13 Cases When You Can(not) Save Money on a Recording Studio
You know how it goes. You want to record your pieces in the best possible way, but you're also solving your budget problems and you may feel under stress in a studio where the meter is relentlessly running. You heard that a friend of a friend has done some recording for someone else and would do it for you without too much trouble. Or you could go to a retreat at a cottage and do it all at your own pace. And how about trying a really cheap studio? Are there any buts at all? We'll try to outline in which cases it makes sense to entrust yourselves to the care of professionals and when and how you can venture into recording by yourselves.
Drums are a very complex instrument and recording them requires not only great room acoustics but also years of experience as a studio sound engineer. Sorry, but in this case, there's not much room for compromise. The sound of a drum kit is, among other things, an indicator of the quality level of the recording studio and to a large extent determines the overall sound of the recording. It is not unusual to have a band record the drums at a professional studio and do the rest on their own or at a cheaper one. But you can save precious time by taking new membranes and appropriate (rather quiet) cymbals into the studio, and by learning to tune and muffle your drums adequately.
If you can't afford quality studio services and choose to record at home, at least find a suitable space. In particular, avoid square rooms, low ceilings, smooth and large surfaces and walls, alcoves (they can reverberate), glass, steel and concrete in larger areas. At the same time, do not record in rooms completely covered with foam and carpet. These materials are dead, unconcrete and rumbling.
A wooden barn, club or a large rectangular room furnished as much as possible is ideal. Suitable room fillers include curtains, bookcases, padded furniture and even bales of straw. If possible, do not place the drum kit in a corner of the room, as the resonances of opposing surfaces would add up there.
2. Bass guitar
Unlike the drum kit, the bass guitar is well suited for a workable take committed in a non-professional setting. All you need is a good quality sound card with an instrument input. But if you have the option of renting a high-quality preamp, all the better.
You need to be careful to keep the sound as clean as possible, with a distinct clarity and edge (transients). Ideally, don't pull the tone pot on the instrument and make the sound a little sharper than you like. It will not be a problem for the sound engineer to round or distort your sound in any way afterwards. But later on, it is difficult to give it back the clarity it may need to push through in its entirety. Also, avoid using a compressor unless you really know how and why to set it up properly. Likewise, you can stay away from using modulation effects and distortion. Leaving any adjustments to post-production is always safer.
In the studio, it will not be a problem to perform reamping, i.e. the possibility to send your recorded signal to the bass amp and record it through microphones placed in front of the speaker.
Of course, new strings and a tuned instrument are recommended. It is very important to take care with the bass tuning before recording – it will be better to tune in some positions in addition to the empty strings. The tuning needle on the empty strings will probably oscillate around zero, and you'd better try to leave the instrument slightly under the tone. In practice, bass tracks are often tuned higher, which is due not only to playing technique but also to the thickness of the bass strings as they bend against the frets.
3. Electric guitars
Again, recording an electric guitar yourself in a usable quality is not uncommon. In a recording studio, however, a technician or producer will look after your tuning, rhythm, dynamics and sound settings, in addition to a well-chosen effects chain. But the guitar is also one of those instruments that is almost impossible to tune later – and decent intonation of a guitar is one of the most challenging disciplines.
You can choose software instruments and simulations, these are available already at a decent level today. Or use hardware tools like Kemper or some equivalent. And record guitars directly into a sound card and then reamp them in the studio.
If you want to go the tried and tested traditional route, you will need a good-quality amp and speaker. If you place a dynamic microphone (such as Shure SM 57) directly next to the speaker, the poor room acoustics will be minimally noticeable. You can also play around with placing the microphone in the speaker array, it has a significant effect on the colour.
Also, try to avoid using surround effects when recording (reverb, delay) unless you have a good reason to do so (for example, for the specific character of the sound or for the feel of the play). When mixing, many things may be different and your setup/preset/sound effect may start to seem out of place – and there will be no going back. Not to mention that you can get a nice stereo delay in the mix, for example, and it will be possible to work with its parameters and position in the stereo image in time.
Watch out for too much distortion – too much highgain loses edge and force, the sound gets caught up in itself – and the rock is gone. All you're left with is a boom with the opposite effect. You can distort it later but not the other way around. Avoid even dynamic effects (compressor, limiter) in home conditions.
One last thing: unplug any boxes you're not currently using and use the shortest, highest-quality cables possible. If you already have to use effects in parallel, I recommend a good-quality buffer pedal.
4. String plucked instruments
Instruments such as acoustic guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, banjos and the like often have some sort of internal pickup system that is designed for live production. However, it is not usually an optimal choice for studio use, as the sound of these devices (especially piezo pickups) sounds artificial, unnatural, and often wirey and flat. Therefore, stringed instruments in the studio are recorded on a suitable microphone or with a stereo technique on a pair of microphones placed at the necessary distance. The colour and detail of the pickup are then determined, among other things, by position and distance. An unsuitable room can have an effect depending on how sensitive your microphones are and how far away you are from the sound source.
