How to Record a Full Length Album (And How Not To)

I think a smart place to start is with the topic that is going to be extremely useful to the musicians and it’s also a topic that the engineers and producers absolutely love, because they know what I’m talking about. When I talk about this topic and it is best and worst practices for recording a full-length album.

People are always asking me about this “First of all should I,make a full length album is it relevant in this day and age of YouTube and Spotify?” actually most musicians don’t even ask me that I wish more of them did because it’s a good question to ask and we’re going to explore that. But we’re also going to explore if you’re making a full-length album the successes I’ve seen what they have in common and the failures I’ve seen what they have in common.

This is something I was very interested in when I first started writing. I wanted to talk to as many self released an independent DIY and major label artists as possible to try to get a sense for what the ones have in common who succeeded, who developed audiences that we’re looking forward to hearing from them that enabled them to have you know sustainable careers and keep on going back into the studio without freaking out about time and money. And I also wanted to explore those bands and self-released artists and independent artists and major label artists that kind of fizzled out, you know. The band next door you know who had so much promise they seemed so talented and they printed up this box of a thousand CDs the proverbial box with and CDs that is still to this day ten years later sitting in the bottom and,their closet.

And I think the best way to take a look at it is to go under the hood and think about the three different ways that artists usually approach making their first full-length album or their first big release and talk about the pros and cons of each and where you can go wrong any each

The first approach is the DIY approach the second approach is what I like to call the conventional approach and the third approach is one that I think it’s better than either of these if you are a new self releasing artist and we’ll get to that in just a minute.

Approach I: DIY

DIY is often a misnomer the most successful DIY artist I’ve talked to and I’ve interviewed a lot of big ones they’re often a lot less DIY than you think they’re not doing everything alone they have helped in many different places. But we think about DIY when it comes to recording we’re thinking of someone mostly recording themselves on their own system of some kind.

And the thought process behind the DIY recording goes something like this: “Wow going to a studio to record with some experienced engineer, producer, person that sounds really expensive.” I bet you that I could just buy a whole bunch of that gear and I can kind of keep my cost low I don’t need the fanciest gear and I know I’m not going to be spending any much more than the amount that I paid for and year and I won’t have to have some jerk engineer glowering at me the whole time of making a record. And I get that I sympathizer this approach that are definitely jerk engineer that out there, I think you can find one who’s not a jerk engineer but I understand this approach and I’m sympathetic with it in part because I’ve done this and so many of the audio guys I know have gone through this approach at some point. The audio guys and gals who are you know behind the console today so many of them were artists who thought whoo I could do this better maybe just more comfortably if I recorded myself. So it’s a valid approach but there’s a couple pitfalls here.

Here’s the first one remember I said those audio men and women so many them started off as you know musicians doing their own project recording it. Here’s the thing they’re not really musicians anymore they became audio people. And that’s not fate worse than death or anything I’m happy being an audio person but if you want to be a musician if you want your involvement with music to be singing or writing, performing creating new songs putting something out there that didn’t exist until you made it untill you created it. If that’s what you want to do then don’t become an audio guy right? And this actually dovetails nicely into the other big pitfall which is the biggest cost is not reflected in the price tag and that price tag can be high right? If you’re planning on recording several musicians together maybe drums you know you need several inputs at once I would say a kind of minimal decent quality but not crazy fancy and not super cheap system is probably a cost around five thousand bucks. This is not you know top-shelf this is you need basic studio monitors to hear what’s going on, you probably need a few sets of headphones if you have several musicians playing at once you’re going to need a interface to get multiple channels in at once either each of those channels is going to need a mic pre, you’re going to change several microphones, mic stands, mic cables $5,000 is a low figure. And that doesn’t even include the room where are you going to put this stuff are you going to treat the room, are you going to spend a couple thousand dollars soundproofing it so your neighbors or your family don’t kill you or are you going to be able to put up any absorption or acoustic treatment like we have to make every instrument that space sound great so those are things to think about. But the biggest cost isn’t even reflected in that price tag and that is opportunity cost opportunity cost is a term economists use that means every hour you spend learning how to use all this stuff is an hour that you can’t spend writing songs, playing shows, practicing your instrument, networking with the journalists and the, PR people on the label people who might become your allies and help you really going.

So I wouldn’t say that this is a cheaper approach it almost never really is cheaper than going into the studio unless you’re able to do everything yourself with just like one mic some software and you’re kind of one-man band situation maybe it could be cheaper I don’t think it’ll be quicker. Your results may or may not be good you’re probably gonna have to spend quite a while to get great results. I mean so many of the audio engineers I knew we’re in the field five years before they really felt like they knew what they were doing with a compressor so I don’t know how long you want to take learning this to.

Approach II: Conventional

Conventional approach is let’s go into the studio and make a recording and this can be a hybrid where you do some of it you know in your own overdub room you just buy a little bit of gear enough to kind of you know offset some of the cost of the big place and then you do some of the most essential stuff in the big fancy place with a really competent engineer producer and that’s a great approach as well but there are some trade-offs here and here are the things I’m going to warn you on.

