It’s the same old question. Every time I get an enquiry for a recording job, the person on the other end of the phone asks: “how much does it cost to record X songs?” It’s an almost impossible question to answer due to the overwhelming amount of variables. Usually I ask them what their budget is and then I’ll try to tailor make a package that will suit their needs. It’s really the only way.
Wherever you choose to record your next project will no doubt have the same answer to your question. Sure, they can give you an hourly rate but what exactly can you get done in an hour or two hours, or six hours, or ten hours? That will also be dependent on so many factors that it’s almost impossible to nail down a realistic quote.
I liken recording to buying a car. Before you spit your coffee all over the screen thinking that that’s too expensive, hear me out.
You can buy a car for almost anything. Hell, in Australia you can probably get an old ute for 2 cases of beer. Mind you a case of beer usually holds a great deal more value than its retail price in the bottle-O when it is used as a bargaining chip in a deal. (Umm, no, I won’t record your band in exchange for beer!)
Let’s look at cars. I’m not suggesting that it’s an exact comparison but it does come close to the mark when you think about recording. For instance:
For a couple of hundred bucks (or perhaps a few cases of beer) you could be the proud owner of a 1979 Datsun.
Now it’s probably got more than a half a million km’s on the clock, the tires are bald, if there’s any rego, it’d be less than a couple of months, the seats will be torn, the paintwork sketchy, rust throughout, the engine probably only runs on three of it’s four cylinders and there will no doubt be an odd smell that you just can’t get rid of. It may well still get you to the shops and back eight times out of ten but, let’s face it, there’s no “luxurious driving experience” left in this baby. You’ll be a little bit embarrassed to be seen in it and probably will want to park it two streets or more away from your destination to ensure that you aren’t noticed by anyone you know when you turn up.
Similarly, a recording that cost you about as much is going to lack many things. It was probably done live (ie. Not multi-track or if it was multi-track it was probably a minimum amount of inputs at a time so you couldn’t really use lots of mics on the drum kit or anything. Not that there is specifically anything wrong with doing recordings this way. Some great stuff comes from doing it live but only if the conditions are right and the guy behind the desk knows what he’s doing.) It was probably done on cheap, entry level, home recording gear such as Garage Band or a Roland 1680 or some such thing. It will sound tinny. It will be full of mistakes that you couldn’t edit. The reverb will sound awful. There will be either no compression on anything or too much on everything. You’ll probably not want to play it to anyone as you won’t feel it’s an accurate representation of your music. You’d actually have been better off throwing your money off a bridge.
Instead of buying the Datsun, you could save up a few hundred dollars more. Let’s say eight hundred. Now you’re in the market for an early 1990’s Magna.
It’s paintwork is almost completely gone and replaced mostly by surface rust. There’s a lot of ticking noise when it starts but that goes away after a bit. Then there’s some knocking that starts up whenever you turn to the left but hey, how often do you really need to turn left? There’s not as many years or miles on it as the Datsun and it starts most mornings without trouble.. except maybe in Winter but thankfully you don’t live that far from a bus stop. You don’t really want to take it on any long trips. Especially across bridges but for most of the time it’s fine for what you need it for.
Okay, we’re talking about demos here. A few songs that show what your band can do. You had a day or two all up in the studio to do everything. You had to ditch one song because, although you’d planned to do it and had laid down the drum and bass tracks for it, it turned out that you ran out of time to get all the overdubs done because you took a little longer than expected on the other tracks. That’s okay. It wasn’t your favourite song anyway. You weren’t entirely happy with the mix and there were some edits that you really wish you’d gotten the engineer to do but you were watching the clock and time just seems to fly by so fast in the studio. The snare sounds like crap, there’s not enough bass in anything and the guitars sound harsh to the ear. When you’re listening to it at home, you find it kind of hurts your head a little. It does give you a good idea of what you were all playing in the song and now you realise that not everything was gelling as much as you thought it was in rehearsals. Now that you can (kind of) hear everything, you realise that there’s a melody line or two of the vocal that clashes with the guitar chords. Funny you’d never noticed it before. You’re in two minds about whether you want to send it to that promoter that’s putting shows together for your local pub. What if he’s fussy and doesn’t like it? Do you take the chance?
