How much does it cost to record?A question I am often asked is "How much to record a song?"
This is much akin to asking "How much is a car?"
I often reply with my hourly rate and then mention bulk rates for long sessions.
But the question still stands: How much to record a song?
To answer, I really need the following.
- How long is the song?
- How many tracks?
- How prepared you?
- How picky are you?
Granted, there are plenty more variables, but these are some of the biggies, each one able to affect the duration of your session exponentially.
1. How long is the song?Obviously, a longer song takes longer to record because, quite simply, it's longer. But what I've noticed over the years is that people's ability to play a perfect take diminishes at an accelerated pace over time. Or, to put it another way, the longer a song is, the higher the chances the performer will make more mistakes. For whatever the reason, if a performer makes a single mistake for, say, a 30-second take, they'll likely make two mistakes for 60-second take. But if it's a 2-minute take, they're likely to make six, eight, ten mistakes. It's as if "red light" syndrome makes it harder to recover from each mistake, and each one compounds the previous.
Even if rate of mistakes stays the same (for this example, 1 for every 30 seconds), a longer song requires more searching time to re-locate errors, find a spot to punch in (and back out!), time to run the rehearsal with the performer to make sure they know where the punch is, then the time to get a good take. Plus, during the course of the original take, the performer's tone (voice, amp, settings, etc.) may have changed slightly, so they might have to make adjustments so their punch in matches the sound quality of the original pass, otherwise it might be noticeable. For a long song, these punch-ins might be scattered around, taking a while to re-locate each one to fix it. As with any creative process, there is a certain momentum needed to keep the process alive. When you're constantly stopping to make notes, listen back, punch in, that momentum can easily be lost.
2. How many tracks?Multiply the answer to the first question by the number of instruments. Drums + bass + rhythm guitar + guitar solo + vocals + backing vocals + whatever. Sure, the tambourine track will probably lay down in one take, but it still takes the time to get out the tambourine, set a mic, and record for the length of the song. (By the way, will you be doing a "scratch" track?)
For a lot of musicians, a recording session is the first chance to hear their song without focusing on what they're playing at the time, the first time they have the opportunity to actually listen as an audience member to what they're doing. A lot of mistakes go unnoticed until you hear them in playback. Is the busy guitar rhythm distracting from the vocals? Are the kick drum and bass guitar locking together? Did an arrangement idea suddenly reveal itself when the keys were muted for second? Sometime good ideas come up while recording, which is great, but can have a ripple out effect on the rest of the song. As an artist, it's usually wise to maintain an open mind to explore new ideas, but it does come at the expense of time.
One consideration is that it takes less time to record each song if it is recorded in the same session with other songs. I've had artists come in to record each time they have a song worked up, leaving days or weeks between sessions, which means if all these songs are meant to go on an album together, either the drums aren't going to sound the same song to song, or there's going to be a good deal of time and note-taking to ensure they match as well as possible. I mention drums because they're usually the most time-consuming by virtue of what they are: a lot of instruments being played together into a lot of microphones. It's not uncommon for bands to spend a few hours getting sounds set up on just the drums. But once they're ready, they can focus on laying down tracks. Even if it only takes a half hour to set up drums, by the time you've recorded a dozen tunes one session at a time, you've spent 6 hours of studio time setting up drums. (Notice how many successful musicians are actually successful business persons who simply chose music as their product.)
3. How prepared are you?This should go without saying, but one might be surprised how many people show up at the studio with no idea what they are about to do or who haven't rehearsed their parts. A lot of people don't realize how sloppy or out-of-tune their performance is until they hear themselves on playback for the first time. Many people never got a chance to rehearse their harmony vocal ideas because, well, they simply never had a way to sing along with their self. There will always be curveballs in any situation, but try to imagine exactly what all has to be accomplished to achieve your recording goal. Are you comfortable using headphones while you perform? Do you require reverb in your monitor mix? Do you have all the instruments to get the sounds you want? Do you know how to convey what you want to accomplish to the sound engineer?
4. How picky are you?The Good Rule, to paraphrase David Miles Huber, is when you record a good musician with a good instrument during a good performance. This should make for a good recording.
I've had a few performers show up to the studio with equipment far from "good" but expect to get "good" sounds, or they rely on recording numerous takes that I comp together to build a "good" take from best bits. A clever engineer who knows his equipment can often improve upon the situation, but it rarely compares to a performer simply applying the Good Rule. The Good Rule will usually save you time and money, and provide you with better results.
Keep in mind that "good" is subjective. If you mean "good" as Hendrix' guitar tone, be prepared for disappointment if you're using a Danelectro Longhorn and a Fender Champ. It's beautiful combination in my humble opinion, but it's never going to sound like a Strat through a Marshall stack.
And although the era of Cut'n'Paste has made it possible to fix so many performance errors perfectly, how much time (ie. money) are you willing to invest to make that happen?
Conclusion.These a far from all the factors in deciding how long it will take to record a song, and possibly not the most important, but they are a few that I have encountered many times over.
So, in short, if you have one 3-and-a-half minute song with standard instrumentation (drums, bass, guitar, vox, keys, a few harmony vocals, percussion), know how to play all your parts, and have realistic expectations for the sounds you will get with your voice and equipment, you can probably record one song in an hour if you're willing to trust the engineer's mic choices and placement.
And then it will be time to mix.