A Producer’s Really Practical Guide To Expensive (Sounding) Record Making – Part 2
Last issue we looked at ways to prepare yourself for the studio recording sessions. This issue we tackle the prickly subjects of budgets, producer fees and written ‘contracts’.
Text: Michael Carpenter
So the plans for your new album are well under way and your focus has turned towards booking that first recording session. Everyone involved has taken a bit of extra time and effort to make sure you’re actually ready to go in and record and the band is champing at the bit. The songs have been hand picked and worked on, the singer has a reasonable idea of what he or she has to offer vocally, the musicians can all play in time and sound good, and everyone is on the same page as to what you’re setting out to achieve. But what’s really involved in the process from this point onwards? There’s a whole selection of really important steps to take – some obvious and some you probably haven’t thought of – that you’ll need to navigate through. We’re not ready for our first session just yet. So let’s take a look at what these steps are and how they’ll get us closer to the goal of producing a world-class musical outcome.
First up is to assess the relevance and importance of a ‘demo’; how it might improve your final product and what it might cost. I regularly get enquiries from bands or solo artists who want to book my facility to come and ‘record some demos’, and the question I always ask is, “What is its purpose?” Determining what place the humble demo might occupy in the grand scheme of things is very important. Don’t get me wrong… demos can be a vital piece of the overall puzzle. They’re always handy when you want to get a general idea of what a band/artist sounds like. They’re great for getting gigs and even for shopping around to labels/publishers/managers etc. But personally, I reckon the idea of spending loads of your hard-earned money on something you’re going to give away is a waste of money.
So if you need demos, there are loads of ways you can record them without bleeding your music fund dry. In the best-case scenario, one of the band members or perhaps a friend in another band (or maybe even the person who helped the singer do some of those ‘basic recordings’ we talked about last issue) will be able to come to your rehearsal place/house/barn and record a live run through of your repertoire. Most computers can run some basic recording software, and, of course, there’s still the option of the ubiquitous four-track/portable hard disk recorder. Some of the venues you’re playing at (assuming you’re a gigging musician) might even have the facility to record a ‘desk tape’ for you. At the very least, most good rehearsal places will likely have the means to record your rehearsal. This sort of thing will certainly suffice in giving you an idea of what you sound like and the areas you need to improve upon. Recording a good rehearsal performance should at least provide you with a few songs good enough to send out to your local publican/booker looking for gigs. They’ll also be good enough to send out to prospective producers. If not, perhaps you’re not quite ready to go into the studio after all.
WE KNOW THE SOUND WE WANT SO WE DON’T NEED A PRODUCER!
Above is the sentence uttered by my first serious band as we decided to spend thousands of dollars making our first record. We figured we knew what we wanted to sound like, so we didn’t need a producer meddling. Instead, we would just tell the engineer what we wanted to sound like and he would magically give us what we wanted. That was our first mistake…
There’s a very good reason why the biggest, most experienced artists in the world have producers. Even the megastars recognise the benefits of having someone who makes records for a living interpret what they’re trying to express and form it into something tangible – or, in our case, audible. A good producer will spend time learning about the sort of things you like, the sort of artist you want to be. They’ll become a sounding board you can throw all sorts of ideas at; ideas which they’ll then convert into your own personalised aural landscape. They’ll get to know your strengths and weaknesses, manage the musicians involved, help organise studios and – very importantly – help manage the budget. If you’re trying to make a world-class recording, a good producer can be your secret weapon.
And finding a good producer is easier than you think. There are hundreds of great producers waiting for your call right now. The best way to start is to look through your record collection. Find your favourite producers. Once you realise Rick Rubin is going to be too expensive, work backwards. Look locally at your favourite records. Listen to your friends’ records, and ask them about their experiences. Scour MySpace and listen to the records of your contemporaries. See which ones ring your bells, and why. Not only will you then be able to narrow your search, it will also help you understand what it is you’re looking for in a producer’s sound. Once you find a few names, start asking questions… you’ll quickly discover that people are usually happy to discuss their experiences. There’s no harm in sending off an email with a few short, well-worded questions if you want info. People in general are happy to help if they can.
HOW TO MAKE A BUDGET & STICK TO IT!
Getting a budget together can be tricky. There’s the question of: ‘How much money do we need?’ against; ‘How much have we got?’. The best way to start, is to address how much you’ve actually got. If you can get your head around how much money you know you have, it’s quite simple to work backwards. The thing here is to be realistic! A good producer (his role in the budget will be discussed in a moment) will be able to wring every last cent out of your budget. But if you give him a figure that you ‘hope’ you’ll have – or may have if your old Aunty dies soon and you get your expected inheritance – you’re going to come unstuck.
So, whether it’s a band fund, or everyone putting in, or a label, or a private benefactor, or if you’re a solo artist paying your own dime, settle on a figure for how much you want to spend… as a maximum. Usually, when I do budgets, I only deal with the recording and mixing, but you should probably consider leaving some space on top for mastering and artwork costs; the oft overlooked cousins in the budgeting department! Then, once you’ve settled on a figure, make sure it’s definitive – tattoo it to your arm if you have to! And don’t be cajoled later into spending more than the figure you decide you have! ‘Lock it in and rip the knobs off”, as they say!
