tape up considerably to the consumer. As I said, we had five tapes. All of them were in “used” condition so we had them for free. If you were looking to get tapes yourself, you could expect to pay about $400 to $450 a reel. At that price our tape stock cost us between $2000 and $2250 before we even walked into the studio. Remember, that’s for a total of 80 minutes of recordable time! (total length of this album is about 55 minutes so obviously the maths doesn’t work out for multiple takes. I’ll get to that in a minute.)
The other thing about tape machines is that you can’t just turn them on and start recording. They aren’t like computers where, once you boot them up and arm the tracks you’re set to go. These are highly complex and delicate pieces of machinery that require aligning and cleaning before (and during) use. So the tape tech, who in this case was Owen as well, must spend between one and two hours giving the machine a service and alignment before we get started. Cha-ching… Another $80 to $160 and we haven’t set foot in the studio with our instruments yet.
So, the doors open and we start loading in our equipment ready to set up for tracking. To recap, we are already anywhere between $2080 and $2410 out of pocket. (for ease of keeping track, from now on I’m only going to quote the higher end of each price we encounter. Also, you should always be considering the higher end price when preparing yourself for a project. It’s all well and good to end up having it cost less than you expect but preparing for the worst is really where you should be so that you have left yourself some head room.)
With the tape machine calibrated and ready to roll, the time has come for the engineer to start miking up the instruments and allocating those mics to tracks on the tape machine. For those who are interested, the tracks were as follows:
Tr 01 – Kick (mic placed in front of kick)
Tr 02 – Kick (mic placed inside kick drum)
Tr 03 – Snare (top skin)
Tr 04 – Snare (bottom skin)
Tr 05 – Rack Tom
Tr 06 – Floor Tom 1
Tr 07 – Floor Tom 2
Tr 08 – Hi-Hats
Tr 09 – Overhead Left
Tr 10 – Overhead Right
Tr 11 – Bass DI
Tr 12 – Bass Quad Box
Tr 13 – Bass 15” Speaker Box
Tr 14 – Guitar Amp Mic 1
Tr 15 – Guitar Amp Mic 2
Tr 16 – Guide Vocal
The drums and the bass player were set up in the same room with the bass being sent into it’s amplifier in another room. This meant the bass player and the drummer could be close together and maintain eye contact without the bass amp’s sound bleeding into any of the drum mics. You don’t have to do this but it means that if the bass player makes a mistake but the drummer gets the perfect take, you can either edit it or overdub it rather than getting them both to play the whole song together again. I played guitar and sang the guide vocal from an adjoining room looking at them through a window. My guitar amp was also separated out into a separate isolation booth so that it also didn’t interfere with the other instruments and vice versa. All this separation means that we needed to use headphones for us to hear each other.
It’s often said that the headphone mix is the hardest mix to do and I’d agree. For starters, the engineer has to get his levels right for each instrument as he wants to record them and then do a separate mix of those to each member of the band’s headphones. Each musician will want a different mix if they are in a different room and often they aren’t really sure what they want. They will probably want to hear it as it would be on the record but this can often be really off-putting as they are used to hearing things as they would do in a rehearsal environment. They’re closer to their own instruments or amplifiers so the perspective each has is unlikely to be anything like what they want to hear on the record (although it might explain why every musician wants to hear their own instrument louder in a final mix!) For people not used to this process they will usually ask the engineer to keep turning particular things up in the cans until it ends up being an enormously loud mess that will make them uncomfortable, sing or play out of time or out of tune and will fatigue their ears and brain. This can lead to them getting grumpy and that grumpiness is usually taken out on the engineer although it is not his fault. Experienced musicians won’t have this problem quite so much and know what they want to hear but not always.
A brief note on click tracks.
I hate them and we didn’t use them. I prefer the band to get out of time than to use them unless they have been using them during their rehearsals for the recording. I’ll always ask a client if they want a click track but if they haven’t used one in the lead up to the recording I will recommend that they don’t. I’ve found that, for the most part, if they haven’t been rehearsing with one, they will be listening to the click track instead of listening to the song. This is more likely to throw them off than keep them in regimented time. It will also take away from the vibe and cause things to get very sterile. Also, if you haven’t worked out your exact tempo for each song prior to the recording, you are far more likely to get it completely wrong if you’re trying to figure it out on the spot before you start tracking. If you want to use one, work out your beats-per-minute well before your recording date and then practice with the click track. You’ll probably find it can shift by a considerable amount from where you think it should be to where it actually should be. After you’ve recorded the track is not the time to find out the song is too fast or too slow. I find that most bands can keep good time when they feel the song rather than trying to make it regimented and the final product is better as a result. If things speed up or slow down a little, it’s okay. There should be some movement in timing in my opinion. It’s music and it has its own timing based on emotion not on a clock. Once again, that’s just my opinion and it differs from other engineers but, for my money, ditch the click!
