|Polkasound Studio Recording
The Recording Process Explained
by Tom Brusky
Chapter 1 - Terminology: Production vs. Engineering
These two terms are often inappropriately intertwined, so I would like to define them for you.
As the leader of your polka band, you'll most likely assume the role as the producer of your band's recordings. The producer is the person in charge who makes all of the creative and business decisions that go into making a CD. The producer chooses and approves the songs to be recorded, the arrangements of the songs, the musicians who will perform and the instruments they will play, the graphic design, and all other decisions that lead to the end product. A CD may have more than one producer. Anyone who contributes ideas that significantly shape the sound or look of a CD, and/or contributes a significant amount of money toward the creation of the CD, may be classified as a co-producer.
By contrast, the engineer is the person who executes the physical recording of the musicians. He preps the studio, sets up the mics, and operates the recorders. The producer and engineer often sit together behind the mixing console. The engineer works at the direction of the producer.
The roles of the engineer and producer can sometimes overlap. Anytime an audio engineer offers a musically-creative suggestion, he is taking on a production role in the recording. I'm always happy to offer production advice and assistance while engineering a recording at Polkasound.
Chapter 2 - Recording at Polkasound, Step By Step
Step 1 - Planning your CD:
Have your entire recording project mapped out on paper before you enter the studio. Know your songs, arrangements, keys, and who is going to sing and/or play each part in each song. The more your plan is inked on paper, the more smoothly the recording process will go. As your project's engineer, I will request a copy of this plan for myself so that I'll know how to set up the studio for your recording sessions. Creative changes to the plan can be made during the recording process, but you still should have a written plan to follow. It is at this time that you should also begin thinking about the appearance of your CD. Start planning your cover design and liner notes. Research song credits and any applicable licensing requirements.
Step 2 - Practicing with your band:
Never come into a recording studio expecting that you and your band members can "wing it" as if you were playing a live gig. (Please read Chapter 4: Money-Saving Tips and Options for an explanation of why rehearsing with your band is a critical step in the recording process.)
Step 3 - Recording scratch tracks:
At Polkasound, we often start with scratch tracks. A scratch track is an expendable take of a song crudely performed with a metronome and one or two instruments. What the scratch tracks do is allow the producer to lay the foundation of the song -- key, tempo, and arrangement -- and they give the drummer something to follow while he records his drums. Scratch tracks can be full of clinker notes and other mistakes as long as the arrangement is not affected. Usually the first day of recording a new project is spent with the accordion/concertina player laying down scratch tracks for all of the songs. (Please read the sidenote about scratch tracks two paragraphs down.)
Step 4 - Recording the drums:
We always record the drums first for a very specific reason. Solo instrument and vocal tracks are very easy to patch together to fix mistakes, but the inherent ambience of a drum set (the decay of a cymbal, the sustain of a tom, the position of the sticks in the drummer's hands, etc.) can make drum tracks very difficult to patch together. Therefore, we always give the drummer the most latitude by recording him first. The drummer will hear the scratch tracks in his headphones while he records, helping him stay on tempo.
A sidenote about scratch tracks:
Not everyone prefers using a metronome. Some bandleaders want their music to have natural fluctuations in tempo. Also, some drummers are uncomfortable with, or physically incapable of, holding a tempo to the rigidity of a metronome. In these situations, we skip the use of the metronome and instead record the drums while the accordion or concertina player is playing live through the drummer's headphones. The advantage to simulating a live playing condition like this is that the drummer will feel more at ease setting the tempo rather than following it. The disadvantage, of course, is that your drummer might rush or drag too much, and a variable tempo can make some edits impossible to perform.
Step 5 - Recording the bass:
My preference is to always record the bass instrument next. The bass and tuba are two instruments whose tracks are easy to patch together. Single notes or entire sections of songs can easily be retaken or edited until they align perfectly with the drum tracks
Step 6 - Recording the rest of the instruments/vocals:
With the drum and bass tracks now recorded, the rest of the band members have a solid foundation onto which they can add their parts. There is no particular order at this point for which instruments should be recorded next.
A sidenote about fixing mistakes:
Long gone are the days when bands had to record together as a group, and if one musician made a mistake, the whole band had to record the entire song over. Because today's studio musicians typically record their parts separately, fixing a mistake – whether it's just one note or several measures – has never been easier. Using a standard recording technique called "punching" you can retake just your mistakes instead of having to retake an entire song. The result of punching is a seamless track, possibly full of retakes and fixes, but one that sounds flawless as if you performed it perfectly the first time.
Step 7 - Editing (optional):
Recorded instruments and vocals can be edited. Editing is not a mandatory process, but it can give your recorded tracks extra polish. For example, errant drum hits can be aligned to the beat, and the intonation of instruments and vocals can be adjusted to be more in tune.
