Sound advice about capturing your music and promoting your records from a slate of pro musicians who have been there and done that.
When you decide to record an album, there are endless choices that must be made both before and after you click the big red Record button. Obviously, there are the practical considerations, such as a DIY home recording versus booking time in an established studio. Then, once you have the album, you have to promote and share it. In an arena as emotional and personal as making music, these practical decisions can be full of pitfalls.
We asked a diverse group of working musicians to weigh in with advice based on their many years of collective experience, not to mention a few tears along the way.
Don’t compromise your vision: Who are you?
Singer, songwriter, musician, and rebel Shirley Levi allows her emotions and passions to guide her musical journey. She advises others to know themselves well, and not let that knowledge go—for any price.
I released my album, Break Free completely on my own, and reached very surprising heights all on my very own. I was able to do for myself so much more than if I had a big team behind me. At this point, if I chose to release through a major label or company, I will not only get taken a lot more seriously because I have built my own image and style, but also because I've also acquired so much press and a big audience all on my very own. It's harder for anyone to try and change who I really am anymore since it's been developed so carefully and genuinely.
Colorado producer Dave Wilton loves to help musicians capture their unique visions for sound and style. He is also a solo musician and band member himself. The biggest mistakes he sees from beginners come from a lack of confidence.
I’m such a fan of people making and releasing music! Anyone who has taken the time and resources to record something and release it to the world should be applauded. It requires a lot of courage. As a producer, I would encourage every musician to fully utilize your time, skills, and budget to make an album you are really proud of. Don’t give in to the temptation to sound like someone else. Discover and embrace your own sound, and don’t ever release something you’re not satisfied with. It’s common sense but it’s the most common mistake and regret I hear from musicians that release albums.
Singer, songwriter, and acoustic guitar devotee Matt Portella cites influences as diverse as John Denver and Kiss. He learned a lot about himself and how he works best in the process of recording his 2012 album, Fractured Image, and now prepares diligently for studio times.
Having the perspective of hindsight is always helpful. I now go into a project with more structure—including budgeting for items such as studio time, marketing, and guest musicians, as well coming up with a timeline with target dates for completing songs, artwork, etc. I find that more structure and planning leads to more efficiency and productivity.
The recording process is different from anything else a musician does, and—especially if this is your first experience in a studio—it will try to change you. Make sure you know who you are and what you want going in, and hold on tight.
Do consider gear: I came here with a mic in my hand
The equipment you use to record can have a big impact on your sound (and your budget), but don’t be intimidated: The world of DIY recording has come a long way. According to Shirley Levi, you can get started on your album using what you have in your pocket right now.
Nowadays, even if you can't afford expensive gear or huge mixing boards, it's very possible to record digitally and still achieve a big sound—or even bring the album home, mix it digitally, and still have a professional, mastered sound. Picking a good mic or preamp can give you a big studio sound. It just takes a really great mic and technique to get a magical vocal or guitar recording. It's less about gear and more about capturing spontaneous magic in minimal ways. I even use my iPhone for acoustic one-takes. You can record great ideas and sketches on your iPhone.
Read our iOS-Compatible Music Gear and Software Buying Guide to harness the recording power of your tablet or smartphone.
Changes in the price, size, and capability of equipment has made recording more flexible than ever. Brian Quinn first picked up a guitar at age five, and has had a successful career ranging from hardcore to 1970s-inspired rock. He knows that recent technology innovations have forever altered the options for recording an album.
With the advances that have been made in computers and music-related software over the last 20 years, the recording process has been forever transformed. Rare, though not abandoned, are the days of having to book studio time for ridiculous amounts of money per hour or per project, rush into the studio, and cut eight to 10 songs in one day.
These days, any studio I go into, including the one in my home (where I spend A LOT of time), is equipped with Pro Tools 11, a 16GB RAM MacBook Pro, and a couple [of] external hard drives … just in case of a catastrophe. The studio has come to the artist. Convenient? Hell yeah. Optimal? Hell no.
