So you’ve written a song, and you’ve arranged all the parts you think you need. You’ve rehearsed to the point where you can play those parts well, and you’re ready to capture your song on disk or tape. Now, just how much time will it take to record the song?
A song typically takes 3 to 4 hours for a 4 or 5 piece band to record. For a smaller group such as guitar and vocal duo, 1 to 2 hours is reasonable. These times assume all studio setup has been done before recording. They also assume that the song has been fully written and arranged.
There are many stories of bands recording whole albums in a day. There are probably just as many stories of bands taking many months, even years in some cases to record the same amount. Obviously, there is a huge variation in the amount of time it takes to record a song, depending on a large number of factors.
This website is all about creating music in your own home. If you are new to this, I highly recommend you check out my “how to record music at home” beginners’ guide. It has been written just for people like you! It takes you through how to get started, what equipment you need and walks you through making your first recording.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
If your song is already fully written and arranged, this will enable the quickest method of recording. If you are still tweaking melodies, adding lyrics or arranging parts, then your recording time will potentially increase a lot as you experiment with new ideas.
This section assumes the song is completely written, and that you are purely tracking i.e. just recording the parts.
I’ll be referring to “tracks” a lot in this article. If you are unsure what a track is, definitely check out my “What is a track?” beginners’ guide. You will learn exactly what tracks are, what you can do with them and how to use them.
As there are so many potential variables, we’ll make a few assumptions. We’ll assume that the musicians have rehearsed their parts well, so that should minimize the number of takes necessary. We’ll also assume that all the pre-recording setup has been done, such as microphone choice and placement, mic’ing drums, choosing and mic’ing guitar amps, etc.
Say the song you’re recording is 4 minutes long. We’ll allow 3 takes for each part, and add a few minutes for time taken between takes. So let’s call it 20 minutes in total for each part. Some additional time has been added for the drums, as the nature of recording drums makes things more likely to go wrong. Similarly, more time is allowed for the lead vocal, as being the most prominent part it’s important to get it as good as possible.
For a fairly typical band arrangement, the recording timings might look something like this…
|Backing vocal 1
|Backing vocal 2
The example above gives us a total recording time of 215 minutes, which is 3 hours 35 minutes.
You will probably have noticed that these times assume that each instrument is recorded individually, one after the other. This is the most common way of recording in a studio, certainly in a home studio. Recording “live” i.e. tracking all or some of the instruments at the same time, will reduce the recording time. See the later section on live recording.
Even if the musicians are exceptional and every take is excellent, it is normal to record extra takes as insurance. You never know when some erroneous background noise is going to make its way on to the recording, or some unforeseen technical issue spoils a take. You don’t want to get to the mixing stage and find your one take is unusable, so it’s always worth budgeting the extra time for a couple of just-in-case takes.
We haven’t allowed for any overdubs; just the parts as planned before the recording. The assumption has also been made that the parts are played straight through beginning to end, with no punch-ins i.e. recording just a section of the part the maybe you weren’t happy with.
Given the assumptions made, 4 hours should be sufficient to record your track. But the range really could be from say 1 hour if everything is done in one take, to a whole day if lots of takes are required or a long break is taken between recording each part.
You may be wondering how to get the tracks you record at home to sound professional. If so, check out this article I wrote on recording professionally at home. It gives you tips on getting the best sound you possibly can in your particular home recording situation.
Writing and tracking at the same time
Now let’s take a look at going into the recording process when you don’t have a completely written song.
There is nothing wrong with using the studio as a writing tool. This is a very common way of working, especially when working in a home studio. Modern DAWs and other software are great aids to songwriting, in addition to their recording capabilities.
Just be aware of how much time you are potentially adding to your studio time. If your song is mostly written, say you just need a few parts tweaking, a couple of lines of lyrics adding or the chords for a short section finalizing, then this shouldn’t add too much time. The one-day upper end of the range estimated in the previous section should still be sufficient.
If however, you are entering the studio with just a few loose ideas – maybe a guitar riff and a few chords, or a melody and some partially formed lyrics, this could be a problem. Think about everything that has to be completed to get from this to the point where everything is ready to be recorded…
- Fully formed song structure
- Chord progressions for the whole song
- Melodies written
- All parts written and arranged
- Lyrics written
- All parts learned and practiced to the point where they can be played well enough to be recorded
This is a process that could certainly take hours, and more likely days or even weeks. This clearly shows the benefit going into the recording process with a fully formed song. If you are paying for studio time, I would strongly recommend taking this approach. Unless of course you are a famous very successful band with millions in the bank!