Now you’ve decided you’re sick of driving complete pieces of shit. You want something you know you can get in and it will start first go every time. It doesn’t have to be sporty or look great but it shouldn’t make any strange noises and you shouldn’t need to keep taking it to the mechanic to check out yet another broken thing on it every week. You can’t afford a new car by any stretch of the imagination of course, just a reasonable second hand commuter that’s not complete junk. So you’ve scraped together two and a half to three grand. You have a bit of choice in the private market. You can afford anything that was built in the late nineties to the early two thousands. There’s the usual line up of Camry’s and Commodores and there’s even a BMW which seems surprisingly cheap. It’s a little older than the Holdens but it’s a BMW! Hmmm. Why would a BMW be the same price as a Camry? You think to yourself. Probably because although it has the name, there’s something wrong. The owner is probably selling it because they know something they’re not letting on about it. The guy says he’s just upgrading but the truth is probably that it’s on the way out and the costs on repairing it are going to be pretty astronomical. But you’re smarter than that and you choose to go with the less glamorous choice that appears to be in the more trustworthy condition.
It’s still not the car of your dreams but you’ll probably have a few years of mostly trouble free motoring from it.
We’re still talking a demo here (if we’re looking at multiple songs or maybe a release quality single but still a pretty cheap one. If the band is really good, has good instruments, has their sound worked out and don’t waste time in the studio it might even be an EP.) It will probably be of reasonable quality and you may be really happy with the way it turned out. Everything is in the right place, there are no wrong notes, things out of time, the vocals sound pretty cool. It’s not dripping with flair and you might have liked to get a little more experimental on some things but you managed to squeeze everything you had to get done into the time you had. The engineer was competent. He understood what you needed and he got you through the process with a minimum of fuss even if it did feel like he was rushing you a bit. You recognise that that was not his fault but purely that in order to achieve a finished product you’d be happy with within the budget, you had to hit the ground running. Overall, you’re pretty happy with it, your friends are happy with it, the guy at the local pub is happy with it and has given you a couple of shows off the back of it. You have even managed to sell a few copies on iTunes to your following. It’s not blowing anyone away. You haven’t created anything particularly new and exciting but the whole thing is pretty cool.
Now you’ve moved up in the world. You’ve got a pretty good job and you can afford yourself a bit of a treat. A limited amount of luxury. You’re looking for a new set of wheels that won’t just get you from A to B but will do it in a certain amount of comfort. Not a head-turner exactly and not brand new but something that’s pretty late model, possibly the executive one with all the extras. You’ve got five or six grand in your pocket and you’re ready to go shopping. Suddenly you realise that five to six K doesn’t get you a lot. You’re still in the fairly low end of the market. The cars look a lot better and they’re a little newer. There’s also a lot more to choose from but you don’t see a lot of difference between the three grand market and the five grand market outside of that even though it’s almost double the money. You don’t really know enough about cars to truly see the difference. You’re still looking at Toyotas, Fords and Holdens even though you had your heart set on something European. You could wait and save up a bit more but you’re keen to get moving. Your choices again come down to going with something that looks a little flash that probably is too good to be true or going with the solid and dependable. You still hear horror stories in your head about that guy who bought the two grand Merc and ended up having to spend a fortune to keep it running and then you see a sporty looking Lancer.
It’s paint job is really cool, it’s been lowered and the stereo has a sub speaker (Fully Sick!!). The gear stick knob is a chrome skull and it’s got a four inch exhaust pipe. It’s loud and very proud. Unfortunately it has also had the guts driven out of it by the hoon that owned it before who wasn’t a very good driver and there are all kinds of unseen problems. Problems of course you don’t find out about until after you’ve driven it away and parted with your cash.
This is the “hot-shot syndrome”. You’ve gone into somewhere that you thought would do a great job of your recording. They made lots of promises, told you lots of lies about their experience and their gear. You paid them a big deposit only to find that your finished product wasn’t really what you’d hoped for. In fact it was a pretty little bonfire for your money and now you can’t get the guy on the phone. You know the tracking was okay. Maybe you could just get it remixed and everything would be fine. If you could just get hold of the guy and get him to give you the original tracks, you could take it somewhere else to fix it up. When you do finally get him to give you all the files on a hard drive, you go to a reputable studio and they start sifting through to see what they can do. Like the Lancer, the repairs aren’t cheap. The studio engineer, like your mechanic would, takes a look and shakes his head. He tells you that there are tracks that are missing, tracks that were recorded too hot, tracks that really need to be re-recorded. He’ll do his best with what he’s got to work with but it’s possibly not going to be everything you imagined. It’s too late to turn back. You’ve committed and you’ve just got to go with it. The new engineer does a good job to your ears, though he’s not completely happy with it and when you take it away he seems sceptical about having his name printed on the cover. Oh well, live and learn. This one ends up sitting in a desk drawer and you never listen to it again. In fact if it ever gets played to anyone, you talk over the top of it, telling them the story about why it’s so bad.