Read our Audio Interface Buying Guide to find the right gear to get your music in and out of your computer.
Philadelphia emcee Whitney Peyton recently released her debut album. Voted the top unsigned artist in Pennsylvania on MTV2’s, “On The Rise” contest, she has worked with hip-hop superstars from DMX to MIMS. For her, a combination of old and new tools created the perfect, unique sound.
I jumped around to a couple different studios when making the album, but my go-to mic is the Neumann u87. It's not a cheap mic, but totally worth it. … I’m a big fan of Pro Tools. It’s a fantastic and versatile program that truly can produce incredible results.
Matt Portella likes something old and something new to find a recording mix that is just right.
I also like recording with vintage equipment. For my last album, Fractured Image, I worked with drummer/engineer Andy Kravitz. We used a Neve mixing console, which gave the recordings incredible warmth and genuineness, and really set the tone for all of the tracks.
Can’t afford a professional studio? Read our Recording Gear Buying Guide to find the gear that matches your recording plans and budget.
The gear you use in your garage and local venues may not be the same gear you want to use in the studio. Or maybe it’s just not the only gear you want to use in the studio. Take the time to do a little research, and ask around, about favorite mics, good cables, etc.
Do consider a producer: On the dark side of the board
Are you considering working with a producer on your album? According to Dave Wilton, there are many things a producer can offer, including diverse experience, technology expertise, and impartial guidance.
My favorite job as a producer is to encourage and help draw out new expressions and sounds from the musicians I work with. That can take place at any point during a production. It can happen while writing, arranging, recording, mixing and even mastering. It’s always a surprise and it’s those inspired moments that bring me the most joy.
A producer will also have a lot of wisdom about recording equipment. For example, here is what Wilton keeps in his toolbox:
I have a few cornerstone pieces of analog recording gear that are utilized on almost every album I make.
- Microphones: I love my pair of Coles 4038’s and my Royer 122. My go-to large diaphragm microphone is a Bock iFet.
- Preamps: The Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5012, Phoenix Audio DRS-1R’s, API A2D (2:1 setting), and the LaChapell Audio 583e get used on almost every session.
- EQ: The API 5500 gets lots of use in both recording and mixing.
- Compression: The Empirical Labs Distressor is my favorite tracking compressor.I also love my Tube-Tech LCA2B and Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph for both individual track and full mix compression.
- Converter/DAW: I record digitally with a Lynx Aurora 16 converter into Logic Pro or Pro Tools. I mix using the Phoenix Audio Nicerizer analog summing mixer into a Burl B2 A/D Converter.
Weigh the need to be true to your vision and your music against the benefits that a producer might bring to the table.
Do promote: Avoid the sounds of silence.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it even make a sound? Once your album is in the can, it’s time to promote it, and there are a lot of ways to do that.
Give it away, now.
Singer and songwriter Josh Garrels mastered his first recordings at age 13 on a family karaoke machine. He has since recorded numerous albums, and scores for films and television shows. His vast experience has taught him some promotional tricks, including one you may not expect: Give it away.
A few important things I've learned as fully independent artist are to build in "lead time" before releasing a new album to the public, and also that giving my music away is the best way to broaden listenership. In the past, I would begin selling a new album out of the trunk of my car, at whatever show I happened to be playing, the moment I received them from the manufacturer.
Now I've learned if I want to have any notable reviews or coverage of my work, I need to set aside several months of lead time—with my album in hand—before the official release date arrives. (This is an industry standard, but most of us independent acts don't know this.) I've also grown more and more passionate about giving away my music. Not just a song or two, but entire albums—and generally my newest work. If the album has any quality or integrity, making it free builds in the potential of viral growth of listenership. Income will follow later with show sales and other income streams.
And let’s be honest: Music sales is never going to be your music’s main income. If people want to copy it from their friends, they will. You might as well just give it away.
