Sylvia Massy | Recording Under Budget and Finishing On Time AKA ‘Landing the Plane’

Sylvia Massy | Recording Under Budget and Finishing On Time AKA ‘Landing the Plane’

December 6, 2019 2 By Kailee Schamberger


[MUSIC] So say you’re going to a party. Okay. You’ve got 20 bucks in your pocket. You know you’re going to spend every last penny of that when you’re on the town, right? Sure. Right. Same way with sessions. If you’ve got 20 days, you are going to spend every minute of that time working on this project. It’s not like you’re going to have any time left over. You’re not going to have any budget left over. You’re going to go all the way to the edge. So you think of time in the same way as money when you’re talking about budget. Absolutely. So when you’re planning your budget for your project, I have a very specific formula that I use which has worked most of the time. I like to have one and half days per song to record, and then one day per song to mix. That usually allows me enough time to get all those ideas; the foundational ideas, and any kind of fun ideas done as well as doing details like tuning and editing and all those things that are necessary but not necessarily fun. That’s my formula, one and a half days per song. So you can make a list of the work that needs to be done and estimate how much time it will take to do that actual recording and then double it and then probably triple it because you’re going to use every last minute. Why do you think it’s important for engineers to budget for extra time at the end of a session? Well, let’s say your singer has a bad day, which happens quite a bit. Singers tend to get sick before you go into the studio to do vocals and that’s a normal thing actually. So allow them that little padding, actually don’t let them know they have time. But allow yourself extra time to get the good performances in case you need to go back over stuff. Those fun things at the bottom of the list. If your singer is in good shape, you’ve got more time to do that. So just make sure you get all the important stuff done. But in case that you do run out of time, then it doesn’t totally damage your session. I know that you’ve been really good at this in your career about getting everything done, getting all the fun stuff done, but always landing the plane, as they say. Getting it on time, on budget and making sure that you’re not going over. I’m just curious in regard to how you work, and a band approaches you. Do you ever tell them that what they’re imagining is not enough within their budget both in terms of time and money? How do you handle that? Yeah. This is a reality that you have to deal with as a producer because if you’re working with an artist that has songs that are 10 minutes long, obviously, that’s going to take more time than a typical four minute song. So you have to budget time for that. If I go with my normal one and a half days per song formula, I have to double that for a 10 minute song, triple it. So you have to really take the instrumentation of the group, take the intention of the song, take the tempo of the song because if you’ve got someone doing double kick throughout the whole song, editing, you’re going to need the editing. You also have to judge how good these artists are? Are they going to be able to pull this off or are you going to have to manipulate the recording to make them sound better? I mean tuning, drum editing, validating the base, can they play their instruments in tune? [OVERLAPPING] Absolutely, if you want them to be in tune. Most the time, you have to have that option of, [LAUGHTER]. Hopefully, your musicians are able to play their instruments. It’s the intention of the song is the first thing you need to know. Then you can budget the time that you’re going to need. Definitely. So this has to do with the recording and mixing process that you’re talking about in terms of time budgeting. Yeah. What about pre-production for you? What does that involve? In fact, a lot of the pre-production is built into the one and a half days. Okay. But I do pre-production in the studio. A lot of times, I’ll have an opportunity to really dig into those songs when we all have the mic setup. I want to actually try new ideas. I want to make adjustment to the arrangements in the studio so that we can record it and listen to it right away. If we get a good performance, then it’s done. The less that you rehearse and then when it comes to actually playing the final take, you lost all the excitement. I like to capture it when it’s fresh. So that’s where I do a lot of pre-production in the studio with the group. So all of this time budgeting really takes into account that you will be doing pre-production with them, tweaking the arrangement, changing things on the go? Yes. However, before we step into the studio, I like to know what the general idea of the songs are and I like to listen to as many demos as possible. So if we’re doing a collection of 10 songs, I really like to have the band give me maybe 40 songs ahead of time so I can pick the best 10. If you want to make a great record, this is what Rick Rubin does, and he seems to win a lot. So he will ask an artist to send as many songs as possible ahead of time. So it’s not just you’re doing a 10 song album, they’re going to submit 10 songs. We’re going to listen to 40 songs, 50 songs, 100 songs and out of that, we will distill the best songs and then have the best album. So you mentioned that you pick the 10 best songs. They sent you 40. You said “Okay. Well, these are the 10 I want to go with.” Let’s just say the band is agreeable to that. How do you then approach the recording process? Do you do one song at a time or do you do just the rhythm section first and then overdubs? How does it work for you? It depends on the budget of the project first of all. If you have a lot of money, then you can do one song at a time. Usually, I will work on a budget that is best used by bringing the group in, setting up the mics on the drums, and doing all the drums first for 10 songs. That may take two or three days. Then doing all the bass, and doing it in that order because tearing down and resetting up the drums and resetting up all the mics on the drums every time is really time-consuming. So this way you save some time. So in my calculation of one and a half days per song, that’s a calculation that I make when I’m budgeting time for an album. Let’s say we’re doing 10 songs, then one and a half days per song means I need 15 days to do all the recording and that means out of the 15 days, the first two days will be drums or the first three days will be drums. Then the next day will be bass, and the next two days will be piano or guitar, and on and on like that. Do you sometimes find in the pre-production stage that you have to change this because maybe a band just plays better when they’re all together and you can’t really do the separation and get the same effect? Does your plan have to change in how you record it to get the best performance? Well typically, if I’m working with a group that plays well together, I’ll want them to be all in the same room, but I’ll isolate the guitar and the bass cabinets in a separate room. They’ll be playing together and in fact, the singer will be in the same room with the drums and singing a scratch vocal, and I will mic the guitar and the bass in a way that in case there is that magic that can’t be recreated later, that we’ve captured the scratch track as well as we can. So sometimes it is so good live that we don’t want to change anything and we go straight into overdubs. But it’s good to have an option and oftentimes, we will rerecord the initial bass and guitar track even though they all play together. I had one more thing to say about landing the plane because you have to finish everything on your list before you run out of time and budget. So in order to do that, you have to be ruthless about the delegation of time. You have to really pay attention when you’re working on a guitar sound or something. Okay, you might have to nudge things along to get things finished. Don’t let anyone dominate the session. You’re the producer, you delegate. Yeah, you have to hold the reins and steer this giant elephant or whatever you’re writing because it’s a monster, sometimes it can get out of control and then you lose control and then you run out of time. You can’t let that happen. That can be really challenging with a group of musicians who sometimes can get a little bit carried away and not think of the time. It can be really hard for a producer to keep everything together? Well, this is one of the most important things that you’ll be doing as a producer on a project is herding the cats, so to speak. [MUSIC]