The most common question I am asked by prospective clients upon enquiring about a session has to be some variation of “How long will it take to record x number of songs?”. Perhaps, “Can we record and mix a song in a day?”, or “Can we get our EP done in a weekend?”. The trouble is, these are fairly involved questions with no straight answer. The words “string” and “how long is a piece of” spring to mind. There are a number of variables involved, many of which are beyond the control of the engineer, and so attempting to give an accurate prediction beforehand can be very difficult. In the interest of saving my fingers from excessive future tapping, let’s break this question apart and see if we can move towards an answer. Whatever the setup of your band happens to be — 5-piece rock band, singer/songwriter, acoustic duo, string quartet, etc. — the principles outlined here should apply.
1. What are your expectations?
The first consideration that dictates how long a session may need to be is what you are intending to have achieved by the end of it. If you are hoping for your band to set up, record and mix in a single day, then don’t be surprised if your end result sounds like it was set up, recorded and mixed in a single day. It’s important to understand that not all recordings are created equal, and the amount of time spent focusing on details plays an important role in determining the quality of the end result. In some cases that can be absolutely fine, because we’re just demoing material and there’s no expectation that this is going to be a commercial release. However, if you’re hoping that your new album is going to sit proudly on your shelf alongside all your favourite bands then chances are you’re going to want to allocate sufficient time to all aspects of the recording process (please see the post “What’s Involved In A Recording Session?” for more detail). The importance of aligning your expectations with what is realistically possible can’t be stressed enough. If you want the end product to sound “good” — whatever your definition of “good” is — then it’s crucial that you allow enough time for us to get there, and trying to skimp on any part of the process, or trying to cram in too much material, is very likely to have ramifications for the end result. Make your expectations clear from the outset, and we can then formulate a realistic plan to get you there.
2. What is your budget?
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. I will always help you to work to your budget, and I will bust a gut to get you to your destination as efficiently as possible, however you must be realistic about what can be achieved within the confines imposed by it. These two points — expectation and budget — should form the basis of any opening conversation regarding your project so that we can plan your session and get you the best results possible.
3. How much material are you intending to record?
Of course, the length of a session is dictated to no small degree by the amount of material you intend to record. This goes for both the number of songs and the length/complexity of each song. For example, you may hope that, because you’re only planning on recording two songs you can spend one day recording and one day mixing and presto! Job done! However when it’s revealed that one of those songs is your 10-minute post-prog masterpiece, suddenly we’re having to allocate an unanticipated amount of attention on finessing the guitar tone as it wavers throughout the 4 minute dreamy section in the middle, before balancing those 10 overdubs that come crashing in for the finale. Don’t forget, it’s not the amount of time it takes you to rattle through the song that is necessarily the concern; it’s how long we have to spend editing, overdubbing and, crucially, mixing, that eats up time.
4. What instrumentation is involved?
As a very loose rule of thumb, the more instruments that are involved, the longer it’s going to take. Are you an acoustic folk band with light percussion and no drums? Great! That eliminates the need to mic and sound check a drum kit! But you have continuous 3-part harmonies, orchestral backing and an extended bagpipe solo? Ah, well then, perhaps we’ll need to reallocate our time allotment to cater for that instead. It’s true that drums are notoriously time-consuming to set up and get going, but they’re by no means the determining factor in dictating the amount of time required. Perhaps you’re a 3-piece surf rock band with repetitive segments, no vocals and little need for overdubs. Fantastic, that sounds straight-forward enough! But, uh-oh, the bass player has just revealed a pedal board the size of Kent and is insisting that the delay is piped separately through a matrix of specifically calibrated amplifiers… okay, this is more complicated than we thought. In a nutshell, the more complex your setup, the more time will be required.
5. How prepared are you?
Quite possibly the most overlooked of all the factors — Are you prepared? No, really, Are You Prepared? Preparation is key. It is a 30-foot long, 2-ton, golden, chocolate-centred key to the City of Greatness distributed by the mayor of Awesometown to those who have their shit together before even setting foot in the studio. I cannot make it clear enough that to make the most efficient use of your time in the studio is to enter with every aspect of your material fully worked out, your instruments set up correctly, spare strings, skins, sticks and plectrums locked and loaded, and no surprises lurking around any corners.
There are two phrases that commonly arise at some point during a recording session, both of which will incur significant eye-rolling from your engineer. The first is “Wow man, I never knew that’s what you were playing during that song!”. That phrase is usually exclaimed in the direction of the bass player, as bandmates discover for the first time what was actually going on underneath the cacophony of noise that they’ve been gigging with all of this time. Such epiphanies should not have waited until you’re in the recording studio before revealing themselves. Cue the 40-minute conversation about why that’s not actually correct for the song, followed by the fight between bass player and guitar player about whose version should be adopted. While this is going on I will be making a coffee, eating a sandwich, perhaps playing a bit of Minesweeper. Congratulations, you’re now paying for me to play Minesweeper. I agree that the 50×50 grid will one day be defeated but there’s no reason why you should be paying for my attempts.