Hire a publicist
The Rocketboys’ music creates a large, sweeping, and sometimes sparse sound that reflects their home state of Texas. Having recently recorded a four-song EP, singer and guitarist Brandon Kinder shares the benefits of hiring a publicist.
When we hired our publicist we were able to do the same things but much more efficiently. He had the connections and the know-how that we just didn't quite have at the time. We also made sure to do as much promotion through social media as we could.
Kinder’s advice for selecting and using a PR company comes from experience.
When looking for and hiring a PR company, I think the best thing you can do is research what they've done in the past. Most of the time if you just ask, they'll send you a list of some artists they've worked with, and you can ask questions about how he/she did with them. But you don't want to rely solely on those few. I'd recommend trying to get in touch with some of the other artists as well. Not everyone has the same experiences, and it's a good idea to get a more rounded idea before making any decisions.
Another thing to remember is that a publicist or PR company can't work magic. Just because you're paying someone to take care of this part of your promotion doesn't mean you can stop working yourself. They're just a part of the whole, and often, as your career progresses, you’ll have contacts that you can team up to target.
Like a producer in the studio, a publicist can bring a lot of experience to the process, as well as his or her own network of influence within the industry.
Get in the van
Touring is a rock and roll institution for a reason: It works. Live shows can be a great experience for performer and fan alike, and it’s the most obvious way to get your music in front of new audiences. (Gas station dining and sleeping on questionable floors not included.) Brian Quinn’s early experience in the touring-centric hardcore scene taught him the value of loading up the van.
It scares me as I write this that my very first independent record was [one I did] with my hardcore band Burial Ground in 1993. 1993—that predates the Internet! There wasn’t a plethora of social media outlets to connect us with the mass populations of metaldom back then, so we had to do it the “old fashioned” way. We played TONS of gigs EVERYWHERE. Although it may seem outdated, to me it is still the number one way to promote your band, your music, and your brand.
People listen with their eyes first. It’s just how we’re wired, and that will never change. Getting in the trenches, packing a van (or trailer if you’re doing well), is how I did it for many years, and still continue to do so even though my hardcore days are long behind me.
Obviously, with the huge advancements in computer technology, there are now a mind-bending amount of ways to get to the masses, which is great. The only downfall is that the number of artists that are in the pool is beyond massive. That’s the real trick now: to have something that no one else has, and be better than everyone else. Making use of Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, SixString, etc., should only be a supplement to getting out there and going for it.
Whitney Peyton knows how to put on a great show and get the fans involved.
To be honest, my whole career so far has been based on guerilla advertising. Touring was probably my best promotion for my album On The Brink. If people get excited about you live, they want something to bring home to remember the show by! Musicians can turn to their fans to help them spread the word to others. Try to hand out flyers and stickers, and do contests on social networking sites to promote!
Social media and SoundCloud are great resources, but there is still no substitute for taking to the highways in a sketchy van and sight-unseen venues. Take to the road and when you become an aging rockstar with a catalogue of weird stories to push with your social media channels.
Shirley Levi agrees that taking action on your own will reap great rewards, no matter where your music career stands.
Don’t stop believing!
Recording and releasing a successful album is a delicate balance. You need to know when to stick to your own ideas, and when to be flexible enough to accept help; when to take to digital advertising outlets, and when to throw your stuff in a van. Whatever you decide to do first, Levi advises that you do it soon.
Don't forget to develop yourself—your music and image—on your own. Don't wait for anyone to discover you! Make your own opportunities and take advantage of the Internet. You have to let people know you're out there. You have to shape your own promotion, and you will find your audience! It's all a big blessing: In the process of trying to figure out how to promote and reach your listeners, you will develop a unique style that will set you apart from everyone.
No matter where you are in the process, there’s another step in front of you. If you’re wrapping up a tour, it’s time to get back to the drawing board and/or the studio. Don’t let your dream fall through the cracks. Where are you now? What’s next? Get started today.