Article: "Why should I record at a studio when home recording equipment is getting so cheap?"

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"Why should I record at a studio when home recording equipment is getting so cheap?"

Perhaps it would highlight the pros and cons if the question were asked "when is it appropriate to chose one over the other". There are many factors to consider when deciding home recording versus professional studio sessions. Each option is a viable and worthy decision, but must be weighed according to each individual or group situation.

Scope of project: Do you know what you are going to record? Before starting a recording session, it is recommended that the items being recorded are defined prior to beginning the session. This includes the script or songs, the time availability of the performers, and budget for the project. If the performers jump into recording before having an idea of what they want the final outcome to be, it runs the risk of being no more than a costly jam session, mistakes included.

What is the expected outcome? How far do you expect these tracks to go. Are they to be demos for securing work, an agent/manager, or submission to record labels for sale. This is an important factor in deciding between professional or home recording. Demos have somewhat less demands on quality, however if you want the work, quality is a major consideration. Producing a product for sale or submission requires that the final product be high quality with no room for error. This is the first impression, it must be good.

What is the budget for the project? Can you afford the project? Rates vary from studio to studio, some are fixed, some offer negotiable rates, some offer packages. No matter which studio you choose, unless you can pay for the time, don't bother. You may not receive your finished project till the bill is paid. The budget can be a determining factor between home-based and professional studio applications. The cost of a professional studio can, (emphasis on the word can but not always), skyrocket if you have to schedule multiple sessions to accommodate different members of the group at different times. If the budget is limited, perhaps postponing a studio project is the better option.

Type and Quality of Equipment needed: Do you have all the equipment you need to record in a home-based studio? Mics, cables, mixers, recorders, computer editing, monitors, CD's or tapes, headphones, power, limiters, pre-amps, and acoustical treatments? On-stage equipment is different than studio equipment. On-stage performance provides the listeners with all the sounds being generated into a monaural sound with muffled definition between each voice (voice here meaning each separate instrument or vocal). It also cannot compensate for the acoustics of the room including echo and sub-sonic distortion. Professional studio equipment will isolate each voice and blend them into a natural performance so that no one voice will overpower the others. In the professional studio environment, the acoustics are controlled so the sound you hear is the sound of the performance and not the bounce-back from the walls, floor, or ceiling.

Scheduling of performers: This can be a tricky task all by itself. If you are part of a group that only has the weekend to rehearse, record, meet for decisions, etc., then getting together for studio time may be a big (and costly) factor.

Transportation and location: The next item on the agenda is the location of the studio, parking for vehicle(s), and availability of gear at the studio. You can always bring your own amps, keyboards, drum sets, etc., but then you have to consider the time you will pay for to set up / tear down, and positioning of microphones. A good studio will probably have these time consuming things in-house, isolated appropriately, and pre-miked, thus enabling you to bring in just your guitar or bass and get down to the business of recording.

Recording engineering experience: Anyone can turn on and off a recorder, tape or computer. Do you want the responsibility of not turning on the recorder and missing a brilliant set?

Producer: Will you have an objective ear listening to your recording, be willing and able to make educated/experienced suggestions on improvement? Most friends and family are reluctant to criticize a performance for fear of hurting feelings, or worse driving wedges into relationships.

Let's take a look at some of the possible costs of setting up a home recording studio.

Equipment: Home studio recording equipment is relatively inexpensive, but not cheap.

  • Recorder: Digital stereo 8-track systems that act both as a small mixer with effects and can burn CD's one at a time for $600. The only drawback is they can only record two tracks at a time (L & R), and have only two inputs for instruments or vocals.
  • Mixing board. You can get an adequate board for around $300 which will allow you to input 12 instruments or vocals in any combination and output to the recorder a 2-channel (stereo) signal.
  • Patch cables to send the mixing board signal to the recorder (2). I recommend Monster® or Mogami® brands. They don't come cheap. You will spend $25-$50 for these two short cables.
  • Microphones:
    • Vocal (2) Your group has been performing and probably have microphones and cables for the vocals. I trust they are at least the quality of a Shure SM58® for example . $0
    • Guitar & bass (2) $200 (example: Shure® SM57)
    • Drums/percussion (6) $399 (example: Shure® 6 mic kit)
  • Cables: (9) 30' cables should do the trick to allow for good isolation, slack, and not be stressing the cables connectors. $360 (example: Monster®)
  • Stands: (8) $240.
  • Near field Monitors: example: M-Audio®, powered monitor speakers are adequate for the home studio so you can hear what you have recorded, $300 (near field monitors are not intended for use other than directly associated with the recording station). Not too many studios, let alone individuals, can afford a pair of Bang & Olufsen speakers.
  • Isolation barriers: Unless you want all the sounds from all the sources to be picked up by the mics on other instruments, you need to do some isolation. Especially with the drums, they can drown out the quality of the other mic applications. You can BUILD some baffles for around $350 which include a set of sound reducing foam panels.
  • Headphones (4) $400 (don't get the cheapest. You will regret it)
  • Power Strips with surge protection, and a good grounded source.

Total: $3199, and we haven't even gotten to any computer requirements, software, media (blank CD's), distribution cases, etc. (4 people in band = $690 each)

You already own a computer? Great. Will you be able to dedicate it to working with your sound recordings? Does it have the hard drive / processor requirements and sound card capable of handling the software and music without distorting or running so slow that you spend way too much time just trying to optimize the recording, or hangs because it doesn't have enough memory or disk speed? Do you have a MIDI interface card so you can transfer the recorded mix to the computer? Do you know how to use the software, or will you need a learning curve and time? (Estimate $2000) Possible cost of setting up your own studio correctly, Around $5000 Not too bad an investment, if you can pony up the money.

Now spend a year studying, experimenting and learning with your new setup and you will be ready to make an album. Of course a professional computer DAW (Digital Audio Workstation - $3000 minimum if you choose a MAC with ProTools® Software) can cost many thousands of dollars more but you can get by with less. We are intentionally neglecting dedicated rooms and acoustic treatment which is as important, if not more important that your recording equipment. Never-the-less, a home recording setup is an investment that can serve you for a long time.

A home recording setup is handy because you can tend to it at your leisure without scheduling time. You can take as much time as you want getting your sound set up without a ticking clock.You can do as many takes as you want and not worry about other people getting impatient. It is also a valuable learning experience to try and do these things for yourself. The knowledge you will attain through recording on your own will greatly expand your ability to work in a studio situation if you ever decide to go that route in the future.

Part 2 Why A Professional Studio

C.L. "Buddy" Richardson, B. S., A & R, Member: Recording Academy and SMPTE

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