Step 8 - Mixing:
The mixdown process is when all of the individual instrument and vocal tracks are blended together. This is when the relative volumes of instruments and vocals are adjusted, and they receive processing and effects such as equalization and reverberation. The mixing process is done for each song individually and generally takes around thirty minutes per song, but it can take significantly more time to mix a complex arrangement.
Step 9 - Mastering:
Mastering is the final process for your music. This is when the songs, which have just been mixed down, are recorded onto a CD master. The songs are placed in the desired order, blank space is added between them, and the relative volumes of each song are finely adjusted. The end result of mastering is a CD that you provide to your duplicator. This CD master will become your property when your studio fees are paid in full.
Chapter 3 - How Much Does It Cost To Make a Recording at Polkasound?
Estimating the cost of making a recording is not easy because of the endless variables, but if you familiarize yourself with the different options available to you, an estimate becomes a little easier to make. Below are the key expenses of making a recording at Polkasound Productions.
Expense #1 - Recording Media:
This is actually no longer an expense at Polkasound. In the past, you would have needed to purchase the media required for recording your band, which would have been reel-to-reel tape, S-VHS digital audio tape, or a computer hard drive. All recording is now performed on our studio's computer, which has enough hard drive space to handle multiple recording projects, so there is no longer a need to purchase recording media. We will also regularly back up your project at no charge. For your convenience, we will indefintely keep your project's master recording files in storage, however, they will remain your intellectual property. Anytime you would like a copy of your project's master recording files, you're welcome to bring a 32GB or larger flash drive (USB 3.0 recommended) to the studio.
Expense #2 - Studio Time:
The studio recording rate at Polkasound is $30/hour. If you want to whip together a live recording, studio time will be nominal. But, for a normal, multi-track studio recording, a typical polka band can expect to spend around eight hours recording in the studio for each instrument/vocal part. So, if you have ten parts (i.e. two concertinas, two vocals, banjo, clarinet, trumpet, drums, piano, and tuba) then you can estimate that your band will spend around 80 hours in the studio recording a typical-length CD. Keep in mind this is a very rough estimate. Well-rehearsed musicians can expect to use up significantly less studio time than less-prepared musicians.
Expense #3 - Hiring Talent (optional):
Are you hiring any musicians to help out with your recording? Professional and semi-profesional musicians may charge anywhere from $50 to $150/song, while others, especially musicians you know well, may not charge you a dime. If you are interested in hiring a musician to perform on your recording, be forthright about your willingness to pay them for their services, otherwise there's a good chance they'll be "too busy" to return your call. If you would like to hire me to perform on your recording at Polkasound (accordion, drums, bass guitar, tuba, piano, or MIDI/VST instrumentation) my services as a session musician are free. You only pay for the studio time.
Expense #4 - Editing (optional):
The main purpose of editing at this point is to tighten up the recorded tracks by fixing the tuning and timing of errant notes. The amount of time spent editing your band's recorded tracks is probably best be determined by the overall level of your band's professionalism relative to any parts that could use editing. In other words, if your band is professional and your tracks are really tight except for a few errant notes here and there, then it would be worth it to fix those notes. But, if your band is amateur, then perhaps editing should be reserved for only the most errant of notes, and not for fixing every single note.
Expense #5 - Mixing:
A mixdown session at Polkasound for a typical-length CD usually requires about five to ten hours ($150-$300.)
Expense #6 - Mastering:
Mastering for projects recorded at Polkasound usually requires only one to two hours ($30-$60.)
Expense #7 - Graphic Design:
Our fee for graphic design is $30/hour. A typical CD project (two-page insert, tray card, and CD) usually takes about five to ten hours to design ($150-$300) but can be more or less depending on the complexity of the design. (See our Graphic Design page for examples of our work.)
Expense #8 - Licensing:
If you will be selling/distributing CDs that contain songs you did not compose or write, you may need to license those songs. A license is a fee you pay to ensure that the copyright holders of the songs receive their due royalties. You can either choose to contact the copyright holders personally and ask for permission to record their songs and negotiate royalty fees, or you can pay a flat licensing fee to the Harry Fox agency (www.songfile.com). The 2013 U.S. statutory rate for licensing is approximately nine cents per song per CD. There is also a $15 filing fee per song. So let's say you are recording a polka-variety CD in which seven songs require licensing, and you plan on duplicating five-hundred CDs:
7 songs x 9¢ = 63¢ x 500 CDs = $315
+ 7 songs x $15 filing fee = $105
A sidenote about polka music licensing:
Polka music is quite different from other music genres in that many songs played and recorded by bands are either traditional folk songs in the public domain, or derivations of songs that have been erroneously or purposely renamed over the years. It is still your responsibility, however, to do the best you can to research the songs you record to see who should be credited.
