Beginner’s Guide to Making an Album
Want to make an album but don’t know where to start? This guide takes you through all the stages, from budgeting to distribution and more…
Albums — collections of songs released on CD, vinyl, or via digital distribution — are still the dominant form of musical expression by artists. Every up-and-coming musician dreams of releasing an album during their music career. But for many first-timers, making a debut album may seem daunting. Writing the songs, recording the music, mixing, mastering, creating the album cover, making CDs, streaming your songs, publishing your music, collecting royalties … whew! It’s a lot to digest.
But it’s OK. We’re here to help guide you through the process, step by step. And by the end of this article, you’ll realize that making an album isn’t a Herculean task. It’s something you can get started on today.
Create your vision
When you set out to make an album, you’re not looking to throw together a collection of songs. What you really want to do is make a cohesive statement. This doesn’t have to be a grand concept album with a story like Tommy by The Who or Good Kid/MA.A.d City by Kendrick Lamar. But it should hang together, either thematically, like In The Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra or Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; have a unified sound, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; or take your music off into new direction, like Lil Yachty’s Let’s Start Here.
So, as you write songs for your album, try to find a unifying theme. It can be blatant or subtle, and you’ll want variety from song to song (songs that use different tempos, keys, arrangements, structures, etc.). Play each song and see which ones go together as part of your chosen album name and theme. Set aside songs that don’t fit to put on your next album or EP.
(By the way, if you’re looking for songwriting tips, we’ve got you covered with a host of great articles.)
How many songs should you include on your album?
Album lengths used to be restricted by the physical limitations of vinyl records: about 45 minutes in total. And while albums can be much longer than that today, thanks to CDs and streaming, 40-45 minutes is still a pretty good target. Longer than that can be a lot to digest. Plus, if you want to release your album on vinyl, you’ll be set.
As for how many songs to include: If you’re creating pop music (as opposed to jazz, classical, prog, etc.), you’re going to want your songs to clock in between 3:30 and 4:00 minutes each, so plan on including about 12–14 songs on your album. Of course, some songs will be longer than others, so this is just an average. (In fact, it’s a good idea to vary the length of your songs to keep your album from getting stale. But the songs you plan to promote as singles should be in that 3:30–4:00 minute range.)
Create a budget
While you’re working on writing your songs, you should also plan your budget. Many beginning artists don’t understand the costs of all the steps to producing, manufacturing, and distributing a new album, and they often blow through their budget before they get to the most important step: promotion. It is important to understand the costs to create a budget and stick to it. We’ll go over the estimated costs of each step along the way so you can properly plan your budget.
Create the music
Let’s assume you’ve written your batch of songs for the album. Now it’s time to lay those tracks down. We’re going to break this category into three steps. (For budgeting purposes, we’re also going to assume you already have the musical gear you need to play your music, but if you don’t, be sure to factor those costs into your budget.)
In order to begin recording your songs, you need to make sure they are as tight as can be, that they are arranged to your liking, and that you (and your bandmates) know how to play and sing every part to perfection. After all, as we will soon see, the recording studio is not where you want to spend valuable time figuring this stuff out.
Be sure to work on:
- Song structure. You might write lyrics and chords and a melody that you like, but play your songs over and over again to make sure all the parts are where they need to be. Maybe you’ll find that by the time you get to the third verse, the song is getting a little long in the tooth and you’ll want to trim something. Or maybe you’ll realize you need a pre-chorus.
- Arrangement. You can have the greatest lyrics and the most memorable melody, but if your musical arrangement isn’t there or you’re missing a hook, your song will never make it.
- Practice. The recording studio is not where you want to discover that your guitarist doesn’t know their parts or that you haven’t worked out your rap flow. Practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more until you know all these songs to perfection. The Beatles were able to record 10 of their first album’s 14 songs in a single day because they had played those songs a hundred times before in their live act.
Writing and arranging your songs will only cost you time. Practicing will cost you nothing if you own your own practice space. Depending on where you live, renting a rehearsal studio will cost you about $50/hr.
Most beginning musicians don’t fully comprehend how long it takes to record a song. It can take an hour or longer just to get the right microphones in the right places. This isn’t a problem if you are recording at home, but costs can quickly skyrocket if you are recording in a professional recording studio. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t record in a studio with a pro engineer — after all, they will have the gear and know-how to make sure you get a great sound — but just make sure you budget for it.
Professional recording studios cost anywhere from $50-$100 per hour, and it can take several hours to record each song, depending on how quickly you can perform it and how complicated the arrangements are. So, if you need to go pro, be sure to budget at least $3,000-$5,000.
Of course, you can save a ton of money (and the stress of going over budget) if you can record at home. To do this, you’ll need some know-how. You’ll also need gear. These days, you can get a decent setup for less than $1,000.
