If you have read my "Shapes of Things to Come" article this is sort of a follow up. Times are perfect for releasing your own CD and this article will give you some ideas on how to record it and what kind of investment it will take.
Do It Yourself Approach - There are basically two ways to record your own CD. The first is what a lot of independent artists are doing: they do it themselves in the privacy of their own home. They get themselves a computer, install Pro-Tools and go to town. The advantage to this approach is simple; you can spend a year recording your CD and tweak every tiny thing that bugs you. You can punch in your guitar solo seven thousand times between Thanksgiving and Christmas 'till you get it right. You can fix any pitch problems, add tons of layers, spend a bunch of time getting a killer tone, go nuts without getting yourself in debt like you would if you had to pay an engineer or for the same amount of studio time. The only problem is that unless you practically have a studio in your home, you are going to have a rough time recording a full band, especially if you play the kind of music that needs to be played live, with real musicians. Jazz, Fusion, Blues and some Rock are a few examples. Drums are a nightmare and big amps can also possibly pose some problems. That is why the kind of music that generally gets recorded using this "do it in the privacy of your own home" method is ambient, techno, electronica and the like. Not to say you can't record other genres effectively but a recording studio tends to produce better recording results when you need to record traditional instruments. A decent quality pro-tools system can cost anywhere from five to thirty grand depending on how many tracks you need and speed but it is a great investment if you plan on producing good quality recordings at home.
The Traditional Approach - Rehearse the band and get in the studio. This poses one big obstacle: MONEY! Studio time is expensive so you need to be well rehearsed or at least use musicians that are quick. Both my CDs, "Big Bad Sun" and my first release, "Prospects" where recorded this way and with no rehearsals. We only had three days to record the "Big Bad Sun" CD so more then the other two guys in the band, I had to be totally prepared. I had to know exactly how I wanted to start and end each song, the form or each tune, have my lyrics together. Recording a CD in three days is impossible if you have to spend more than two hours on each song so I had to have an image of each song in my head before we even got in the studio. By the way, most CDs are recorded in about a month but when you are paying for the studio time yourself, plan on doing it in about five days or you'll go broke.
The Engineer - When recording at home an engineer is out of the question (unless it is you), you would have to be Bill Gates to be able to afford paying an engineer to come over everyday for six months. In a recording studio, you will have to hire one or use the one that they give you. Out of all my years playing guitar in dozens of recording studios, I still don't know how to turn half the stuff on much less mix my own tracks. As I said, most recording studios will supply an engineer but you may want to hire one with a good reputation. You can always listen to CDs that they engineered. Basically engineers are passive for the most part, they work best when they are told what to do. That's where problems arise. I mean, during a recording session if the engineer where to ask me; "How do you want me to EQ the snare drum?" I would be dumbfounded for an answer. I know what I like when I hear it but I don't know how to EQ it to make it sound like what I like. So if you are not up to giving the orders, you may want to consider hiring a producer.
A word on Engineers - Engineers are different than us guitarists. Unlike us, they are into compressors and limiters and things like this. Compressors and limiters are boring to guitarists, they have unexciting brand names that sound like French food or German medicine, names like Sennheiser, Neuman or Neve. We aren't interested in them because they are basically made to control volume, which is something strange to us. We are always trying to figure out ways to play louder anyway. The last thing that we want to think about is ways to compress or limit our volume. Besides, guitarists like things with exciting names like "Nuclear Harmonic Expander" or "Tri-Stereo Distortion Booster" ( I made these names up, but you get the point). Plus the compressors and limiters that they like are old and crusty and look like crap, we guitarists prefer things that gleam and are shiny. As much as engineers love compressors and limiters, mastering engineers love them even more (I'll get to mastering later). Mastering engineers go so crazy with compressing and limiting that recording engineers get pissed off. They often complain that the engineer that masters the music cranks up the volume too much and then cuts off the highs and lows and erases the dynamics of the music. It is best to stay out of the whole thing and let them do what they like to do.
