Music Recording, Editing, Mixing and Mastering: How Do You Know If You're Good Enough to Do It Yourself?
In my last blog post - "DIY Music Recording and Production: It Doesn't Have to Be All or Nothing!" - I offered some tips on how to decide what parts of the music production process you can/should handle yourself and for what parts you should look to a specialist for help. Those parts included tracking, editing, mixing and mastering.
The advice was all based on a self-assessment and whether you felt your skills were up to snuff on those parts. But, sometimes it can be hard to do a truly objective self-assessment.
For example, for mixing, I wrote that you need skills such as EQ'ing instruments and voices, smoothing out musical passages using compression, and knowing how to use automation properly, among other things. But, how do you know if you're actually good enough at those things?
Well, here's an approach you can take.
Let's say that you're planning on releasing a 10-song album. You recently got a DAW like Pro Tools and have learned how to navigate around it. You are considering handling all of the production yourself.
You record a song. You mix it. It sounds good to your ears. Maybe even better than you thought it would sound.
But, major label artists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to record, mix and master their music. It can't be this easy, right? Is there something that could be better about the sound of your album if you paid professionals to work on it?
Well, there's one way to find out.
Consider taking that song you've recorded and mixed yourself. See if you can find a recording and/or mastering studio to mix it and/or master it.
You'll pay their rate. But, it will only be for one song, so it's not like you'll be paying a fortune or committing to having your entire album done. And the results will tell you a valuable story.
You will likely arrive at one of the following conclusions:
Regardless of the outcome of this experiment, if you're truly interested in ensuring that you have a respectable recording of your music available to release, having one song mixed and/or mastered as a "test" is usually money well-spent.
Before and After Music Group is happy to do one-off mixes and mastering, whether or not there is a potential for more songs to be mixed/mastered. Our rates are some of the most affordable, helping you not to invest too much in something that could end up being a "test." Of course, we think our work could end up being so impressive you have all of your music mixed and/or mastered by us!
So, feel free to contact us to discuss the ideas you have for your music recording project. We'd be happy to share our thoughts on how you can get the most out of your DIY approach, while bringing in a professional where necessary to enhance it. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-600-8241.
When average musicians think about music recording and production, they think of two approaches: the professional approach and the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach.
The professional approach involves going into a well-equipped recording studio with an experienced, professional engineer for tracking, overdubbing, editing and mixing, then shipping off your mixes to an experienced, professional mastering studio for mastering. The DIY approach is where the artist does everything themselves using consumer-level hardware and software.
The DIY approach is usually chosen to save money. The results are often - but not necessarily always - less impressive with the DIY approach.
Today, I'm here to tell you that a hybrid approach is a valid third approach. It allows you to save money while not sacrificing too much quality.
The key to getting the right balance of the DIY and professional approaches is to honestly evaluate what skills and resources are needed and what you have available to you, then choosing what you do yourself and what you leave to the professionals. Let's break down "music production" into a few of its phases and talk about the skills and resources needed for each phase.
Tracking & Overdubbing
Tracking and overdubbing are phases that require the least technical skill. And except for recording drums, they are phases that require fewer technical resources. For everything except drums, you will need the following skills and resources:
For recording drums, you will need microphones for each drum as well as overheads. Generally, you can get away with basic instrument microphones and stands/clips for each drum except the kick drum, which will require a kick drum-specific microphone. Overhead microphones are usually condenser microphones designed for that particular purpose. And, you need a room acoustically appropriate for drum recording. Some people choose to take a different approach with drums, either programming them using a software program or tracking them as MIDI.
Some artists do all of their tracking and overdubbing themselves. Others do none of the tracking and overdubbing themselves. And it's not uncommon for artists to record their drums in a professional studio and do the balance of tracking and overdubbing in a DIY fashion.
Some aspects of editing, like making timing corrections, can be done within the bones of the DAW. Others, like vocal tuning, require third-party plug-ins. And, if you want a recording that is competitive with what comes out of pro studios - some may, some may not - you will need to do vocal tuning. So, in addition to what you needed for Tracking & Overdubbing, you will also need:
If you are taking a hybrid approach to music production, you can choose to editing yourself or send your recording to a professional for editing. I will say this...if the vocals require a little more TLC than just a nudge of a note here or there, having vocal editing done by an experienced professional will result in the vocals sounding a lot more natural.
Mixing is where specialized skill and experience really separates professionalism from amateurism. Someone's first mix ever will not sound anywhere close to a mix done by an experienced professional. That's because a common misconception is that mixing is just balancing the volume of instruments and voices. It's much more than that. While mixing can be done within a DAW using built-in capabilities, here are the additional skills needed for a good mix:
If you've never mixed a recording before and want to publicly release a recording that is taken seriously yet still allows you to take advantage of the cost savings that a DIY approach offers, mixing is a smart place to start getting professionals involved.
