So, you’ve found yourself in the producer role. Maybe a client handed you a check and said, “figure out how to make this record happen for me on this budget.” Perhaps, you have your own opus you want to bring from the demo stages to the polished light of day.
Whatever the case, you, oh nascent producer, might be in for a bit of surprise: It isn’t just programming a track and uploading it straight to SoundCloud. No, there’s a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous that go into budgeting both time and money for a whole production. We’re going to get into some of them here.
While home studio production works well for many of the budget-conscious among us, if you choose to go the professional studio route for production, mixing, and mastering, let this be your guide.
1. Keep the “2 out of 3” triangle in mind
An illustrative axiom extending across all creative businesses, the “2 out of 3 triangle” is an exemplar when budgeting time and money: fast, cheap, and good—and you only get two out of three.
When considering the budget, picture the triangle as a sort of matrix; moving towards any two points pushes you farther away from the third. You can have fast and cheap, but it won’t tend to be good. And so on.
If the production is your own, created for your purposes, and serves only your needs, aim for good and cheap while sacrificing fast. If you’re producing for a client, try to aim for fast and good, but charge them more for the trouble. You go for all three at your peril.
But how do you achieve fast and good? Some of these will be covered more in depth, but here’s a quick rundown:
Hire musicians that will deliver the goods on take one, two, or three
Rehearse these musicians well beforehand (with music provided to them in sheet music, charts, or demos in advance)
Hire a studio with a proven track recorded of getting good sounds quickly without technical difficulty
Make sure this studio has excellent backup gear should any instrument fail
Hire your own intern for the day to run errands, make copies, and acquire meals
Feed the musicians in-house during breaks
Hire a mixing engineer who is estimable in the genre you’ve selected
Ditto with mastering engineer
All of the above will cost money, and lots of it. However, you’ll achieve amazing results—having produced a $10,000 project, in this manner, I was able to cut 10 rhythm tracks with a four-piece live band in around 10 hours.
2. Ask peers what similar projects have cost them
Don’t be shy here. Your first real indication of how much/how long things take comes from thoroughly vetting your forebears. Whether you’re putting together a big band for a Christmas album or bringing in a drummer to round out your otherwise electronic EP, start by asking your peers to give their accounts of the process, from soup to nuts.
Of course, there will be inevitable differences between projects: You might not be able to play all the instruments that your buddy performed or programmed. Perhaps a friend utilized a friend-rate at an otherwise expensive studio. This is why you ask more than one person and take an average.
But here’s the thing—you can’t go around asking your forebears if you don’t have any forebears to begin with. This tip assumes you have a close enough relationship with your peers to ask them sensitive financial questions. If you don’t, well, you can always post to the Internet, which is a bit like whipping a penny hard into a toilet bowl and hoping only for wishes in return.
3. Suss out best studio for the job
Studios are varied environments, and never more so than now. Some run under the tutelage of a creative genius who takes hours to set up the sounds perfectly; this results in recording maybe one song in a day.
Others are well oiled machines: you provide an input list ahead of time and everything is set up by the time you arrive; the mics, preamps, and routing have been seen to before you even get there. Musicians arrive and plug in; within an hour, you’re ready to start recording.
The trade-off here is the specificity of the sound. The creative genius will tend to achieve maximum vibe, making the mix an easier and quicker affair. The prefab environment, on the other hand, should deliver quality, isolated sounds that you can mix later however you see fit. You might work harder to gain some character though.
Either way, you must avoid the incompetent buffoon who succeeds at neither approach. This is why you call around and ask your peers for the most apposite place for the job. If you’re recording one song, look for that genius. If you’re aiming to record an album’s worth of drums, bass, keys, and guitar in the same day, seek out the prefab studio.
Still, like our last tip, this assumes you have a community of musicians, which brings us to our next point—finding a community of musicians.
4. Have a community of musicians
This is arguably the most important part of budgeting time and money for a production, as you must count on your musicians for a great deal. In addition to all the tasty licks you’ll need laid down, everything from studio recommendations to advice on deliciously quick takeout spots may come from your musicians.
Having a large and varied pool of musicians in your stable ensures that you can keep costs down too, and here’s an example:
As a general rule, a young drummer straight out of jazz school might not be the best person to hire for a calm, sparse country ballad. However, if you need bombast and power behind a particularly busy prog-rock exploration, such a person might be able to deliver in spades—and for a lower cost as well, being fresh out of school and everything.
Knowing players who excel in specific fields also furthers your bona fides as a producer. Someone may come to you and ask for the best gospel musicians you can find for a track, while another individual might ask for a classical cellist to fill out a indie tune. Having hires at your fingertips—and knowing, beforehand, how much they’ll charge you—will help you allocate your budget more effectively.