The Producer - Sometimes you can find a guy that is good at both engineering and producing. One reason a producer is good to have is because with only a few days in the studio, you are going to have a hell of a time editing your tracks by yourself. Let me explain: let's say you are recording your vocal track, usually you sing through the song four or five times and record each take on different track. Each time you sing through it, the producer sitting at his groovy producer desk in the studio, picks the phrases from each vocal take that he likes the best. He makes notes on your lyric sheets, marking which phrase he likes from what take. After you are done singing through the song several times he will tell the engineer how to glue the different parts he likes together. If you aren't the greatest singer, it is an enormous undertaking, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It would take you way to much time to do this yourself. He will also tell the engineer how to mix everything, what kind of reverb, delay, how to EQ your guitar. Being a musician, you would figure that you could tell the engineer how to mix everything but I found that after hours in the studio I tend to lose my sense of perspective but a good producer's ears never seem to get tired. A good producer also has a fascinating ability to know how things will sound recorded. Guitarists tend to listen to the sound of our amp and that's where it ends but the producer listens to the sound of our amp, imagines the sound hitting a specific mike placed in a specific location in the studio, travel to the mixing board, get some reverb and delay added, get mixed with the other instruments, get mastered, burned and getting stuck in a $27.99 CD player bought at K-Mart and getting listened to by someone who probably doesn't even play the guitar. Musicians tend to listen in real time but a producer must be a clairvoyant. You should definitely take a listen to the CDs that he has produced before you hire him. Each producer has his style, some guys like everything super wet and some hate wet sounding recordings, so it is best to match up your likes and dislikes with his. When you meet with him, tell him what kind of image you have and maybe give him some CDs of recording that you like. One reason I picked the producer I did for the "Big Bad Sun" session is because he, like me, is a guitarist and pays special attention to mixing the guitar correctly.
Equipment - This is what happens when you get in the studio to record your CD: You get there and bring your equipment in. Generally decent studios will already have various amps and at least one quality drum set but you may still want to bring your own if that is what you are used to. I always bring my own amp because I can dial up my sound right away but also because I have a good professional relationship with the most of the companies that offer me special deals on my equipment. For that reason I want to use their stuff on my recordings as promotion for them. If the studio has an amp that is better than yours, you can always use it instead of your own anyways.
Mikes - Next the engineer will be getting everything miked up and getting the sound together. This will take a little time. He will be placing a mike right on the speaker of your cabinet and most likely an ambient mike a few meters away. Open back combos like Fender amps generally get a mike in back also. Two or three mikes for one guitar amp. The producer may suggest specific mikes for your amp. I personally like a cheapo Shure 57 on a Marshall and Sennheiser for an ambient mike. I sometimes like to use two amps and pan them somewhat right and left, this will make some engineers crazy and other like this kind of thing. I like the subtle differences in each respective speaker. Some engineers don't like the sound of the mike too close to the speaker, some like a 57 stuck an inch away. The sound is different but both get good results depending on who is doing the engineering.
Headphones - Recording is a very unnatural way to make music. How you hear yourself and each other will make or break the session. There are different ways to record. You can record everything separately but the disadvantage to this method is time and it also makes it pretty difficult to end songs and it also makes musical interplay an impossibility. Recording everything separately also takes a lot of time. If the tracks for type of music that you create are best recorded separately, you might want to consider going for the "do it yourself at home" method discussed earlier. The type of music that I mostly write requires, at least everything but the vocal track, to be recorded simultaneously. I used to like to be in the room with my amp and watch the other guys through the window but lately I have been playing in the same room with the bassist and drummer and run a line to my amp in a separate location. To make up for the lack of sustain I crank up the amp really loud and I seem to be able the get the tone I want. The next step is getting the mix right in your headphones. If you screw this up, you will be miserable throughout the session so it is best to get this straight right away. There are some engineers who know exactly how to send your sound back to you in your headphones and others that you will have to spell it out a thousand different ways in order to get it sounding right. I have the engineer mix a little delay or reverb on my guitar so I can play things easier. The reverb or delay on your guitar is a temporary thing only for your monitor so don't worry if it is a little to long or short or mixed in a way that you don't think appropriate for your music, you will be able to change it later when you mix the recording. Now you are ready to record.
Play - Now you can start recording. When the engineer or producer give the okay you can play through the tune. The first time is pretty much a rehearsal, now your ready to go. If you have it together, three or four takes may be enough. You then will go back to where the engineer and producer are and listen back to each take through the studio monitors and you can decide with the producer which take is the best. You can also punch-in anything that may not have worked out the way you wanted. Remember this: anything that bugs you a little will bug you a lot after you burn a thousand CDs. So if you hear something that you don't like, punch-in the individual part again or do another take with the band. When you listen back to the take in the mixing room don't let it bother you if your guitar volume is too low or the kick drum is too loud, that will all get fixed during the mixdown. If you are using Pro-Tools the producer may have the engineer fix some timing or pitch problems on the spot. Modern technology has done wonders for the recording process.
Vocals - When I record my own music, I generally record the music first and do the vocal tracks later on. But be careful not to get stuck doing every vocal track on the last day. If you figure that you will sing every song five times and record ten songs, you'll have to sing fifty takes. Sing a couple of songs a day and don't risk injury. As I mentioned before, the producer will pick different sections or each vocal take and edit them together to get one perfect vocal track for each song. He also may fix any pitch or timing problems using the computer. Make sure you have copies of your lyrics for the engineer and producer if you are using one, as I mentioned, they will be marking which individual phrases to glue together to make the final track.