In this day and age, polka bands rarely profit from music sales. Bands mainly record for fun and posterity and consider breaking even to be a success. This is one reason why most composers in the polka music circuit (myself included) freely allow fellow polka musicians to record their material for nothing more than a proper credit and a bottle of beer. We don't want our music to be a financial burden – we want it to be enjoyed. Still, there are a few pretentious composers in polka music who will ask for a royalty payment.
Regardless, there is no excuse for failing to provide song credits. You honor the music by honoring the music's composers.
Expense #9 - Duplication, Printing, and Packaging:
We have a solid working relationship with Media Service Group in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and recommend them for all of your printing and duplication needs. The quality of their products and services is top-notch. We'll work together with you and MSG so that you get the results you're looking for. MSG offers complete CD printing, duplication, and packaging services.
There are too many variables to mention that can affect the cost of the duplication and printing services, such as the size of the insert booklet, whether or not hard copy proofs are requested, clear trays vs. black trays, etc. For the sake of brevity, we will narrow down the pricing to what we consider a "typical CD" which includes the following:
Quantity of 500 = Approximately $1,110 (based on 2011 prices)
Quantity of 1000 = Approximately $1,225 (based on 2011 prices)
Please note that Media Service Group requires proof of song licensing, where applicable, before manufacturing your CDs.
Chapter 4 - Money-Saving Tips and Options
Okay, you've just looked at the estimated cost of making a recording, and you don't have an extra car sitting around to trade in for five thousand dollars. What can you do? The estimates given above are what you can expect to pay for a professional product on every level, from the quality of the sound to the quality of the packaging. But, maybe you don't need quality at quite that high of a level. There are a few tips and techniques for significantly reducing costs in the recording and CD manufacturing processes.
1.) Be prepared! Know the material well [Important! Please read]
Without exaggerating, I can easily say that nine out of every ten musicians that come into the studio to record are not adequately prepared. They assume years of playing a song onstage qualifies them as knowing the song well enough for the recording studio. In reality, the longer a band has played onstage together, the more necessary it may be for them to rehearse, because they've likely been making the same mistakes over and over without realizing it.
The studio environment is very different from being onstage. When you play live, you are feeling the music more than listening to it, and your ears are missing everyone's mistakes but your own. When you're in the recording studio, however, everything is under the microscope. Suddenly you hear, for the first time, that the guitar player is playing a minor chord where the accordion player is playing a diminished; the harmony vocalist is occasionally dropping down onto the melody line; the drummer is playing through clean breaks, etc.
So, the single most money-saving advice I can give is to rehearse with a recording device. Get the entire band together at your house and record your songs live onto a recorder. Then play each song back several times, each time listening critically to a different part. Find and correct as many problems as possible before coming into the recording studio. Since hardly any bands do this, literally a third of my time engineering a recording is often spent assisting unrehearsed musicians in figuring out the parts they should be playing. I don't mind providing that service, but it can add a significant amount of time to your studio bill.
2.) Map out your project
Have each song mapped out on paper – the number of verses, repeats, key changes, instrument solos, etc. We all know what maps do. They keep people from getting lost. I cannot begin to count the number of times a producer accidentally recorded one verse too few or too many, and, if the arrangement could not be corrected with digital editing, the entire band had to come back in to re-record the song from scratch.
3.) Choose the right musicians from the start
If you plan on marketing your CDs outside your local fan base in hope of landing new gigs and getting radio play, you need to ask yourself this question: "Can my regular band members give me the sound I want for this recording?" Your role as a producer is to make your product as good as possible. To do that, you may have to make some critical business decisions, and not all of them will be easy.
It can be a very expensive waste of time to try to get more from a musician than what they can physically offer. A musician at or near a professional level can be expected to retake parts of a song until they get them perfected, and execute changes in their playing style to suit a particular song. You should not, however, expect the same from an amateur musician.
Some musicians are not very gung-ho about recording. They won't rehearse beforehand, and they won't put forth their best effort in the studio. It is your responsibility to know the mindset of the musicians you're using.
4.) Record your band live
Recording live will dramatically reduce studio time, however, there can be drawbacks. The main disadvantage to recording live in a smaller studio is loss of isolation over each recorded part, since the sounds coming from the instruments will bleed through the microphones of other instruments. Unless all of the instruments can be completely isolated from each other, a punch-in to fix a mistake on an individual instrument or vocal track can become noticeable.
Another disadvantage to recording live is that a lot of microphones will be needed at the same time which can tax a studio's microphone supply beyond its limits. Most studios only have a limited number of "studio quality" microphones and must resort to "stage quality" mics to meet the extra demand. Additional mics can be rented at additional cost.
