The Importance of a Recording Timeline

Written by Mike Harmon

Susan Rogers Berklee Indie Ambassador Tech ResourcesWe’ve all been there. The drummer overslept, the guitarist is late, and the bass player has to leave early to hang out with his girlfriend. None of us enjoy being in this kind of a situation, and that is why having a planned out recording schedule can help improve session flow and save you time (and money). Assuming your band is well rehearsed and prepared for their recording session, there are several steps you will want to take to prevent the session from coming to a screeching halt. The key factor to preparing for a productive recording session is a Session Schedule.

In an interview with Dr. Susan Rogers (Producer/Engineer; Barenaked Ladies, Prince), we learn about the importance of having a plan when entering the studio. When starting a new recording project, what steps can an artist take prior to the first session to familiarize the engineer with their music, instrumentation, and sound?

Susan Rogers: Artists should discuss the upcoming work with their past and future works in mind because in the fullness of time, every recording contributes to your body of work. Discuss some of your past recordings with your producer and engineer to point out what you like and dislike about them.  Distinguish between how you regard the material, the performances, the sounds, and the mixes.  In this way you begin describing the parameters of your new work — what it will and won’t include. Play other artists’ recordings for your producer and engineer to show them what musical and sonic elements you value.  It is very important that everyone understands what is meant by “massive” or “sick” or “tight” or “compressed” or “distorted” so that you have as singular a goal as possible before starting.  Describe the vision for the project, even including an aesthetic idea for the artwork.  This can help the producer understand the project’s overall tone (i.e., powerful, confident, antagonistic, rebellious, brooding genius, sensitive soul, fun guys, angry young men, etc.).  The band should do this collectively and not each corral the engineer and producer to describe an individual vision.

Decide whether you want your recording to be 100% reproducible on stage in a live setting, or whether the recording will stand alone.  In the latter case, discuss whether the recording can include outside musicians or not.  If a harp, a harmonium, or tablas will be used, for example, will you hire a studio musician or play these from samples?

Pre-production is fun because the pressure is light, costs are minimal, and everything is possible.  This is the stage where ideas should flow without self-consciousness or hesitation.  The producer who encourages ideas from artists is the one who is most likely to have his own ideas respected.  The producer must listen very carefully at this stage to identify each player’s performance characteristics and the band’s working dynamic.  Who keeps great time?; Who is continually revising parts?; Who works the most tirelessly?; Who is always on the phone during breaks?; Who gets easily frustrated?

The engineer with the band and producer discusses the purchase of new strings and drumheads; the engineer may prefer certain brands.  If guitars need to be intonated or if amps need to be retubed, this is discussed and done in advance.  Piano tuning is arranged with the studio and included in the budget.  Will you need to hire a drum tuner?  Discuss this together.

IA: Assuming you’re going to be recording several instruments (drums, guitar, bass, keys, vocals) in one session, how much time should be allotted for setup, and should all of the players be present for this stage?

SR: The traditional paradigm allotted at least half a day (6-8 hours) for set up.  With today’s smaller budgets this is not always possible.  The engineer visits the studio in advance and plots out the lay out and mic selection with the assistant, minimizing set up time.   Drums take the longest so the drummer should arrive earlier than the others.  It is vitally important to tune the drum set carefully prior to getting sounds.  Hire a drum tuner if the project’s drummer is not a master of this technique.   The producer monitors set up time by making sure the engineer has the conditions he needs (e.g., don’t let the guitar player be tweaking his amp at full volume while the engineer is getting drum sounds).  Vocalists can take advantage of this time to rest or prepare because they will be needed later in the day.  Engineers and assistants know not to play another artist’s work during set up unless it is expressly for the purpose of listening to a specific sound.  Producers know to keep the band out of the control room so that the engineer can work in peace.

IA: Assuming the band would like to overdub additional instruments, how important is it to abide by a strict timeline that will ensure you’re not spending too much time on any given part?

SR: The timeline of an album depends on the budget and available studio time.  It is the producer’s responsibility to manage both.  Drums, vocals, and mixing are all critical stages that suffer the most from being rushed.  If time must be cut from a project, try to avoid shortchanging any of these.

Typically, parts are worked out “offstage” before bringing a player up to bat.  The engineer should be prepared to give players a 2-mix sound file that they can use to rehearse their parts offstage.  Producers and other band members should give a player enough time to work out a part privately.  The player must recognize that just because he spent time working out a part doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t be changed.  Smart players come up with ideas and run them past other members before getting too committed to them.  Smart band members and producers are tactful when critiquing a part and consider the work that went into it.  If you don’t think the part works, say WHY. How does it conflict with the overall goal of the track or the project?

