Music Business Underground is a column attempting to put the business of being a musician in real, attainable, and actionable terms for the non-established musician.  Upcoming topics include tour booking, licensing, distribution, design, publicity, manufacturing, and more.  


Music Business Underground has now covered how to start a musical project, how to get songs written, how to book a local performance, how to present your music to a live audience, and how to promote your own events.  This month we are discussing how to get your music recorded.

It is true that we live in the age of the home studio.  Professional recording equipment and software is cheaper and more accessible than ever.

However, there is a lot to be said for experience and education, not to mention the high-end equipment of a professional studio.  If you have not spent time with other recording engineers in the studio or in a school, your odds of creating a professional product are greatly diminished.  Young bands are right to experiment with home recording to make demo tapes or direct to Bandcamp demos. But, when you decide to take the plunge into making a professional manufactured album, I highly recommend that you save your dollars and record with a professional recording engineer.

Organize Your Arrangements

First things first, get your songs together.  Make a list of the songs you want to record and rehearse them until you have them sounding as you want them.  Take notes on what instruments and vocals are being performed on each song.

Decide whether or not you want to record overdubs on your songs.  These are generally used to make a song sound fuller on the recording.  Common overdubs include doubling the primary vocal, harmonizing with vocals, recording extra guitars to create a denser tone, and recording extra percussion such as shakers or hand claps.  Overdubs are often beneficial to a smaller ensemble trying to create a bigger sound.

Once you have notes on all of your songs and what you want to record for each, record demos if at all possible.  If you have access to multi-tracking software such as Garage Band, use it so that you can test out your overdub ideas.  If not, even just recording yourselves performing live on a smart phone can let you hear the songs back for critique.  Listen to the demos and adjust your arrangements in order to play to your strengths and play down your weaknesses.

Find Your Engineer

Once you have your songs in order, find an engineer.  As in all things music, the best place to start is by asking your peers who they recommend working with and by checking the credits on favorite records made by other musical acts at your level.

In choosing an engineer, make sure that you discuss your vision for your music.  Provide your demos.  Make sure that you and the engineer seem to be a good fit.  These songs may forever be colored by your decision.

Also, make sure to discuss how much time and money must be allotted to achieve the product that you are seeking to create.  While some great albums have been made in a day (Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose and Oozing Wound’s Retrash come to mind), that essentially means these albums were recorded live, without overdubs, by extremely well-prepared bands.  I tend to find that for the common indie release, it takes about a day per song to record and mix.  This includes time to track basic arrangements live, overdub vocals and other instruments, and then mix.  An act can easily spend more time and money by being less prepared or by having a loftier vision.

In The Studio

Once you are in the studio, be prepared.  Be well-rehearsed.  Be well-fed.  And, remember that your time is precious.  Use those load in skills for quickly setting up at shows to quickly set up in the studio.  Make sure the engineer is not waiting on you.

Keep a progress chart so that you can quickly find the next step in recording at any time.  I often see bands with charts like this posted up in the studio while making an album:

Sample Recording Chart

Be aware of when you are spinning your wheels or becoming fatigued while playing.  Likewise, be aware of your engineer’s ears being fatigued.  Take a break or change tasks when needed, in order to stay focused and productive.

Once you reach the mixing stage, I have found that it has been most productive for me to leave the engineer alone to mix and then rejoin to critique the mix with fresh ears.  Otherwise, your view of the track can often be tainted by things the engineer simply has not had the time to fix yet.

Mastering

It is important to get your recordings mastered.  This is probably the most foreign step to most less-experienced musicians.  Once you have your mixes, send them off to a mastering professional who will then pick through the details of the mix reducing noise, adding volume, balancing the EQ, unifying the album’s sound, and preparing it to fit on the radio alongside other professional albums.

I highly recommend that you master with someone who was NOT your recording engineer.  By the time you finish an album, your engineer is simply too close to the recording to have a fresh, objective view of what needs to happen to finally bring the album to finish.

Some good record mastering professionals include Focus Mastering, Saff Mastering, Lucky Lacquers, and The Gradwell House.

Featured Interviews: Central Illinois Recording Engineers

Luke McNeill - Photo by Patrick Houdek

Luke McNeill – Photo by Patrick Houdek

Luke McNeill

Producer and Engineer at Capitol City Recording
Springfield, IL

PEN: What are some favorite acts that you have worked with?

LM: As far as mixing, I’m really happy with how the last Copyrights album “Report” turned out. The Horrible Things album Everybody Else was tracked, mixed, and mastered in my studio, and I’m happy with the way that turned out. We did it in about two days time. The new Dan Vapid All Wound Up is coming out soon, and I feel that sonically, it turned out great.