If you are doing this for the first time chances you are some kind of job that you’re working or maybe you’re in school and you could only devote a couple of days a week to going into a studio to record this big album project. So let’s think about this to be realistic it will probably take you to do let’s say 10 songs and this is often enough people say: “I want to do a full-length album” We’ll get to whether or not that’s the best idea to start with but they’ll say I want to ten songs maybe we can play through the whole thing in a day and then mix it the next day it doesn’t work that way it doesn’t work that way. You can go fairly quickly but I find that when new artists go into the studio it almost without fail takes about the same amount of time. I find that new bands can often record three maybe four songs in a day if they’re just doing six meaning they’re getting the drum, tracks maybe the bass tracks, maybe a scratch vocal track hopefully they’ll keep some of it maybe some guitar tracks, maybe they can get three or four ofthose in a day with a kind of you know live feel that they want to add to. And then after spending two or three days getting the basics you might need another two or three days getting your instrumental overdubs probably at least a couple days to do vocals maybe more again when you’re under the studio microscope and you’re doing multiple takes it’s really hard to sing an albums worth of material in one day. So this often takes a lot longer than people expect not just because when we add that all together it’s about 10 days it often takes longer than people expect because how long will it take you to set aside 10 days if you are a new artist who isn’t making money off of being an artist chances are you have some kind of job to pay the bills maybe you have school the most unfortunate thing about the second approach is that so often artists will after months and months and months of spending a few days this month a few days the next month a few days the following month they’ll have a release of these ten or twelve or fifteen song to present to the world and nobody cares. Because nobody’s heard of them because it’s the first thing they’re ever putting out there because of this I,suggest a much better way so you don’t end up with the proverbial box of a,thousand CDs sitting in your closet with the website that no one’s visited with a Facebook page with the three likes on it. This happens so often because artists are putting all of their focus into creating this big product before they have an audience.

Where I really think you’ve got to take the 21st century approach this really human approach that the technology enables and this approach is to record once start to finish in one day and release it. I call it the song a day approach but there’s a catch doing this in the studio with a great producer is going to help you realize an amazing song is going to take a lot of upfront pre-production work on your end so pre-production is where this step 3 the song and a poacher starts.

Approach III: Pre-production

What is pre-production well you can get yourself a simple you know audio rig it could just be recording on your phone or it could be as simple as the built-in speaker or built-in microphone on your laptop and record the band in a room or you could be doing overdubbing on a basic DAW system you can get a decent interface and a decent mic and layer the stuff on whatever it is you want to get to a point where you say: “Wow this song sounds so great I wish we had recorded it for real” and then what do you have it at that point where you’re almost like: “Oh that’s great! Damn I wish we had recorded that for real” Then you’re ready to go into the studio and in one day using that roadmap you created during pre-production record one song that day you might be able to do more you might be able to do two if you’re really lucky.

But let’s focus on just one song you spend the first half of the day maybe three-quarters of the day after a little lunch break recording the song. Then spend the last quarter or half of the day mixing it if you need to come back in the morning for touch-ups you know great maybe the person helping you mix it can leave it up there in the desk. And the beautiful thing about this approach is a you get a super well realized song you’re not even taking that song into the studio until you know it’s so great that it’s ready to be put under that microscope and all the pieces are fitting together and now we just need to do it in a way that’s going to realize a song to its maximum potential.

So that’s beautiful part number one, beautiful part number two of this process is you can release it right now and it fits your first major recording I would just put it up there for free your first song just put it up there get it out there see if you can get people interested see if you can start building allies fans other bands or artists that you can perform with. Journalists and PR people and label people who could become your allies care about your project and help get the word out and then the next month you can do this again and you can have another song to release to the world next month so you’re starting to build some buzz starting to build some traction and then the third month you can go in and do the song a day approach again right you spend the rest of the month kind of honing this thing and then go in and just do it and release it and after four months of doing this you know just over a season you will have put out three or four amazing songs that are the best you’re capable of doing and at the end of those three or four months I’ll be darned if you don’t have some kind of traction some kind of allies that you’ve created in this world we’re going to help you spread the word about your music and you know what over these four months while you’re putting this together you could be in the background working on the basics for more songs and you could do the more conventional approach for four or five or six more songs and then you’ll have eight or nine or ten songs that you can release to an audience has been waiting for the next thing they can’t wait to find out when your next release is going to be so this is the approach that works in the 21st century. I love it because the technology is empowered us to take this more human approach how human is it as a musician to say well once a year I’m going to just do bulk through the wall music and for a little while and I’ll just do it really intensely and then gone. No you should be doing a little bit every day a little bit every week a little bit every month you’ve got to make music a part of your daily life if you want to be the kind of person who makes sustainable career whether it’s full-time or part-time or even just for fulfillment. If you want to make a sustainable career out of music.

Now once you’ve done this approach with some success you know the conventional approach may work for you now that you’ve built up an audience or the DIY approach may work for you maybe you got really into the audio side you want to be the person who turn all the knobs that’s fine too but if you’re just starting off as an artist I would really sincerely recommend you think about this song day approach.

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