My friend Chris, who I chat to on Twitter a lot, wrote an excellent blog lately about whether recording studios were relevant anymore. http://www.chris-t-bassist.co.uk/2013/04/are-studios-irrelevant-these-days.html He made some great points and I agree with the article’s conclusion. Even though it is entirely possible to create music all the way from nothing at all to release quality master recording, in a laptop, in your bedroom, there are still some areas of recording where a good, professional, purpose-built, recording studio has the edge.
Not all studios are created equal, of course, so you need to watch how you hire. That said, here are some of my favourite reasons why you should consider using a recording studio (with thanks to Chris, where there are overlaps with his list):
1) Acoustic isolation – the sound can’t get in, to ruin your recording, or out, to worry the neighbours. The hardest things to isolate are the bass frequencies. This is why hiring a studio on a busy main road might be stupid. I’ve known people go to the trouble of building “floating” recording rooms, mounted on hundreds of Audi engine mounts, to get rid of the bass frequency coupling. It’s hard to do. Your bedroom won’t be immune to low frequency rumble. A good studio will.
2) Rooms that sound nice – a well designed studio will have a recording room with a well designed reverb time (RT60) and no obvious standing waves. The sound will diffuse in a lovely, gentle reverberant field, which is nice and even at most frequencies (i.e. no obvious tuned peaks in the response). A well designed acoustic environment is a please to play in, which in turn makes you play better. It can also be much easier to get a good recording in a nice sounding room.
3) Big enough to take the band – in a good studio, you can set up the whole band, with isolation screens between each member and play as a band, while recording each part to a clean, uncontaminated track. That gives you the ability to play as a band, with all the artistic interplay and authentic feel that that can bring, while giving you the ability to mix without hassles. In most home studios, you’re into overdubbing, or if you record the whole band at once, there is lots of cross contamination of one instrument track into the other (“spill” or “bleed”).
4) Flexible headphone monitoring – gives you the ability to hear a different instrument balance in each person’s headphones. Not such a big deal when you are overdubbing, but if you want to record the band playing all at once, then having the right amount of bass and drums in your cans, compared to your guitar or vocal, can be crucial. There is nothing more off-putting than trying to get a good take, while you can’t hear yourself for the kick drum. If you can apply different effect treatments to your own part, in your cans, you can also enhance your performance, because a little compression, EQ and reverb on your own sound, in your headphones, can really lift your performance.
5) Instruments – the better studios have musical instruments available to you. Things you might not have yourself. Different snare and kick drums, cymbals, obscure guitars, percussion, keyboard instruments, maybe a big piano and all sorts of esoteric ethnic and folk instruments, to name a few. Access to this collection can make your studio time very worthwhile indeed. A studio near a good instrument hire company can be a good compromise.
6) Microphones – good studios usually amass a solid collection of tasty microphones, with different sensitivities, patterns and sound characteristics. If there isn’t a selection of large and small diaphragm condenser mics and at least one ribbon, beware. The better studios will have pressure zone mics and shot gun mics too. Take a look in the microphone locker. The tastier the transducers, the more likely you are to get a good recording. Of course, a great array of mics is useless unless the engineer at the studio knows good mic placement technique and knows how to get the best out of them. It’s not just the gear, it’s the knowledge.
7) Calibrated ears – ideally, you want the studio’s engineer to be very familiar with the quirks of the room, the mics and the desk. Parachuting an engineer into a strange working environment is not as effective as having the house engineer, who knows what does and doesn’t work well in this particular studio, with this collection of gear, is going to save a lot of time and bad takes.
8) Good lighting – you want to be able to control the brightness and ideally the colour, because this will help you make changes in your working environment, during a long session, to keep everybody fresh and revived. Make sure the dimmers don’t make a lot of audible interference. You don’t want it to be too bright, or too dark, or too static. The trick with lighting is matching the mood of the music and changing the lighting as the mood of what you are recording changes. Most studios miss this trick. Adjustable ambient light, gently sequenced to your music, can really make a difference in recording. A mixture of natural and electric light is also useful. There should be acoustically isolated windows that let in the sun, which can be closed down with blackout curtains if required, as well as the electric kind of lighting.
