5 Ways To Record An Album Without Bankrupting Yourself

London-based producer, writer and audio engineer James Scott lays out 5 ways you can save money recording your or your band's album without compromising quality.

logo
Ultimate Guitar
0
Let me tell you something. As a musician, there are few better feelings than when you first hold your own CD in the palm of your hand. That's yours. You did that. And while memories of gigs and good times may fade, that album will be there forever whatever you do, wherever you go, that album will be a testament to your achievements, your musicality and your creativity. It might even make you rich.

Pretty much every band I've ever worked with, in fact pretty much every band I've ever seen, wants to record an album. Only a minority of them even start, and still fewer finish. I ask them why, and the number one reason I hear, every time, is that they can't afford to do it.

This is rubbish. It's possible to record a pro-quality album for next to nothing, and in this article I'm going to tell you how to do that. If you do have some money to spend, I'll tell you how to use it to get the most for the least.

1 - Be organised

Bands talk about money being the biggest problem but actually it's more likely to be lack of organisation. Really ask yourself, is your band ready to record an album? Ask yourself the following questions:

Does your band actually have 10-12 good songs, that it knows how to play, and has agreed how to play? Even small changes to songs midway through the recording process can result in dozens of hours of work, and any associated costs, being wasted. Do your tinkering before you start.

Does your band have a settled lineup? Swapping out one musician for another and re-recording their parts costs a fortune in time and money, and the new guy will want to play the parts his way. If he's a drummer, that may mean you need to start again to keep the recordings tight. If your band goes through more drummers than Spinal Tap, and who gets to play bass each week depends on which bassist the singer hates the least, then you're not ready to record an album.

Does your band have the time and patience required? However long you think the album will take to record, it will take longer, guaranteed. You need to be confident that the members of your band can cope with the frustration. People with short fuses don't last the distance, and this will waste money. Also, playing an instrument with the red light on is a skill in itself. If you don't want to waste money on bad takes, they're going to need the discipline to practice recording on their own.

2 - Invest, don't spend

A lot of bands get overexcited about recording an album, and waste money on stupid stuff. Before opening up your wallet for anything, ask yourself the following question:

Will I be able to use whatever I am buying again, or just for this album?

That's the difference between investing and spending. If I spend 1000 on studio time for my band, then that studio time only goes towards that recording. If I want another recording, I need to spend another 1000. In fact, if I don't like what is recorded in that 1000 of studio time, I've wasted it all. I might as well have flushed it down the toilet.

However, if I spend 1000 on a computer, software and an audio interface, I can use those things again and again and again, for this album or subsequent albums. It pays for as many takes as I like, forever. In fact, let's look at a typical setup for recording an album at home:

Computer: 800 Good studio monitors: 300 Reaper recording software: 40 EZDrummer drum sequencer software with expansion: 75 USB recording interface: 120 SM58 mic with stand, lead and popshield: 100 Guitar: 400 Bass: 300 Amp: 400 Pedals: 200

That's a total of 2735 (about $4000). Some bands spend more than that just on mastering. And that figure assumes that you have to buy it all from scratch. I'm guessing your guitarist already has a guitar, and you're reading this on a computer, so you're probably more than half way to that total already. With that setup, you can record as many takes as you like and it won't cost you another penny, whether you nail that guitar solo on the first take or the ninety-first. And you can record your next album for free. That is an investment, and one that will probably more than pay for itself during the first album that you record with it.

How do I know that the setup above will be good enough to record a pro album with? Because that's the setup I recorded my first album with, and I turned professional as a producer and audio engineer on the back of it.

3 - Develop your skills

If your aim is to save money, then there's no better way than doing things yourself instead of paying other people to do them. Why spend money to record in a studio when you can do it in your bedroom for free? Of course, the downside is that you're on your own. You don't have the support of a studio engineer or producer. So you need to learn how to do those things yourself.

Recording, sequencing, arrangement, mixing and mastering are all skills that you will need, but they are skills you can learn. Nowadays there is so much instructional material available, much of it for free, that there's no excuse not to educate yourself. Of course, this takes time. Nobody can become an audio superman overnight. But think back to the difference between spending and investing. An hour of recording bad takes that you won't use, or making a terrible mix that attacks the ears of the listener, is time spent. An hour of learning how to do those things well is time invested, and like your equipment, you can use those skills again and again.

