After getting an inside look at both the studio and artist perspectives with The Press Recording Studio in Stockton and the central valley based glam rock group Faith & Bullets, I’ve been extremely busy with several other client projects ranging from brand theme music, to film trailer scoring and just about everything in between.
Getting to spend time in a commercial studio facility again however brought back memories of a time when my studio partner Troy and I focused solely on local bands. It’s always been a pleasure getting to work with all kinds of various talented musicians and hear new things. The scene over the years has definitely changed. While it seems there may not be much business in the valley, The Press is a beacon of opportunity for aspiring artists and musicians to book affordable commercial quality studio time. Not to mention Neologic’s own services for pre and post as well as producing. Looking back on all the experiences working in the music scene, I decided it was time to share what wisdom I can offer and thus: here is a de-facto beginner’s guide to the studio world.
The industry is in a weird place. With all the talk about democratization, proliferation and decentralization of the industry it can be hard to tell how to enter the business. All of that political analysis aside, there are essentially three types of studios. If you’re planning on heading the DIY route and recording at home, this article may still be quite helpful to you. I won’t spend too much time on how to go the DIY route as that's a whole series of articles all by itself. I'll be focusing more on the social interactivity between artistic and technical sides. The biggest thing to realize in this industry is that expectations are usually what reign supreme, and professionalism is a two way street.
Now just what are the three types of studios? Nowadays the Home Studio often gets lumped in with Bedroom Studio or Garage Studio. Home studio simply refers to the fact that someone is recording out of their home (to wildly varying degrees). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and in fact without even searching too hard you can find some hits in recent years that have been made out of home studios – like the memorable song by Gotye: Somebody that I used to Know.
A Project studio might still be in the home, but you’ll find that project studios tend to be suited more towards the owner’s tastes for particular types of work. For example my home studio is a project studio devoted to pre-production and commercial post work. Basically, I specialize in certain things really well, but don’t offer quite “full-service” studio needs right out of my home.
A full service studio or a “recording studio” often gets referred to in several different “classes”. Just as you can guess what that infers - the classier the studio, the more professional it might come off as. Generally though, full-service studios should have several things: dedicated rooms for specific purposes. The size of the facility and the amount of detail put into things like acoustic treatment of the recording and listening spaces (and even how much real-estate they have) can determine what “class” the facility may be. Most importantly, the social factor the brand name of the studio carries with it. For example, Fantasy Studios in Berkeley has quite an impressive history – with platinum album placards lining the walls with everything from Green Day’s Dookie album to the Lord of The Rings (the original animated film) soundtrack. Just mentioning platinum records and the impressive vista of a wall lined with placards like that can really do a number on the psyche, which is part of the reason I’m offering some of these tips you’ll read about further in the article.
There is one extremely common mistake beginners and even more experienced individuals make when it comes to booking time to build their records. They often let the impressive reputation or impressive collection of gear be the determining factor that they use to choose whom they’ll book with. Consider the following:
- Don't just judge a studio by photos, gear selection, or image; pay attention to who is running the session as they are the one actually making the difference.
- Just as above, don't “judge a book by its cover”. If there is a freelance engineer who doesn't have a professional location you’re weighing your options against, let their catalog of work speak for itself. Ask for samples, client lists, or any kind of credit that can speak to their professionalism or credibility.
In either scenario, finding out what range of options are available in your region and within your budget and comparing what information you have available about each can definitely give you a solid perspective of what you can expect to achieve.
What’s the tradeoff? Let’s overview these three:
- Full Service: may charge highest rates, have stricter booking methods, but may have the reputation that commands their prices and time slots.
- Project Studio, Freelance Engineer/Producer: This area can get dodgy as usually the bigger the reputation, the more specialized each person becomes (separating the roles of producer and engineer), and the more they might be able to charge. Be prepared that reaching out to someone in this field may want to take part in more than just helping you build your track, but may have ideas of their own about how you should sound. Without getting into all the nasty details of how this can be both good and/or bad, the rates and possibilities you may end up having to hire several people is still something to consider. Find out exactly what services they are providing, if their prices include or exclude the rates of other subordinates that would need to be tagged onto the project to get from recording session to final mastered files ready for duplication and distribution.
- Home Studio/DIY: Now, as budget was mentioned above; we can assume that you’re looking at your music from the prospective as a product in which you are investing in. Going the DIY route for the appeal of saving money on recording is definitely NOT the way to approach DIY. Instead, consider it a capital investment and a long term goal that you’ll be gaining more autonomy over your specific sound. Consider what it takes to learn how to use the equipment, and then other factors that can affect the quality of your recordings such as room acoustics (the space you’re recording in), the knowledge it takes to craft commercially competitive mixes and masters; and even the room and playback systems you’ll be using to accurately hear your track as you’re building it. Suddenly you can see why studio spaces have all that specialized treatment, odd room shapes and sizes, and all that expensive equipment.
The Financial Game
Budget was mentioned a couple of times already. It’s worth iterating again. Budget is important. If you plan on making music as a hobby, that’s absolutely fine; there is no shame in doing something purely for enjoyment. However, realize that studios and freelancers all operate out of a mutual understanding that they’re in the business of making music. When you reach out to anyone, they’re first expectation is that you’re stepping into a professional arena. It’s up to you to tell them whether you’re just a spectator at the moment, or ready to “play the game”. Don’t look at paying for studio time, buying your own recording equipment, or hiring a freelance producer as “spending money”, it’s an investment. Investing in your song is wise, because this is the product you get to sell to the world.