Obviously, when you have a larger group such as a brass band, recording live is the only practical option. But, for smaller ensembles like four- or five-piece polka bands, recording live is only recommended as a creative option when every musician knows the material perfectly and can execute it well as a group.
5.) Design and print your own CD labels and covers
If you own a printer and some basic graphic design software, you can design your own CD covers, tray cards, and labels, and print them out at home. This can save a few hundred dollars, but there are two major disadvantages. The first disadvantage is that your CDs can, of course, look like they were printed on a home printer. That alone will directly affect sales, since the quality of a CD's cover is often construed as a reflection of the quality of the music inside. The other disadvantage is that you will need to cut out, fold, and insert every cover and tray card, and apply every CD label, on your own. This is a big job that can take several hours per day over several days to accomplish.
6.) Burn your own CD copies
Out of all the money-saving tips we offer, this one we recommend the least. Unless you use the right software, hardware, and professional-grade CD-Rs, your home-burned CDs will risk having too many CD player incompatibility issues. Still, if you choose to burn your own CDs, we recommend Taiyo Yuden® CD-Rs (specifically model #JCDR-ZZSB.) Avoid Memorex® CD-Rs.
Chapter 5 - The Art of Creating a Good Mix
I am devoting an entire chapter to mixing, because I want to explain the reasons why a mix may not always please every musician in the band.
The goal of creating a good mix is to make the music sound most pleasing to the general public – not the drummer, not the guitar player, not the sax player, but rather the people who will be buying the CD and hearing the music on the radio. This is very important to mention, because sometimes the musicians in the band will hear the final mix of their album and not always agree with what they hear.
When people listen to music on their iPod or over the radio, they don't focus on everything going on in the background. They simply hear the song as a whole. They follow the melody and feel the beat. But this is usually not how musicians listen to mixes of their own music. Because musicians are so familiar with their own music, instead of listening to it as a whole, they instinctively anticipate and tune into specific parts of the songs (often their own) and tend to over-focus on those parts. Oftentimes they begin questioning the volume of those parts.
Creating a good mix is not about featuring every instrument in the band throughout each, entire song. This is a common mistake made by inexperienced engineers, and the result is a very cluttered, busy-sounding recording. Rather, a good audio mix is like a television show in which you have one or two lead actors and everyone else is a supporting actor. In an audio mix, the melody instruments and vocals are usually your lead actors. Everything else – rhythm, counter melodies, harmonies, arpeggios, fills, pads, etc. – are supporting actors. They are not intended to share the limelight.
The art of mixing is more about what not to feature than what to feature. A good mix usually requires pushing select recorded parts into the background, and using them to fill out the body of the music and help build a stereo landscape, and nothing more. The instruments are still there, but they are not going to stand out. Instead, they'll play a vital role in providing a foundation on which the melody resides.
To achieve a good mix is an art that takes years to develop. Among other things, an engineer must know...
Another common trouble of musicians critiquing mixes of their band's own music is that when they over-focus on specific instruments, they become much more susceptible to ear fatigue. After listening for a half hour or more, ear fatigue will lead to everything sounding flat, so the musicians will want twice as much reverb, twice as much bass, twice as much treble, etc.
A third problem of musicians critiquing mixes of their own music occurs when the musicians are not listening to the music in a proper environment. Many times musicians will listen to a mix of their music in their car while driving 65 MPH down the highway, and then call the producer or engineer to complain they can't hear anything going on in the background. It is impossible to judge the quality of a mix in a moving car when you're dealing with road and wind noise. A quiet environment is required.
As the engineer of your recording at Polkasound, I will never give you a mix that I do not approve. I will put my twenty-five years of experience to good use and have very clear reasons for why everything sounds the way it does when I mix your project, however, you as the producer will always have the final say. If the musicians in your band request that I execute changes in the mix that I would otherwise not suggest, it will be your call whether to trust my judgment or the judgment of your band members.
There are CDs out there that my studio has recorded that have changes to my original mix that I, to this day, do not agree with. Such changes are usually made at the producer's urging as an attempt to please the musicians in his band. I will accommodate all changes requested whether or not I agree with them, but in cases where the changes are extreme, I may ask that my name and studio be removed from the project's credits. I will also request that the producer and musicians who suggested the changes be present while the songs are remixed per their instructions.
My reason for writing this chapter is to give you, the producer of your band's upcoming project, a forewarning of this potential scenario. Listen to your band members' critiques of your project's mix and relay them to me. I will entertain every one of their suggestions, but I will likely not agree with all of them. Be prepared to take charge, because all final decisions will be yours to make.
Chapter 6 - Final Thought
Please do not be intimidated by anything you've read on this page. This guide was written to help a producer create a professional-quality product. If you are admittedly a hack musician interested in recording some songs mainly for the enjoyment of family and friends, then your only expectation in the recording studio will be to play from the heart and have fun!
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