You don't have to shoulder the burden all yourself either. As long as those skills exist within your band, the work can be shared out according to who can contribute what. Chances are, like the equipment, that at least half the required skills already exist in your band already.

4 - Be sceptical of big names

I might upset a few people here, but this is the number one way that bands waste their money when they record an album. They get the guy who did their favourite band's album to come in and produce/mix/master/whatever. Chances are they didn't get what they paid for.

Why? Well look at it this way. If you're unsigned (and maybe if you are signed, if it's on a small label), your album, no matter how great it is, is not going to appear on that guy's CV. If he's worked with, say, Aerosmith, then Aerosmith will be on his CV, not you. If people want to hear how good he is, they'll listen to the Aerosmith records he did, not your record. So he doesn't exactly have much of an incentive to give your album his maximum time and attention, especially as you're probably paying him much less than Aerosmith did.

Compare that to Johnny Up-and-Coming producer in your home town. This guy wants to build up his CV and demonstrate his skill, so that he can work with the likes of Aerosmith some day. He will charge you less than the other guy because he doesn't have the CV to justify charging the earth for his services, and because he actually wants your business. Your album WILL be on his CV, and he WILL be using it for his press kit and demo CD. Your interests and his interests coincide if he does a great job on your album, then that's good for him AND good for you, so he'll bust a gut to make your record sound as good as he can. Aerosmith guy couldn't care less; he just wants your money.

Yes, the expensive guy might just get you a recording that sounds ever so slightly better (though that's by no means guaranteed), but you will have paid thousands more for a very small improvement. Most musicians won't even be able to tell the difference and your fans certainly won't. Could you have spent those thousands better? Could you have invested it?

5 - Get the right peer group

Of course you could save even more money and do it yourself. But how do you know that what you're coming up with is any good? Even if you have hired in help, how do you know that they're doing a good job? You need feedback, but you have to be fussy who you get it from.

You can't just upload your recordings to an internet forum and ask for feedback, because you have no idea who those people are. If you do, you'll get some feedback from people who know what they're talking about, but also from idiots, lunatics, trolls, people with hidden agendas and 12-year-olds and you won't be able to tell the difference between any of them. That's the problem with internet anonymity - you don't know who's at the keyboard and why they are posting.

So you need to hook up with the right people. It doesn't matter if you know them personally, so long as you know who they are. Of course, you have to give them a reason to want to help you, and you may be asked some favours, even if they're small ones. If you do have strong skills you can offer, then you can trade that skill for feedback and mentoring in the areas you need help on. For example, in the past I've traded my writing skills for mentoring and assistance in music and production I've helped musicians do things like appeal against parking tickets and write letters of complaint, and in return they've shared their knowledge and experience with me. It's not even a formal arrangement, it's just what friends do. Think about who you know and what you can offer them. Networking like this takes time and effort, but it doesn't take money.

------

About the Authour:

James Scott is a producer, audio engineer and writer based in London, UK. He works with up and coming artists to help them get noticed in the industry. His free newsletter includes exclusive recording and production tips that he doesn't share anywhere else.

