How to produce a record on a low budget.
The music industry is in a mess they say. People no longer purchase music. Piracy is killing us all. Blah, blah. One way of making it all more financially viable is to control your production costs.
We’re just about to self-release our third album. This means we have been through the process of recording, mixing and mastering a ‘collection of songs’ several times.
It also means we have had CD’s duplicated, burned our own CD’s, ordered different types of packaging, purchased instruments, software and services, worked on promotion, etc…
The purpose of this article is not to try and tell you all how to record and release a record, but rather to share our experiences and to provide a few tips. For large bands with 10 musicians, or electronic artists who don’t use acoustic instruments, it may not be applicable, but for a small indie/folk band, the information could be helpful.
We’ve made a few (read ‘lot of’) mistakes and learnt a few (read ‘one or two’) tricks along the way too. So here it is.
Depending on the kind of music you make, recording can be more or less difficult. In our case, we record drums, bass guitar, acoustic guitars, samples, virtual instruments, vocals and various other bits and pieces like clarinets, glockenspiels, percussive instruments and whatnot. Some things can be easily recorded at home, others require a more sophisticated set-up and quite a few microphones (i.e.: drums).
- Our first album, Pictures, was part recorded at home, with other parts (drums, vocals and some guitars), recorded professionally in a recording studio.
Since it was done in a professional studio, it cost a fair bit to record but also because we didn’t really know what we were doing and wasted quite a lot of time.
Cost of recording 9 tracks = 1,200 EUR
- Our second album, Life, was recorded exclusively in a home studio environment. We used a drum machine instead of a real drummer to avoid having to go into a proper studio, to save a bit of money, which is understandable when you see how much money we lost on the first record!
Cost of recording 9 tracks: 225 EUR.
Our third album, One Frame Per Second, was recorded in a sound engineering school, which cost us nothing. The drawback with this kind of thing is that the sound engineers are not seasoned professionals, they’re students, but if you’re lucky, and you know what you want, you can get some really good results. We rehearsed a lot before going there, so we were well prepared, and we knew what we wanted to achieve. And the lads we worked with were top notch. So it worked out really well for us.
Some will argue that the microphones, and channel strips, and compressors, are much better in recording studios, and they are right. The question is, are you paying for the equipment, or the expertise of the recording studio, or both? And in which case, can you really afford to? If you’re only going to be selling a few CD’s to your parents, your cousin’s best friend, and some bloke down the pub, is it really worth spending thousands to sing into a Neumann microphone?
Find a sound engineering school and see if they’re looking for bands to record as part of their curriculum.
To save time and money, rehearse a lot before going to the studio to make sure you’re not wasting time, and money.
- Pictures was mixed in a professional recording studio. The advantage of a professional recording studio is that they generally have expensive equipment, lots of monitors and plugins, and whatnot.
However, if you want to get the best out of a mixing session, you have to be present at the mix, which means it is a time consuming process whether you mix it yourself, or not.
Cost of Mixing 9 tracks = 1,200 EUR
- Life was mixed at home using Pro Tools LE. We obviously did not have the same means as a proper studio, but modern Digital Audio Workstations come with some pretty good plugins and presets, so with a bit of work and research, you can get your music to sound pretty good. BUT….it will never sound as good as it would if you had all the right gear. That’s a fact… BUT who cares? As long as it doesn’t sound terrible, and it doesn’t make peoples’ iPods or loud speakers explode, it doesn’t really matter that much. Unless you have several thousand euros to spend, and it which case, good on ya!
And there are lots of tutorials out there (some really nice individuals who put videos up on youtube explaining how to mix drums, and vocals, etc… It’s a lot of work, and it will drive you crazy but you’ll get to say “Wow, I made that all on my own” at the end.
Cost of Mixing 9 tracks = my sanity.
