The amount of hours you spend in the studio recording and mixing are dependent upon many things. While I don’t think studio engineers are attempting to be dishonest about the time you will have to book, I’ve yet to be involved in a recording project that didn’t go well beyond what both the engineer and the band initially anticipated. The following is an honest and realistic look at the many things you will need to consider before planning your sessions. Consider each topic carefully as it will help you to get the most out of your recording time. I am assuming in this post that you are aiming or quality recording, and not simply demos.
While there are several ways for a band to lay down the initial song tracks, the tried and true method (also most commonly used) is by starting with recording the rhythm tracks – bass, drums, rhythm guitars (and keys if you have them). Proceeding in this fashion, these are the questions you will need to consider:
How Many Takes Will Each Song Take?
How rehearsed is your band? Can you put down your rhythm tracks in 1 or 2 takes? Most bands will rehearse until they believe they can do so, and enter the studio with the hopes that it will amount to approximately 10 minutes per rhythm track, but it doesn’t work that way. It in fact usually averages closer to an hour minimum per song, unless you’re recording demos, where “good enough” will do. The reason for the added time is that what people generally like to do is record a take, and then listen back. That means taking off the headphones, going into the recording booth, fiddling with a quick mix, listening, and then deciding whether or not to do it again. It’s a good idea to have at least 2 good takes, so even if happy with the first (which is a rare occurrence), you will have to go back to your instruments, recheck all tunings, and have another go at it.
Time will also need to be allotted for the inevitable flubs and restarts. Even the most practiced bands I’ve recorded with have had to restart tunes more than once. Good news is that not everyone needs to play perfectly. Bad news is, the drummer does. Guitars and keyboards can be easily overdubbed and fixed if someone screws up. Drums are a lot more difficult. It usually takes less time to rerecord an entire song than to try to successfully punch in a drumming mishap. Make sure your drummer knows what they’re doing!
Are the Drums Set Up and Miked?
Does the studio already have drums setup and miked, or will you be bringing your own drums? If the studio is already equipped and your drummer is not insistent about playing on his/her own kit, this step can save hours. I’ve never seen drums set up and miked in less than 2 hours, and if you’re shooting for specific sounds and a top notch recording, this can take much more time than that. If you’re bringing your own drums, I’d allot at least 3 hours setup time to be safe. If your engineer is experienced, the other instruments can be hooked up quickly, usually in less than an hour.
How Much Will Be Overdubbed?
Most recordings call for at least a 2nd guitar track to thicken things up, overdubbed solos, and other instrumentation to add color and depth. The time you put into this is entirely up to you. Again, how rehearsed are the musicians? Can they bang out a solo in 1 take, or will it take 50 before they’re happy? Will you be adding synths or extra keys? Do you know exactly what you’ll be adding and what sounds you’ll be using? Many like to experiment on the spot, as the studio is an incredibly inspiring place. How much time do you want to put into this?
You also need to allow time for overdubbing mistakes on the rhythm tracks. Chances are the guitar and bass tracks will have a few spots the musicians feel they can tighten up. This can usually be done quickly, but depends on the experience of the engineer and player. Experienced people will take less than 5-10 minutes per punch, depending upon the complexity of the part.
How Good is Your Drummer?
While I’m a huge fan of going old school and playing without a click, most engineers since the dawn of digital recording will do their best to convince you to record to a click track. I’m beginning to see the light. Recording to a click makes the editing process a breeze, and enables many things that would otherwise be impossible. If you’ve recorded a perfect harmony part that comes up 4 times in a song, there’s no need to record it 4 times. You can save hours by just cutting and pasting your first take to the other 3 areas you want them. You can even do that with entire sections of the song, IF you recorded the original tracks to a click.
The next question then becomes, can your drummer play to a click? Drummers who have been trained to practice with metronomes can usually do this with no problem. Others might find it next to impossible. Know before going into the studio where your drummer is at. Understand also that what your drummer may be able to pull off live because of charisma or performance skills – will not cut it in the studio. Their playing will be put under a microscope and any inconsistencies will become clear. Especially when the bass needs to be locking in with the drums. Even a simple 16 bar 8th note groove can become a nightmare if your drummer has timing and groove issues. If this is the case, and you’re serious about your music, consider having someone fill in for them in the studio. They may be great live and you may want to hang onto them for many reasons, but a bad drummer can become very expensive in the studio.
How Long Will the Vocals Take?
Some singers can nail it in one take. Some take days. How particular are you? Does your singer have pitch problems? If so, they can be fixed in the mix thanks to the many available tools. But even with the best software, this can get time consuming. It’s a good idea to do some rehearsal recordings in your practice space where you can hear the vocals clearly, and then be honest in your assessment. It’s easy to be in denial about a singer’s shortcomings because they can often make up for it with a little bit of stage presence. That won’t however be seen on the recording, and as with drums, the vocal imperfections will be magnified. Assess where you’re at with that, put in the practice necessary, and be honest with yourself regarding how much time you will be putting in here.
The same goes for all backing vocals. Do you know clearly what you want to do and are you well-rehearsed? Many people get inspired and create backing vocals while in the studio. If that’s part of your plan, it’s another thing you need to take into your time considerations.
How Much Time Do I Allow For Mixing?
As with the entire recording process, the amount of time allotted for mixing has ALWAYS been underestimated in all my recording experiences. In the most money conscious projects, bands and engineers will generally agree to an hour per song. While not impossible, it’s also not likely. If budget permits, and you’re working with an experienced engineer, a good mix will usually take between 3 – 8 hrs. You will also need to take the mix home, give your ears a rest, and then listen to it on your favorite system (preferably 2 or more systems actually), and then bring it back to the studio for tweaks. I know this isn’t welcome news, but it’s reality. It’s a good idea to also have an objective, yet trustworthy additional set of ears listen to the mix. It’s not uncommon to hear a song so many times that it becomes impossible to remain objective. 2 weeks after a final mix you may find yourself wondering why you didn’t notice that the snare drum was blaring. I can’t stress the importance of never considering your mix complete until you’ve walked away from it for a day, and taken it to other places to have a listen.
Now that we’ve got it all covered, let’s put it all together and simplify. Though you will need to consider the additional information above…
Setup: 1 – 6 hours dependent upon the drum situation.
Rhythm tracks: 1 – 2 hours per song.
Overdubs: 1 hour minimum per song depending on how many parts need to be dubbed, and the efficiency of the musicians.
Vocals: 1 hour minimum, dependent upon singer’s efficiency. Add an additional hour minimum for backing vocals.
Mixing: 3 – 8 hours per song.
I urge you to be as honest with yourself and your band situation as possible, use the above guide, and then add an additional hour to each song to be safe. It will ensure a realistic picture with which to plan your budget and recording time wisely.