Now you’re done with the private market. You don’t want to get screwed again. You’re getting a loan for a reasonable car and you’re going to a dealer that will give you a decent warranty. The sticker price on the stuff in the yard is around the ten grand mark and everything is shiny, clean and the guy at the lot is pleasant and doesn’t seem like he will rip you off. You get into something that looks nice, smells nice and has fairly low km’s on it.
You drive away happy with the deal and you know that, although you’ll be paying it off for a little while, ultimately you’ve made the right choice and you are going to get your money’s worth out of the car. It’s got power everything, handles well and still has a new car smell about it. You smile when you drive it and you can pull up right out front of anywhere without feeling embarrassed.
This is your high end demo/reasonable to good quality EP/moderate quality or damn good value album. The engineer is not only competent but has a fair bit of flair and talent. He’s done loads of other recordings and he comes highly recommended. He probably hasn’t done any real major names but he’s done many quality jobs and he always gets his name on not only the engineer credits of CD’s but also in the thank you section as well. He’s not afraid to tell you when things aren’t quite right and he doesn’t sit watching the clock. He gets the job done to his satisfaction (which exceeds your own) and when you play it on your stereo at home, you crank it up and you and your friends dance around like it was the best thing you’ve ever heard. You’re proud to stick it on Facebook. You enter it into song competitions, you use it as a demo, you get some art together and release it on a CD and are selling it at the merch table at your gigs. You even did an “official launch”. Five or ten years down the track you still listen to it with pride.
Now you’re a little more established and you’re looking for a car that is more of a statement about who you are. You can afford a bit of luxury. You also don’t need to go with a second hand one. You can buy it new from the dealer and you can discuss which options you want to come with it. You order it in rather than picking it off the lot and the sales guy is showing you swatches for the trim material. It doesn’t just have a heater and an air con, it has “climate control”. There’s a reverse camera, five speaker stereo as standard, heated seats, cup holders, you name it.
You feel like you should put on a suit to drive it because shorts and a T-shirt just wouldn’t do it justice. Not unless you bought them at David Jones rather than Target anyway.
This is your high quality single or maybe EP range/medium to pretty good quality album. You’ve been able to lock yourself in a pretty good studio for the time you’ve needed to get the job done properly. The staff make you coffee and they do not allow themselves to be distracted from working on your project for the entire duration. When you leave for the day, they keep working. Editing, checking takes for the best stuff, etc. They’ve suggested particular pieces of equipment such as pre-amps or vintage microphones that they can hire in as part of the budget to get that particular sound that is going to work just right for your project. They’ve spent hours making sure that the microphones are placed exactly right and that the band is completely comfortable. There’s been time to experiment with things, try different amps, different rooms, etc. They’ve been able to come up with some unique sounds and effects, sometimes just for one tiny little section of a song. Nothing has been compromised in the tracking and the mixdown sounds pretty damn awesome. Still not earth shattering but it’s exciting, vibrant, easily radio ready and people will hear it and rush out to buy it. It shows your music in a great way and, although it seemed expensive, you feel it was worth every penny you sunk into it.
Okay. That’s as far as I’m gonna take it. Now… go to your CD rack and pull out your three favourite CD’s of all time. The ones that blow your mind when you hear them. Put them on and have a good listen. What do you reckon the guys who made those CD’s would drive?? I’m figuring it’s something a little like this….
The sticker price on this baby according to carsales.com is $907,543.00 (yes, you read that right. More than most people spend on a house.)
You might actually be surprised to hear that some of those artists on those three CD’s you picked may well have been able to buy four of these for what they spent on making that album.
So when you ask me what’s it cost to record a song, don’t be surprised if I ask you what you drive before giving you the answer.