Even when a record label-caliber recording is done in a professional recording studio, it is usually sent to an independent mastering specialist for mastering services. The prevailing logic is two-fold: someone who specializes in mastering will be much better at it than someone who does recording but dabbles in mastering, and having a separate mastering specialist means that you will have two music industry professionals putting their talent to work to make your recording sound its absolute best.
So, naturally, even if you've done tracking, overdubbing, editing and mixing yourself, it's to your benefit to have a professional do your mastering. In fact, I'd say that if you only have one process performed by someone else, it should be mastering. It's the last chance you have to make a sonic improvement to your music before it goes to streaming or physical product manufacturing. And, it's usually less expensive than vocal editing or mixing. You'll give yourself the opportunity to at least have one music industry professional contribute to the quality of your recording.
If you want to do mastering yourself, you should know that DAW's are generally not designed to do mastering. There are some people who try to do mastering within a DAW with its built-in plug-ins. But, that's not really true mastering. Here are the additional skills and resources you need to do mastering:
Obviously, if money were no object, every musical artist would have the best producers, recording engineers, mixing engineers and mastering engineers work on their recordings. But, money is an object. So, some situations require a DIY approach to enable artists to get their music out there on a limited budget. Therefore, it's good to think through what you can accomplish yourself and, if you do have some budget available, where you might be able to afford a music industry professional to enhance your work.
Before and After Music Group is a company that specializes in mastering. If you would like to have at least one outside company take your DIY project to the next level, we'd love to hear from you and discuss what we can do for your music. Contact us at email@example.com or 412-600-8241!
There are a lot of variables that go into the cost of professionally recording and releasing an album. Whether you self-produce or hire a professional producer, how many modern production techniques you use, and how much perfection you seek in your takes all play a role and make it difficult to give you a one-size-fits-all number.
However, there are some commonalities in what I'd consider a "typical" recording process that can help you get on the dartboard, if not hit the bullseye, when estimating the cost of your next album. So, I will focus this article on a "typical" situation, giving you the caveat that mileage may vary in your particular situation.
This approach assumes that you'll be recording with an engineer, but not a separate producer. A producer, in a professional sense, takes a very hands-on approach with the artist: co-writing and arranging songs, changing parts, rehearsing and coaching performances, etc. The compensation for that type of pro producer is usually quite high and, therefore, will not be a part of this calculation.
First, let's talk about four variables that you need to get values for before beginning the calculation of your recording and release costs. Those are:
A. Studio Hourly Rate (SHR): Most more professional studios will charge an hourly rate, many of which range between $50 and $75 per hour. If it's a studio where noteworthy national acts record, that rate can go way up. Some studios may only offer "blocks" of hours, like a half day/4 hours or full day/8 hours. In those cases, just divide the block cost by the number of hours you get to determine the hourly rate. We'll be doing a lot of multiplying by the SHR, so make sure you get actual numbers and don't assume what you'll be charged.
B. Number of Songs (NS): This is simple - how many songs are you going to record?
C. Number of Drum Days (NDD): In the recording of many albums, usually drums are tracked first and tracked all at once as opposed to the band laying down a whole song before starting a new song. One of the reasons for this is that drum set up takes a long time. We'll get to that in more detail in a minute. But, for now, focus on estimating the number of days you will spend recording drums. This may vary but, in my experience, five songs is kind of the maximum number of average-length songs for which you can track drums in a single day. So, even if you only are recording six songs, if you use five songs as the max per drum day, you will need two drum days. There is no fraction of a drum day...if you set the drums up, it's a full drum day.
D. Number of Parts (NP): Now, you need to think of breaking down the number of parts your songs have. A drum track is one part. A bass track is one part. Each guitar track is one part. An overdubbed guitar solo is one part. A lead vocal track is one part. A backing vocal track where all members of the band sing at the same time is one part. If you have harmony vocals where three different band members will record three different parts separately, those would be three parts. Whatever instrument or voice needs to be recorded on its own track represents a discrete part for the purpose of this calculation.
Now that you've determined values for these variables, you can start plugging those variables into a calculation. The calculation is a master calculation separated into sub-calculations for five of the phases of recording and releasing music: Tracking, Editing, Mixing, Mastering and Distribution.
1. The Cost of Tracking
First, you need to calculate the set up time for the drums. For first time recorders, this cost can be an unpleasant surprise as it can often take around two hours just to set up the drums, get them mic'd, get them sound checked, etc.
