HomeBlogsbillhare's blogHow Much Does It Cost? You Have More Control Than You Think!

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One of the first questions I am always asked is “How much will it cost?”  This question is so open-ended that there is no way to even guess, especially if it’s my first time dealing with that particular group.  My first questions back will usually be “How much do you want to spend?” and “What are your expectations?”

Sometimes they’ll answer back “Well, we have $750 to spend on 12 songs and we liked what you did with “Group X” – make us sound like that!” 

First off – “Group X” may have spent $20,000 on their project.  Secondly “Group X” might just be on a different level from your group.  I have had first year groups ask me to make them sound like the Beelzebubs.  Only the Bubs sound like the Bubs, and while I’m proud of my work with them, I also give them 99% of the credit for the way those albums sound before they even come to me.  And even with the amazingly near-perfect performances they hand me, they still spend quite a bit on the mixes – it’s just what it takes to make an album like that and there’s no way to cut corners.  

That said, there are ways to make very solid albums for very little money, but you’ll just have to make do with less detail and ear candy (i.e. we won’t put one effect on the tenors for measure 3 then take it off and put it on the altos for measure 4, etc, but use more “general” effects.)  These details are what cost the money, and while they can be effective and ear-catching, most of what makes a song work is a solid performance of a good arrangement, mixed in more of a “big picture” setting.  Many of these details won’t be noticed by even the most “golden eared” people, but of course you will know they are there – but is it worth it?  Sometimes yes, but in my opinion, most of the difference is going to be in your dollars rather than in the listener’s ear. 

Is this starting to sound familiar?  I know a lot of my articles of late have been harping on the “forest for the trees” syndrome, but even after sending my clients to read them to try to save them some money, it’s still not getting though!

Real world case-in-point:  I recently did a mix of a song for a collegiate group that had recorded their own tracks, very clean, well performed and well-edited.  This of course makes my job much easier, quicker, and therefore cheaper.  I was able to get a good solid mix done in 2.5 hours, which at my (then) rate of $105 per hour came out to $262.50.  A small amount to spend on a good mix in my opinion, and I think they were happy with that as well…  except…

Since this amount was still under the budget ($400 per song) they had imposed on themselves, they decided they wanted to tweak the mix, which is quite common and usually OK to do.  They got pretty 'tweaky' with this, wanting certain voices to be turned down or up on certain words, moving other minor stuff around that only they would know the difference because they are so intimately familiar with the arrangement – so after 5 drafts of the mix moving cymbals to the left or right a bit, shortening or lengthening the snare and seeing what that sounded like, the original 2.5 hours ($262.50) ballooned to 7 hours ($735!)

Most of the time, if the group is happy with the general direction of the mix, subsequent drafts are very quick. This particular MD's reaction was "We love it!", but then wanted to get into such minute details as re-shaping the release of each snare drum, etc - definitly not the "a little more of this, a little less of that" variety we would usually see!  We went back and forth for 4 more drafts, and I don't think anyone but the MD was making comments - see my articles on "outside ears"!

As the tweakiness was getting out of hand, I proved the point to this MD by playing draft 1 and draft 5 for many people of the “golden eared” variety (other producers, RARB reviewers, general Aca-junkies, as well as drummers who might notice the difference in snare lengths, etc) who all said “Hmmm, I don’t know what the differences are, what should I be listening for?”

To be fair, there WERE differences between the mixes, but again, unless you KNEW what they were, you probably wouldn’t notice them.  The MD of the group of course knew the differences, as did I, but the fact that all of these experienced listeners couldn’t tell the difference makes me think the extra 200% in cost wasn’t worth it in the end. 

This is just one of many examples where this happened, but it shows how much in control of this process you really are.  $262.50 compared to $735.00 for basically the same experience for the end listener - even highly discerning listeners. Multiply that difference by 12 songs on an average album.  I'll do it for you - $3,150 compared to $8,820, for a small, if any, amount of difference to the end listener, only your arranger and some of your group would know the difference because they asked for it.   A couple years of distance from being in the heat of the moment, and even they would not be able to tell - happens all the time.  I get emails from people I worked with a few years prior who came across one of the earlier mixes while cleaning out their computer and say "I sure remember reacting strongly to this when we were doing it, but I can't even tell the difference now - what did we change??"

Now if you still think those differences are worth it to you, by all means, we producers are ready to take your money!  Personally, I’d rather just move on to the next mix…

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Addendum November 7, 2012:  In the years since I wrote the above article, many more producers have entered the scene, and we feel each other's pain when it comes to this subject.  We have a Facebook group where we can vent to each other - this picture appeared this morning, and I thought back to the above article...

Collegiate A Cappella Revision Evolution