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    W4T3V3R
    But i guess in the light of fairness, you raised great points with - networking, being ready to record, and being sceptical of big names.
    CoreysMonster
    I would like to point out that although the "do-it-yourself" approach is a lot cheaper, it in no way is necessarily the way to go for everyone. Learning to record, mix and master decently is something that takes YEARS of experience, so a band wanting to mske an album might indeed be better off just paying the money for studio time. You hear a lot of amateur recordings from DIY bands these days, what with Podfarm and stuff (I myself am no exception), but you very rarely here a band sound PROFESSIONAL with DIY recordings. Heck, even Bulb's stuff often sounds over-compressed and maximised, and he's world-famous these days. That's because being a good musician does not automatically make you a good producer. While you're out writing music, there are guys who have dedicated their lives to capturing that music, and chances are you'll simply never be as good as them without dedicating just as much time as they are.
    W4T3V3R
    1. "Its possible to record a pro-quality album for next to nothing, and in this article Im going to tell you how to do that." 2. *stuff* 3."Thats a total of 2735" I must have missed where he defined 'next to nothing'. This article should have been called, "there is a reason a ferrari costs more than a porche, its better". There is a reason studios charge 1000 a day, they'll give you a better recording than you'll ever get without investing the same amount of money into the equipment, education and time spent practising the art.
    henkka_potku
    I'm recording my first album at my friend's house... he has almost all gear that is mentioned in this article. It's about to cost me nothing.
    greedyguitar wrote: i saw 1000 for studio and was like wow cheap, then i saw the euro sign ._. damn foreign money systems causing confusion
    1. That's the symbol of the British pound 2. Here is an euro sign: 3. You can't really use the term "foreign" on an internet forum can you haha.
    Aldo Chircop
    Very good points, James. My own experience mirrors yours exactly, since I also decided a few years ago that it would be a much better investment to get my own equipment and learn to do it myself. It has also *greatly* helped my creativity and song-writing, since I am able to orchestrate all musical parts exactly as I want them during the writing process itself, without leaving any unknowns. I get to know exactly how a song will sound on record as I'm writing it. Regarding the 'next to nothing' expense (or investment, rather), please consider again what James actually said. You can get a good project studio going with just a good computer (something which most people already have, or need to have anyway), your instrument and amplification / sound processor (which you most probably already have if you're a musician), plus recording software, some plug-ins, an interface and a decent pair of monitors. The actual 'extra' investment over and above a standard home PC setup boils down to a few hundred extra quid. Of course you can spend much more than that if you want to go high end, but you don't really need to, at least to start with. If you consider that you would blow those few hundreds in a handful of days at a paid studio, then yes, the investment is 'next to nothing' considering how much more use you will be able to get out of it, and how much more artistic freedom and convenience it will give you.
    Scourge441
    I'll add another tip: record your rhythm tracks as a rhythm section, instead of tracking everything separately. Have the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar (if applicable) track everything live, and dub the vocals and solos over it. That tip is more for bands who are recording in a professional studio than for self-recorded groups. It gives you less flexibility when mixing, but it saves a lot of time, which means you pay less money to the producer.
    sfaune92 wrote: Well, usually, you've got your own computer, guitar, bass and amps, so remove that from the equation and it costs less than 1000.
    It depends on the quality of your equipment as well, though. Unless you're putting everything through VSTs, or already have high-quality amplifiers, you might want to consider renting some nicer stuff to record with.
    Ultima2876
    You'll get MCUH better results having a professional record your music at a studio with professional level equipment, rather than buying a hodgepodge of cheap crap to record your stuff with, having had NO mixing/mastering/recording experience. Hell, I have about 3 years experience mixing, mastering and recording with Cubase, and I have a decent rig to record with - but I'd still rather spend 500 on studio time to get a professional quality recording for my band.
    greedyguitar
    i saw 1000 for studio and was like wow cheap, then i saw the euro sign ._. damn foreign money systems causing confusion
    Draven Grey
    Having before owned a studio in Houston for almost a decade, I can honestly say that you make some good points. Granted, not everyone is cut out to record their own album in a way that actually sounds good, but that doesn't mean they can't smartly invest their money into very pro sound without breaking the bank. In fact, buying all your own equipment is a great idea regardless, and THEN hire pro-sounding engineers to use your own studio if you have to. Delve a bit into #5's trading suggestion by offering to let that engineer use your studio for recording a couple of his other clients, and he might even end up being free for you. "The big names" is a great point too. I know a LOT of local bands who lust after "this or that" famous producer, when their listeners could care less. If you have the money to spend on a great producer who can make your songwriting skills shine like a blinding light, then great! Go for it! But most bands seem to go for the name, rather than what that producer is actually able to do for their songs. No one cares about the name, and that money is usually better places elsewhere, like marketing -- especially at the level of career you're talking about. #1 is by far the most important though. And the most difficult for many bands to grasp and actually follow through with.