9) Climate control – if you can change the ambient temperature and humidity, without the air conditioning making a racket that is picked up in your recordings, then you have the ability to change your music making environment as you work. If you need more warmth or to make it cooler, you should be able to do that, instead of having your musical flow interrupted by sweating or shivering. You want to be able to control humidity because that’s good for your instruments and their tuning stability. They’re usually made of wood and are susceptible to moisture changes. Too wet or too dry and you are going to find your instruments begin to adjust themselves to the ambient humidity at the most inconvenient moments.
10) Comfy furniture – you shouldn’t have to perch on your amp or stand all day, when playing. There should be some comfy furniture, that doesn’t squeak or make noises, but which doesn’t put you to sleep either. The furniture needs to support good playing postures. It amazes me how many studios, including home studios, have no appropriate furniture. When you need to concentrate on a performance, bodily discomfort doesn’t need to be at the forefront of your mind. Les Pauls are heavy guitars and a day of playing one can make your back and shoulders ache like the blazes. It doesn’t have to be like this.
11) Pre-production friendly – if your studio isn’t welcoming of the fact that you have written, arranged, rehearsed and pre-programmed ahead of your session, they are trying to take your money. They should be delighted to see evidence of preparatory work, including making sure you have new, stretched in strings on your guitars and the intonation set up correctly. Preparing to play or actually creating a song and rehearsing it in the recording studio is pretty profligate of expensive studio time. Far better to get your act together and then concentrate on capturing the work in the recording studio. It’s not the best place to create anyway.
12) Secure loading bay – a good studio will have a way for you to get your expensive and often irreplaceable musical instruments and gear, some of which might be precious to you, into and out of the studio, from your car or van, without running the gauntlet of prying eyes and thieves. You don’t want to be worrying about leaving the guitar in the car, while you carry in the amp, hoping that nobody lifts it while you’re gone. You want to be using your best instruments on record, so why take stupid chances with having them damaged or stolen on the way to or from the studio? A good studio will also have a secure, lockable area to secure your gear, while you pop out for something to eat. They will also discourage casual, stray people from wandering around inside the studio or studio complex, while you’re trying to get some work done.
13) No interruptions – if the engineer takes calls during your session, or buries his nose in facebook or twitter on his mobile phone, while you are sweating about getting the song done in the time allowed, without breaking your recording budget, this isn’t the studio for you. We’re all here for the music. Turn the phones off. That goes for the band too. Nothing breaks focus more completely than random diversions, when you are trying to capture a performance or write another part.
14) A Rolodex to die for – nobody actually uses a Rolodex or paper diary anymore, I’m sure, but a good studio will be able to call in session players, at short notice, who they have worked with before, that can come in and contribute to your recording reliably, either injecting musical skills you are lacking in your own band, or by playing a novel instrument that nobody in the band can play (or can play well enough). Need a sax solo? Hopefully, the studio you are in will know where to find a tasty sax playing session musician, fast. Home studios tend to struggle a bit, on this front.
15) Musical skills – the better studios either have staff members that know how to write songs, arrange or compose, or they can call in those skills, at fairly short notice. No musician knows everything and sometimes the thing that can transform your song is the ability to arrange according to musical theory you don’t know (or know well enough), or who can compose something you just don’t know how to compose (perhaps because their musical imagination is different to yours). The right chord or harmony can be much more effective than layering in the outboard effects.
16) DAW deftness – most studios record to digital audio workstations instead of to tape, these days. You want your engineer to know the DAW in the studio intimately, especially all the time saving key command accelerators. In the perfect studio, there will be a choice of DAWs on offer and the engineer will be equally familiar with Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Tracktion, Ableton Live, Studio One Pro, Reason and FL Studio so that they are able to choose the right DAW for the job in hand. That could be a dream I had.