It is possible to pick up these instruments quite decently on your own, but it is much more difficult than with electric stringed instruments. Therefore, I would be more inclined to entrust the recording to professionals in a suitable environment, especially if the instrument will play a dominant role in the overall composition.
If you do choose to go your own way, be especially aware of tuning and extraneous noises, such as finger noise squeaks on the strings, stamping and banging of the hand or pick against the soundboard, or even audible breathing of the player.
Favourite microphone positions are especially the 12th fret (octave), a spot just in front of the bridge/tailpiece (watch out for booming right at the resonance hole), a position above the player or anywhere in front of them.
5. Keyboard instruments
As for the analogue keyboards, such as Fender Rhodes, Moog, transistor or electromechanical organs (Farfisa, Vox, Hammond, etc.), the situation is similar to that of electric guitars.
Modern digital keyboard instruments can be recorded at home quite easily, by cable directly into a sound card, ideally in stereo. The environment cannot be heard at all. I recommend turning off the internal reverb and leaving it up to the mix. In addition, simultaneous recording via midi interface is also available. This offers a huge post-production space for changing arrangements, correcting errors, adjusting dynamics, or even choosing a different sound.
Acoustic pianos and grand pianos are instruments that depend on the room (as well as harpsichord, church organ, harmonium, spinet and others, of course). Any tuner will tell you that they tune the instrument with respect to the room it will be played in. It is possible to do a more contact microphone take (e.g. from the top of the sound hole), which might not be such a problem in a home setting with some compromises. It will be a sharper, tighter sound, more suitable for popular music, where the piano tends to be set in a dense arrangement.
But if you want to achieve a more complex piano sound, more suited in character to classical music or jazz, you have to work with the room more. Here I would definitely recommend entrusting the recording to a professional, in a suitable environment with adequate equipment.
I would also mention the accordion. This is usually recorded on two microphones, from a small to medium distance. Here a wrong room can affect the sound, but in my opinion, the situation is quite similar to that of recording wind instruments, see below. Given the nature of the instrument, home conditions may not be such a problem.
6. Wind instruments
Here it really is a case-by-case basis, but most wind instruments can withstand being recorded in less suitable conditions. First, they can be taken relatively close up, and second, recording from a greater distance with admitted reverb can add some dirt that sometimes sounds quite sexy even in a less-than-ideal room. The approach will vary according to genre and intent, but the winds simply provide quite a lot of room for experimentation.
While woodwind instruments can benefit from a slight reverberation of a small untreated space in certain circumstances, I think it's much worse for stringed instruments. We are used to perceiving strings as very clean and smooth, possibly with a subtle concert hall reverberation character. Moreover, they sound better/more natural when recorded from a distance, even in the case of a double bass playing pizzicato (recording and mixing double basses is one of the most demanding disciplines).
If I were to recommend recording these instruments outside of a suitable venue (a recording studio or a good concert hall), I would have to equivocate. Unfortunately, the right choice of good microphones also plays a big role here. But there are genres, such as gipsy jazz, alternative or country, where I can imagine home recording under certain conditions.
I'm deliberately leaving out electric string instruments. It's similar to electric guitars, which have already been mentioned.
With hand percussion, the situation is usually much less complicated than, say, a full drum kit, and with a bit of luck, you can do it yourself. It's good to have a microphone that has clear and detailed highs. Small-diaphragm condenser microphones are often used. In the case of congas, bongos, djembe, cajon and the like, you will ideally need a pair of mics (but this is not necessarily the rule) and place them from above (front) and below (back). Watch out for reversed polarity so that your signal doesn't get deducted!
In most cases, the room should not have a long-pronounced reverberation, but in some places, this may be desirable. If you have the option, put a screen behind you.
The vocals are usually at the forefront of the listener's mind, so it matters extremely how they sound. Recording studios tend to have the optimum acoustics and a range of microphones and preamps to choose the right one for the character of your voice.
If you decide to do it yourself, be aware of a few things: prominent labials and sibilates (a pop filter or changing position relative to the microphone will help), as well as tumult, stomp, rustle, squelch and crosstalk from headphones.
Ideally place a screen or at least a mattress or a full, open wardrobe behind your back. There are semi-circular screens on the acoustic market that can stand around the microphone, but I tend not to recommend those for this purpose. If anything, they're more for the spoken word.
If you have a problem with intonation, try mixing your listening differently or removing one of the headphones (but beware of the aforementioned crosstalk!).