So, multiply the number of drum days by the studio hourly rate by two: NDD x SHR x 2.
This is your drum set up cost.
Next, understand that - in my experience - it takes around an average of a half-hour per part per song if you're reasonably prepared. If you're not, it can take much longer. So, let's count on you being reasonably prepared.
So, multiply your number of songs by the number of parts by the studio hourly rate by 0.5 (i.e., a half-hour): NS x NP x SHR x 0.5
This is your parts recording cost.
Add the drum set up cost to the parts recording cost to get your cost of tracking. Expressed algebraically, this would be
((NDD x SHR x 2) + (NS x NP x SHR x 0.5))
2. The Cost of Editing
Editing involves a lot of things. Taking noise out in the silence between parts, tuning vocals, quantizing drums and other things. In my experience, the average song requires about two hours of editing.
(NS x SHR x 2)
3. The Cost of Mixing
Mixing times can vary. I've witnessed professional mixing done in as little as three hours per song (for a full band) to as many as 10 hours per song. I will plug three hours into the formula. Ask your recording engineer for the typical amount of mixing time he/she/they spend and use that number instead.
(NS x SHR x 3)
4. The Cost of Mastering
Mastering costs can vary wildly. The mastering studios that major labels use can run thousands of dollars per song. The mastering studios that indie labels and independent artists use will typically run between $50 and $150 per song. Before and After Music Group's mastering services, are on the lower end of that price scale but the upper end of the quality scale.
As I've written about before, there is a huge benefit to identifying your preferred mastering studio BEFORE you even begin recording. So, reach out to a mastering studio sooner rather than later and learn your price.
(NS x Per Song Mastering Cost)
5. The Cost of Distribution
There are several digital music distribution service providers out there who can get your music on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, etc. Their prices are often in the form of a per-album fee or an annual subscription. Per album fees can be lower but, if you are planning several releases in the same year, an annual subscription may make more sense. There are other differences, so I encourage you to research the many options and go with the one that fits best with your objectives.
Because both per album and annual subscription rates top out at around $30 (US), just use $30 for the sake of calculating the cost of distribution.
The Master Calculation
You need to add the costs of Tracking, Editing, Mixing, Mastering and Distribution together to come up with an estimate of the total cost of your project (not including the manufacture of physical products like CD's or vinyl).
Combined together, the calculation (in US dollars) is:
((NDD x SHR x 2) + (NS x NP x SHR x 0.5)) + (NS x SHR x 2) + (NS x SHR x 3) + (NS x Per Song Mastering Cost) + 30
Because many musicians don't release how long it takes to set up drums, or how long it takes to track a three-minute song, or how much editing is involved, this calculation may make it seem like it is more expensive than anticipated to record and release an album. But, hopefully, having this calculation - put together after lots of experience - will enable you to more accurately estimate your costs and avoid unpleasant surprises.
Before and After Music Group specializes in music mastering. We'd love for you to consider us to help get your music to reach its sonic potential. Contact us!
As I wrote in my post "9 Steps for Releasing Your Music," mastering is "the final – and critically important – process in getting your recorded music to sound as professional as possible." It is preceded by mixing, which is preceded by editing, which is preceded by overdubbing, which is preceded by tracking.
So, it's natural to think that selecting a mastering studio doesn't need to be done until you are done mixing, or close to it.
But, it's actually not smart to wait that long.
And the reason isn't obvious unless you know a little technical tidbit about recording. Fortunately, that technical tidbit is relatively easy to understand, even if you're not an audio professional.
So, here goes...
Mastering studios will have preferred or required characteristics of mixes that help them make the greatest improvement in your music. One of those is "headroom."
In digital recording, you have meters that show the volume of each vocal or instrument channel. You also have a single meter showing the volume of the mix - where all instruments are combined into a stereo channel representing left and right speakers. The channel for this meter is called the "master bus."
These meters generally light up green (from the bottom to the middle of the meter and denoting acceptable volume), yellow (from the upper-middle to the near-top of the meter and denoting closeness to too loud), and red (the top of the meter and denoting definitively too loud). When a meter hits red in a digital recording, there is an unpleasant sound, kind of like a click, which is called "clipping."
There are numbers alongside the meter which rise from negative numbers to 0. The point where clipping occurs is 0dBFS, which means 0 decibels full scale. You always want every channel and the master bus below 0dBFS.
The distance between the loudest part of a signal during a song - the "peak" - and 0dBFS is called headroom. Most mastering studios will ask for a certain amount of headroom.