    KG6_Steven
    One small pointer: When writing and using acronyms, please make sure to define the acronym at least once. You used the term CV several times, but failed to tell us what CV means. Constant Velocity? Chula Vista? Chocolate Velociraptor? Other than that, it was a good article.
    scarter1192
    Honestly it's about finding a diamond in the rough producer. There are A LOT of small time producers who charge around a grand for an album, but give you quality that is on par with professional studios. That's what my band did and it turned out great.
    postmortemspasm
    Agree with pretty much everything, except you can home record for a lot less than what he states. If you already have a decent computer, you only need software and an audio interface, and you don't need to spend anywhere near 200 pounds for an interface. So for pro level recording, your looking at 100 pounds if you use free software or pirate. I know all this because I can do pro level recordings on my 80 pound interface. And I mean PRO. Good article nonetheless.
    Deaderzombie
    A lot of people are saying that you should go for the 1000 for the studio time, but with the gear he suggested you can get fine sounding music. I don't know if it's just me, but I don't care if a song has extremely good quality, or subpar quality. As long as you're not playing through a toaster you can make a song sound amazing. It's all about the actual song, not the quality.You have bands making beautiful music with 4 track tape recorders. Some bands can't make music that well even if they spend 10,000.
    GaryBillington
    Nobody can become an audio superman overnight.
    This is the most important thing in this article. Most bands who want to record an album don't want to wait several years while they learn the necessary skills. That's why it's better to use a professional studio for creating your album. Recording yourself at home is a fun hobby, I enjoy it, but if you want to record a professional album you need a professional to do it for you.
    Fat g0r0T
    "Its possible to record a pro-quality album for next to nothing, and in this article Im going to tell you how to do that." 1. "Spends 2000 on equipment" 2. "7 years learning how to record,mix,master" 3. "????" 4. "Head explodes!!"
    CrossBack7
    While I agree that you won't become an audio superman overnight, it's good to have a guy who has some experience with that type of stuff in your band. Unless your band is pretty serious and trying to make it big, making an album over the course of a few months is a fun and interesting experience. You will learn much and your music will likely progress as you hear how things sound, etc. It's possible to do it either way, but it IS possible to get a pretty good sound on your own if you've been messing with recording for a few years. Most of the results you'll get from a typical small city studio won't impress you much anyways. Also, this guy doesn't account for drum mics at all, and you simply aren't going to get a good drum sound with a single SM58 at all. Expect to drop at least another $400-500 on those.
    Good_Lord
    VERY interesting article, I'm definitely saving for some recording material for this summer !
    Rovan Deon
    One good point that this article brings up is recording, sequencing, arrangement, mixing and mastering are all skills that you will need, but they are skills you can learn. Sounds like making an investment in yourself will definitely win out here. Nice article James. Signed: The Duke
    IWasMaiden93
    He mentions a lot of the equipment you should already have in the article... Read before commenting
    Soujiro89
    Really good article! I appreciate all the tips. Some of them I had already thought of, like getting my own equiment. But you really got me thinking on the last point. Who gives you feedback. It must be someone you know, but also someone who understands what kind of music you are trying to make. If you are aiming for an Aerosmith style and you show your first material to a Lady Gaga fan, he/she may not find it as good as it may actually be.
    liam_monster
    Having done the band thing when I was younger I can relate to a lot of these points. Organisation and agreeing on your songs is really important, more so for recording than playing live. I feel using an up and coming local producer is definitely the best and easiest way and is relatively inexpensive. We recorded an EP in about a day and given that there were 4 of us in the band to divide the cost by it didn't seem that bad (I can't remember exactly how much it cost). I also left happy with the recording, it sounded better than we actually sounded. I've also messed around with recording myself using sonar cakewalk but it is a lot to learn and you're equipment is going to be inferior to what the up and coming local producer can do. I think the local guy is the best idea. Unless maybe if you're just a solo artist with your voice and an acoustic, in which case it's easy to get a good sound yourself.
    JonChorba
    Very good article. Point #3 can not be stressed enough. Just because you own studio equipment, doesn't mean anything if you can't get the most out of it. If you are going to invest the money into the equipment, you need to invest the time as well.
    sim_1113