The Mixdown - After the tunes are recorded the engineer and producer start to mix everything. He will add reverb and delay on various parts and EQ things. The producer and engineer might fight about certain things here, if that happens leave for a while and come back later. You are paying the cash so you will give the final okay. Usually getting the first tune mixed down takes a ton of time, maybe three or four hours. After that the next tune will go faster. Every engineer is different. I have seen guys mix a whole CD in several hours and make it sound great and other guys spend a week mixing and have the recording end up sounding like crap. We spent about twenty-four hours mixing "Big Bad Sun."
What to look for - Because the computer is used mostly these days rather than tape, the process is a lot faster. When things were recorded on tape, half your studio time was spent rewinding each take. It may seem trivial but when you record nine or ten songs four or five times each, puch-in solos, separately record the vocal tracks several times each and edit them, you spend an enormous time rewinding tape. Since studio time is expensive definitely pick a digital studio over an analog one. Whether or not you record at home or in a recording studio, there is also one more great advantage to using Pro-Tools. Since it is pretty much standard software for recording, you can send the data out for various purposes. Mastering is one example but also imagine this, you could record your tune and send the data to me, and then I could record in a guitar solo and send it back to you. You could send your data all over the world and have different people record different tracks. Couldn't really do that in the old days. Generally the medium sized studios will charge you on average four of five hundred dollars a day including an engineer. Less if you bring in your own engineer but of course you will need to pay him separately for his time. The big studios will charge you more and may be less interested in the project.
A word on digital recordings - Remember how I was saying that engineers like old crappy outboard gear? Actually there is a pretty good reason for their obsession with these old compressors, limiters and pre-amps. It is because of the new digital revolution. You see, most engineers, especially the ones in their forties, feel the sound of all the digital components plus the SSL board gives off a very cold, sterile sound. To compensate for this they like to use older outboard gear, tubes included to add some warmth back into the mix. I personally buy this argument. The older recordings definitely have a warmer tone but recording in a completely analog studio seems impractical.
Best of both worlds - There are some guys that combine both the "do it yourself at home" and "traditional" methods for spectacular results. Keyboards and sequences are recorded at home, the data brought to the studio, drums, guitars and vocals added, data brought back home, tweaked and tweaked again, etc.. This method is also very cost effective as it reduces your time in the studio.
Mastering - Don't screw up here. You get in the studio, record a great session, mix it down, and add the perfect blend of equalization, reverb, delay and whatnot. Now you have to get it mastered. When you master a CD this is what happens, the data goes to a mastering studio, the mastering engineer will then arrange the songs in the proper order, do fade-outs on the songs he is supposed to, make sure all the songs are the same level, EQ the whole thing, compress the music so there is no jagged edges sticking out, and raise the general volume. He basically makes it easy to listen to. My general rule of thumb is that I never let the engineer who mixed the music master it. It is a whole different thing and it is best to let someone who listening with fresh ears to master it. Mastering takes four to eight hours and costs between four hundred to a grand depending on the mastering studio and amount of songs that need to be mastered. I would suggest you wait at least a week to master your CD. You should listen to it a bunch of times in different stereo systems before to make sure you like the mix first. Studio monitors sound great so don't let them fool you, compare it to some other CDs at home in the same stereo that you always listen to.
Is it worth it? - I would guestimate that five days in the studio, with an engineer, including the mixdown will set you back about five or six grand depending on what studio, what engineer and producer you use. Lets see here, fifteen dollars per CD multiplied by one thousand CDs equals fifteen thousand dollars, which in turn will make you ten thousand dollars in profit. If you sell them all you can re-press another thousand. Lets say the whole thing costs you five thousand dollars to do, you will need to sell three hundred and thirty three units. If you have four guys in your band, you would each have to sell eighty three CDs each (and you can probably sell more than a few to your own mother). If you can put together a good CD, a website and gigs it is not a tremendous undertaking at all. Imagine if the CD where to hit and you sell ten thousand of them, $150,000! Stranger things have happened.
Whichever recording method works best for you if for you to decide and both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. My final advice is this: it is easier making music than selling it so be not only an artist but also be a businessman. Do the math, homework and all the preparations you need and finally sell enough to make a profit. Let me know how things turn out.
New Yorker Chris Juergensen is long time studio musician and session guitarist currently living and teaching in Japan.
His latest project is "Big Bad Sun", a CD traditional in nature, and contemporary in sound.
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