For example, we - Before and After Music Group - ask for 3-6 dB of headroom. This means that the loudest part of your song should ideally not rise above -6dB on your studio's master bus and definitely not rise above -3dB on your studio's master bus.
If you're curious why headroom is needed, it's to ensure that clipping is avoided in mastering, too. When a mastering engineer makes improvements to your recording - like boosting frequencies to give a recording more nationally-competitive bottom end or simply raising the overall volume of your recording after compressing it to an optimal dynamic range - that can push a recording closer to clipping. The more headroom we mastering engineers have to work with, the more improvements we can make without being slaves to the possibility of clipping.
Still unsure what that has to do with selecting a mastering studio early?
Well, when recording engineers begin a mix, they should have the target levels in mind.
For example, I start mixing by dialing in the drums. If I know I have to leave 6dB of headroom, I will set levels for the drums so that - when soloed - they peak at around -11dB on the master bus. I know from experience that adding the other instruments in a standard rock song will add another 5-ish dB to the mix volume. So, when I have dialed everything else in, my mix should peak around -6dB.
Some experienced recording and mixing engineers even "mix as they go." This means that, once the drums are tracked, they will set their faders to peak at a certain level so they are kind of "partially mixed" as other instruments are being recording on top of them.
Therefore, it can be extremely helpful for your mixing engineer to know this before beginning a mix or, possibly, even beginning recording. If the mixing engineer doesn't know this up-front, s/he might complete an entire mix only to later learn that it doesn't jive well with the mastering studio's specs and that could result in more work to be done.
For you, the musician, the client, that could mean more money spent unnecessarily.
Don't let that happen. Decide on your mastering studio early. Get their specs. Share those specs with your mixing engineer before the mix begins. And let your mastering studio do the best job it can with improving the sound of your recording thanks to having a mix prepared ideally for them.
Before and After Music Group would love to be selected as your mastering studio. If you want to ask us questions about mastering or get some guidance on how to navigate the music production process to get the best sounding final product for your music, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-600-8241.
“We’re gonna release an album this year!”
How many bands say this?
It has to be millions, right? And how many of those bands have all of the steps of their album release planned out in advance?
I’d guess a very small percentage.
But it shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Knowing what the steps are in the music release process and planning them have tremendous benefits for a band, including:
STEP 1: SONGWRITING (& REWRITING)
Obviously, before you record music, you have to create it. To many bands, writing a song is something that is done in one session. And, undoubtedly, many hits throughout the years were recorded where the melody, lyrics, music, etc. were exactly the same as first day the songs came into existence.
But, for most songs, there is room for improvement after the first day. What’s the best part of your song? Maybe it’s the riff. Maybe it’s the chorus. Maybe it’s the opening line.
What can you do to make every part of the song that good? There’s probably something you can improve. So, don’t think of songwriting as an activity that takes place in one hour then you’re done. Allow yourself time to craft your song. To challenge yourself to make it just a little bit – or a lot – better.
Don’t rush the songwriting process. Allow yourself time to make each song the best it can be.
STEP 2: REHEARSING
When musicians think of releasing music, their thoughts will drift to the recording studio. Ah, isn’t it alluring to think of being in a studio, surrounded by gear that is too complicated for you to understand, and being on the precipice of making history?
Sure. The studio is a place to make history. It is not a place to figure out what you are going to sing or play!
Studio time can be expensive – $60, $75 or even more per hour. So, you want to make efficient use of your time. Figuring out the notes you sing on a part or how you will play a guitar solo is not something you want to be doing while the proverbial meter is running.
Know what you’re going to sing or play once it’s your turn in the studio’s live room or isolation booth. Rehearse your parts so that they are so second nature that you’re likely to nail them perfectly in just one or two takes. Then, the time you spend in the studio will simply be executing what you’ve prepared.
It’s expensive to do it any other way. Not to mention that the results could be disappointing if you don’t go in prepared to kill it.
STEP 3: PRE-PRODUCTION
Pre-production is kind of a mysterious term. That’s because only professional musical artists and serious amateurs do it. If you want to be serious about getting the best recording you can, you should include pre-production activities as part of your music release process.
Pre-production involves all activities associated with tying up all loose ends prior to going into the studio. It’s when you make sure that your songs and your musicians are ready for the tracking step. Ideally, the pre-production step will end with you having a home demo of your songs.
Here are a sample of some of the things you should hope to accomplish in pre-production.
STEP 4: TRACKING (ALLOW 2+ HOURS PER SONG + SETUP TIME)
At this point, you are in the studio. Finally!
The tracking phase is where each musician – sometimes simultaneously, often individually – records his or her primary part of each song. If you engaged in pre-production activities, not much should be a surprise here, but merely a matter of execution. If you did not engage in pre-production activities, there may be many surprises.