17) Mayhem-free mixing – it takes a long time to learn how to mix. You have to balance the instruments, their frequencies need to not overlap and you have to place them in space in the sound field, so that nothing steps on anything else. Knowledge of effects, dynamics, EQ and outboard processing needs to be encyclopaedic, too. This is actually where the home studio is often at an advantage, because project studio owners tend to be all over the mixing tools, but a good studio knows all of this and knows how to get a good mix, quickly. Most importantly, they know how to save it and replay it. Ideally, you want your rough mixes to sound pretty finished. Good studios can do that. You don’t want to spend hours on indecisive mixing decisions or get muddy, unbalanced crap. When it comes to final mixing, the better studios know how to keep records and logs, so that you can do A/B comparisons. The engineer will usually be able to get a sound mix similar to some favourite band or other of yours. They will also use finished, commercially available CDs for comparison and calibration, when they are mixing your track, just so that they know it isn’t too far from great at any time. They’ll also check for mono compatibility and how the track will sound on ear buds and tiny, low quality speakers.
18) Take away rough mixes – if you can’t take a rough mix away and play it in your car, it’s the wrong studio. You need to be able to take rough mixes home with you, between sessions, so that you can listen critically and examine it sonically, in minute detail, as if you were going to marry it. This homework can be crucial next day, when you come to fix elements in the mix, replace takes or add or rework instrumentation.
19) Tuning – a good engineer in a good studio knows how to tune a guitar or bass perfectly, and can do the same with a drum head. They need to be able to do it relatively quickly, too. They need to have a musical memory for unwanted dissonances and be able to achieve a consonant sound, matched to the music already recorded, without fuss or bother. Somebody with a really good ear for tuning can transform a track. It’s amazing how many musicians think they can tune their instruments, but actually are way out. Of course, sometimes that’s the effect you’re looking for and the house engineer should be sensitive and accepting of deliberate tuning errors, used for artistic effect. A perfectly tuned punk band wouldn’t sound right, would it? Way too polite.
20) Performance coach – a good engineer can calm your nerves, set you up in a recording environment where you don’t feel exposed to ridicule or embarrassment and can alleviate all the factors that cause you to fear giving your best performance. They also know how to provide a good sound to the recording, by careful mic placement, judicious use of EQ and dynamics and watching the headroom. That way, they won’t make you have to do it again, in a second take, because of some technical mistake in recording. The best engineers fool you into thinking the recording isn’t going to disk, even when it is, so that you don’t freeze up, for fear of the red recording light.
21) Flattering fold back – when you are performing and being recorded, you generally hear yourself through headphones. That can feel very strange to musicians used to hearing their own performances through the open air, unencumbered by something clamping their head from ear to ear. To make it less of an issue, a good engineer in a good studio will sweeten the signal in your headphones, using a little compression, EQ and reverb, so that you sound lovely to yourself. This sound won’t necessarily go to tape/disk. It will be for your ears only and mostly to convince you that you sound marvellous. The dry signal recorded can be re-processed, at mix time, to make the sound even better and to make it sit better in the mix, relative to the other parts recorded.
22) Project orderliness – musicians are messy people. They write lyrics on the back of fag packets, in a scrawl, with lots of crossings out. They forget which take was which, or which was best and they lose their MIDI files, sound files and other pre-production assets that you produce while creating your music. A good studio with a good engineer takes care of at least keeping this stuff safe and in some kind of order. They catalogue as they go and label tracks sensibly. If they bake an effect into a track, they keep a dry copy and mark it DNU (do not use), so that when it comes to mix down time (or worse, re-mix time, some months or years later), you don’t have to worry if the plug in you used is missing or obsolete, or which tracks were in the mix and which were not. You can use the baked in effect, or recreate the effect (or some other effect) from the dry copy. They will keep alternate versions of arrangements and mixes for you. You won’t have to start from scratch. You will know who wrote which parts and to whom the writing and performing credits should be due. They will even keep paperwork about it. There will be no guessing about sample rates, or tuning standards. This is where home or project studios usually get into a right tangle.