The cheapest possible home studio
My set-up at home is pretty much as cheap as it can possibly be, and I get great-sounding recordings. I use GarageBand as my DAW, which came free with my MacBook. (If you use a PC, check out Ableton Live Intro, which is only $99.) I plug my guitars and bass directly into my computer with a $20 USB cable, and I use the Akai MPK MIDI controller ($100) to play almost every other instrument I use. I use a Shure SM58 for $100, plus a $20 XLR-to-USB cable, to record vocals. All told, I spent about $250 for my entire home studio. Other people spend more than that for just one microphone. Of course, I already had the computer and musical instruments. I’m also a one-man band. I’m also not under the delusion that my recordings will win a Grammy. But my studio is cheap, easy to use, and it makes me happy.
You may have recorded all your songs, but they’re still not ready to release to the world. First you need to mix and master your album.
Audio mixing is the process of combining multitrack recordings into a final product. A mixing engineer will adjust the relative levels of each track and apply effects. For example, this is where you (or your mixing engineer) decide how loud you want your vocals to be, what instruments need reverb, delay, or distortion, and when to fade out the song.
You can certainly do your own mixes at home, though, if you have the funds to hire a pro (who has the experience and the equipment to get the most out of your recording), we recommend it — if nothing else than to bring in a fresh set of unbiased ears.
Audio mastering is the final stage of the audio production. It uses EQ and compression to optimize your music for distribution, but it also unifies all your various songs into a cohesive album. This means making sure each song hits the same levels. Mastering is also the point in post-production when you sequence your album.
Create visuals for your album art
Now that the music is ready, you need to focus on your album cover art. You want an image that captures attention and tells the world who you are and what your album is about. Furthermore, it has to do this at thumbnail size. (After all, if you’re going to stream your music, the first glimpse of your album may be via social media or a digital streaming platform on a phone.)
Unless you or a bandmate are a graphic designer — scratch that, a talented graphic designer — this is yet another step that is best left to the pros. After all, if your album cover doesn’t draw people in, no one is ever going to listen to your music.
The good news is you don’t have to break the bank to get a killer cover. Disc Makers offers album cover art design starting at just $149.
Create a schedule
Now that your album is done, it’s time to create a schedule for its release and promotional campaign. Here are some things you’ll want to put on your schedule:
- Launch your website (if you don’t already have one). You’ll want a “home base” to send people to from your various social media posts. This is also where you’ll take pre-release orders.
- Place your CD and/or vinyl order. Production turn times for CDs and/or vinyl will affect when you can release your CD. The standard turn time for CDs at Disc Makers is 10–13 business days, but they can be ready in as few as three days. It takes quite a bit longer — 18 weeks — to get 12” vinyl records, so schedule accordingly.
- Reserve the venue for your album release party. Important! Give yourself plenty of time for your release date and party! I know you’re excited to have finished your album and you want to get it out into the world straightaway, but that would be a mistake. You need to hype the heck out of this thing and build excitement, otherwise, you’ll have gone through all this trouble for nothing. Again, CD turn-times are typically 10–13 days, but give yourself an extra two weeks, just to be sure.
- Announcing your album’s release date. Once you’ve started CD production and reserved your venue, shout it loudly and proudly on social media! Build that hype!
- Schedule gigs in the first month after your release party. Keep your momentum going!
- Post on social media. Try to post something at least twice a week to get people excited about your new release.
CD and vinyl replication
You might not think you need CDs or vinyl because streaming is where it’s at. And yes, streaming is great, but one of the best ways to monetize your music is by selling CDs and vinyl records at your gigs. Consider this: You need 3,000 streams to make the profit you make from just one CD sale. You don’t have to break the bank — you can get 100 CDs in Digipaks from Disc Makers for just $255. This is a great product to sell at your album release party.
Selling CDs at your gigs is great, but you also want to distribute your CDs and work with a digital distributor. CD Baby, Distrokid, Tunecore, SoundCloud, and Spotify are also viable options for your distribution.
Register for royalties
Performing rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC help collect public performance royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers. In other words, if you’re a songwriter, they’ll help you get paid whenever a song you wrote is broadcast or publicly performed. It’s easy to join one of these organizations, and it’s worth the time it takes to register.
Promote your music album
Without promotion, no one will ever know or care about your album. This is a critical part of the album-making process — we can’t stress this enough.
We’ve covered some of the things you’re going to want to announce (your release, the release date, the party, pre-orders), but those are just the facts. You also want to post some sizzle to get people excited about your music and your brand. Post audio clips, photos, and making-of videos, etc. Build a story and get people to buy into it!