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Join The Singles Club

Article from Phaze 1, July 1989

essential advice on pressing your own record


You've written a song to guarantee mega-stardom, but the record companies won't listen to your demo. Adam Green explains how to beat the majors at their own game, and release your own single.


EVERY WEEK A hundred new albums and singles are released. Only between five and ten actually chart, and countless numbers of bands (more often than not putting out their first release) pour their hard-earned cash into a product that ultimately ends up in the bargain bin at their local record shop. Making your own record is about 10% fun and 90% expense and aggravation. It gets even worse after you've left the studio. Then you have to deal with the hassle of actually getting the thing out so that people can buy it. But has this ever stopped anyone? Not on your life...

No-one can deny that the idea of having something that you can stick on your stereo and play to your friends is still appealing, but first you've got to decide what you want the record for, and crucially how much you can afford to spend. If you want to sell it at gigs or end up with something a bit like a souvenir, think about whether the cheaper options of a flexi-disc or a decently recorded tape would do. If you want to promote yourself amongst the A&R barons of the majors, you might still get away with a (brilliant) tape and a lot of hustling, although it's widely accepted that some record companies will pay more attention to a band who are committed enough to splash the cash on some vinyl product. If you genuinely want to flog some copies, then it looks as though the 12" single is your best bet — distributors won't settle for anything less. Whatever you decide to do, it's a long journey from having the idea in the pub to finally getting the record on your hi-fi...

HANDS ON HEADPHONES, ROCKSTAR AT WORK



THE EARLY '80s saw a spate of punk bands release singles that sounded like (or even had) been recorded on a cassette recorder, or had been taken live off the mixing desk at gigs. Nowadays most bands will use some form of multi-tracking whether in a home or commercial recording studio. Normally each individual performer is allocated a separate channel on the tape, and once it's all been recorded, all of the constituent elements are readjusted both in terms of tone and volume. This "mix" is then transferred, in stereo, to an open-reel tape, 1/4" wide.

Whether you decide to use a four track portastudio or opt for the full power of a 24-track commercial set-up will depend on what sort of sound you're looking for and how your band is made up. Broadly speaking, bands who have standard acoustic drums tend to use studios providing at least 24 tracks when they record a single. It is difficult to get a decent drum sound unless each piece of the kit (hi-hat, crash and ride cymbals, kick, floor, snare and tom tom drums) is given its own track. Going to an eight track studio would leave three channels for the rest of the band!

If you're in a band that uses an electronic kit or drum machine/sequencer, it is quite possible to get away with using less tracks. Each drum sound can be pre-mixed and a signal fed through one channel (two if the equipment has a stereo output). Having said that, most successful engineers prefer to record keyboards in mono because the sound is invariably cleaner. Similarly, rappers using record decks can often take advantage of this configuration; the most celebrated example being Bomb The Bass who recorded their chart hit 'Beat Dis' on four track.

Before you go into the studio, decide generally what sort of sound you want. Perhaps you'll need to record "live" and just overdub the vocals. Some bands prefer to record each element completely separately at different times. A compromise between two approaches does exist: the band plays each song together, but only selected elements are actually recorded while the other parts merely act as "guides".

Although many bands will have experience of some recording through doing demo tapes, it is often tempting to try and use all of the extra equipment offered by a larger studio. Basti, a Norwich seven-piece who have recently released a debut 12" single, warn against this.

"Unless you've got endless time in the studio, don't start using the technology for the sake of it. I don't think anyone's got enough time to learn how to master it in two or three days. Although it's worth checking out a studio's range of effects, don't inadvertently end up paying for gear you don't need through higher studio rates."

While you are in the studio, it's often difficult to distance yourself and be able to tell whether something genuinely sounds good or not. It is often a good idea to bring someone sympathetic along to lend a pair of unbiased ears. Failing that, you can also spread the recording and mixing sessions over different days.

A studio is really only as good as its engineer. Spend a fair bit of time asking around, and if possible, listen to samples of previous work.

It is fairly standard for bands to expect two or three days' recording to yield enough material for a four-song EP. How much it'll cost all depends on which route you take. Budget on £250-£350 for 16-track, and in excess of £400 for a 24-track studio.

NOT THE RECORD PRESSING STAGE



SO YOU'VE DONE the recording and you emerge into the daylight, clutching your tape in hand. You want to turn it into a record, and the pressing company seems the next logical step, but steady on! There may be a better option. If you just want to sell your product at gigs or give them to your friends, start looking for somewhere that'll do the job you want. If you're looking at "shifting some units" (man), go and see a record distributor before you press anything.

"Bands often come and see us when it's too late", Derek Chapman, of Backs Distribution explains. "They turn up with something complete, that doesn't fit our requirements. If you aren't bothered about having a thousand copies of your record sitting under the bed, then fine, but if you are, come and see us first."

Distributors come in two main varieties; ones that are linked to major record companies, and others — like Backs — who operate independently but group themselves into a national network called The Cartel. Very basically, without the help of a distributor, you're unlikely to get your record stocked anywhere outside your town and it definitely won't find its way into the likes of HMV and Our Price. As Basti put it: "getting a distribution deal is the next best thing to getting a record deal," and to a certain extent, distributors have the same outlook as record companies.