One key thing to be prepared for is that, if you have a good engineer/producer tracking your project, you can expect feedback on your performance as you track. Maybe the engineer heard a vocal line that was delivered with too little confidence, or a guitar part that had some string noise, or a drum fill where the rim of the drum was hit, or some other subtle imperfection.
A good engineer will ask you to re-record your parts when he or she feels you can do better. That’s OK. No need to get frustrated. The more takes you do, the more likely you will end up with one that’s perfect. That’s important. You will have to live with your best take for the rest of your life, so it’s good to have multiple takes from which to choose!
Finally, be aware that you don’t have to do a whole take from the start of a song until the end. You can “punch in” to fix errors in the middle of a song while keeping the good parts of your take.
The amount of time it takes to track a song varies tremendously based on the number of instruments and voices involved and how many takes each musician requires to nail their parts. Don’t be surprised if it takes each musician a half-hour or more per instrument/voice per song to track a song.
Also, don’t be surprised if it takes two hours to load in and mic the drum set. Depending on the studio, you may be charged for this time. If the studio charges, factor that time – possibly over $100 – into your budget.
STEP 5: OVERDUBBING
Some may consider this step to be part of tracking. I like to list it separately, so you’re prepared.
Overdubs are where a musician plays a part that he or she was unable to play during his or her first run-through of the song. For example, your guitarist may want to record a song from start to finish and play the rhythm guitar part where the guitar solo will be, and then record the solo by itself during a separate take. Another example is if your lead vocalist is also singing back up vocals – he or she would sing the lead vocal first, then listen to that lead vocal while recording the backing vocal part.
STEP 6: EDITING (ALLOW 2+ HOURS PER SONG)
Editing is a phase of the recording process that many first-time recording artists didn’t anticipate. Sometimes, a recording process can bounce back and forth between steps 5 and 6, depending on the recording engineer’s workflow. And, while the process of editing isn’t very painful for the musicians, it can chew up hours and add to your total cost of recording. It’s not uncommon for editing to take two or more hours per song. So, it’s important to be financially prepared for editing.
Common tasks done during editing include:
STEP 7: MIXING (ALLOW 3-10 HOURS PER SONG)
Mixing is the process of taking all the instruments and voices and blending them in a sonically pleasing way. This includes not just volume adjustments, but also how strongly each instrument or voice is heard in each ear/speaker (called “panning”). The mixing step also involves applying effects processing – like EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and other special effects – to the mix.
In my experience, I’ve seen songs require between three and 10 hours per song to mix. Ask your recording engineer what is typical for him or her for a band like yours.
STEP 8: MASTERING
Mastering is a step that surprises a lot of new recording artists. “You mean there’s something else I need done after my album’s been mixed?”
Yes. Yes, there is.
Mastering is the final – and critically important – process in getting your recorded music to sound as professional as possible. It also puts your music in a format that meets the technical requirements for radio airplay, streaming on services like Spotify, and CD manufacturing.
You should expect your recording to sound better once mastered. When done well, mastering will:
It’s also important to know what mastering does not do. It does not fix a bad mix – if your vocals are totally buried and you can’t hear what your singer is singing, that’s a mix problem and something that mastering is not designed to address. If there are noises in your mix, mastering won’t take them away.
So, if you’re unhappy with a mix, don’t send it to mastering with the hopes that everything you hate about your mix will disappear. Professional mastering will help your mix sound even better. But, it’s not a cure-all for a bad mix or a miracle.
One last point on mastering…Mastering should not be done by your mix engineer, even if that mix engineer “claims” to be able to master music. Here’s why not:
STEP 9: DISTRIBUTION
After mastering, you will have the files you need to get your music out into the world! There are many services out there who have a web-based process where you upload your music, fill out some info, pay a small fee and they will distribute your music to Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and all the other streaming platforms and digital download sites. These include CD Baby, Distrokid and others. Bandcamp allows you to sell digital downloads right on their site.
There are other services, like Discmakers, that can duplicate your CD’s, vinyl, USB drives, etc. and package digital distribution in. See what’s out there, ask some friends, and choose which service feels like it fits your needs best. Fortunately, there are a lot of good services to choose from!
Well, these 9 steps have covered how you take an idea and eventually get it released as a song. Was this process more involved than you thought?
For most newer recording artists, it is. But, now that you know many of the fine details involved, you are better prepared to get your music out there in a time frame, within a budget, and with a quality production that meets your expectations!
Good luck and please do keep Before and After Music Group in mind for your mastering needs!