- One Frame Per Second was mixed at home using Pro Tools LE. It was a lot harder this time as we had real drums to mix. Once again, type ‘mixing drums’ into youtube and you’ll find a bunch of tutorials explaining how to do it. You won’t get a magic recipe for making your drums sound great, but you’ll get an insight into which buttons to press to try and make improvements ( I decided to invest in a plugin to help “tighten up” the drums, and opted for iZotope Alloy, a virtual channel strip including EQ, compressor, limiter, etc..) Then, trust your ears. Or trust several pairs of ears, which is what we did. Check Mastering below for more on that.
Cost of Mixing 9 tracks = 222 EUR for iZotope Alloy and a boatload of sanity again.
If you’re mixing an album yourself, you’ll want to learn some basic principles first. Use youtube to learn about compression and EQ. They’re the most important ones. You can go far with EQ, comp and reverb.
Don’t overload your project with too many tracks. Limit yourself to a small amount. It’s a lot easier to mix a song with 8 tracks than it is to mix one with 64 tracks!! Ask yourself, do you really need that 7th backing vocal?
Take your time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Mixing is a profession. It’ll takes years of practice before you’re half as good as a professional sound engineer. Just because you don’t have an Opera singer’s voice, doesn’t mean you can’t make music, right?
Many don’t really understand the benefits of mastering but it is an essential part of the music making process. I wrote a blog post about the value of mastering a while ago, so I won’t go into detail here.
- Pictures was mastered in a professional recording studio.
Cost 500 EUR.
- Life was mastered at home using the trial version (that lasts for 11 days) of iZotope Ozone. That may sound cheeky but you’ll see below that iZotope got our money in the end! Cost 0 EUR.
- One Frame Per Second was mastered at home using the full version of iZotope Ozone. 220 EUR.
The major hurdle to mastering on your own is that you only have one set of loud speakers to test your music on. We solved that problem by adopting the beta testing method that software companies use to test the quality of their products. We offered ‘beta listeners’ the opportunity to listen to the album before it was released in exchange for their help with the mastering process. Each person was asked to provide feedback on the sound quality, and to provide us with the list of equipment they listened to it on. The feedback was all great and enabled us to considerably improve the overall sound of the record as well.
Before forking out a wad of cash for mastering, download a trial version of some mastering software, ask your fans/friends with sound knowledge to help you out by beta testing your mix.
Most mastering engineers will do a test track for a small sum, or even for free. Have a professional master a song, and then do it yourself, and ask your fans to listen to them both and rate them.
Last but not least, if you decide to do it yourself, read this first.
It’s a guide to mastering. It was written by the folks at iZotope so it’s obviously going to be geared towards their software, but even if you don’t use Ozone, it’s worth the read.
4. Product / Release.
- Our first album was released on iTunes as a digital download. We made a CD + DVD + Comic book edition, which was available to buy on our website.
We decided to burn the CD’s and DVD’s ourselves, and have the comic book made by a printing company. The comic book was expensive to make and we had to order quite a few of them. The CD packaging came from Stumptown Printers. It comes flat (unfolded) and requires no glue to fold it into the shape of a CD case so you can print the artwork on it fairly easily.
Each CD required us to fold the packaging, burn a CD, a DVD, print the artwork on them, and put all the various elements in the packaging.
We sold very few copies of the physical album, and not that many of the digital one either. We sent a bunch of CD’s to magazines, radio stations and only received a couple of responses. So we decided to cut our losses and make the digital version available to download for free.
The album was later released by Aaahh Records, as a free download as well, which sparked off a few more physical sales. We hired a publicist to help us promote the record and to pave the way for the release of our second record a while later. That was a really expensive investment but we thought we’d give it a go. Financially, the album release was a failure. In total, we spent about 5,000 EUR on our first record and we generated less than a thousand euros in sales. Yay for us, what shrewd businessmen!
- Our second album was released as a digital download on iTunes and our own website. We made a CD and poster pack edition available. This was really easy to set up with Bandcamp as well.