PEN: What do you feel is the most important thing for an act to know/do before entering the studio to record?

LM: I would say that being humble is the best virtue in the studio. Sometimes, suggestions to cut a verse or chorus or simplify a part is really what is best for the song. I know it’s super hard for the person that wrote it to be ok with any changes, but it’s good to be able to know when the suggestions really are for the best.

PEN: What is your biggest pet peeve about acts going in to record?

LM: Without a doubt, the worst drummers always want to do the busiest, most frequent, and complicated fills.

PEN: What is your favorite source for pointers and new ideas for improving recordings?

LM: YouTube has thousands of hours of tutorials on there. It’s just important to be able to sniff out an idiot on there, because obviously anybody can call themselves an audio engineer and upload a video. Tape Op is always a good read too, and it’s a free subscription!

PEN: How would an act go about working with you?

LM: Hit me up at lukemcneill@hotmail.com. I have super reasonable rates, and I can mix and master any project regardless of the software you used to record it.

James Treichler

James Treichler

James Treichler

Audio Producer, Engineer at Earth Analog, Drummer, and Music Educator
Champaign, IL

PEN: What are some favorite acts that you have worked with?

JT: Even though I have many artists whom I’ve built great friendships and working rapport with (and as cliche as it might sound), every act that hires me is my favorite.  …They’ve entrusted me to be a part of bringing their artistic vision to the world.  …Being in a smaller music market (i.e. not Nashville or LA), I feel I get the opportunity to work with an incredibly diverse collection of musicians and instead of picking a genre or two to be considered my wheelhouse, I fully embrace the challenge of understanding the project and the particular needs of the genre both technically and creatively.

PEN: What do you feel is the most important thing for an act to know/do before entering the studio to record?

JT: I co-produced a band this past year with my friend Beau Sorenson who, when approaching a new song with the band asked the question, ‘Are we taking a snapshot or painting a picture?’ Of course there are plenty of analogies for the process of making a great record, but I feel this one hits home when it comes to my job as a producer, and furthermore of a band choosing who to work with and what their expectations are of the project and the people they’ve hired to be a part.  Do you want me to set up some mics and simply document your performance as transparently as possible to the best of my ability?  Or, do you want to get into the details of instrumentation, arrangement, tones and textures, performance, emotional delivery, etc…  Of course, we always have budgets and schedules to deal with, so it’s much easier said than done. I’d just urge bands and musicians to be a little more prepared to express their vision.

PEN: What is your biggest pet peeve about acts going in to record?

JT: Are you nervous about your part or ability to perform it?  Have you been struggling to get your drums to sound how you envision?  Does your vocal not seem to have the emotional impact when recorded that you think it should have?  I’ve been there and found approaches that have helped me and others.  Most people I’ve met in this industry, even those a hundred times more successful than myself, tend to be very helpful people that are genuinely excited to help artists get the recording that they dream of. Just ask.

PEN: What is your favorite source for pointers and new ideas for improving recordings?

JT: I’ve been fortunate to attend some pretty amazing audio conferences and have my mentor, Mark Rubel, working now at arguably one of the best studios in the world that also has an unbelievable educational program (Blackbird Studio in Nashville).  …I met Mark when a band I recorded with had a session at Pogo and it really lit the fire.  Since then, just countless questions directed towards him, Adam Schmitt (a local and legendary producer in his own right), Matt Talbott (owner of Earth Analog and guitarist/singer of Hum), and Beau Sorenson (who has worked with Death Cab for Cutie and a billion others).  Also, honorable mention to the millions of random forums I’ve read at 3AM looking for inspiration for a mix, and, of course, TapeOp magazine (it’s free and amazing).

PEN: How would an act go about working with you?

JT: www.waveuponwave.com – There are some examples of my work and contact information, etc…  I’m always happy to talk details and make sure we’re a good fit.

Erik Nelson of Eclipse Studios

Erik Nelson of Eclipse Studios

Erik Nelson

Engineer, Producer, and Owner of Eclipse Studios, Inc.
Normal, IL

PEN: What are some favorite acts that you have worked with?

EN: I enjoy working with anyone talented who is passionate about their music…but some highlights include Mudvayne, Mindset Evolution, Matthew Curry, Montana of 300, Drugs Delaney, Jojo, and Boyz 2 Men.

PEN: What do you feel is the most important thing for an act to know/do before entering the studio to record?

EN: Preparation is key. Make sure you can play the songs all the way through consistently, and make sure to work out trouble spots BEFORE coming into the studio. If you are planning to record to a click track (recommended), make sure that you PRACTICE with a click track and that you can stay on it! Also, make sure your gear works! I don’t know how many times people have come in with messed up amps, messed up guitars, broken cymbals, and/or worn-out drum heads.

