(Excerpt from the book "Sharing My Song" by Jonathan Goodwin)
I often get asked about how to go about recording and the associated costs. While prices and rates are constantly shifting, below you'll find the typical things needed to execute your recording project successfully. If you're a singer, you probably already know that there are a number of studios who will do packages of various types. They bundle together all the services, throw in the first 1000 CDs and charge a flat price. I am not saying all of those studios are bad, but I am a little wary of that kind of arrangement. Every project should be unique rather than the result of a cookie cutter process that is designed to maximize profits for a studio. I would rather you just buy the services as you need them.
That being said, here are the typical costs:
Yes, you can do a project anywhere including your own home. If you do something like that, you must have GREAT equipment (software, microphone, pre, compressor, reference monitors, etc…) and the engineer has to be very good if you want a good sound. Studios are designed for sound and in general, you should use one.
Studios will rent for anywhere from $600-$4,000 per day on average.
The factors I consider are in this order: equipment (analog console and outboard gear vs. all digital), house instruments (acoustic piano mainly), comfort, price and location.
Why is comfort so important? Because you are going to be spending a lot of intense time there.
For smaller projects with piano and a vocal, you can get by with a cheaper small room. However if you plan to have a 6-7 piece band, brass / strings or full orchestration, you’re going to need one of the larger rooms in town that can accommodate the amount of outboard gear, inputs, and HD software to handle the flow of the session.
To hire a producer, you can’t just go about it by googling “best producer that’s cheap!”
You must find the sound / artist you feel most connected too. Find out who produced their project. Who played on their project. What studios were utilized in the making of the record. If you can’t find out these things (or just don’t want to do the homework) then at minimum ask your potential producer who he plans to use for your particular project to capture the sound that will most exemplify who you are as an artist. When he throws out a name “Joe Smith” is playing keys for you....ask him, “Who has Joe played for? What is it about Joe that made you choose him for MY project?” These are important questions and a conversation that your Producer WANTS to have with you if they are an honest person and ingenious in their work. Most producers will either charge one set price in accordance to how in-depth your project is. These prices can range from $500 - $500,000 depending on the Producer, their accomplishments and abilities, and demand. Other producers (typically new / young producers) will ask that their expenses be covered (travel, food & accommodations) during the production while agreeing to be paid on the ‘back-end’ of the project through points / percentage of sales and streams. As with anything in life, you get what you pay for. At the very least, find a producer that has a personal relationship with musicians, studios, engineers, and artist that will advance your project and ultimately your career. You need someone that can arrange, write songs, read and write number charts. Another thing that I have found to be CRUCIAL is that you find a producer that can (and has at some point) walked their way up the ladder. What I mean by that is (in my opinion) you shouldn’t be producing a recording project if you can’t play an instrument, can’t hear harmony parts, can’t engineer, or don’t understand outboard gear (often even a patchbay!) Before I ever produced a project from the ground up, I spent countless hours and YEARS playing multiple instruments on projects, engineering for every size session imaginable, building multiple studios from the ground up (wiring, sound proofing, etc..) and mixing, editing, etc…. THIS is what creates “good ears” on a producer. That is a talent that can’t be bought or taught. It ONLY comes through experience.
To hire an engineer to actually record a session in a studio runs about $600-$1,500 per day. For that price, you can hire the very best engineers in Nashville. And if you have a complex project, you need a very good engineer. A slow engineer will cost you a small fortune in musician pay. In my early years of production, I used interns and very cheap engineers because I thought it was the easiest of tasks in recording (clicking a mouse and starting or stopping the track..right?) wrong. I have had to go back and RE-PAY singers / musicians and RE-RECORD tracks that were already finished because the engineer had the input setting too high / too low, the EQ was wrong, the signal was sketchy, or countless other reasons that a GREAT engineer would’ve caught.
ARRANGING / ORCHESTRATION
In my case, I arrange and write orchestration. However many producers don’t. If you do not write your own music, you will have to pay someone to arrange for you. This can cost anywhere from around $300-$3,000 per song depending on what you need. Years ago before I began writing myself, I paid around $1000 per song for my big orchestration songs.
Professional musicians in Nashville are typically unionized with set rates. Musicians can be expensive but professionals nail the songs quickly. Don’t ever fall into the trap of hiring musicians just on price. A $100 per hour musician may take three times as long to record a song as an $200 per hour musician.
Even though it may be tempting, don’t try to save money by using your friends as your studio musicians unless they have REAL studio experience. Regardless of how good they are, they are likely to have problems in the studio where every note counts. One musician that isn’t use to that pressure may slow everything down and cost you a lot of money.
Hiring musicians in a town like Nashville is easy if you go through the union or a contractor. You just tell him/her what instruments you need and they all show up on the day you need them. The contractor obviously charges a fee for this but it is certainly unnecessary if you have a competent producer. If you are self-producing your project (another bad idea) then you may want to go this route. However in the long run, getting one musician that doesn’t fit your style can cost you time, money, and disappointment in the long run. For me, I like to budget two - three full days (3-3 hour sessions) in the studio for music tracking. You may need more or less time, but I need at least two full days to be able to create with the musicians and find the sound that we are looking for on every single song. On projects with a more restricted budget / self-funded by the artist, we have made it work with cutting all of the songs in one day…but this is nearly impossible and robbery to evolution of the songs in my opinion.
A simple song might use 1-4 musicians but a big orchestration can take 30-40 musicians. And in Nashville, with professionals….every musician expects to be paid. It’s how they eat! Make sure you are thinking in dollars. Four musicians may cost you $400 per hour hour and forty will cost you $4,000 per hour. The dollars add up very fast and you can see how important it becomes for everybody to be competent and efficient. In Nashville, time is money.
Working with professional musicians can be intimidating but you will almost certainly enjoy the experience. To meet professionals that played on your favorite recording and now they’re playing on YOURS is always an amazing experience and thrill to the artist. You’ll find that they almost always want to do a great job for you.
Mixing is the process where all the instruments/voices are balanced against each other. It is extremely important and you want a professional doing it. I (at the very least) sit in on the mixing of every project I produce. I have about 4-5 people that I call to mix my projects depending on the overall budget. These are professionals that literally mix projects for a living. They spend their days mixing and they understand plug-ins, tone and timber of a vocal, how to bring out the best in every song, how to make a snare drum punch and a kick drum boom in your chest. For a bigger project, it will cost anywhere from $800 - $2,500 per song (depending on details of the project). For a smaller and simpler project, you can find great mixing engineers for $500 - $100 per song. But again, don’t cut corners here. The mix of your project is crucial to it’s success.
While mixing involves balancing instruments against each other within a song, mastering refers to balancing the songs on a project against each other to get the levels (volume) right. This process (like everything else) can be determined by the overall budget of the project. However there is a big difference in someone (for example) using a great analog console or a SADiE Disk Editor and Master pack to give your project the final polishing touches as compared to someone just mastering your project digitally within pro-tools by using a plug-in. This process can cost anywhere from $150 - $1,500 per song depending on the mastering engineer you use. The process should also be determined by what format you want your project upon completion (high-resolution audio formats for iTunes and other digital distributors up to 192kHz/24-bit) You may think that the typical ear would never know the difference…but the reality is, even someone that is not musical at all can hear the polished finish on a project and feel that extra “umph” that great mastering renders.
A basic CD cover design might cost anywhere from $500-$5,000. If your budget permits, find a designer that “gets you” and understands / envisions what you’re trying to say musically. I have always said, the look of a project can bait a sale as fast (or sometimes faster) than hearing it!
For songs that are not public domain, you need a mechanical license.