How do you get yourself a stable of musicians? Go to music clubs and buy your favorite musician of the evening a drink, hard or soft; make friends with them, and make friends with their friends. Generally, just be friendly to everyone you meet who plays music! It takes time, but you can get a good crop of players to count on within a year after moving to a new locale.
5. Feed your musicians
No, this is not a joke. This is an important part of the budget. Why? Two birds, one stone: budgeting for—and thereby controlling—these amenities keeps the session moving efficiently; you don’t have to break for nearly as long when everyone is chowing on takeout in the lounge.
Similarly, you don’t have to put a take on hold because the hungover drummer needs a cup of coffee from Starbucks, or the singer needs to clear the old vocal flaps with expensive water unavailable at present. You just get them their coffee or water (or potentially tea for vocalists, according to GRAMMY-winning engineer Brian Warwick).
Having these amenities on hand greases the session along, saving you ten minutes here, half an hour there, all of it accruing into time better spent playing.
Here’s the second way this bird is slain:
When you provide these amenities to your stable of musicians and engineers, you signal that their needs are important, and consequently, that they are important. You’re inevitably seen as a stand-up individual for doing so, one who takes care of the moving parts. This results in recidivism amongst your peers in the best possible sense of the word, as a musician who is fed well, plied with coffee, and paid on time is one likely to stay in touch with you, and to work with you over and over again.
6. Budget twice as much time as you’d think
I have no idea why everything always seems to take twice as much time as you’d think. Still, upon running this tip by a couple of peers, I was met with vigorous and affirmative head nods.
Here’s my theory: working on your own for a great many years, you develop an accurate understanding of how quickly you can accomplish tasks, and thus, how effectively you can arrive at a deadline.
Add another person into the mix, and you are now coordinating multiple schedules, levels of proficiency, efficiency quotients, and more. Add a bunch of people and the complications grow exponentially.
Whatever the case, if you’re budgeting time and money for a project, and if that project involves you and another person, it’s wise to allocate twice as much time.
For example, you might be able to mix the record yourself, and you know how much time that’ll take. However, you’re recording the EP or song live, with a full band. In this case, budget twice as much time as you’d need for the full band, as more is likely to go sideways whilst tracking.
The worst that’ll happen here is that you’ll have extra studio time, which you can use to accomplish a variety of tasks to serve the project, such as cutting vocals you were leaving for home, or grabbing bespoke drum samples to blend in later during editing if need be (this can be indispensable; I do it often!)
7. Rehearsal saves you money later
If you want to make sure you’re using studio time expeditiously, rehearsing the material beforehand is guaranteed to cut down on studio costs.
A rehearsal room is relatively cheap compared to a recording studio. Here in New York City, you can get away with four hours of rehearsal time for a hundred bucks. The price of the musicians will vary of course: Are you the bandleader with trusted, unpaid followers? Or are you hiring out musicians for the recording of a cast-album to promote a musical?
I’ve been on both sides of this particular equation, but either way, rehearsal saved money down the line. Yes, paying hired musicians to rehearse might cost money, but it will offset the cost of studio time; if you rehearse the music successfully, you’ll be able to record more material in day.
The above is true even for improvisatory groups, as the amount of time spent coordinating a group of musicians—having them learn each other’s pulses and habits—will only lead to a deeper connection the more they play, which leads to fewer takes and more material per day.
8. Remember that perfect is the enemy of good
My buddy Jon Birkholz (of the Baltimore bands Soul Cannon, Super City, and Adjective Animal) illustrated this point perfectly to me. He was working with one of his favorite guitarists, who had laid down a scratch take. Some of the material he played was perfect, but some of it needed to be redone. All of it needed to be doubled.
The studio engineer proceeded to excise the imperfect parts, grabbed the good bits, and flew everything around to build a perfect take. That took five minutes. Next, the guitar player doubled the comped take, nailing it on the first try. That took another five. In less than fifteen minutes, the band had two guitar parts overdubbed, ready to be mixed in the final project.
The takeaway? Learn to know when what you’ve heard is good enough. Don’t exhaust a band (or more importantly, a singer) with take after take in search of one good performance. Just make sure you have enough to cover your bases.
Editing in modern day DAWs is a powerful, cost saving measure, but pen and paper still come in handy: Keep a notepad in front of you and mark down when you’ve heard something in each take you’ll want to use; at the end of three or four takes, see if you have check marks in all the boxes. If you do, chances are you have enough to move on.
Try to pull out and have a big picture of the project during these moments, imagining all the tools available to you when ironing “good enough” takes into a solid, great, emotionally satisfying take.