    Mixing and recording your sound just the way you want it definitely isn't easy, but with practice you can actually make some pretty good recordings(and good equipment). The thing about paying for a recording is, you are paying so you don't have to put forth all the time, effort and headaches of recording. It's no different than paying a landscaper to fix up your home. He's going to do a job better than you, even though you could do it yourself. Considering you have money, of course. And that's the point of the article. Lol
    sim_1113
    As someone who's been recording several of my own bands for the past 7 years, I would have to agree with this guy^ It is a HUGE pain in the ass to go through trial and error to learn to use all of your tools, and by no means easy to get a good quality recording. You have to work for it, and by this stage, Ive almost got enough money saved for a studio so I'm DONE with home recordings for a while
    sfaune92
    W4T3V3R wrote: 1. "Its possible to record a pro-quality album for next to nothing, and in this article Im going to tell you how to do that." 2. *stuff* 3."Thats a total of 2735" I must have missed where he defined 'next to nothing'. This article should have been called, "there is a reason a ferrari costs more than a porche, its better". There is a reason studios charge 1000 a day, they'll give you a better recording than you'll ever get without investing the same amount of money into the equipment, education and time spent practising the art.
    Well, usually, you've got your own computer, guitar, bass and amps, so remove that from the equation and it costs less than 1000.
    Dan Acheron
    Great article! Some great tips on ways to save money when recording for an album. I learned point #1 the hard way and it cost me a good amount of money.
    Tster
    nice read! I don't agree with everything but some great tips!
    Tallica9000
    CrossBack7 wrote: While I agree that you won't become an audio superman overnight, it's good to have a guy who has some experience with that type of stuff in your band. Unless your band is pretty serious and trying to make it big, making an album over the course of a few months is a fun and interesting experience. You will learn much and your music will likely progress as you hear how things sound, etc. It's possible to do it either way, but it IS possible to get a pretty good sound on your own if you've been messing with recording for a few years. Most of the results you'll get from a typical small city studio won't impress you much anyways. Also, this guy doesn't account for drum mics at all, and you simply aren't going to get a good drum sound with a single SM58 at all. Expect to drop at least another $400-500 on those.
    I agree. We mic up the drumkit with a single SM57 and it sounds...okay. The drums are present but the volume varies and some things are more washed out etc.
    Deathhead93
    It was a nice read. Would just like to ask some things: Wouldn't any musician serious enough to record an album or an EP or a demo have their own equipment, I mean I've never met a guitarist that doesn't have an amp. Secondly, by USB recording interface, would that be like the LightSnake (I believe it is called) which is a USB -> Lead cable that you use inbetween a guitar/bass to record into a computer? By the way if anyone reading this is interested in the thing I mentioned above, the LightSnake has a built in soundcard and sounds great.
    Deathhead93
    To add to what I said about the LightSnake. I just found out you can get them for pretty much everything. So guitar/bass, microphone and so on, not only guitar and bass.
    led_sevenfold
    KG6_Steven wrote: One small pointer: When writing and using acronyms, please make sure to define the acronym at least once. You used the term CV several times, but failed to tell us what CV means. Constant Velocity? Chula Vista? Chocolate Velociraptor? Other than that, it was a good article.
    In this contexts its pretty self explanitory what he means by cv,
    7orch
    I've probably spent about 3000-5000 on my home studio all things considered. I'm really happy with the sounds I'm capable of producing. But for sure, nearly everything in this article is recording for dummies type stuff
    crozers
    i bought a fender amp which had abolten live with it and fuse and amplitude all for 90 i have a 300 computer and it does fine also you can get audacity which is free
    Zelos45
    It's definitely a good start, I agree completely. To get a truly professional sound though you will need an electric drum kit (ranges in price) for tracking midi (sounds better than programming, more options), superior drummer 2.0 and expansion ($400) Cubase, Logic, or Pro tools, not reaper ($600), and an Axe FX ($2300) for professional unsimulated sounding guitars and bass. It's a bit more expensive, but these are things that can be bought over time and freely added on while recording or after recording with previous gear.
    ibanez350mdx
    My old band recorded an album for free. We got our music together and pre-sold CDs to a lot of friends. we sold a 100 cds at $10 a piece and just bought some studio time. Since we had our stuff together we pretty much walked in and recorded the whole thing in a day and didn't spend a dime.
    TCRGuitar
    Great article...no nonsense just get it done attitude...I like it. It all makes a whole lot of sense to me. And hes not saying that you need to purchase all of the equipment, he is simply do a cost comparison with stuff most musicians have making his point even stronger. Thanks for taking the time to write this, Jeff...very helpful to guys like me that are trying to get things going...very motivational...It can be done without a million dollars.
    the deacon
    james- very good article. i would agree that the #1 thing that artists/bands need to do is be organized and play tight. playing with a click track also takes some getting used to as well