After spending hours burning CD’s, we decided to have 100 CD’s manufactured instead. No more burning and printing all evening, and it ended up costing more or less the same. We used the same packaging as the first album (just a different colour) and no longer needed to print anything on the Arigako Paks from Stumptown, because we had found a new solution for that! We offered custom drawings on each CD. The idea first came when our printer broke down just before we went on tour to Germany. We just took blank packaging with us and offered to draw a picture on the CD after the show. People loved it and we’ve been doing it ever since.
In total, we spent about 2,600 EUR on our second album and made about 1,600 EUR. Not as catastrophic as our first venture but we were still losing money.
For our third album, they’ll be a digital download on iTunes, on our website, a CD edition that comes in a dark brown digifile, and a PlayButton Edition. Once the record was mixed, we offered our fans the possibility of pre-ordering the album to help us pay for the cost of mastering, and the initial CD duplication and blank PlayButton orders. We received enough pre-orders to pay for the first 100 CD’s and 10 playbuttons, but not quite enough to pay for professional mastering, so we went for the DIY approach discussed above. Since we have already covered all our costs, we can now make the digital album available for free at its release date without having to worry about getting a return on investment.
A few people enquired about getting a vinyl version of the album on facebook. We told them that if they could find enough people to cover the cost of making the minimum order of 250 copies, then sure, we’ll make ‘em.
So far, 28 people have pledged to buy a copy, so it’s looking like me may be able to go ahead with it, which is rather cool.
Don’t press 1,000 CD’s unless you know you can sell them. Otherwise, you’ll just end up with a box of CD’s picking up dust. Try limited-run CD duplication with people like TuneCore for instance. Same thing goes for t-shirts, posters, what have you. Just because the per unit price is lower, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to order 1,000 of them!
With a bit of work and creativity, you can find ways to make a really nice physical object. People appreciate the personal touch so don’t worry too much if it doesn’t look quite as professional as that Lady Gaga CD in its jewel box.
Don’t spend a fortune on PR companies. How many music blogs do you read? How many music magazines do you buy? We use Google Analytics and we can safely say that reviews do not drive much to our website. We wouldn’t spit on a review on Pitchfork though!
Beware of the post office! When you sell a poster pack for 24 EUR, make sure you’ve calculated the shipping fees correctly before selling anything. Because if it costs you more to ship the package than you actually charge for the product, well, you’re a bloody idiot! (yes, we’re a bit dumb sometimes!)
5. Initial investment
Our home studio is composed of bits and pieces picked up over the years, and regardless of whether the music is produced at home, or in a recording studio, it’s an investment that was made mostly before Uniform Motion saw the light of day. Musicians self-producing records probably have most of these things in their home studio.
Monitors: YAMAHA HS50M: 300 EUR
Headphones: SONY MDR-7506 - 150 EUR
Static Microphone: AKG C214 - 340 EUR
Sound Interface: MBOX 2 MINI Sound Interface: 300 EUR
DAW (Digitial Audio Workstation): PRO TOOLS LE 8 (comes with MBOX 2 MINI)
Midi Keyboard: M-AUDIO AXIOM KEYBOARD: 200 EUR
Sampler Plugin: NATIVE INSTRUMENTS KOMPLETE ELEMENTS: 100 EUR
Total investment 1,390EUR
Apple iMac - this is a home computer used for other things as well, so it probably should not be considered as an initial music investment.
Live gear. There are thing you need to play live performances (amps, guitars, effects, etc…) but we’re not focusing on concerts here. I’ll write another blog post about that some other time!
Although a home studio can be a fairly high investment initially, in our case, it cost a lot less than producing an album in a professional studio. So just imagine how much you could save over the course of 4,5,6,10, 50 albums. Aside from travel costs, and a few software related costs, our latest album cost almost nothing to make.
Not everyone is cut out for mixing, recording and mastering. It’s bloody hard work! But when you set up a company, you start by doing everything, from answering the phone, to doing the books, to selling the product. When your company grows, you hire people to do specific tasks and you build a team of qualified people around you to support the project. Having yourself done all of the jobs you’re asking them to do, you can set expectations more easily. The same goes for making music.
If anyone has any questions, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org