As the rise in “affordable home recording equipment” surges ever onward, there are a number of rehearsal studios popping up around the place that offer do-it-yourself recording set ups. You may have seen some advertised. Often pretty little spots that boast being able to have you walk in and turn out a recording straight from your rehearsal. Equally the amount of musicians who have gone out and bought themselves some recording gear of their own has increased in recent times. iPads abound with garage band everywhere you look and a muso that has a laptop is most likely going to have their laptop case bulging at the seams with an Mbox stuffed into the side pocket (in spite of the fact that this pocket was definitely not designed to squeeze something of that size into it.) These are definitely cheap alternatives to recording in a real studio but, for the most part, you may be experiencing mixed results (or worse) using either of these methods when trying to capture your music. Why? There are a number of valid reasons I can think of:
1. Basic economics
Buying your own equipment usually means that your budget constraints will most likely show in your final product. You might have spent up to a couple of thousand dollars on your set up which may seem like a lot of money to you (possibly what you might spend on a good quality professional recording and, hey… you own the gear! Win? Right?). A professional recording studio will have spent tens or hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions!) of dollars on their equipment and microphones and with good reason. High end equipment brings high end sound and there’s usually a price tag attached to that. A good studio will see that as a good investment because they want to produce quality products.
Do-it-yourself studios may well have bought a few nice pieces of gear but it’s unlikely that they would put anything too valuable into the hands of their customers no matter how much they might trust them and, if they did, how did their customers treat it? Did they break anything? Drive it too hard? Wear it out? Spill beer on it? Is it in the usable condition that it would be in if it were only used by the guy who owns and maintains it? For most of these studios, the gear that is provided will be fairly “entry level”. It’ll be the most bang-for-buck they could get to woo in their customers with the promise of cheap recordings. At our studio, we don’t offer cheap recordings… We offer value for your money. Our recording system is of world class standard. It’s not Pro Tools LE on a lap top hooked into a cheap converter. It wasn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination and we don’t let our customers touch it. It is kept in pristine condition, well maintained and ready to rock your world in the hands of our qualified staff and ONLY in the hands of our qualified staff. At the end of your project, when you receive your finished product from us, you’ll be thankful that we have this rule.
2. The guy behind the desk is the guy who plays guitar in the band.
Whether you’ve bought your own recording equipment or you’re at a DIY studio, who is going to run the equipment while you are recording that perfect take? It’s very difficult to wear two hats. As the artist, your head and heart needs to be totally focussed on what you are doing. Performing! It is near impossible to tackle the task of being the engineer during this process and still stay true to the performance. Too much gets in the way. You are constantly switching your head-space from the art to the science and your performance at both will definitely suffer as a result. A good engineer will offer you the peace of mind to “just be the performer” and leave the technical issues to them, freeing you to give the music your total attention.
3. How’s your learning curve?
I’ve heard it said by many engineers that it takes recording a hell of a lot of other people’s bands to truly do a good job of your own. (and even then… I’ve heard awesome engineers who have done amazing mixes of other people do their own stuff and… well… it’s been pretty average. The author of this article included!) If you’re on your first attempt, even if you’ve done all the courses the audio schools have to offer, read all the magazine articles, googled “pre-amps” til all hours of the night and listened to a billion records, there’s just no substitute for the experience gained in recording other people’s stuff. Engineering isn’t something you ‘graduate from’. You don’t become ‘a master’ (although many people may like to think they’ve earned that label.). It is an unending journey and you will be learning as you go for the rest of your life (or until you stop doing it at least.) So it’s simple mathematics that says the guys who have been doing it for a long time are going to know more than you do about it. They’re going to have the tricks-of-the-trade that have been gained through experience over the period they’ve been recording people. You may well learn the same things over time (or different things) but if this is your first time at bat, chances are that when you apply all you’ve learned, you can’t possibly believe that you will get the same results as someone who applies all they’ve learned over a much longer period. Not saying you shouldn’t join that learning curve. In fact, the opposite. The more you know about it, the bigger your thirst for knowledge and I’d be the first to encourage you. It’s fun and a worthwhile pursuit. The question is what do you want out of your recording? If you are just experimenting, then by all means, buy the gear or go to the DIY spot. If you want to get a good recording however then neither of these is the option you want in reality.
4. Objectivity, objectivity, objectivity.
Often the least considered thing in recording and by far one of the most important. The artist will have a vision but within that vision are many and varied brush-strokes. With that often comes the inability to see the fine detail. The artist can just be a little too close to the project and everything becomes very two dimensional. An experienced engineer will be able to refine those brush strokes. They will hear the little nuances that the artist may have missed and be able to guide them towards the best way to present things. A good engineer will pride themselves on unearthing the little things that make your recording great. They will pick up on the things you’d miss, correct the things that may not be working so well, enhance the things that you may not have recognised have beauty and ensure that you have captured the best you that you can offer.
5. Vibe. Nothing works without it.
If you’re not comfortable you seriously aren’t going to make music that inspires others. If you’ve bought your own equipment, where do you use it? Are you in your bedroom at home with the volume turned right down so you’re not disturbing the neighbours? When you sing the takes of your hard-worked-on song are you worried about waking the baby so you really only give it about half as much energy as it needs? If you’re in a DIY studio, do you have a control room to listen to the tracks you’re recording while you are recording them or is the recording equipment in the same room as your amplifier? If you are sound-checking that drum kit in the same room as you’re supposed to be monitoring it, are you reduced to checking microphone placement purely by watching LED meters on a computer screen because you can’t hear the monitor speakers over the crash cymbals? How are you supposed to be creative and relaxed in those environments? They aren’t conducive to making music that you or your audience will be happy with. I know this sounds like a blatant plug (and it is) but Continuumusic has seven different isolation booths. All of which are NOT the control room! We have them to ISOLATE! And our studios can happily take you at your loudest without bothering the neighbours! You can crank that Marshall to the volume that it gets its best tone and you can bash your kit til all hours of the night without fear of disturbing anyone and the engineer can hear it through the monitor speakers. As it should be as this is the way it will be on the recording itself. When you need a break, we have a leafy, landscaped backyard to chill out in and make a coffee, complete with a fridge and a BBQ. All the comforts of home, all the features of a world class recording studio. Now that’s vibe!
Those of you who haven’t actually been into a professional studio to record may not have even noticed the difference. More likely you will just be listening to “store-bought” CD’s and wondering why your own stuff doesn’t match up in quality. Why their music is big music and yours is small. Why their music is tonally pleasing while yours seems harsh and brittle. Why their music makes you want to turn it up and your music makes you want to turn it down. I can tell you, it’s not your music. It’s your recording!
So when you’re considering recording something, before you blow your money on an Mbox or waste time at a DIY studio, consider why the musicians who have inspired you still choose to record in a proper, professional studio with a proper, professional sound engineer in spite of the availability of an iPhone app that can supposedly “do all the same stuff”. For me, it’s a no-brainer.