Why Should You Record in a Professional Studio?
Not too many years ago, choosing a recording studio was a decision based largely on what you and/or your record label could afford. This often meant setting a budget, and then choosing a venue that appeared to best suit your needs as an artist that still fell within said budget.
Today, recording is a completely different ballgame. And yet it isn’t.
With the advent of improved recording technology an affordable, high-quality equipment, professional recording can be made almost anywhere. Recording is no longer the exclusive domain of the big, multi-room complex.
The question many people ask isn’t “which studio to record in,” but if you should record in a studio at all. With the advancement of computer technology, nearly anyone can record albums from the comfort of their own home. Why then, you may ask, are recording studios still in existence? Why not just record in your bedroom, basement, or garage?
A recurring theme in my discussions with artists and bands is how they have attempted to record their music at a friend’s house or attempted to record it themselves. They do this to save money on the recording. With the advent of many low-cost recording software products, this seems like a good idea at first. The common problem these artists report is that they never get the music to sound like they want it to sound. It was missing something. So what was missing?
The answer to that question is really the answer to the question ‘why should I record in a professional studio?’
There are several key reasons artists and labels still choose to record albums in professionally equipped and staffed studios. Here are a few reasons you may want to choose a professional recording studio to record your next project.
Recording Studios Offer Professional Expertise
Home recordings can sound very good, but this is not usually the case. A quick review of independently released music on SoundCloud or Bandcamp will prove this. The reason for this is multi faceted. Regardless of the “latest” cool piece of equipment you may have, it’s very likely you don’t have years of experience as a music producer or arranger, studio engineer, mixing engineer, or mastering engineer.
Professional studios are unique since they combine every one of these highly focused fields on a single location. Studios, and the industry professionals who work there, exist to make sure that you sound as good as you possibly can on every track. If you succeed, then they succeed as well. It’s a win-win situation.
It's not only the studio you'll be spending time in, but also the engineer/producer (often the same person) you'll be spending time with that matters. You'll want to make sure you're comfortable working with this person as you'll be entrusting them with your music. A few things to look for in an engineer/producer include organization, patience and focus. The more experienced and professional they are, the more you should feel like they have your best interests at heart and want nothing more than to give you the best product you can possibly have. There should be no ego whatsoever involved, regardless of how accomplished/experienced this person may be.
There can be no substitution for a competent engineer and producer. Experience has shown that having someone other than the artist involved in producing the final recorded song adds many attributes that would likely be missed. The producer can bring ideas to the table to improve the overall sound of the song. Sometimes simply changing a tone on an electric guitar, the mic placement, knowing which gear to use, or layering additional tracks not covered by other instruments can dramatically improve a final recording. Also the engineer doing the mixing and recording needs to know how to use the equipment to get the results the artist wants from their music, which requires a lot of experience and proven track record. It may be redundant, but experience (and lots of it) in a producer and engineer is crucial for getting a professional sound.
Studios Have Professional Equipment
Yes, it really does matter what equipment is used.
The quality and purpose of the microphone can make big difference in sound that is recorded. For example, using a high-end vocal microphone for vocals can radically enhance the subtle nuisances of a singer’s voice. Knowing what microphone to use or even where to place it can improve the sound. Using outboard analog gear, including pre-amps, compressors, and EQ’s to warm up the signal and bring out the sounds you are looking for is also very important. The use of this equipment to its fullest extent requires a lot of experience, know-how, and well-trained ears to get the intended results.
A $200 microphone will never sound like a $4000 microphone, and a $99 USB interface will never sound like a $3000 tube channel strip. Simply put, you cannot emphasize in a mix the subtle sounds and tones that budget equipment is incapable of capturing. It may not seem like these things would make a difference – but in reality, the improvement in quality is huge.
It is not uncommon for a single signal chain (from just one microphone to the computer) to have over $8000 in gear. Now start calculating what it takes to record a full drum kit with thirteen different mics, and the math can become staggering. Now start budgeting for other vital studio tools like alternative professional preamps, compressors, various outboard gear, a mixing board, effects, A/D converters, near-field monitors, high quality cables, software, plug-ins, headphones, and every other piece of gear that professional studios rely on to make you sound your best.
Chances are the average indie-artist will not be able to afford to buy their own gear in this magnitude. The financial resources it takes to compile such a large sound palette, and the experience needed to use all the gear well, quickly illustrates why professional studios will always exist. So while it is true that you can save a lot of money by getting some software and a bunch of plug-ins, there are some corners you won’t be able to cut without having negative consequences on your sound quality. Paying for a studio’s services gives you access without having to sell your house, car, and one of you kidneys on the Black Market.
Studios Have Room (and Nice Sounding Ones, Too!)
Studios are specifically engineered to provide the best sound for each instrument. The ambiance of a room provides an immeasurable contribution to the sound of a recording, and it’s something that you can’t replicate in someone’s basement.
A well-designed studio will have a recording room with a balanced 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. A well-designed acoustic environment is a pleasure to play in, which in turn makes you play better. It is much easier to get a good recording in a nice sounding room.
In a good studio, you can set up the whole band (with isolation screens between each member) and all play simultaneously. This allows you the ability to perform as a cohesive unit, with all the artistic interplay and authentic feel that brings. It also gives you the ability to mix without hassles. In most home studios, you are forced to overdub. 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”). This can mix a good mix impossible to achieve.
The rooms used to make the recording need to be acoustically adjusted to dampen the sound within the room and prevent sound from occurring from outside the room. The last thing you want in your recording is unwanted sound. For example, your bedroom won’t be immune to low frequency rumble. A good studio will be. Achieving this requires knowledge of acoustics, sound reflection, sound-proofing, and room size requirements.
Not every room is designed with great acoustics in mind. But quality studios are.
Recording Studios Deliver a Great Final Product
Even after all tracking is done, studios continue to provide better sound than you can achieve in a home studio. Mixing may seem like something anyone can do – it’s just setting volume levels of each track, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Mixing involves a lengthy process of applying just the right combination of effects to each track, and then making sure each track “sits” well with every other track. This is not just a volume-setting task, but also making sure the EQ of each track is optimized to make it fit where it should in the mix. And that doesn’t even touch on the mastering process, which is also essential to making sure the product is ready for distribution. Once again, this is a job for professionals that have years of experience.
If you can afford to go to a professional studio, then you would be wise to do so. Unless you have pro-gear and know what you’re doing, chances are your album won’t come out the way you want it. A professional can help you get the sound quality you want for your album and they will save you a lot of stressful nights. Again, there is a reason why they are called ‘professionals’.
Even as the abundance of home studio recording continues to rise, it’s safe to say there will still be a place for traditional recording studios for a very, very long time to come.