Top 5 tips for producing an album on a budget
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
No matter how big or small the band is, too many musicians arrive at the studio under-prepared for the physical and psychological gauntlet that they have to endure during the recording process. How many times do we have to be disappointed with the end product to realise that the blame is maybe due to the songwriting, performance or musicianship?. You can avoid the common pitfalls by working out what you are looking to achieve and by having a clear plan.
(1.) Invest in a recording set up
There are no excuses! We’re happy to spend our hard earned cash (or from the bank of mum and dad) on accessories such as mobile phones, fashion, games console, nights out and holidays but we’re not willing to sacrifice a little and buy ourselves a laptop, interface and a microphone.
In fact, music shops couldn’t make it any easier to give you interest free finance. This is where the fun begins! I would start with a Universal Audio Arrow, Sontronics STC-2 mic and an Apple Macbook Pro. Add a recording software (Digital Audio Workstation), cable and a pair of headphones and you’re on your way. Before you consider going into a studio you should be demoing at home for weeks, if not months, in advance.
So you’ve written your songs, demoed them on your laptop and practiced in rehearsals. Are you ready for the studio? The answer is: Not yet.
I spend a lot of time with bands during this important part of the process looking for ways of improving the song – whether it’s the arrangement, tempo, tone, parts and also feel. Understanding what felt good is crucial so it transfers across into the final version.
Most of the time we work it out in a rehearsal room or we sometimes go back and re-record parts on the demo. Be critically honest to yourself. For example, if you couldn’t perform the song competently from start to finish then you’re not ready. Don’t be afraid to re-build the song again from the ground up. I know it’s arduous, but time in the studio is a luxury.
(3.) DIY at home
You know all that lovely gear you have purchased to get you started (see point 1 above)? Well, the technology that is condensed into a tiny box is now at a pro-studio standard. I’m not kidding. I’ve worked on a number of label releases where it’s the same recording chain used at home and we ended up using the vocals or certain elements from the demo because it sounded good. We never felt the sonic quality was tangible enough to retract from the listening experience – what’s more important was the performance captured!.
Back in my own band days I would spend a lot time prepping my song templates before going into the studio. This means, all the tempos are set with all the guide instruments recorded (including vocals) and all we had to do was record a sonically better version of the same parts. This will save you hours and buy you the opportunity to get creative on some ear candy. You know all those romantic stories you’ve read where Producer X forced the drummer to set up a drum kit on the roof to get the perfect sound… The fun part!
(4.) Be realistic
We all love larger than life sounding records. It’s part of the reason why we fell in love with music, and you asked yourself how did they do that?. I want to sound that big! But let’s be realistic. Those records take a lot of time, skill and resources to make, but it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve success.
Focus on the writing and nailing the performance. What’s more important is the ability to make your song resonate with the audience. Put your hand on your heart and can you say, “Did I put everything into the song and did my absolute best?” “Is it conveying what I’m trying to say?” A great song is a great song and a great performance will bring it home – no matter how or where it was recorded.
(5.) The Mix
I remember back in the day when I started my band and bought my first humble recording set up. I thought this is it; I can finally make my own record, send it out to labels, upload it online and everyone’s going to love it. Wrong.
I went through the above process and it wasn’t sounding close to a finished product. It had no punch, energy, and the balance was all over the shop. I had a go mixing, but it opened a whole new can of worms. I didn’t know where to start on getting this to sound like the records I grew up with.
It dawned on me that I needed someone with; experience of mixing albums on a daily basis, who understood the dark art and is able to translate what was intended onto a pair of speakers. I got obsessed and started my search for a Mix engineer, listened to albums that were in a similar genre and worked out who was the mixer from reading album liner notes. I contacted a few engineers and attached a link to a couple of songs I had done. Establishing a mutual respect and understanding here is key. If he or she feels excitement in the songs, they will be able to put their heart and soul into it.
There are plenty of mixers out there and don’t dismiss someone who is local and relatively new to the art. Have a conversation and start with a song. If it works, then take it from there. Again, be realistic – a mixer can only work with the material given!. If you’ve done your job as musician, then you’re 75% of the way there.
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