A Breakdown of Studio Budgets

Posted by on Aug 20, 2012 in Recording, Studio Advice | 0 comments

Recently, I received this email from a potential client asking about estimates and budgets.

“Hi I’m in a band and I was just wondering if I could get an estimate cost to record and edit our album. It’s our first album, with ten songs roughly 3-4 minutes in length. We’ve never done this before so we need to know what our budget should look like. So if you could give us an estimate that would really help us out thanks.”

It’s something I get asked a lot about so I thought I’d share it with all of you. This was my reply.

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Setting a budget for your first album is entirely dependant on the expectations of said album and could range from almost nothing to several thousand dollars. Expectations also change over time. In 1998 I recorded my first full band record for $180 (the cost to rent the gear for the weekend) and did all the work ourselves. We didn’t have any expectations other than hearing ourselves and selling a few cassettes (yes, cassettes).

That same record today would cost me around $10,000 or more to make because I would expect it to inspire serious consideration from commercial radio.

That’s the first consideration in establishing a budget for your record…

What Are Your Expectations?

  • Who will want to listen to it?
  • Where will it be played?

Once you have a really good idea what your expectations are for the record, then you can start figuring out how long things should take at every step of the process.

I’ll also go with the assumption of 10 songs at 3-4 minutes each.

Stage 1 of 4 – PRE-Production (Free to $1000)

This is the stage of getting ready for the recording stage… and that means everything from instrument setup & repair to making sure each song works as good as it can to making sure each player is playing the right thing. This stage depends on your producer…

Self-Produced - If you’re self producing your record, pre-production is free in the sense that you don’t pay someone else to be involved in this process.

Hire a Producer - If you are hiring a producer, pre-production costs as much as the producer says it will cost. For example, working with myself as your producer would cost $30 per hour and a minimum 10 hours of pre-production. Other producers may charge more or demand more pre-production time. Either way, it could be fair to budget for up to $1000 for this stage.

Stage 2 of 4 – Recording ($2000 to $4000 or more Plus Producer if needed)

Really, this is that stage where you as the band members perform and everything is recorded. If you’re Self-Producing there’s no extra cost to having a producer. Otherwise a producer could end up costing very little or quite a bit extra. For the sake of comparison, the average song that makes it to radio take 10 to 18 hours of recording time.

2 Ways to Record

  1. Live in Studio - Just like it sounds. As much of the band as possible does as much as they can all playing at the same time. Pros… might feel more “together” … Might be faster (and therefore cheaper)… Cons… Unless you’re all great players you’ll have to learn to live with mistakes and the performance might not sound as professional. Estimate 4 hours per song for a total of 40 hours to record 10 songs. $2000
  2. Track by Track - Start with one instrument (usually Drums) and build bit by bit. It sometimes takes longer, but the end result is usually much better. There is more attention to detail and more room for layers and textures as pieces are carefully put together. Estimate 8 hours per song for a total of 80 hours to record 10 songs. $4000

Stage 3 of 4 – Mixing ($1250 to $2000)

This is where all the recorded tracks are manipulated to sound really good together so they can be as clear and well balanced as your favourite records. Another comparison… The average song that makes it to commercial radio takes about 8 hours to mix.

If you Recorded LIVE - then mixing time can really be cut down as the songs are almost mixed as a group. This is another way recording LIVE in Studio can save you money. It’s not quite half, like the recording time, though it is close. 10 songs mixed should take about 25 hours to mix. $1250

If you Recorded Track by Track - Mixing really focuses on each song because each song will have a unique character discovered through the recording process. Ultimately the songs will have more depth and texture, which requires more work. 10 songs should take 40 hours to mix. $2000

Stage 4 of 4 – Mastering ($400 to $1000)

Mastering is often the most misunderstood part of the process. It is the final check and balance (sonically) before CD duplication, iTunes distribution, and an absolute MUST HAVE if you plan to send out to radio stations. To help clarify what a mastering engineer does…

  • They make all the songs commercial loud so you can play it beside your favourite CD of last 5 years without noticing a difference.
  • They make each song appropriately loud in comparison to each other so the quite song is not louder than the uptempo first single.
  • They clean up any sonic flaws that might have slipped by.
  • They make sure the recording works on crappy earphones and kitchen radios as well as big fancy stereo systems.

Mastering for big budget records can cost 10s of thousands of dollars, and those engineers are worth every penny. However… it is reasonable to expect between $400 and $1000 for mastering depending on whether you want to compete with the big budget records or not. AND often the difference between the expensive vs the middle of the road guys may not be noticeable…

Keep in Mind, the really cheap guys are never worth the money. You’d be better off not mastering your record than sending it to the really cheap guys.

Naturally, none of this includes the CD packaging and copies made… which all together can cost a lot of money all on its own. If you’re interested in that conversation, I’m more than happy to share my thoughts on THAT too.

But for now, you can expect a 10 song record to cost in the $3500 to $8000 range.

There are plenty of variables, other costs that may creep up (like hiring a producer), and then getting the CDs printed and music up on iTunes.

So does that answer your questions? Does it create a lot of new ones? I hope it does both. :)

Cheers

James