We get this question a lot. It’s not a stupid question, it’s just an impossible one to answer precisely. There are many factors that come into play when budgeting how many days you’ll need to see a project from start to finish. Here are you a few that you may use to determine how long you will need:
1. How creative do you want the engineer/producer to be?
Undeniably, it’s a lot of fun to experiment on other people’s dimes. Of course, we don’t go that route unless we feel like our clients want us to, so it is up to you to set the tone for how crazy or how conservative you want the session to run. We may spend an extra ten minutes and find some sounds that have never been heard, or we may spend an hour and decide to scrap everything ’cause it sounds like doo-doo. That risk is yours to take, so calculate in a little extra time if you want to live on the edge.
2. How well-rehearsed are you?
No matter what style of music you play, the better everyone knows the material the faster the session will go. This seems silly to point out, but we sit through a lot of band rehearsals that probably should have happened at the practice space the day before. The only benefits of rehearsing in the studio are: 1) it lets the instruments settle into the new space a little, and 2) it gives us extra time to dial in sounds. But a few takes of one song is usually sufficient for that, not starting from scratch on every song. Your money would be better spent paying the musicians to rehearse, if that’s what it takes.
3. How much of a perfectionist are you?
No matter how well-rehearsed the band is, with limited studio time everybody has to know when to say when. The better you are at understanding the limitations of your musicians and yourself the faster things will move. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all strive for the best performances we can give, but sometimes the drummer just isn’t gonna be able to play the chorus without speeding up, and it’s time to move on.
4. How long will overdubs take?
The process of overdubbing instruments once the basic tracks are down has its own quirks that can lengthen a session considerably. The most important thing is to know which takes you want to use of each song before you start adding tracks willy-nilly! This generally means taking a little time between the tracking and overdub sessions, in order to listen to rough mixes (see #6 below).
5. How long will vocals take?
Vocals are the hardest thing to estimate, because you never know when the human voice will just give out. Some singers blow their voice after a few songs, and some can make it through an album’s worth of material in one session. If your singer can only pull off a few songs at a time, plan on interspersing vocal takes throughout a day of instrumental overdubs. If you think they can nail it all in one go, a block of time just for vocals is often preferable from a technical standpoint. Allow a little extra time for comping (compositing different takes into one master vocal track) if you think it will be necessary. Also allow extra time if you want different vocal sounds for different songs.
6. Do you want to leave the tracking/overdub session with rough mixes?
A lot of people’s answer to this question will be yes, but it’s always surprising to me that bands don’t realize that this takes time! Sometimes it is practical to run rough mixes while doing the initial tracking, saving the time it takes to do the mixes at the end of the day, but in most scenarios the task is better left for later, especially if any overdubs are being done the same day. In any case, make sure you let your engineer know ahead of time if you’ll be expecting to leave that day with roughs.
7. How long does it take to set things up?
Getting a great drum sound usually takes around two hours from the start time of the session. It can take less if we get lucky, it can take more if you really want a super-duper or specialized sound, but I’d say in general two hours is the average. Bass generally takes fifteen minutes or so, unless you’re just going direct. Then it takes about two minutes. (We generally prefer to run bass through an amp.) Guitars maybe a half-hour each, and if you are doing live vocals budget another half-hour or so. Obviously the more instruments, or the more particular you are about your sounds, the longer the setup will take. In general, the more you let us know about how you’d like to be physically set up and what kinds of sounds you like at the beginning of (or prior to) the session, the more smoothly setup will run. Bringing in reference CDs of bands you like can sometimes help us get an idea of what you’re going for, although the perfect matching of sounds is, as a rule, pretty impossible.
8. Is clean-up time included in my ten-hour day?
Definitely. If your session runs until 10 PM, for instance, that means the engineer should be locking the doors at 10. There are some exceptions now and then, but our engineers do reserve the right to ask for overtime pay once the clock hits 10 hours (from the scheduled start of the session, not when the band actually arrives). If you are really nice to your engineer or a repeat customer, a little bit of overtime here or there will probably be overlooked unless it starts becoming habitual. Please keep in mind that 10 hours already makes for a long day , and chances are your engineer has had a number of them that week already. Bottom line, budget the cleanup time into your scheduling. This applies the most to tracking days but it does take some time to clean up after overdubs and mixing as well. When in doubt, ask your engineer. Nicely.
9. Analog is not necessarily more expensive than digital.
Tape costs are certainly high (and getting higher). In my experience, however, that cost is usually offset by the limitations that working in analog imposes upon the session. The lack of editing capabilities, the lack of near-endless plug-ins to try out, and the energy gained by not staring at a computer screen all day make the analog tracking session a lot more efficient, not to mention a hell of a lot more pleasant. The fact that you can’t keep all eight takes you played means less listening time later. The fact that everyone has to play their parts right at least once means no moving snare drum hits around later. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoy a lot about working in Pro Tools, but I am not convinced that it is always a more efficient way to work, especially once micro-editing begins. I think our clients who record to analog often have a faster, more pleasant experience, which more than makes up for skyrocketing tape costs. (P.S. We often have “studio reels” available which we rent to our clients for a session at a great price.)
10. Don’t forget the mix.
A lot of bands forget that it takes time to mix the songs, sometimes as much time or more than it took to record the stuff. Depending on the complexity of the music and the level of quality desired (more is usually more when it comes to mixing!), it can take anywhere from two hours to a whole ten-hour day to mix each song. The only remedy for this is to record straight to two-track, which very few bands (think small jazz combos) can pull off. If we’re transferring to Pro Tools to mix, allow time for the transfer (the length of the material plus a short setup time).
11. OK, OK, I get it. There are a lot of factors. Now how long will it really take?.
Some bands can track four to six songs in a ten-hour day, including setup. (Unless that band is XBXRX, then they can track fifteen songs in one day.) Other bands might make it through one or two. If you want to do a bunch of overdubs, plan a day or two just for that. And for the mix, the average is between two and four songs per ten-hour day (although we LOVE to have a full day for each song, budget allowing). That means the average full-length record is going to take around five to seven days to make, adding up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2200-3200 at our studio. You can do it spending less, to be sure, but that’s probably a good number to save up for, although if you’ve got some extra cash to throw in you might be happier with your record in the long run. But don’t forget to save some of your dough for mastering…