In my home studio, I like to work in two different “modes”.
In writing mode, I am using my DAW, other software and instruments as writing tools, experimenting and not really worrying about recording parts particularly well. I’m just trying to get a song written and arranged.
In “recording” mode, I am taking that now fully written song, and using the same DAW and software tools to properly record the song. This means taking great care over each take, and putting all my effort into making the song sound as good as it can. As the song has already been written, all my effort and time can be put purely into tracking, minimizing the recording time.
I find this 2-mode approach very effective, and is a useful mindset shift to employ between the writing and recording phases.
Whether you are recording rough demo tracks or final polished tracks, it’s always a challenge to decide on the order in which to record them. That’s why I wrote my “what to record first in a song” article. You’ll learn common track recording orders, the pros and cons of different approaches, and how to come up with a way of working that suits your style.
Adding setup time
In a professional studio, setup time can be long. It is not unheard of for a week to be spent on just setting up the drums, mic’ing them up and getting a good sound from them.
The extra time needed here will depend on how much is left permanently setup in the recording space. It may be that there is a fully mic’ed up drum set, mic’d up guitar and bass amps, vocal booth with microphone and sound dampening, etc. In this situation it’s just a case of getting the musician comfortable with the equipment, and getting a good sound with them using that equipment.
On the other hand, if you are setting up equipment from scratch or bringing new equipment in, it can certainly add hours if not days to the recording time. Be aware that this is time that needs to be factored in.
Preparation is important
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of preparation before a recording session, and how much that preparation (or lack of it) can impact on the recording time.
Preparation in this sense means three things…
- Parts being written i.e. in a state ready to be immediately recorded
- Musicians knowing those parts, either from memory or reading from a chart
- Musicians having practiced the parts to the point where they can play them well on demand
If the parts are not fully written, then a lot of time is potentially going to be spent fleshing out and refining those parts. And a fair amount of trial and error may be involved, where one part is tried, then refined, then tried again…etc.
One of the greatest frustrations for recording engineers is musicians not being ready to record their parts. Really the recording session is for recording, not for learning or practicing the parts. It really can be the difference between doing two or three takes, and doing twenty, thirty, fifty even.
Imagine the extra time for each of these takes. Say a song is 4 minutes long, and you do thirty more takes than you really should have to. That’s at least a couple of hours added to the recording time.
Another consideration; imagine that a part isn’t played that well. You have had to settle for a performance not quite up to the standard you would have liked.
This means that when it comes to editing just before the mixing stage, the time taken here will be considerably longer. Performances may have to be “fixed” in the DAW by correcting timing, manual tuning, volume leveling or copying and pasting the better parts of a performance. If you are paying for someone’s time to edit & mix your track, this is obviously time you want to minimize.
When preparing to record your music at home, you will have to decide whereabouts to do your recording. My article on the best place to record at home should help. It takes you through how to find the best room in your house and the best spot in that room to give you the best possible results.
I hope this section has convinced you of the importance of preparation before a recording session. Not only will a lot of time be saved, but a lot of frustration and torn-out hair will be avoided!
So far, everything discussed has been assuming that each part will be recorded on its own. One part will be recorded, then the next part, then the next, one after the other. This is the fundamental essence of multi-track recording.
Recording “live“, is when you record some or all of the parts at the same time, with the musicians playing together just as they would at a concert or a rehearsal. 4-piece bands sometimes record together in this way. Or often guitar, bass and drums will record together, with the vocals added on as overdubs later.
The advantage of this method of recording is the live feel you can capture, that you can only get with musicians playing together in a room. Additionally, as you are recording several parts at once, the time taken will be considerably reduced when compared to recording the parts individually.
For example, recording 2 guitars, bass, drums…say 15 minutes for a few takes of each part plus 5-minute swap over time. That’s…
20 mins x 4 = 1 hour 20 mins
Now, say those parts are recorded together live. That’s just one 15 minute period for a few takes. That less than ¼ of the time.
For recording in this live manner, preparation is even more important than for the one-part-at-a-time method. Your band mates are going to get very annoyed very quickly, if it rapidly becomes apparent when trying to record that you don’t know your part or can’t play it very well.