So the singer was out of tune; do you have RX 6, Nectar 2, or Melodyne? So the timbre of this horn differed a little from an earlier attempt; do you have EQ-matching tools like Ozone 8? So that hit was a little late; do you have any DAW whatsoever and a working knowledge of crossfades?
If you can answer in the affirmative, you’ll be on your way to budgeting time and money more effectively as you go.
9. Do as much pre-production as you can
Before you have a recording date or a rehearsal session on the books, address the preproduction stage to the fullest degree, and you’ll wind up saving money in the long run.
But what is pre-production?
That’s an article in and of itself, but it can be boiled down to two facets: the artistic tasks and the logistical nightmares.
On the artistic side, pre-production involves fleshing out the work to its most understandable point before rehearsal or recording. This changes depending on the project, but it might entail:
Arranging material completely (either with MIDI or real instrumentation, depending on how handy you are)
Writing out legible sheet music for hired musicians
Breaking out any programmed material you plan on using during tracking into separate stems/MIDI files (take the MIDI with you, and you might be able to access the studio’s VI of MIDI instruments for more individuated timbres)
Preparing/programming the actual session in advance, including sudden or gradual tempo changes (if there are any)
Logistical nightmares include:
Researching the proper studio
Researching the proper rehearsal environment
Coordinating schedules among studios and musicians
Arranging transportation where needed
Budgetary breakdowns on a per musician and per song/mix (where applicable)
Obviously, it’s not a nightmare. But it can be—if you don’t put in the time!
I’m sure there are more tasks to list here, but cover these before you step into a rehearsal or recording studio and you’re bound to save money and time.
10. Take on as much of the work as you can yourself
This is a sure way of keeping costs down for your client (or yourself).
If you’re handy with a keyboard, program the loops, drums, basses, keyboard parts, strings, and more for every song. If you’re proficient in virtual instruments, and you’re familiar with principles of arranging, this won’t be much of a stretch for you/
Perhaps you can play guitar as well, in which case it’s not a far cry to say you can play the bass. Borrow a friend’s axe if you don’t have your own and lay down the low-end.
Yes, you do lose something of the spontaneous interplay that occurs among musicians going down this route. But to some extent this can be offset by identifying the least lively, most stale parts of your arrangement and only taking those to the studio. Who knows? Maybe your all-too-simple bass part will be enlivened illimitably by a real drummer in a killer environment. Either way, you're sure to get more bang for your buck if you’re recording complementary instruments rather than the whole shebang.
Maybe the whole thing needs to be played live, by many musicians, but still, taking on the pre-production work in total for the musicians to rehearse and perform will accomplish a similar, streamlined effect.
After tracking, the more you can do on the backend, the more efficiently you can budget. This might not mean mixing—after all; that’s a lifelong art in and of itself—but editing in a DAW is a vital skill, as is arranging a session into the backbone of a mix to hand off.
This could involve printing stems after editing—stems that are clearly labeled and ready to go. Conversely, if you have the Pro Tools or Logic, this could mean building a session for the engineer to work from, though of course they might have their own template and workflow.
If you are a commensurate mix engineer, all the better. Just make sure that at some point in the chain you leave room for another set of ears, which leads us to:
11. Always budget for mastering
It might seem counterintuitive to say this on a platform well-regarded for its mastering tools, but the one place you don’t want to skimp on money in the production process is mastering. The reasons for this have less to do with the person ultimately massaging your tracks into a finished, cohesive project than the fact that there is a person doing this job for you.
If you’re the producer on a project, that means you’re going to be hearing it over and over and over again. You’ll hear it when you program the parts and chart out the arrangements. You’ll hear it in the tracking phases, and then again in editing. If you hire a mixer, you’ll be working with that person to steer the product toward your vision; if you’re mixing it, you’ll be able to hum the various aspects of its arrangement in your sleep.
All of this ensures that you will lose the crucial objectivity needed to make sure the final product works well on every platform and sounds good coming out of every speaker. Cue the mastering engineer, whose very job entails ensuring a balance and working order between all tracks, as well as a delivery that translates to as many playback systems as possible.
The mastering engineer might even provide valuable feedback during the mix, when you simultaneously need objective ears and are in the most danger of losing them. To keep your objectivity in check—and to provide sonic goodness—make sure to budget the services of the best mastering engineer you can afford.
There are other matters to keep in mind, like distribution costs and the financial protections afforded by publishing agreements. But these can be better served in their own piece. For now, keep these 11 tips in mind when you budget your first, second, third, or fourth production, and you’ll be closer to delivering a project everyone can be proud of.