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!
Chip Dominick is the CEO and head mastering engineer for Before and After Music Group