If you have the space and equipment, this live way of working can be a great way to get a real, genuine vibe into a recording. But everyone has to be absolutely on top of their game, otherwise a lot of time is going to be wasted.
Recording “live” is more often done in a pro studio than a home studio. But it can still be done in a home studio with adequate preparation and planning. You may be thinking…can I really get good results in a home studio, or should I buy time in a pro studio? Check out this article for the low-down on what you can realistically do in a home studio, and what you really do need a professional studio for.
Effect of musical style on recording time
How long you spend on each part, how many takes you record and how prepared you need to be can vary greatly depending on your song’s musical style.
Imagine you are recording a 3-minute punk song. All the parts are likely to be pretty simple, and to achieve the desired vibe the parts shouldn’t be too precise – they should actually be a little loose and rough around the edges.
Now contrast that with say, a 6 minute long technical progressive rock track. The arrangement here is likely to be much more complex and intricate, and all the parts more technically difficult. Everything is going to need to be played with much more precision.
It isn’t hard to see the effect this could have on the recording time. It is worth taking into account your style of music, the feel the parts need to have and how polished you want the performances on your recording time. This could mean planning for considerably more takes, or allowing a lot more preparation time before beginning the recording stage.
Smaller group recordings
So far this article has assumed a typical full band arrangement is being recorded. For a smaller setup e.g. just acoustic guitar and voice, the recording time can be considerably reduced.
Say we have 2 acoustic guitar parts, and 2 vocal parts to record. Making similar assumptions to the “Tracking only” section where a full band recording time was planned, here are the equivalent timings…
|Backing vocal 1
This is quite a saving of time, even when allowing a lot of extra time for the lead vocal recording. Also, this type of arrangement lends itself very well to a “live” type of recording, so it’s possible to save even more time.
If you want to record a song but don’t have the time to record the full band arrangement, it may be worth considering recording such an acoustic version so you at least have a version of your song captured.
Effect of band’s age on recording time
When bands are recording for the first time or early on in the band’s existence, typically they record quite quickly to minimize studio time and money spent.
As bands get more successful and have more resources, recording time tends to increase as more time and money are available. It is not unusual for a band’s first album to be recorded in a few days or even inside 1 day. Band’s fourth or fifth albums can take weeks or months.
For example, The Beatles’ first album was recorded in one mammoth 12-hour session. The White Album (The Beatles’ ninth studio album) took about 20 weeks!
With any group of people, the dynamic between those people is inevitably going to effect how they work together. Consequently, the time taken to do anything with that group will be affected by the interpersonal relationships.
There are too many stories of bands having blazing rows in recording studios, even coming to blows in some cases. I don’t think I really need to state that this should be avoided at all costs!
The effect these relationships and conflicts can have on recording time is fairly obvious. Every minute spent arguing or storming off in a mighty strop is a minute not spent recording.
Why mention this? Because it’s highly important that your band is in a good place mentally with themselves and each other before a recording session is attempted. If you are always arguing, can never agree or get angry with each other at the slightest little thing, a recording session will not be a quick, nor an enjoyable affair.
Not only are you likely to spend far more time recording than you should, but in the pressure environment of a recording studio you risk permanently harming or destroying the band.
If you are in a position like this, do everything you can to improve the situation before even contemplating a recording session. If the situation cannot be rectified then it might be time to find another band.
Interpersonal dynamics are even more important when this is happening in your home studio. It’s your home after all! There are many different types of home studio, from a simple laptop and audio interface to a dedicated acoustically treated room. Check out my article on what exactly is a home recording studio for more details on the different types, setups and equipment.
Whole track production time
Recording is only one part of a greater whole when it comes to taking your song and turning into a fully produced track. So when considering the time to fully produce the track, the following activities also need to be taken into account…
- Mix re-do’s (returning the mix with suggested changes)
All of these can add significant time to the whole process. If you do the recording well, it should minimize the time spent in the other stages. For example, if all your parts are recorded well this will minimize the amount of corrective actions needed in the editing and mixing stages.
It may be that you are working with someone else. You will have to add time on for exchanging tracks with them. Fortunately, these days it is quite easy as long as you properly prepare your tracks. Take a look at my article on consolidating tracks. This is vital process to undertake if you are sending tracks to someone else, especially if they are using a different DAW to you.
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!