The second uttered phrase is an exchange between the lead singer and one of the backing vocalists; “That’s not the right harmony for that section”… “But that’s what I’ve always done!”… “It is? But that’s not right!”… “But that’s what I’ve always done!”… and so on. God damn, that 50×50 grid really is a bitch, but I’ll get it… I’ll get it.
While we’re on the topic, I should give honorary mention to the classic “Ah yeah, my input jack always has been a bit dodgy”. This is not a problem that we should be addressing here and now, and the time I spend opening up your guitar and re-soldering your input is time deducted from working on your mix.
The point is this: there is an awful lot you can do before setting foot in the studio to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible. This includes undergoing your own pre-production; don’t just rehearse your songs over and over focusing only on your own bits, but sit with your bandmates, deconstruct your material, make sure that everything works for the song, and that everyone knows what they are doing and what everyone else is doing. Any arguments about who plays what should be fully resolved by the day of your recording session. Don’t wait until the day of the session to discover that the intonation of your guitar is out. Tune those drums. Get those lyrics in the bag ahead of time, and be familiar with the phrasing. Don’t overcomplicate busy sections with unnecessary instrumentation that makes mixing more difficult than it needs to be. Understand that you as a band are one unit, and that a song is an ensemble performance. Leave at the door any egos or attachment to that one bit that you like to play but doesn’t really work in the song. And please — that tricky drum fill that you could never quite get — either confidently nail it or drop it. I assure you that it’s unlikely to suddenly emerge perfectly formed under the duress of a recording session, and your persistence will eat up time, ruin your song and annoy your bandmates.
For more general tips on how you can prepare for your upcoming recording session, please see the post “How To Prepare For Your Session”.
6. How much “production” are you anticipating?
Be sure to give due consideration to how much “production” you are looking for. Do you want a faithful representation of your band, or are you intending to flex some creative licence and incorporate a Wurlitzer during your middle-8? Do you want the raw, naked precision of a single characterful guitar tone, or are you intending to build a wall of sound comprised of multiple layered guitar tracks blended orchestral-like together? Perhaps there are some loops and samples that you would like to experiment with. All are legitimate techniques and as creatively valid as each other, however it is important to recognise that any step into unchartered territory introduces an unpredictable variable into the session. A prior conversation about your influences, and reference to the kind of sound you are hoping to achieve is of course very useful, but be aware that by moving away from the organic sound of your band and towards something more processed incurs a time demand that needs to be accounted for.
It’s not uncommon for some bands to feel they can skimp on setup time because, “Hey, we’re after the dirgy, lofi sound man! We’re a punk band so the dirtier the better! We don’t care about bleed and boring technical stuff like that – we’re all about the vibe!”. This is an ill-advised mindset to start out with, especially when there is a particular aesthetic that is being aimed at. I’m as big a fan of lofi nastiness as even the most avid New Wave aficionado, however believing that this means it’s possible to simply plug & play is actually a mistake, and will likely result in more time being spent correcting for it at the edit/mix stage. A classic example that comes to mind is the proclamation that “We want to record everything all in the same room at the same time because we care more about feel than bleed”. Skip to later in the session: “Hey James, can you make that snare a bit brighter?” — “Nope.”
7. Do I need to do any drum editing?
Editing drums is an extremely laborious process. It’s not fun for anyone. If you have expectations that exceed the ability of your drummer to lay down consistent grooves with solid fills then chances are you’re going to ask me to fix it. Depending on the complexity of the material, here is where we can expect hours… days… weeks to be eaten up by moving around small spiky waveforms on a screen. I am extremely good and very fast at editing drums, and minor fixes are commonplace, however if the drummer isn’t nailing those sixteenths on the high-hat and as a result the song sounds sloppy and disjointed, fixing that throughout an entire song in a way that sounds natural and convincing can take a really, really long time, not to mention the implications of fooling your audience into believing that you are the band they are being presented with, when the reality is quite different — a reality that will become starkly apparent the next time you play live. “Why bother nailing that tricky part when we can just fix it in the studio?”, you might ask. If you’re unsure what the difference is between being skilled and pretending you’re skilled, it may be a psychologist that you’re looking for, not a recording engineer.
