Rules for Recording on a Budget, Part 1 of 2
Like most of you, I don’t like to be a slave to rules in the recording studio – one of my favorite things about record-making is having the freedom to find out where spur of the moment intuition and inspiration might lead. But here’s the sticking point – in the studio, you’re paying for that privilege by the hour. In the right situations this pursuit is worth the cost, but if you’re in the same situation as 90% of bands, you have very real limitations on the budget available to complete your record. I would much rather see you holding your record in shrink wrap than see you sitting on a hard drive with half of a really cool record on it.
I have seen records completed on every budget, and some of the best things I’ve worked on were finished under the shadow of limited time and finances. You can make a great record on a limited budget, but you have to approach your project from that mindset. This means it’s time to embrace your limitations, let them focus your creative energies, and adopt some ground rules to ensure your success in completing your project to your standards. In this spirit I offer my humble recommendations:
Balance your goals and your budget and develop a Project Plan
So we already know your number one goal: finish your project with the budget you have available. At this stage of the process you need to be extremely realistic about your funds, your aspirations, and who you are as a band. What kind of product do you want in your hands when you’re finished? What does you’re band need? Do you need product to sell at shows? Do you need a demo to book shows? Do you make the whole record quick and dirty? Do you make a nicely polished EP and come back for the other songs next year? Sometimes you may need to spend 3 days knocking out 12 tunes in a very raw form just to have something for your fans, and sometimes you may want to spend three days making one song everything it can be.
You can’t BS yourself through this part of the process. Your budget, goals, and session plan are three points on a very awkward scale, and if you knock it out of balance you’re likely to end up stacking more coin on there to keep your project from tipping over. Be really honest with yourself about how long you need to get the performances you want, knowing very few people can play as well in the studio as they do in rehearsal. Decide what you’re willing to compromise, and remember if your goals don’t allow for compromise, your budget’s going to have to ante up.
Be deliberate and make decisions in advance
Don’t wait until the week before your session to make important decisions about your recording methodology. This is where the help of an experienced producer, or the savvy of experienced band members, can be very useful. What are you going to track live? What’s going to be a scratch and what a keeper? What kind of isolation and sight-lines do you need? How many overdubs, and how complex are they? Are you going to use a click track (metronome)? Are you going to use your drummer’s kit or the studio kit? Are you going to use a real piano or a keyboard? An acoustic guitar on that one song or an electric? Is the lead singer going to do the backups or the bass player?
Now is also the appropriate time to discuss amongst your band members the sonic aesthetic for your project. There are many ways to discuss record sonics – “wet” vs. “dry,” “raw” vs. “polished,” “real” vs. “hyped,” “retro” vs. “contemporary” – but often the most effective way to communicate about sounds is to use records you know and love as touchstones. Put together a mix of at least 5-6 songs from different artists that represent your sonic “universe” – and get this disc to your producer/engineer.
Making these decisions well in advance is important, because the answers will help you choose the right producer/engineer, choose the right studio, and give your producer/engineer the tools to help you plan your sessions. Most importantly, the answers will also determine the proper way to prepare for the session so that you get the most out of your pre-session rehearsals.
Take responsibility and delegate responsibility
This may seem a little obvious and condescending, but you need to own your record. We train ourselves to shirk responsibility, but you need to fight this impulse. Every member of the band needs to take full ownership of his/her part of the record and not be the one ballooning the budget. This means that if you’re the drummer you don’t wait until the middle of the session to ask what groove you should play on the bridge. This means if you’re the keyboardist we don’t hear you say, “I’m not even sure what I play on this song yet.” This means if you’re the lead singer, you know the words AND bring lyric sheets anyway to fight studio amnesia.
If you hear something wrong in rehearsal, let everyone know and chase it down till you fix the problem. If you’re having trouble playing your part, spend some more time woodshedding solo or write a new part that you’re more likely to nail under the gun in the studio. If you’re having maintenance trouble with your instrument, make sure it’s repaired before the session, or arrange to have another instrument available and spend some time with it before the session. Don’t wait for someone else in the band (or the producer) to call you on your problems, take care of them. Any time you find yourself hoping – “I hope this part’s going to work. I hope I can play that. I hope we don’t miss that change. I hope my guitar stays in tune. I hope the drums don’t sound bad. I hope this sounds better when we record it” – Stop. Right. There. If you’re hoping, something’s wrong. Fix it. Don’t wait for me to fix it for you in the studio, because it’s going to cost more money and take time away from reaching your goals.
One of the more frustrating experiences in recording on a budget is realizing how little of your studio time is actually spent recording. In modern production the two activities that consume the most studio time are listening and talking. Talking about listening! Cut down on the chatter by putting people in charge. Democratically run bands are great when you have time to hear 5 opinions on every take, every vocal line, every mix decision. Set ground rules and delegate responsibilities on the way in. Even if one person is not the “producer” in the band with primary decision-making power, you can still have a division of labor. For example, bass player and drummer decide when we have a basic take. Guitarists coach each other. One person talks to the vocalist while he/she is singing. The fewer people in the room doing nothing, the faster things get done. During the mix, have the band discuss all mix notes amongst the members and have one member convey a clear directive to the engineer – it will be more efficient than five guys talking in his ear, and you’re more likely to get what you want.
Check back next Friday for Part 2, which will deal with how to make the most of your pre-session rehearsals.