FOUR ON THE FLOOR
If you’re making a record, there are four main places you’ll need to direct your funds:
- Producer’s fees
- Studio hire
- Extra musicians/instrument hire fees
- Media (hard drives/tape/backups/CD copies etc)
First up, is to find the right producer. I’ll say this now… everyone has a price. The perfect producer for you may seem busy and expensive, but there are always deals to be made. You just have to be smart. If you’re on a budget, you have to accept that you may need to be flexible… perhaps fitting in around a producer’s other projects, in exchange for a more respectable rate. Even the busiest producers have down time, and many of them often have last minute/short notice rates. Enquire about package deals (some producers have deals with certain studios). If you’re cashed up in advance of the project, ask for a decent discount for full or substantial part-payment in advance. Most producers will ask for a percentage in advance anyway, but this can often help with the negotiation. These are all simple ways to make it work with the producer you want. And if you can’t make the budget work with that guy, move on down the line to your second choice until you find a producer you still like who can make your budget work. (But remember: don’t be talked into spending money you don’t have!)
Once you’ve found your perfect producer and established his fee, pretty quickly (sometimes in the same conversation) you’ll be talking about studios and musicians. An experienced producer will be your greatest aid in managing your budget. He will know what the going rates are, what studio will best work for you, and/or be able to make calls on your behalf. He may have an overdub space of his own, or one he uses regularly – in short, this is where the producer is worth his weight.
If you’re a solo artist, chances are you’ll need session muso’s. You’re producer will be onto this and will present to you the options. But here’s a rough guideline: on a project where more outside musicians are required, set aside 75% of your budget on the producer and studio hire – the bulk of the rest will be spent on musicians. For a self-contained band, if you’re confident you’ve got the ‘cattle’, you can allocate up to 95% of your budget on the producer and studio costs. (Ask what the producer is willing to play as well… often they’re very talented individuals who are happy to throw their performance fees in as part of the deal). One thing I’ve learnt, it’s often smarter to get a more experienced/expensive player who will work quickly, than a cheaper, inferior player who will chew up studio time. Remember, every extra hour you’re paying for an outside musician, you’re also paying for the studio. Working closely with the producer will help you work out the right people for the job, stylistically and financially.
If you give [the producer] a figure that you ‘hope’ you’ll have – or may have if your old Aunty dies soon and you get your expected inheritance – you’re going to come unstuck.
Lastly, media costs. Again, this is a highly overlooked aspect of record making, and often comes as a nasty surprise at the death knock. Invariably there’ll be rough mix CDs as you go. Are they thrown in for free by the studio or producer, or charged at a ridiculous rate? You’ll need to clarify this. You also want to make sure the project is getting regularly backed up and work out how you’re receiving your album at the end of the project. If it’s to be backed up to an external hard drive for example, will you be charged for the time it takes to archive your project at the end? And if you’re working on tape, the tape costs can add up dramatically. There is often an expectation that a lot of this work is ‘throw in’, but just the simple mechanics of making sure your recordings are managed well (and safely) can be time consuming, and most people are now not doing this stuff for free. In fact, many studios are now charging a rate to archive and prepare masters. Make sure this is well understood beforehand and worked accurately into the budget.
DO WE HAVE AN AGREEMENT?
Now you’ve worked out all of these details and thrashed out a budget with the producer, the next step is critically important (yes, I know… another one!) Draft up a basic agreement with your producer – get it signed and sorted well before recording begins. This little document should have a clear breakdown of the budget and how it will be spent. It should outline things like: expected work hours, session cancellation costs, an exit clause (in case it isn’t working out for either party), even things like detailing the album credits. The more thorough you can be with this little document the smoother the project will run.
The document should also detail the producer’s ‘points’ (the percentage of the album’s earning apportioned to the producer). This is often the moment where artists get very confused and threatened, but this is a small, usually token gesture to protect the producer’s part in the project if you become the next Beatles. Your producer will be aware of the industry norms, but don’t be threatened by ‘points’ – if he’s making some extra money then, rest assured, you’ll be making commensurately way more.
Lastly, the document should reflect the payment schedule. This is so that everyone knows how much money should be going where during the project. If you’ve negotiated a discount with the producer, this should be documented here too. And if you aren’t in a position to pay for the recording time you’ve booked, don’t book recording time! Producers, engineers and studios are not your bank, and are usually running on a tight budget themselves. So don’t take liberties here because personal relationships – and ultimately the music – will inevitably suffer as a consequence. Be respectful of this and they will always treat you well.
NOW CAN WE RECORD?
Actually, with all that out of the way, and I assume a whole bunch of earth shattering songs in your pocket, we’re ready to start making the record. In the next issue, we’ll discuss pre-production, and the respective journeys of a solo artist and a band in making music come to life in the studio.