Perhaps you don’t intend to make your music to sell. What then? How you navigate through the world of music production can still fall in line with a lot of what’s being discussed in this article, but chances are you’re reading this article because you want to make money from your work just like everyone else does.
So now that we’ve established what differentiates one studio from another, and discussed the expectations involved with the financial aspect. What can you expect once you’re in the studio?
Brewing In The Stu…
Beyond booking the session, there are many misconceptions that can ruin the experience for less seasoned artists and musicians especially when they don't understand the technical side. Here's a few common things to understand that often create tension, confusion, and lack of trust between the engineer and the artist:
- Technical difficulties: it never fails that sessions will have technical difficulties. Especially in a commercial facility no matter how well maintained - there may be at least one or two small hiccups. Whether you're the artist, session musician, or someone else involved in the recording session it can be easy to read into these hiccups as lack of competence on the studio or engineer's part. Instead, realize that hiccups do occur, but the best way to judge the engineer is how well they react and handle the situation. Is the engineer communicating what’s happening and being courteous about the little delays? Can they give you a decent estimate on when you can expect to be ready to begin recording or resume? If an engineer is poor at handling a session and spends more time trying to troubleshoot their setup than they do actually recording or handling you, lacks clear communication, isn’t very courteous, and keeps you in the dark about technical difficulties chances are you’ll probably never want to book a session with that engineer again; no matter how prestigious the reputation of the recording facility may be.
- Communication: Discussing the sound of [insert instrument here]. Artists commonly become emotionally invested in their art. There's nothing wrong with that. As an artist you'll have to learn to communicate with the engineer you work with to help deliver the best possible version of the sound you’re after. The first half of the battle is conveying what sound you're after, and the 2nd half is letting go of control enough to allow the engineer to help you to achieve that sound. Realize that you hired them for their expertise and experience.
- Trust: Everyone has the same goals. When you book time at a studio, you’re not just stepping into a place that magically makes recordings sound great, that reputation and “magic” comes from the engineer(s) running the session. While there are many seasoned artists who have a very clear vision of the sound they want, engineers have an ear for their acoustic environment and the gear they’ve been working with and a more intimate comprehension of how to achieve a sound in the recording to get at the final sound in the end product that not every artist may have. As an artist – if you’re willing to relinquish some control and see the engineer as a partner in the process, not only will things go much smoother but the overall quality can increase greatly. The biggest example is comparing your “live” sounds you’ve built up gigging on stages of various sizes may not translate well to the studio environment. Suddenly “loud” high-gain guitars sound lackluster or lose definition when cranked to 11 and have all 5 distortion pedals engaged (I’m exaggerating for emphasis here).
- Expectations: Typically it’s best that you have the entire song fleshed out and rehearsed well before booking studio time. This is where managing expectations comes into play. More than likely studio time will be based on an hourly rate of some sort, so the clock is ticking whether you’re prepared or not. Not everyone can afford to just block out time in the studio to write, it’s even more courteous when you can tell the studio operations that you and/or your band plan on doing improvising in the studio. This way, they can anticipate certain things and help make the environment and time spent more comfortable and conducive to getting what everyone wants out of the session. If you can afford to spend time in the studio writing the song or coming up with ideas, that’s great; but the work is still perceived the same way on the studio end regardless of whether you’re recording scratch takes or final material.
- Vocabulary: This is what tends to turn engineers into producers at least the higher up in the business you go. Engineers by trade have a sort of “hot seat” dilemma. A good engineer has to know two sets of vocabulary: musical, and technical. A great engineer has to know three and on top of that have great people skills; the third being whatever lingo the client communicates in. Being able to effectively understand and speak back to the client in less than appropriate terminology without sounding condescending is something major studios groom potential engineers thoroughly before they ever get to touch a console or take on label clients (traditionally). As you get down to smaller studios, there are less people involved on the studio operation side, which means your engineer is probably the ONLY one you’re collaborating with during the session. If they’re brain is busy thinking about everything they have to manage then you can begin to understand where they’re coming from. When looking for a studio, try and meet or get a conversation over the phone with the engineer you’ll be working with. Ask them questions about their musical tastes, get a feel for what they like and see if you can find any common ground. If you can, this can definitely make communication much easier. If you’re not sure how to describe a sound you’re after but you can reference your favorite song on your favorite artist’s album “XYZ” and the engineer happens to know that song, they can pull it up and discuss what it is you’re listening to, what you like about it, and hopefully translate that into your project.
- The Zone: Performing art is not a science that can be replicated with perfection every time. Things like ego can get in the way of progress especially in bigger studio sessions where there may be a small entourage of people all sitting and listening to you perform. It’s not about being a perfect performer, any perception you have that the engineer is judging you should be thrown out as soon as it enters your head. If you've hired them, discussed your project with them, you know that both their goals and your goals are aligned. Everyone is there for the same reason. Don't be afraid to speak your mind and let the engineer know what you need to give a solid performance. Again, this is a two way street, and it usually works best when you’re receptive to potential feedback from the engineer or others involved in the session. Ultimately, someone has to make the call from an executive standpoint, but thanks to today’s technology - if you have the time, then why not capture the ideas and then make the hard decisions in post?
These tips hopefully give enough depth to be able to understand the complexities involved in modern day recording. A lot of these are based from my own personal experiences and from common shared experiences in producer and engineer communities I’ve been a part of over the years.
What have your studio experiences been like? Do you feel I misrepresented anything? Feel free to share your experiences, opinions, and experiences in the comments below! Add to the discussion, and help the community grow.