23) Plug-ins and VSTs – nothing is more depressing than hiring an expensive studio, only to find that the plug-ins and virtual studio instruments you want to use are not available in that studio. If you’d known that, you would have worked at home, where you do have your favourite sounds tools to hand. So many high end studios have failed to keep pace with the plug in virtual instrument world and even if they have lots of hardware, it has to be said that there are software plug-ins that can do things no hardware can do (and possibly vice versa). There is no good excuse for a professional studio having a bare cupboard, when it comes to soft plug-ins for their DAW. They also need to know their way around them, especially the quirky, less often used ones, because that’s where the fresh sounds come from. Autotune and all those other mainstream plug-ins have been used to death. A good studio will steer you toward something new and fresh, or less commonly heard, in preference to making your track sound like a clone of every other track on the radio.
24) Comprehensive sound library – I can’t stress the importance of this enough. If the studio you are at doesn’t know how to use samplers to augment the sounds on your tracks with instruments and sounds you can’t easily obtain acoustically, then they are limiting your creativity greatly, in all likelihood. Knowing how to use a sampler effectively means they also need a wide and diverse range of sample libraries available. If their library isn’t pushing a few terabytes in size, it’s probably too small and limited. You don’t want them to stick to all the tired, over-used, over-exposed samples, no matter how delicious they sound. You want them to help you explore new sonic territory. They need to know how and where to find just the right sound, so they need to have a good sample librarian programme of some sort, where you can search and audition samples quickly. It goes without saying that samples should be copyright cleared or royalty free. Otherwise, you run the risk of finding yourself in court, or having your product blocked from sale by the copyright owner.
25) Sampling – the better studio engineers know how to sample and map the samples to a keyboard, with round robins and different velocity layers. That means they can make new sounds from found sounds, or morph acoustic instruments you can play into ranges and techniques that you can’t play. It also allows you to get just the right sound in a controllable, sequencable way. This is where people like Gotye shine. They take old records or snippets of sound and produce unique, tantalising instruments from them. Being able to make their own samples means that their new “instrument” can be unlike any other that ever existed, anywhere. That’s analogous to being able to invent new paint colours that never existed before, at will. Painters don’t have that luxury, but musicians do.
26) Reliable gear – all of the equipment in a good studio just works and works reliably, on demand. There are no crusty, dodgy jacks, no crumbling vacuum tubes. The gear is well maintained and can be used instantly, without worrying about its quirks. That especially goes for the channel strips on the desk. How many studios do you know where the engineer has to skip a channel strip or avoid one mic preamp or other, simply because a channel isn’t working correctly, or the patch bay is dodgy? There is really little excuse for this, in a professional studio. In project studios, gear tends to work, because it lives a more pampered life, cherished by the owner that has acquired it through their Gear Acquisition Syndrome affliction. Professional studios worth their salt have to pay attention to this.
27) Nice people – there is nothing worse than hiring a studio and finding that the engineer is grumpy, condescending, bigoted, egotistical, touchy, moody, disinterested, disengaged, of poor personal hygiene habits or otherwise just not there for you. You want to make music with nice people. Making music is supposed to be fun, above all else. Why would you do that with somebody unpleasant continually in your presence?
28) Well conditioned power – a well built studio will have a robust electrical supply, filtered from spikes, with quiet, dedicated audio grounds to a special earth spike. Care will be taken to separate electrical loads like fridges, microwaves, air conditioners and any other heavy draws on current, from the supplies to the audio equipment. Home studios rarely have this luxury. They have to share the house’s only ground point with every other appliance on the power supply. Clean power means pristine recordings, free from take-wrecking buzzes and hums.
29) Wired for silence – the studio signal wiring and audio cables in a good studio are free from radio frequency interference, earth loops, buzzes or any other noises induced. Data cables are separated from audio cables. Cables are only as long as they need to be and terminated with quality connectors. Cables are not in a mess on the floor where they can be damaged or rolled up in excess, so that they act like miniature air-cored inductors picking up any coupled electrical field going. Audio cabling will be balanced and low impedance, in preference to high impedance, unbalanced. The studio will work to a calibrated 0dB reference, to optimise signal to noise ratio, while preserving some head room for dynamics. Don’t forget to turn off your cell phone. The interference produced when it hunts for a cell is hard to get rid of in post processing and can ruin an otherwise sensational take.