"Ultimately, you've got to sell your record to retailers", Derek continues. "And if you turn up with something that looks awful or sounds terrible, we're wasting our time."

Generally, distributors will want to hear a tape and see at least some rough artwork to gain an idea of what your record's going to look like, before they'll consider doing anything. They won't distribute cassettes or flexi-discs, and the poor old 7" single seems to have fallen from favour. Derek Chapman: "As distributors, we get virtually nothing back from seven inchers. We sell the record to retailers for a fixed price and they'll charge whatever they can for it, but we only get 35% of the price we charge the dealer in the first place. For a 7", after we've taken off our costs we'll be lucky to see 5p profit. We also can't export 7" singles to the Continent, where there's a demand for them, because we'll lose even that 5p in export tax."

Independent distributors prefer to deal with established record labels. One way unknown bands have managed to overcome that particular hurdle has been to set up or get involved with a local label (Subway in Bristol, and Bite Back in Portsmouth are good examples) who consistently put out records and have built up a sort of brand loyalty.

There are six distributors associated with The Cartel across the country (and that doesn't include specialists who deal in jazz, world music, and the like) so how do you know which ones to approach? Most of them retain a bias towards their own regional area, but not to the exclusion of others. You'll also find that certain distributors will tend to deal with certain styles of music. Check these out in a magazine called The Catalogue (available from independent record shops) which lists the sort of material each company is dealing with at the moment.

THE HARD COPY



COMING UP WITH a finished record involves coordinating a lot of different processes, from physically producing the record — along with everything that entails — to ensuring the whole package is complete with inner/outer sleeves and labels. A lot of bands are surprised to discover just how important (and expensive) this last part can really be. Mark of Basti explains: "Doing the sleeve and the label may seem as though it's not important, but it is. Distributors will want to make sure you've got things like a catalogue number and 'Made in England' written on it somewhere. Even if you decide to do a simple cover, you can easily find yourself spending as much on that as you might on the rest of the record."

Basti's 12" sleeve consists of one extra colour (blue) printed on black and white, and seems to be the option that most bands doing their first single go for. It's up to you whether you pay someone to design it for you, but even if you don't, you'll find yourself shelling out for typesetting (a commercial version of "Letrasetting"). Finally, the finished artwork has to be assembled so that it can be printed. If you manage to get it right, you'll be looking at about £180 plus VAT (Indie Pressing Service in London) for printing outer sleeves and labels, and providing inner sleeves for a 12" single. Basti, though, have no hesitation in recommending a graphic designer.

"Designers are expensive (about £150), but you can really tell the difference between something a professional has done and something your mate has. We had a problem with the company who were doing our sleeves. They basically made a mess of it and were trying to make out our artwork was to blame. So we got our designer to give them a ring; a bit of chat in designer language and it was sorted."

Most record pressing companies will accept cassettes, but the industry standard remains a quarter inch open reel tape, and this should be what you're aiming to provide them with. Very briefly, your recording will go through the following stages en route to becoming a record. Approximate costs provided by Vinyl Cuts, London, are indicated.

i) Your recording is transferred from your tape, electro-mechanically, by creating grooves in a piece of plastic called a "lacquer" (the "cutting stage") — £120 plus VAT.

ii) The records are physically produced, via stamping, at a cost of 40p each. At this stage, the labels are put on.

Once the original recording reaches the first stage, there is not much you can do to change its sound. It is possible to opt for a loud cut that increases the volume the record will play at, and a small amount of tonal adjustment can be performed at the cutting stage. Paying less doesn't necessarily reflect itself in reduced sound quality. Instead, you might find the quality of service is lower.

Darren Murphy of Vinyl Cuts identifies three areas where bands tend to go wrong: "Sometimes tapes aren't of sufficient quality to get a good cut, but more often than not, we have problems with getting the tracks in the right order, making sure there's the right gap between them and so on. The thing that holds us up the most though, is the late arrival of artwork for the label and the sleeves themselves. Sometimes people even forget about the labels entirely."

Although it is perfectly possible to negotiate separate deals with pressing and cutting plants, sleeve printers, etc, there are quite a few firms who specialise in arranging everything for you. For example, the Indie Pressing Service offer 1,000 12" singles with black and white plus one colour covers, labels and inner sleeves for about £950 plus VAT. If you're after a flexi-disc (remember most only give you six minutes and thirty seconds in which to get yourself across) it'll cost you about £270 plus VAT from the Flexi-Disc Company in London, including polythene record sleeves. It's possible to do photocopied black and white paper covers for around £70-£80.

When your singles are finally winging their way from the pressing plant, you can't sit around and wait for them to sell themselves. Some distribution companies will even insist that you play gigs around the time of your record release. Again, the knack is to get everything that needs to happen happening at the right time. Make sure all the relevant media (radio, newspapers, music press, etc) get copies and prepare for stardom. Well, it worked for the Wedding Present, didn't it?


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Mixed Blesssings

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Choosing And Using


Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

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Phaze 1 - Jul 1989

Feature by Adam Green

Previous article in this issue:

> Mixed Blesssings

Next article in this issue:

> Choosing And Using


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