PEN: What is your biggest pet peeve about acts going in to record?

EN: Lack of preparation.

PEN: What is your favorite source for pointers and new ideas for improving recordings?

EN: Articles online. I don’t have a specific source, but my engineer friends post links fairly often that contain cool techniques. Also, LISTEN to music and use trial-and-error to capture the sound you want. You’ll learn a lot on the way there.

PEN: How would an act go about working with you?

EN: Reach out to me through the website (www.eclipsestudios.net) or by phone at 309-452-0906 (studio) and 309-287-4676 (cell).

Jeff Gregory

Jeff Gregory

Jeff Gregory

Engineer at Earth Analog and at Home Studio
Peoria, IL

PEN: What are some favorite acts that you have worked with?

JG: Some favorite acts include theSTART, Deadsy, The Bugs, Kuwahara, Lark’s Tongue, Tina Sparkle, Super 88, and of course all of my personal band projects like The Occupants of Six Across, The Migration, Encounter at L-5, and my newest project, Charmist.

PEN: What do you feel is the most important thing for an act to know/do before entering the studio to record?

JG: Three things:
1. It’s great to know the material like the back of your hand, but don’t over-rehearse to the point where all of the life-force has been sucked out of the song.
2. You will probably receive a lot of responses saying “new drum heads and strings”, which in my experience always leads to tuning issues. Better to change heads and strings a week prior to the session and break them in a bit beforehand.
3. Nutrition is vital to a positive mindset. Avoid greasy foods during sessions, stay well hydrated, and don’t over-caffeinate.

PEN: What is your biggest pet peeve about acts going in to record?

JG: Ordering food during the session without asking me if I want anything. This is usually followed by some request to edit, setup microphones, etc. while the band eats.

PEN: What is your favorite source for pointers and new ideas for improving recordings?

JG: An experienced mentor will always trump recording magazines and internet forums.

PEN: How would an act go about working with you?

JG: I am no longer accepting new clients or projects. I am in the “twilight years” of a 20 year recording career and focused on other pursuits at this time.

Mark Wyman

Mark Wyman

Mark Wyman

Engineer at Earth Analog and at Home Studio
Champaign-Urbana, IL

PEN: What are some favorite acts that you have worked with?

MW: Getting to work with Planes Mistaken for Stars was pretty cool. I was assisting Sanford Parker, but it was amazing to see Sanford work, and I got to help one of my favorite bands get dialed in and up and running. I got to do some drums for Elsinore’s upcoming album. I just did The Radiation Babies from tracking to mastering. I did some of the tracking for my band We The Animals’ new album. I tracked the ZXO drums to tape, which I’m super proud of.

PEN: What do you feel is the most important thing for an act to know/do before entering the studio to record?

MW: The best thing a band can do before going in to the studio is PRACTICE. Know the songs you are recording inside and out. I think I come off as pretty intense when I get called on to work with a band. I like to meet with them in person and find out everything from song length to what kind of kick pedal the drummer uses. Hopefully this helps them feel more prepared when they walk in to the studio, because one of my goals is to minimize guesswork.

PEN: What is your biggest pet peeve about acts going in to record?

MW: Ha! I guess “please quit blowing smoke into the $8,000 microphone,” is something I’ve had to say repeatedly. That’s pretty annoying.

PEN: What is your favorite source for pointers and new ideas for improving recordings?

MW: I’m always watching Pensado episodes, reading Tape Op, nerding out on forums, and keeping up with Mark Rubel. My good buddy James Treichler is great with ProTools, and he has been a great help to me a few times.

PEN: How would an act go about working with you?

MW: The best way to get ahold of me is my email, which is markwyman1981@gmail.com. Or, just message me on Facebook, of course.

Guthrie Moore

Guthrie Moore

Guthrie Moore

Engineer at Home Studio
West Peoria, IL

PEN: What are some favorite acts that you have worked with?

GM: I’ve only officially recorded a few bands including my own. Cold Grip is always fun to record. I’m currently working on Reduced To Instinct and it’s sounding great.

PEN: What do you feel is the most important thing for an act to know/do before entering the studio to record?

GM: Before entering the studio you need to have your tempos and riffs in order. All the band members need to be on the same page and have a collective idea of what they want the record to sound like.

PEN: What is your biggest pet peeve about acts going in to record?

GM:  I don’t know if it’s a pet peeve, but the drummer needs to have his parts figured out ahead of time.

PEN: What is your favorite source for pointers and new ideas for improving recordings?

GM: I generally use the internet and talk to other recording guys like Jeremiah Lambert and Kevin Rendleman.

PEN: How would an act go about working with you?

GM: Anyone can send me a message on Facebook and reserve a Saturday or Sunday.