In the early stages of a project there is enough to do that at any given time, you can do an overdub pretty quickly.  In between instrumental parts, keep the vocalist on standby so that you can always spend an hour or two on vocals.  Having the vocals spread out over many sessions rather than all in one or two days is vital to the singer’s strength and psyche.

IA: If a musician is struggling while recording a particular part, when is it appropriate to shift concentration onto other players or parts still needing to be recorded?

SR: Producers must understand the nature of the struggle. Is it a performance issue or an ideas issue?  If the former, producers must ask gauge the distance in hours between where you are at this moment and where you need to be.  We say to players, “We are hours away from getting this” as well as, “We are nearly there.”  If the producer estimates that progress is being made and the part will be done in minutes or an hour, it is best to keep going.  More than an hour away means that you could do a vocal in that time so send the player to another room to work out the part and move on.  If it is a drum track on a basics session, the same 1-hour rule applies.  Move on to another song and work out the part at the end of the day.

IA: How important is it to factor in time for lunch/dinner breaks, as well as short breaks to give the musicians and engineer a rest?

SR: A fact of studio life is that studio time is very expensive; so are the services of a producer and engineer.  The latter two should expect to work with minimal breaks throughout a day that is at least 12 hours long, in most cases.  Musicians should work as long as they are being productive.  Creative people must rely on craft when art fails them, which it will most of the time.  In other words, when your ideas run dry, there are still things you can do that take craftsmanship alone, such as editing, playing an over-learned part, planning for the next day, etc.  Make the most of every minute in the studio because somewhere out there, your competition is….

That said, being creative means being on “output” and we simply cannot be on output all the time.  Artists need time to soak in life — to be on “input” — so that we have something to create with.  If everyone is mentally and physically exhausted, do not record.  Use the next few hours to go to the movies or go bowling or listen to music or read or take in life.  Do not use the time to make phone calls or pay bills or run errands.  Take time to be on input.

IA: As the band completes the recording stage, how can they work with their engineer to prepare a timeline for the mixing and mastering stages of the record?

SR: For mixing, figure on a minimum of 8-hours per track.  When negotiating with a mixer, decide if he/she is to be paid per track or hourly.  If per track (the better way), discuss how many recalls and how much time should reasonably be spent for this price.  It is very important that the band and producer reach a consensus on mixes and convey their thoughts to the mixer through one spokesperson (usually the producer).  It does not work to have many people each giving the mixer a different idea.  During mixing, the band should be preparing photos, artwork, the website, and booking shows.

Given that today’s projects are often self-financed and budgets are small, the mixer typically relies on other sources of income and cannot devote his/her attention to the project on a full time basis.  He or she must be prepared to give the band a realistic timeline to complete the mixes and then stick to it.  Any major delays should automatically grant the band the right to choose another mixer.

The engineer and producer typically choose the mastering engineer and a mastering date is booked once the mixes are nearing completion.

IA: Are there any other important factors to keep in mind while planning a Recording Timeline for an upcoming recording project?

Pay your bills, call your mom, water your plants, and generally plan to move the world out of your way as you enter a recording project.  Significant others should be on alert that your body and mind will be elsewhere for several weeks.

Under the traditional paradigm, a record took approximately 700 hours on average from start to finish.  That’s roughly 10 weeks of 12-hour days, 6 days a week.  Eight weeks for tracking and overdubs and two weeks for mixing.  (Many great records were made in far less time; this is just an average.)

Mixing an album will still take around 150 hours, or twelve 12-hour days.  Plan  on another 150 hours for tracking and overdubs.  Many of these hours can be spent working in a project studio.  The more you do in preproduction, the fewer hours this will take but be careful not to over-learn the record in preproduction.  The danger is that the recording will sound as though you are just going through the motions and the end result will be stale.  Leave enough time to be creative in the studio.

IA: Thanks Susan!

Dr. Susan Rogers got her start in the record-making business in 1978 as a Studio Maintenance engineer. Throughout her career she has served several roles as an Engineer and Producer, engineering Prince’s “Purple Rain” and producing Barenaked Ladies’ “Stunt,” to name a few. Susan currently teaches classes in the Music Production & Engineering department at Berklee College of Music, and is a partner in the Boston-based, non-profit recording facility The Record Company, offering youth classes in recording technologies. She has also earned her PhD from McGill University in Experimental Psychology.

2 Responses to “The Importance of a Recording Timeline”

  1. Great info! Pre-production seems incredibly important to work out ideas before getting into the studio. I’ve noticed that when you concentrate on recording very specific parts, you get new ideas on the music than you would during regular rehearsals. I think bands should definitely do a cheaper recording on their own to figure out these ideas ahead of time.

    Reading through this, you’ve really re-affirmed my shift to doing singles over full album recordings.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Chris! Singles are a great way to concentrate focus on one product, and result in a faster turnaround. The more prepared you are for a recording session, the more productive the outcome!

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