So without having to mess around with click tracks and having a drummer that you could set a watch by, we managed to save what would have amounted to a fair bit of time setting up the click, its feed to the cans, etc. Over eleven songs, I’d recommend you allow for up to an hour or even more for this process alone. Time saved for us, thankfully.
With the sound checking of all the instrument and vocal levels done, (and a quick smoko break) it’s on to the tracking of the songs. The tape gets spooled onto the machine and away we go with the first song. Now the temptation here is to play a take of the song and then listen back to it to see if it’s good enough. Believe me that this can double or triple the time you take to get things done in the studio. Firstly, if you have to down instruments, take off your headphones, walk into the control room, wait for the engineer to wind the tape back, switch all the tracks to play-back mode and play the song through, you’ve taken precious minutes away from your time. If you aren’t sure whether you nailed it, do it again. It’s better to do this straight away as the tempo will be more likely to be the same than if you’ve taken a five minute break between takes. With some of the songs we could do this. Others, because of their length exceeding the amount of tape on the reel, we had to be clever and do a take of one long song followed by a take or two of a short song to make sure we maximised our tape. (This isn’t an issue with digital recording obviously which is yet another reason why they are being used less.) We would then do an additional take of the longer song on the next reel. If the take wasn’t close enough to being exact, we’d do it again and record over it. To ensure that the tape would get us through, we needed to be ruthless. Even if a take was 90% of the way there, it would be lost forever in favour of trying again. You need to be really sure you’re going to get a better one to do this. An error in judgment can cause a lot of grief doing it this way.
As I mentioned previously, the math doesn’t work out for multiple takes of the songs versus amount of tape stock we had. The answer to this? Once the tapes were all filled, we dumped down each tape to our Pyramix digital system. This meant, cleaning the machine between each tape and then playing them off while recording the output of the tape tracks in digital. Therefore we could re-use the tapes the next day. By the way, to do this properly you need to erase the tape afterwards. One of the foibles of tape is that it can still have recorded material on it even after it has been erased. The trick to getting rid of as much of that ghost sound as possible is to record over the tape forwards, then flip it over and record it again backwards. Each tape of 16 minutes is obviously recorded over twice after the dump to digital. That means 16 minutes dumping, 16 minutes first pass of erasing, 16 minutes second pass of erasing. Between each pass, the machine’s heads must be cleaned which takes about a minute or two (lets say two minutes). So to do this with each tape we’ve got 54 minutes of time. Times five reels equals four and a half hours. (see how this starts to add up?)
So, by the end of day one we had spent two hours in initial tape alignment, two hours in set up and sound check, about five and a half hours of actual playing, perhaps another hour or so in changing tapes, head cleaning, rewinding, etc, four and half hours in dumping and erasing and two hours of listening back to everything once it had been dumped to be sure to be sure!
With the tape of $2250, our first day totalled out at 17 hours (based on the studio and engineer rate of $80 per hour) we end up with a $3610 hole in our pocket.
We had three days of this. Granted that the tape purchase would have been a one off so the two subsequent days were only $1360. Grand total for the three days would have been $6330.
Now remember, that was just to get the rhythm tracks recorded! Are you starting to see how that Lamborghini doesn’t sound all that out of whack now?? Also remember that that is what Continuumusic charges per hour in our studio. I haven’t taken into account what a visiting engineer might charge on top of that. Owen could well have demanded an hourly rate but he’s like family and did it out of love. With his resume however, he might well have a three figure per hour charge attached to him and there are plenty of studios that will slug you a lot more than $80 per hour. (Lots who will do it for less on a project like this too but you get what you pay for so you need to be careful.)
I might leave this here for the time being as it is already getting super long (like the process itself!). Next week I’ll cover the next phase of the project which is overdubs, editing and mixing.