Budgeting - Quality over Quantity

Through my 20+ years of experience as a producer, recording studio owner, engineer, arranger and studio musician, there is one constant that seems to stand the test of time- studio clients, especially less experienced ones, have their priorities backwards with respect to how to best utilize their budget when recording.  If I had a $100 for every time a client came into my studio with $500 or a $1000 to spend and then proceeded to tell me they want to record a 5-8 song demo or EP, I would have a brand new Neve console at the front of my studio ;-)  The fact is, most musicians, until they have become studio veterans, are too concerned with quantity rather than quality...  

For simplicity sake, lets focus on the typical 'booking demo'.  Your new band is finally ready to get out of the garage, start booking their first shows and get some airplay on some local music shows, online radio etc and you've collectively saved up say $600 to spend on a first demo.  First mistake- 'well each of our songs is 4 minutes long, so we should easily be able to bang out 6 or 7 tunes and then keep the best 5.  We'll have a killer demo AND be able to sell an EP at our shows'.  Fact is, at the most basic level, it takes at least 1 hour in the studio to create 1 minute of decent quality music.  You have to factor in everything from setup (mic placement, sound check, individual headphone mixes, etc), through the recording of basic tracks (warm up run-through, perform the song, walk into the control room to listen back, head back to the live room and re-tune, perform take 2, listen back, argue with your band-mates about if the tempo was right or not, take a pee/smoke break, re-tune then record take 3, listen down and then repeat for every tune), recording of overdubs (fix that minor chord that should have been a major, add lead guitar tracks, final vocals, background vocals, add some cowbell, etc), mix down each track (set EQ, compression, reverb, special FX for EVERY track while determining the proper level and stereo placement for each) and then master the final mixes (give the track its ultimate punch, clarity and consistency in differing listening environments from studio, to car, to stereo to ear bud).  Lots of steps you didn't consider, right?  

A great estimator is to divide your total budget for the recording (in this case $600 for a demo) by the hourly rate of the studio. Lets say the studio's rate is $50 per hour.  That means your budget allows for 12 hours of recording studio time (or 10-11 hours plus sales tax and a couple of CDs).  Using the 1 hour in the studio for 1 minute of final recorded product, that means you can likely record (3) 4 minute tunes and should expect a decent quality demo...  

Another great estimator of your studio time is to break down your total number of hours in the studio into 3 equal parts.  Intend on spending 1/3 of your time on basic tracking (recording of the live band- drums, bass, guitar, keys, scratch lead vocal, etc), 1/3 of your time on overdubs (repairs to basic tracks, Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Solos, Percussion, etc) and then the final 1/3 of your time on the mixing and mastering.  In our 12 hour demo scenario, that means 4 hours of basic tracks, 4 hours of overdubs and 4 hours for mixing.  Don't fall into the trap of spending 6 hours on tracking, 5 hours on overdubs and then being left with 1 hour to mix and master.  By doing so you're cheating yourself out of what is likely the second most important part of your recording- the mix down (I consider capturing an inspired performance of the basic track/lead vocal to be #1).  If you've chosen your studio and producer wisely, the mix should be as artistically creative to the completion of the song as the performance- drawing the listener in deeper while holding and focusing their attention to all of the greatness you performed...

As you can see, its vital that you're realistic with your budget and where its best spent.  If what you need is a booking demo, only plan on recording 2 or 3 songs.  No booking agent or club owner is going to take the time to listen to more than that.  They'll likely listen to the first 30 seconds/minute of the first song (aka avoid the 1 minute intro on a demo).  If they like it, they'll listen to the second track.  If they love both songs, you got the gig.  If they like one, but are still on the fence after listening to the second, maybe they'll listen to the third.  If they want to hear more than three songs, they'll be doing so when your on stage in the venue (or in their car once they bought your full length album).

If you're intent on recording an album or EP, make sure you have the budget to do so.  A demo is meant to highlight the band.  An EP or album should also highlight the song.  Respect your song by properly producing it- elaborate intros/segues, extra rhythm guitar parts, harmony vocals, percussion, sound fx and added instrumentation not a part of your live lineup.  There should be a variation between your live performance and the production value of your album.  True live music enthusiasts rarely want to hear an exact reproduction of what they hear on your album or download.  If so, why spend money to see ya live, when they can just jam out to ya in their ear buds while they're running on the treadmill?  The production should take the song to a higher level.  That doesn't mean its 'over' produced, that means its properly produced.  If a song is 'over' produced, that simply means you chose the wrong producer. I'll address this further in another tutorial/blog (or feel free to message me with questions regarding selection of a producer).

If you have a limited budget, consider starting with a well produced EP then record additional tracks later to create the full length album.  For the most part, today's industry is about the single/download.  As a result, bands record and EP/album so they can release songs over time while having a larger product to sell (online or at shows).  You'll never regret investing in quality.  Any recording is a snap shot in time and you should always be able to listen back years later and be proud of the accomplishment, even if you've become a better performer or writer.  If you focus on quantity, I can almost guaranty you'll someday listen back and start making excuses for why you're no longer pleased with the recording.  

Quality versus Quantity- Quality always wins!

  • Review by Samu Puuronen

    Good points here.

  • Default-avatarby Justin Metz

    Rodrigo- my estimator of 1 hour for one minute in the studio is for a traditional “live band/artist” scenario when you’re performing tracks live with rehearsed musicians. If your tracking one instrument at a time (house, techno, ‘beat making’, soundscapes etc) that equation likely won’t work, because you are also often creating and arranging at the same time.

  • Default-avatarby Ricardo Neves

    Something worth to focus on might be to try to keep a balance between quality and quantity. You can for example aim for a 49/51 ratio with your focus moving more towards quality in one day/week and then flipping that over by focusing a little bit more on quantity the next day/week (this way you can balance or counterbalance the two).

  • Hi
    What about electronic music, that almost everything done in a Box, . What about the ratios you present. 1 hour = 1 minute ? , 1/3 to mixing and mastering ?


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