Musicians: Why does it take so long to record?

I am a musician with plenty of live performing under my belt but no studio experience. I hear stories over and over about these long stints in the studio to record an album. Just this morning I read an article about Carole King that mentioned it took three weeks to record “Tapestry”. Now, if you’re working 40 hours a week that comes to about 2.7 hours of recording for every minute of music. That’s a ratio of 162:1. (I am assuming that is recording only and does not include post-production.)

I would think that if the music is written and the artists are well rehearsed you should be able to this in a day. Why does it take so long? Is it having to record dozens of takes before you get the right one? Is it doing arranging on the fly?

(I’ve also heard stories where a group will knock out an album in less than a day, but those stories are usually mentioned as an exception.)

Some artists compose in the studio.

Some artists want to try different arrangements or approaches.

I am reading the bio of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips and his approach is discussed a lot. He wanted a specific energy and pop - he asked for a lot of takes. He didn’t care if there were clam notes if it has the right energy.

I’d recommend the documentary on Springsteen’s Born to Run. That took a legendarily long time to record to get the feel Bruce wanted.

Geniuses like Bruce and Phillips know what they are looking for and take the time to get it. Other folks are simply noodling.

My band is recording a six song EP right now. But we all have full time day jobs.

We got three bed tracks down in one session and three in another. Those were about four hour sessions each. Since then various members have been back in for various overdubs. All in all I’d say as a band we’ve logged say a solid 24 hours of studio time broken up over about a month and a half.

Now we seemed to mired in, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have a rooster sound on that one and a jet engine, a timpani and a balalaika on the other.”

In other words, with digital recording and infinite tracks over-producing can be a real pitfall.

Of course after everything is in the can there’s also mixing and mastering to be concerned with. And the mass production if you’re not sticking to the current online only paradigm.

Besides … we’re artists, maaaan. We’re all sensitive and shit.

You’re assuming that the artists just play live. Usually a song is recorded one track at a time: drums, bass, guitar, etc. Individually. Thus you have to record each song the length of the song times the number of tracks – assuming no one makes a mistake and they have to rerecord. Then there’s the time setting up equipment, which is different for each song. Then, after all the tracks are down, someone has to listen and make suggestions, which requires rerecording one of more tracks. Or you want to add sessions musicians, so you have to wait until they’re available.

Yep, to begin with, it depends on how “worked out” the material is. When my band recorded our last EP, we recorded about 12 songs in two days. First day was laying down the basic tracks, the second day was the keyboardist re-tracking his keyboard parts with some borrowed vintage organs and a Leslie cabinet. We’d been playing the songs as they were for about a year. So, we did one or two takes of each song, and that was it. The organ was the only instrument we were overdubbing, and if we hadn’t done that, it would have been about 6 hours. Mixing them down took 3 non-consecutive days of work, listening to the mixes and making sure they were “right” put a week or so between each mix-down day. So, 5 days actual studio work, about a month of chronological time.

I used to be the gopher in a studio, as well, and I saw how other people do it. A band not really knowing the song well enough to nail it on each take can make recording one song take 8 hours. I’ve watched very good musicians ditch 10-15 otherwise good takes because they were consistently rushing the song after they went through a particular part. I personally would work that stuff out in rehearsal/shows beforehand, but some bands go into the studio before they start playing shows in earnest.

I’ve never worked with anyone rich enough to write in the studio, but I can imagine that can eat up hours easily. Writing songs is a messy, chaotic process.

^^^ This is the biggest part.

“Wrong. This performance never occurred.”

A college recording teacher, who had been an engineer on quite a few legendary 70s rock albums, said that in my presence. He had just played a KISS song on which he had been the engineer, and asked the class when that performance had taken place. A third of the class said nothing. Another third said “1977,” the year the album came out. The final third said “1976,” the year in which the album had been recorded. He then replied with the line quoted above, and elaborated that a modern multitrack recording is an illusion, a composite designed to recreate a performance that never actually took place live.

