How to plan and organise an album recording

A practical planning guide for not wasting your money on expensive studio time.

Unless you're among the minority segment of musicians who have landed a recording contract, it's normal to feel heart palpitations as your hard earned cash goes down the toilet because the drummer forgot to bring a spare set of sticks. It's 2am. Everything's closed. And you live three hours away.

Even if you are on a big label recording contact, you're probably still paying for your studio time which they'll be taking out of your future royalties... check the fine print.

Recording a rough demo using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) at home is a fabulous way to kick off your album. The days of being limited to live 4 track recordings ended when everything went digital, USB hardware became viable, and software costing tens of thousands of dollars gradually evaporated from the market as affordable or free alternatives to Pro Tools came long — what a time to be alive! You'll save on expensive studio time if you have a rough draft of every track before going in, which session players can use to warm up with, or the in-house engineer can reference.

If like me you spent most of your high school adolescence sitting in a dank bedroom churning out tracks on your midi keyboard and guitars, coveting the warm sound of condenser mics and tube amps and feeling an internal drive and excitement whenever a muso buddy came over and knocked out an amazing vocal or piano take, you may have a good ear already for producing and engineering an album from start to finish, without the need to outsource too much.

Most studios will have an in-house tech, who's job is going to be to run cables, turn the nobs, click a mouse, and get a clean and dry take of everything so that you can take the audio files somewhere else to produce over weeks or months and eventually get it mastered.


Shut up and play plan!

Planning sucks. But do it anyway. Yes music is art, messy and evolves and you can probably wing it, but if you put even just a little bit of foresight into this, you might be able to avoid failing spectacularly wasting everyone's time and money and winding up depressed and sad about it, never to try recording again.

The steps for recording an album are easier to digest when it's visual. It'll also get everybody in the band on the same page. Here's a start:

A comprehensive album recording road map
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With our planning out of the way, kick off an e-mail discussion with the band and start coming up with a solid #TrackList, or invite everyone to log in and check out the project.

Album recording planner

General studio-time tips

Drummer goes first!

For traditionally live bands, one technique for energetic and consistent drum tracks is to isolate the drummer, put everyone on headphones and play through together as a band. Clean up the isolated drum tracks a little bit correcting only for glaring quantisation errors. Then record everyone else individually, played against your percussion which was captured with a live feel to it. Having a few live full-band drum takes to build off of as your foundation can encourage everybody to play their parts later on with a more natural level of energy.

You're under a microscope.

So you'll probably keep fucking it up, stress out, or possibly freeze up after 30 takes if the pressure is really getting to you. It's natural and there is no cure other than years of prior practice and experience that allows a musician to nail it on their first take. Being on a clock doesn't help. Be professional, patient and most of all encouraging toward your fellow players. If somebody's not able to get a take that they're happy with, move on and get it another day. Some instruments can be recorded perfectly fine through a Digital Interface (DI) at home, so consider skipping doing a guitar solo in the studio — get it later in a more relaxed setting.

Keep every take, record everything, even someone's random "warm-up"

This really goes back to the previous point. Players are more relaxed when they're not under the microscope. Often the best takes are the ones when you aren't rolling. So keep it rolling! just don't tell them about it.

Aim low! (on the levels that is)

Your in-house studio engineer knows this already, but in case you're left to your own devices, if you're unsure of levels/loudness, pick the quieter volume setting.

The thing about waveforms is, you can increase a quiet one and remove any elevated background hiss with relative ease. You absolutely cannot recover lost data from tracks that are clipping due to excessive loudness.

Your $1,000+ of studio recording time boils down to capturing nothing more than waveforms, which are a bunch of numbers between -32768 and +32767 on a graph, typically 44,100 of these numbers during every 1 second period. Numbers outside of the numeric range are clipped to the minimum or maximum (hence the term clipping.) In other words — the original sound data simply doesn't exist, so a clipped recording can't really be fixed (other than pretend you did it on purpose and totally meant to make it sound that way.) Distortion in and of itself is a perfectly cromulent thing to have. Clipping is not.

Keep guitars reasonably dry

Obviously wah-wah, distortion and "million dollar" tube amps are key components of a guitarists core voice, which you want to capture. Everything else that can be added in the DAW should be removed from the effect line.

Rock on.


Useful references
Further guidance