8. How long do you want to spend mixing?
Mixing is a tricky thing to predict. It’s often unclear how long it’s likely to take from the outset because it is essentially one huge problem solving exercise, and these problems reveal themselves as the session progresses. One thing is for sure though — you can only mix what has been recorded. It’s not the time to start talking about what you want the snare to sound like. It’s difficult to make the snare sound more “snappy” if it’s not a very “snappy” sounding snare drum. We’ve got loads of snare drums here at the studio, so open up a conversation about it beforehand if it’s a consideration for you. Yes, we can apply fixes in the mix; sample the drums (yawn), re-amp DI’d guitars, etc, but this really isn’t the position you want to be in at this stage. Mixing is extremely fatiguing to the human ear, and burning fuel worrying about the fundamental sound of the instruments is going to undermine anyone’s ability to efficiently produce a mix that works as a cohesive piece of music. Again, it all goes back to preparation. When you rehearse with your band you should know whether the snare drum is correct or not by how good it sounds in the room.
Another common mistake is to regard mixing as something of an afterthought, or generally failing to allocate enough time to it. While it is true that a mix can be completed in a single afternoon, there are circumstances in which a solid week has been spent working on mixing a single song. This is why it’s so hard to anticipate. Generally speaking I would recommend treating the recording and mix sessions as separate endeavours, rather than trying to shoehorn a mix into the final afternoon of your session when everyone is knackered and unable to approach the challenge of mixing with an objective mindset. As the recording session progresses things generally take shape within the DAW, and a rough mix starts to naturally coalesce. The closing hours of the session present a good opportunity to tidy up the rough mix; tie up some loose ends, maybe balance things a little, but it’s seldom the case that the final result is all nicely packaged and tied up with a bow. Even if we are perfectly satisfied with the results at this point, it’s still worth taking the exported files away and reviewing them at home with a clear head — we all know that studios can be deceptive, and our ears can reveal more to us when reviewing material in our natural environment, so take your recording home, listen to it, but then forget about it. Occupy yourself with other things, don’t obsess over it, but allow the light of objectivity to repopulate your mind. Listen to it afresh, and only then should we talk about mixing. Doing so gives both you and me the opportunity to think more rationally about further creative decisions without acting impulsively. Again, make sure you are reasonable in your expectations with regards to how long mixing can take — if you want a good treatment of every one of the 10 songs on your album, booking a single 8-hour day for mixing leaves less than an hour per song. Make your expectations and your budget clear, and that way everyone can feel confident that they’re on the same page.
9. Other considerations
Another phrase that I often hear thrust at me at some point during a session is, “The thing you have to understand about me is that I’m a perfectionist”, as if such a claim necessarily correlates with good results. It actually doesn’t, because the tendency to myopically focus on the technical accuracy of an individual performance can be detrimental to the ensemble piece as a whole, and end up needlessly derailing the session in pursuit of some level of “perfection” that exists only in the mind of the musician. That’s not to say that it isn’t worth addressing glaring errors, but one of the (many) pitfalls of digital recording is that suddenly everyone is a “perfectionist”, which is to say that everyone is encouraged to get hung up on tiny details that either don’t matter or, when fixed, actually detract from the character of the performance in favour of sterile, bland “perfectionism”. Here’s a quote that I really like: “The 99p bin at your local record store is filled with records that don’t have a single hair out of place. Nobody gives a shit about them”. A good song is a good song. A good band is a good band. Perfectionism is not your friend. Get over yourself.
Finally I will strongly advise that there must be a clear sense of who is calling the shots, or at least a well-defined process by which internal disputes are settled. Again, this goes back to my point about preparation. It has been the case more often than I would like that, say, the bass player wants to try some cockamamie idea, forcing their bandmates to sit uncomfortably at the sidelines, afraid to say that there’s no fucking way a Melotron app on an iPhone has any place on this song. It can be awkward if I am receiving conflicting instructions from different members of the band, and it isn’t my place to step in and try to clarify internal disagreements of this nature. So to prohibit the session from tumbling tangentially down some unforeseen rabbit hole, please do make sure that there is a well-established chain of command in terms of creative decision making. Whether it’s hierarchical, democratic, or tyrannical is your bag, as long as I know who I’m taking orders from.
As you can see, estimating the time it takes to record and mix a song is not particularly straightforward, however I hope that this blog, along with “What’s Involved In A Recording Session?” provides some guidance in expectation management. I am absolutely happy to work with you to make sure that we stick as closely to your project brief as possible, and keep to an agenda and budget that suits your specific needs.
I am James Gasson, music warrior. With my mighty skills of imperfect objectivity and excellent tea making, I am on a mission to encourage critical thinking whilst trying to avoid tripping over stuff.
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