And while for most instruments, corrections and fixes can be edited (“punched”) in, or a great composite take even stitched together from several flawed ones, it is notoriously difficult to do that for drum kits, where multiple drums and cymbals are ringing out in the room at once, being picked up by 10 or 12 different microphones at once.

So for most rock recordings, at least, the first and longest (and, speaking as a guitarist/vocalist, most tedious) step is playing each song 50 times over until you get a really great drum take. In most cases, only the drum tracks from that take will be in the final song; the rest of the band will re-record their parts for that song, which are commonly called “guide tracks” or “scratch tracks,” and only really served to give the drummer something to play along to.

Then there’s mixing: mixing is equal parts science and black magic, great albums are born (or die) in mixdown, and it can take just as long as the actual recording. Truly great mixing is such a unique and valuable skill that, if you look at the credits of a couple of your favorite albums recorded in the last 30 years, you will probably see quite a few where the master tracks were sent to an entirely different studio than the one in which they were recorded, to be mixed by an entirely different engineer than the one who recorded them. A great example of this is Nirvana’s Nevermind. I’m of the firm belief that Nirvana’s “huge overnight success” was due partly to being the right band at the right time, but due more to their record label sending that album to Andy Wallace (known for such bands as Slayer) for mixing and mastering. It gave the raw guitar and ragged vocals just enough sheen for rock radio, which Bleach (their previous album which was fairly similar and just as good) did not.

I’ve been recording, in everywhere from basement four-tracks to serious professional establishments, for over 20 years. I’ve recorded a half-dozen full length albums, as well as a handful of EPs and single tracks. I don’t write in the studio, and I go in well-rehearsed. (Not because I’m super cool, but because the recording is almost always on my dime, and I can’t afford to spend $75/hour to sit in a comfortable chair and write lyrics.)

I say all this simply to establish that, as recording musicians go, I’m very much on the side of “craftsman” rather than “artiste.” Having said that, I don’t think I’ve ever come out of the studio with a product I was proud of for less than about three hours of studio time per minute of finished product.

Link to one such performance that “never took place.” :wink:

I do know that recordings are done in separate tracks and live takes are the exception. I would think that would account for a ratio of 10:1 or even 20:1 but not 162:1 as in the example I gave. However, I haven’t listened to that album for a long time and was shocked to go back and see that there were 15 musicians plus King, so that greatly complicates recording logistics.

The account in Wikipedia says that the Beatles spent 55 hours just recording Strawberry Fields Forever. The account suggests that they were writing and arranging as they went, such as Paul waiting to hear what the recorded tune sounded like before he wrote and recorded the bass track. And amazingly they recorded Sgt. Pepper’s on a 4-track machine and bouncing the tracks. Sgt. Pepper’s was unusual for its time in that it was conceived as a studio project, rather than as a way to merely capture or simulate live performances.

The Beatles and their virtually limitless resources notwithstanding, studio time is expensive and I would think you would want to enter the studio ready to go except for the technical aspects of recording that might have to be worked out as you go.

When I first started reading the OP I thought you were going to use Tapestry taking 3 weeks as a model of efficiency.

Compared to Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, and other big bands back in the '70s, 3 weeks is nothing. Like you mentioned, it can be attributable simply to scheduling the players.

Bands may know their material going in, but they don’t know how the songs are going to come off in the studio. Plus someone’s paying all this money and they need to get it just right, so do another take/get a different producer/bring in a pro to do the guitar solo, etc.

That was my thought, too.

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (one of the most complex rock recordings made up until that time) took three weeks of recording alone (and that after the band spent three weeks rehearsing it); that included Mercury, May, and Taylor putting in 10-12 hour days just laying down the vocal tracks.

I remember seeing a 90s interview with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who, in addition to doing a ton of studio work in the 70s, was a member of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. He talked about playing some guest guitar parts on a recent album, and marveled that the whole album had been tracked in four weeks. He quipped, “back in Steely Dan, it took me that long to find a comfortable chair!” :smiley: