There’s a myth being perpetuated these days that recording costs are approaching zero.
For example, in his popular article “Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists” David Byrne states:
Artists used to need the labels to bankroll their recordings. Most simply didn’t have the $15,000 (minimum) necessary to rent a professional studio and pay an engineer and a producer. For many artists — maybe even most — this is no longer the case. Now an album can be made on the same laptop you use to check email.
That last sentence sure sounds exciting, and I’ve read similar statements by other people. But it isn’t really true.
I think it’s fair to say that most musicians today could make a decent demo-quality recording themselves for a negligible amount of money. But to suggest that most artists can create a professional quality, commercially viable recording at almost no cost is misleading. Making a great recording that can capture people’s attention in a very competitive music environment still requires a reasonable investment of money and time.
Digital technology has certainly given artists unprecedented access to most of the hardware and software they need to record and produce music. These days you do not need label money just to access recording equipment. But let’s be clear on one point: your favorite artists are not churning out finished albums solely from the laptops they use to check email. You should not expect to either. Depending on the type of music, an investment of $5,000 to $20,000 will buy most musicians a very capable home studio. Over time, you will probably need (or want) to buy additional hardware and software for your studio, but $5k - $20k should do the trick to start. In the scheme of things, that’s a pretty modest investment and well within reach of the average person.
Of course, the tools themselves are just part of the story. How you use them is just as important, if not more so.
Creating recorded music is an art in and of itself. I’ve heard many indie acts that sound absolutely incredible live, but whose albums fail to capture the magic they produce on stage. Despite having excellent songs and phenomenal musical talent, their recorded music falls a bit flat. I’m not referring to cases where something is obviously wrong with the musical performances or the recording technique. I’m talking about albums where everything sounds well done, but ultimately it doesn’t move you or excite you or grab you as a listener. Why does this happen? I think it can usually be attributed to shortcomings in one or more of the following areas:
Engineering/tracking. Where you place microphones, the volume of your instruments, the size and shape of your room, the combination of gear you use and the order of your signal chain will affect the sound of each instrument you record. Good engineers understand each of these factors and are able to get the best results out of the equipment and recording environment at hand. Seemingly slight differences in the tone and character of each sound you capture can have a big impact on how the recording sounds overall.
Production. A producer is essentially the creative director for a recording. Producing involves determining the musical arrangement of each song; deciding what elements are needed at each moment in a song; deciding when particular elements need to be re-recorded, re-worked or eliminated; and coaxing the best performances possible out of each musician. It may also involve digitally editing the performances of certain instruments as needed. Arrangements that are too cluttered, combinations of instruments/sounds that sonically interfere with each other, arrangements that fail to emphasize the strengths of the artist, or elements of the track being slightly out of sync with each other can all cause a recording to fall short.
Mixing. Mixing involves two main tasks: balancing the relative volume of each instrument in the song appropriately, and adjusting the frequencies and panning of individual instruments so that they each sit in their own sonic space without interfering with each other. The differences between a mediocre mix, a good mix and a great mix can appear subtle to the untrained ear. But the quality of your mix will greatly influence how listeners psychologically perceive and respond to your music.
Mastering. This is the final step in the recording process. Mastering involves adjusting the overall EQ, compression and volume of each song. The goal of mastering is to not only make each song sound as good as possible on its own, but also to make sure all the songs on an album sound consistent in terms of volume and sonic character. High-quality mastering typically requires a perfectly tuned room, specialized high-end equipment and an experienced mastering engineer. A good mastering job can be the difference between an album that sounds amazing and one that sounds dull, harsh, or unexciting.
If you really want your recordings to be on par with the pros, all of the above tasks must be done well. And doing them well typically requires years of practice and experience. So if you or your bandmates don’t have experience yourself in any one of these areas, you’ll need to find people who do. At the very least, you’ll probably need to hire a legitimate mastering engineer. (Don’t be fooled by “auto-mastering” software or producers/mixers who claim they can master your project too – mastering is a very specialized skill that few people can do well.)
Hiring good engineers, producers, mixers or mastering engineers doesn’t necessarily require outrageous sums of money… but it’s not zero. It’s difficult to say generally what these services will cost, because they vary widely depending on many factors. However, in my experience:
- Mastering will typically run you anywhere from $100 - $500 per track, assuming there are no major problems with your mix.
- Hiring an experienced mixer can cost a couple hundred dollars per song all the way up to several thousand dollars per song.
- Engineer and producer fees vary quite a bit, but they can easily add up to several thousand dollars or more for an entire album.
Has digital technology lowered the costs of recording and created new opportunities for independent artists? Absolutely. But if you are serious about your music and your career, you still have to do some spending in both cash to buy equipment and/or hire professional help, and in sweat to develop your own engineering, producing or mixing skills over time. It will be very hard to survive as a professional artist if you don’t.