30) Analogue – if you really want to record using vacuum tube technology, to analogue tape, through a vintage desk, you can only really do that, these days, in a professional studio. The tape machines will, of course, be perfectly aligned. The vacuum tubes will not be end of life. I have a friend that I used to work with in Sydney who makes a fine living recording people on his restored, vintage Neve console, using mic technique to EQ his sounds and taking the signal to two inch analogue tape. The sound is warm, but the technical limitations of the gear demand colossal feats of engineering to maintain and use effectively. Wayne happens to have those skills and is a fine musician to boot.
31) Earth loops – in a good studio, the engineer knows how to solve earth (hum) loops. They know how to route cables correctly and how to safely use earth lifters, DI boxes and audio transformers, to avoid any hum loops or DC offsets in the audio signal. This is a dark art that few possess. It’s worth paying for. You can spend hours trying to solve a hum loop, or else compromise your recording because of low level hum.
32) Soldering – most good studios have somebody on site that can solder a broken cable connection, change a vacuum tube, fix a dodgy guitar jack socket, switch or potentiometer, sort out a crackly effect pedal, do minor repairs and adjustments to guitars and keyboards and can keep things working. I don’t know how many recording sessions I know of that had to be abandoned because nobody could stop the must-use, go-to amplifier from buzzing.
33) Noise damping – in the better studios, the engineer knows how to dampen drums that are ringing too enthusiastically, sort out squeaks and track down and eliminate physical rattles. Nothing can ruin a track more than a squeaky kick drum pedal, for example, or a synth key that sticks or multiple triggers. Often you need to find and fix these problems quickly, to avoid disrupting the session and this is where the pro studios are worth their weight in gold.
34) Food and water – the better studios understand that you’re human and need food, water and rest, at intervals, to be maximally productive, musically. They provide food and drink, but not the kind that impairs you so severely, in excess, that the session becomes a wash out. If they can’t provide it, they can get it for you, without interrupting proceedings. They also get that sometimes you need a walk around the block to the sandwich shop, just to clear the head.
35) The right producer – if you are very fortunate, you will choose a studio owned and operated by a great producer, who is willing to produce your music for you. Money and production credit will often need to change hands, but a really good producer can transform the sound of a band and get the very best performance out of it. If you get the chance to work with a good producer, at least consider it. You’ll learn a lot, no matter what. In the best case, you’ll be magically, alchemically transmuted from garage band to headline act.
36) Monitoring – good studios have well placed, aligned and correctly equalised monitors, so that what you hear in the control room mix is as good, repeatable and accurate as it can be with loudspeaker technology. There will also be small, imperfect monitors to cross check the mix. If it sounds good there, in the near field, the theory is that it will sound good anywhere. Some studios use digital self tuning equalisers to flatten the response and compensate for the room and speaker placement issues. Having the really big monitors can be thought of as vanity, since so few people will ever hear your music under those conditions, but it’s supposed to be fun too. Who doesn’t want to hear their music as good as it will ever sound, at least once, on big, monster, studio monitors at just slightly too high a sound level? Project studios don’t have these.
37) Small CD runs – the very best studios can run off ten or twenty CD-Rs or memory sticks for friends and family of each band member, there and then, at the end of the session, for time and materials money. They’ll have a small duplicator that can do five or ten at a time. It can’t be stressed too much how important this is to most artists that use recording studios. It is the fruit of their labour. The really considerate studios take video and photos, during the session, too, so that there is a memento of the day and something to post to YouTube, synchronised to their rough mix. Delivering the day’s product is where so many studios absolutely fall down.
38) Getting your music to market – really switched on studios know how to get your CD duplicated for you in runs of a few hundred and know how to get your music onto Amazon and iTunes, so that you can sell digital downloads. They should be able to provide this as a service, or at least give you good advice about how to do it for yourself. Those with a record company deal won’t need this facility, but bands on the way up probably do.
39) Smell – a good studio doesn’t smell bad. (Most studios smell bad). Who wants to create music in a place that smells like an ashtray, whiffy socks, beer spilled into a soggy shag carpet or rank, stale, body odour?
Incidentally, the reason that a lot of high profile, expensive, professional studios went under is that they didn’t pay attention to many of these reasons to use them.