Tips for Choosing a Recording Studio
Some day, you are going to want to leave your basement behind and record in a professional studio. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s an important investment to move your music career forward. A good recording studio will have an experienced engineer to help you sound your best, excellent equipment, an acoustically-designed space, and a good network in case you need a referral for a studio player, producer, mastering recommendations or equipment technical support.
This is advice from Kraig Greff, pulled together by Mya and Jacquie. Kraig is Tonal Vision’s composer and music producer who has performed live and worked in hundreds of recording studios over his nearly 50-year career. Tonal Vision has it's own small recording studio, and Kraig produces at several larger area studios as well.
Develop your wish list
Before visiting any studios, think through what you absolutely need, what would be worth paying a little extra for, and what you think you can afford to spend.
Space: If you’re a singer/song-writer, your space needs could be simple — a comfortable room with good acoustics. If you have a band that likes to perform together, you’ll need a bigger space, probably with some separation between the instruments or even multiple isolation rooms. An orchestra may require a large hall. Also consider whether you’d be willing to pay extra for amenities like a lounge where the musicians can hang out, inspirationally beautiful decor, a country get-away free of interruptions and distractions, or a famous studio that sounds great and has a string of hits to prove it.
Equipment: A good studio will have a fast computer running the latest software, quality microphones and audio processing gear. Your music and genre may require more, for example, a large recording and mixing console, a grand piano or Hammond organ, specialized sound processing equipment or vintage gear.
Budget: If you are new and on a tight budget, consider recording one single rather than a whole album. Check out community organizations and university studios where you may be able record with students for a much lower price as you gain experience. Find a local studio who will work with you to keep costs down. To minimize time in the studio, have all your ideas fully developed, practiced and ready to record. If you have the funding for a bigger investment, you’ll want to consider working with a producer who can improve your sound and streamline the recording process.
Do a little research
The list you developed above will put you in a better position to evaluate studios in your area. Do a quick check of local studio web sites — this will eliminate some and help create a list of interesting options. Ask friends and experienced business contacts for recommendations, as well as people and places to avoid. Finally, call and set an appointment to visit the studios at the top your list.
Visit several studiosEven if you are set on a particular studio, having comparisons is helpful. Below are ideas.
Microphones: Studios should offer a collection of microphones and pre-amps, as different instruments require different mics. The more money a mic costs, generally the higher its quality. Kraig’s personal favorite, Schoeps, runs $4-5,000. A good studio will have at least one Neumann U87 microphone and at least one high quality preamp (amplifies mic-level signal to line-level for recording) — the better ones, like GML (George Massenburg Labs), Manley SLAM!, and Rupert Neve, are $3,000+.
Computer, converters and peripherals: The studio should be using a fast, late-model computer running the latest software — Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase, and MOTU Digital Performer, are major brands. They should also have good audio interfaces/converters (for example, Prism Sound, Weiss, Apogee Symphony and RME). Make sure they also have any important plug-ins, sampled sounds, etc. that you need. Also ask about amplifiers, stands, pedals, etc. that the studio already has, just to lighten your load.
Space: Take a tour of the studio to see the space up close. The recording rooms should be quiet but not absolutely silent. Most will have carpets on the floor and pads on the wall, unless they are designed for a classical orchestra. The room you’ll be recording in should be big enough for your band or comfortably intimate if you’re a solo act. If you need isolation rooms, make sure each is large enough and that you can hear and/or see the other players, if this is important. Also look for a space for relaxation. Ideally, the studio’s location should be convenient, with nearby restaurants and other amenities. Check out the parking and find out how easy it will be to load-in any equipment you’ll be bringing.
Staff: Don’t forget to ask questions — this is your money you’ll be spending. Does the person in charge seem to be honest and to care about the music, or are they just focused on the clock and getting their money? Do you feel comfortable working with them? Don’t assume a small studio manager or engineer isn’t highly qualified — a number of music industry professionals have a long and varied career, then come back home to settle down in a local studio.
Ask about the studio’s recent projects and any hits they’ve recorded, as well as the engineer you’ll be working with. Make sure the studio caters to your genre. Note the number and types of people on staff. Avoid studios that have tons of equipment, but a small staff. Certain gear, especially vintage, requires a lot of attention and maintenance from an electronic specialist. Other types of helpful people (staff or by referral) include producers, studio musicians, mastering engineers, arrangers and composers, artists, publicists, managers and booking agents.
Record, then evaluate
For a professional musician, finding a good studio should be the beginning of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Record your first song, then sit down with your studio contact and talk about your recording. You’ll get valuable insight into how to improve your music, the recording process, and whether to come back again or try a different studio for the next song.