This story first appeared in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist on May 6th, 2013.
Over the past few decades, the costs of recording equipment have plummeted. Today $5,000 to $10,000 in funds can allow you to assemble a recording system that might have required a half-million dollar investment in 1993.
There are some things that don’t change, however. In 2013, the most expensive parts of the recording process remain time, talent and labor. Although the costs of transducers and microprocessors may go down, the price of rent, utilities and soundproof construction will always rise.
Non-musicians are often surprised to find that despite all of our cost-saving advances in technology, records aren’t that much cheaper to make these days. And for all of our time-saving advances, they aren’t made that much quicker, either. If anything, there’s a trend toward production taking longer, as the all important Pre-Production phase becomes an increasingly glossed-over step among new bands, often melding with the production process itself.
A Brief Overview Of Cost
In 1993 it might have typically cost anywhere from $30,000 to $1 million to produce a high-quality full-length album for wide commercial release through a major or large indie label. Today, it might instead cost anywhere from $10,000 to $1 million.
The price at the bottom has come down, although not by as much as some would expect. Meanwhile, at the top-end, a few artists with proven track records still attract large investment, thanks to high returns. As wasteful as the highest budgets may seem to an outsider, those high-pricetag productions are often more likely to turn a profit than the cheap ones, not less. (Although the exceptions are certainly fun to point out and laugh at. For more on that, see Chinese Democracy.)
A Brief Overview Of Time
The most time-intensive part of recording an album remains in the hands of the musicians. Whether it’s out on the live room floor or in front of a drum machine, the bulk of production consists of getting through takes and reviewing and tweaking aesthetic choices — Not setting up mics.
In theory, there are many ways in which computers can speed up the process. But in practice, as recording technology advances, so do expectations. When in doubt, remember Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
In 1963, a good working minimum for recording a full length album might have been anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks. That’s still a good working minimum now.
The exact length depends a bit on the band, the style, and the approach you take. On that front, there are three basic ways to go: “Live In The Studio”, “Brick-by-Brick,” and my personal favorite, “A Song a Day.”
Live In The Studio
The amount of time you’ll need to record an album-length release depends heavily on genre. In general, jazz and classical groups can get things done faster than bands that rely heavily on multi-tracking.
Miles Davis’ 5-song classic Kind of Blue was famously completed in only two days — although just barely. In the end, the band only managed to finish a single complete take for each tune, with one exception.
(In this case, the lineup consisted of incredibly seasoned musicians already comfortable playing together, which is a big plus as far as speed is concerned. On the other hand, they were working on new, never-before rehearsed material, which is a big minus as far as time goes. The two factors practically cancel each other out.)
Under normal conditions, 2 days is still a feasible target for a live jazz album today — although I’d tend to recommend 3 days if the material is new.
Rock bands often hear of this kind of thing and think it might work for them as well. My recommendation: Only attempt this if you’re in a rock band that has just come off tour. Otherwise, this kind of ultra-fast live-in-the studio process should probably be reserved for pre-production demos and post-album radio appearances.
Case in point: When Black Sabbath recorded their 1970 debut, they were a 7-night-a-week pub band. When they hit the studio, they made their album in just 2 days — One for tracking and one for mixing. But before you consider doing this yourself, have a listen to what Sabbath sounded like live in 1970. They are so good it’s depressing:
Early Sabbath’s unbridled awesomeness becomes even more crushing when you realize you are looking at people who are 22 years old. Find me a group of 22-year-olds that are this good at playing together today, and I’d pay to record them. That is the power of dedicated practice. You could just put some good mics up and call this an album. Bam. Done.
Generally, studios will book their rooms in 8, 10 and sometimes even 12 hour blocks. (The 12 hour ones are rarely worth it. Diminishing returns set in sooner than you might expect.)
Setup time for this kind of session could take as little as 1 hour, but as a general rule, I’d come in expecting at least 2 hours of setup time, and 3 hours before you’ve settled on tones and are tracking your first “keeper” takes.
Can this be done faster? Theoretically, sure. With only an hour of setup time, I’ve engineered full-length live performances for radio stations like WFMU and BreakThru, and there are times when these live sessions have sounded better than the bands’ albums.
(Although I’m no slouch, this can mostly be attributed to bands recording shitty-sounding records that should have been considered pre-production demos. Whenever this happens, the bands are far better at playing the songs after they’ve finished tracking the record. Common scenario. Learn from it.)
But as fast as sessions can go when the stars align just right, you’ll be much happier if you expect 3 hours of setup and get started after only 1.5 hours than you will be the other way around.
Once setup is completed, you can play through a full album in one or two takes, maybe going back for a couple fixes and redos. In this way, an entire album can be recorded in a day, although not every new band is suited for this process. This method takes an uncanny amount of preparation and yields a very natural picture.
Of course, there’s no rule that says live albums have to be done all in one take or two. But if you plan on doing multiple takes of each song until you get them right, do not plan on completing more than 3 or 4 songs with this approach. It’s certainly possible to finish more, although I would not bet on it.
“Brick-by Brick”: Recording in Stages
The most popular method for recording pop and rock records is probably the “brick-by-brick” method, in which you record the album in several stages.
Some artists take this approach to an extreme, recording all of their drum parts, then all of their bass parts, then all of their guitar parts and other overdubs, then vocals. It’s a method that can work well for music that begs to sound “constructed”, with a tight, drum-machine like rhythm section that feels like a group of superhuman tempo-nazis. Although it’s not right for every artist, it can be perfect for bands that demand a dancy four-on-the-floor feel, glistening production values or industrial-strength weight and power.