If you have a poorly treated room acoustics-wise, a good quality dynamic microphone is a better choice than a condenser microphone. This is, of course, a general principle to follow not only when recording vocals.
If there's anything reasonable to be processed outside the studio, it's editing – if you know how to do it. Of course, it depends on the extent needed. There are projects where no editing is needed at all, and there are projects where editing takes multiples of the time spent on the mix.
You should always consider whether it's worth transferring a project or even exporting tracks if your DAW is not compatible with the one the recording was made in.
In our recording studio, for example, my top producer usually downloads the project to his home studio after the recording stage in more challenging cases. He then prepares the project for mixing in a leisured manner and the client doesn't have to pay extra studio fees for this work.
But what do you mean by editing? These are post-production corrections, such as selecting the best parts from the variations of takes, editing them into the final tracks, correcting rhythmic inaccuracies and fine-tuning intonation weak spots.
11. Production outside the studio
It can cost you dearly if you deal with inappropriate arrangements, new ideas and more sophisticated harmonisation only in the studio. It certainly makes sense to take a producer with you to the recording session, but some collaborative thinking and meeting to make the arrangements beforehand can have an even more significant effect. It's not just about the time you'll waste in the studio making adjustments, but also the time you'll need to rehearse the changes. So if you're considering an outside perspective in the form of bringing in a producer, don't leave it to the last minute.
12. Mixing and mastering
These days, when even relatively inexpensive recording equipment can produce decent results (if in good hands) and the possibilities for software editing are vast, the focus of care is increasingly shifting to the mix. Many things can be salvaged and elevated at this stage. If you're forced to tackle recording on your own due to budget, at least entrust the mix to an experienced professional – never the other way around, it no longer makes sense.
An experienced studio sound engineer will be fast and can follow your vision correctly. (I'm deliberately writing studio engineer because sounding gigs and mixing in the studio are quite different approaches and have different specifics and pitfalls. There are sound engineers who can do both with great results, but most are primarily specialized in one of these disciplines). The other thing is that they will have a professionally sorted listening and acoustics of the direction. If your home listening isn't true, you'll have a hard time getting good results.
But if you still want to play with it yourself, at least reach out to a professional for feedback. A few well-targeted suggestions can advance your work significantly, and most professionals will be happy to oblige for a small fee.
One more thing: beware of blindly following tutorials, generalizing procedures and using plugins without really knowing what they do, how they are set up, and why you need to use them right now. Less is often more, and I've heard a number of jobs ruined just by enthusiastic overuse of inappropriately chosen effects. In this work, every case is different, idiosyncratic and depends on the context of the whole organism. The important thing is to be able to listen, perceive, compare, evaluate and decide.
What is true of mastering is true of mixing, but tenfold. Despite the fact that "mastering" is offered by everyone today (including algorithms on the Internet), the truth is that there are only a handful of truly dedicated masters in this field. Mastering this speciality requires many years of intensive mixing practice in addition to talent. Moreover, there is no remedy later. Mastering is the last link on the road to the listener.
The aforementioned internet services, which are widely available today, may offer an acceptable result, but often they may not. I have also heard outputs where, on the contrary, they have done harm. Gross generalization and uniformity, lacking a sensitive personality that understands the material and its specifics, can lead many astray.
13. Pricing policy
There are many recording studios with different rates. Their pricing policy depends on several factors: location, operating costs (there is a difference if the studio is rented or if it is owned property), cost of equipment, experience and reputation. More expensive equipment and great acoustics certainly offer more freedom and less post-production work, and often some magic in the details, but it can be on a pretty subtle level. Even professional sound engineers often make mistakes in so-called "blind tests" and don't recognize the correct versions on various expensive components.
The human factor still has the greatest influence. I know many colleagues who use mediocre equipment for recording and their results often excel those with the most expensive and best-equipped studios. How is this possible? The reasons are care, experience and proficiency in mixing and mastering and last but not least taste, or understanding of the material.
A few years ago I worked with Jerry Boys, a producer and sound engineer, a multi-Grammy winner who has worked with many of the biggest names in popular music (if you google him, you will be surprised). The biggest shock to me at the time was that he did not care about the equipment, made up mostly of our studio gear. There was a complete lack of the obsession with labels (he knew some, he didn't others) that I hear so often. He just took whatever was closest at hand, placed it somewhere (yes, he had already thought about it and listened to whether he liked it or not) and that was it. He was as focused as he could be on the material, the atmosphere and the overall vision – the equipment was secondary.
The world is full of great recordings that were made outside the recording studio. Equipment and environment can be secondary, but you have to know what you're doing and why. It's not that important where and how, but with whom. Work with people who know.
So how to decide? Based on references. Listen to music from different makers, listen to the experiences of your colleagues and evaluate for yourself what's right for you.
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