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The Best Free Recording Advice Money Can Buy

Bad question #3: What’s the cheapest we can get this done?

Or it’s close cousin: “What can we do for $100?”

Everyone is on some kind of budget, and you absolutely should make a plan for how you’re going to afford your project. You should be able to get at least ballpark prices from anyone in advance, and that’s part of wise planning. The reason this question is bad is because of where it comes from.

First, many of the people asking it are still haven’t settled question #1, and expecting a professional to essentially compete with zero dollars. Let me say a few things without hopefully being too defensive: I don’t know anyone in this industry that is out to cheat artists. We got into recording and producing because we’re crazy about music, we understand the seriousness of someone trusting us with their songs, and it’s a big deal to us that everything is as good as it can be. A great producer or engineer pushes themselves as hard as the artist to deliver a great record.

Also, I don’t know anyone that is getting rich doing this. The market for music is changing rapidly, competition is crazy, and prices have fallen like crazy. Good news: you’re already getting a great deal on your record because it’s 2017. Your record would’ve cost [five] times as much 20 years ago. Here’s the thing: When you are handing the deepest part of your heart and passion into someone else’s hands, maybe “how cheap we can do this?” isn’t the thing you want to be thinking.  If you really do believe in your potential, and you’re entrusting your future to someone else in a big way, maybe you don’t want to be looking for the most budget way possible.

Unfortunately, a lot of recording professionals get so tired of arguing with and explaining things to the client that they will cave and let things happen that shouldn’t. I’ve been guilty. Corners get cut because after awhile you give up caring more about the quality of the project than the client does. You are going to get what you pay for. One of the biggest things that can help is simply doing fewer songs. In 2017, no one cares if you did a full-length album. Better to spend your entire budget on a great single than have a mediocre EP.

Better question: based on our budget, how many songs do you think we can do?

Bad question #4: Do you do mastering?

I have never had anyone ask this question that actually knows what mastering is. I really wish I could be spending my time talking about something more important, but this might be the most common question I get.

When they ask about mastering, most people mean mixing. When the tracking (recording of the parts) is done, the next step is editing and mixing. Editing often takes longer depending on the project, it involves going through all the multiple takes of each instrument and vocal and cutting together the best parts for a master take, fixing performance and timing issues, and pitch correction for vocals.

Mixing begins when editing is done, and when you hit play everything you want to hear is there in the song the way it should be — and nothing else. Mixing is where you balance the levels of each thing in the song, usually in a dynamic way (things don’t usually just stay at one volume the whole time), and make adjustments to the sounds to make the song exciting. It’s hard to say that any part of the process is the most important (OK: having a great song is probably the most important) but from a technical standpoint, mixing is the most important step. Mediocre tracks in the hands of a great mixer can become really compelling.

The last step of the song production process is mastering. Traditionally, mastering is done by a separate engineer who does only mastering. One of the biggest benefits of mastering is a new set of ears on your song, to listen for anything that could be balanced or polished better, however, your song is already mixed. They can make global changes to the song, but they have a finished mix to work with, not your individual tracks. They do not have the ability to adjust the level of a background keyboard part, but they can make the whole track brighter or bassier. The typical benefits of mastering include your mix translating better on all different types of sound systems, the levels of your songs staying consistent and transitions sounding smooth from track to track on your record, and the entire project being “commercially loud” so that you don’t have to turn up your song in comparison to the radio.

Mastering is a really helpful final polish on your song or project, but it is not a drastic change or a step where problems should be solved. When we send something out for mastering, I tell clients to expect their song to come back the same but 10 [percent] better.

One thing to look out for is people who include mastering [at] a super cheap price. When someone says, “your song mixed and mastered for $50” you should be wary (for so many reasons!). More and more small studio folks are opting not to have their song sent out for mastering but rather just put some “mastering” plug-ins on it themselves and call it a day. This doesn’t mean the song is crap, but you should understand what the ideal situation is and plan accordingly.

Better question: Who do you use for mastering?

Bad question #5: Why is this going to take so long?

Often as part of the budget conversation, a prospective client will say something like this: we only have [four] songs, and at about [five] minutes each, I would think we could get it all done in an hour. When I suggest that they shouldn’t expect to even be tracking anything in the first two hours, sometimes these folks are nearly fuming, thinking that I’m trying to rip them off.

A typical session (with let’s say a [four]-piece band) will be nearly an hour of load and discussion (how are we going to do what we’re going to do before we set everything up and then waste time rearranging it later), an hour of drum set up (which requires the most microphones, the most variables, maybe testing different snares and cymbals), and an hour of dialing in the other sounds and the headphone mixes. There are ways to speed it up (like using the house kit), but you get the idea: other than for maybe a vocal-only session, you usually can’t just walk right in and play.

This is just the setup “day-of” part of the equation: often I suggest that we have a preproduction meeting or two, and this is not free. The reason is because I want to have a great plan in place for the artist, to save them time and money and make the best record they can. If we decide we are going to hire a keys player, maybe we should have them there for the initial tracking sessions, so we are not paying extra time for them to come in separately and record their parts: or maybe we shouldn’t. Everything depends on the band, the material, and the approach that’s desired. What’s clear is that when you don’t have a great plan and you’re figuring it out as you go, it can get very expensive.

Better question: What’s a reasonable ballpark timetable for my project?

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Caleb Neff is a producer, pastor, songwriter, worship leader, husband, and dad from Cape Coral, Florida. His passion is helping artists both inside and outside the church develop their full creative potential. Check out his website, http://www.juniperrecording.com/