[The following guest post is by Denise Barbarita, a freelance recording engineer and artist based in New York.]
If you’re an independent musician thinking about how you’re going to make your next recording, odds are you’ve heard something like this:
“Musicians can take the bull by the horns and go totally rogue.
“Studios are so ‘90s! Just buy a DAW, plug and play and make your own record on your own time. Or use your iPad or iPhone! Why not? Everyoneʼs doing it!
“No need to hire expensive engineers or ﬁght with self-obsessed producers! Big studios are just going to gouge you anyway. All you need is a couple microphones, a couple microphone pre-amps, a recording book or some Youtube tutorials, maybe even subscribe to a bunch of recording magazines! Itʼs easy! Anyone can do it!”
Kind of. With patience and practice, some can. However, there are some who are pulling their hair out a few months later, trying to ﬁgure out why things donʼt sound like the records they own and love, feeling so overwhelmed they ﬁnd themselves curled up in the fetal position, twitching in front of their laptops.
Home studios are great for laying down demos or experimenting with different parts or arrangements. That’s why every musician has some kind of home recording software and a computer.
But be honest with yourself. Are you someone who loves technology? Do you get all hot and bothered when you read a review of the latest gadget?
If you are technologically savvy, you may find that it’s great fun to learn about recording, mixing, and how to really use a DAW. Each of those things has its own learning curve, and the processes can become a huge time-consuming headache.
Be truthful. What kind of person are you? Do you want to do EVERYTHING yourself, or would you prefer to concentrate on the performance and songwriting aspects only?
But planning to work with a team takes work too. How do you find the right studio? How do you find the right engineer or producer? What are you even looking for?
Going into a studio gets you more than expertise. Great studios are great because of what’s inside them.
A real studio will have at least one “live room,” or a room big enough to accommodate an entire band and its gear. But the size isn’t everything. The acoustics are what make live rooms so important. For example, LIC’s Spin Studio’s “A” room is spacious and live. Drums are a just a thing of beauty in there! It also has 2 booths, which makes recording larger ensembles super easy.
Doing vocals at home can be a recipe for frustration. Car horns, airplanes flying overhead, toilets flushing, and of course, neighbors banging on your ceiling if you are working late at night. You can’t have all of that in your perfect vocal take!
Studios like Spin have a “B” room, specifically designed for overdubs. Another great room for overdubs is A Bloody Good Record. Both studios have a great microphone collection and great outboard gear to choose from for any style of music. Speaking of gear…
A lot of studio owners are gear heads. Todd Hemleb, the owner of Pyramid Studios, is no exception, and he has filled his place with all kinds of unbelievable analog treasures: It truly is a labor of love. The console at Pyramid is a vintage API. There’s not another one on the east coast. I can’t even tell you how wonderful it sounds! It’s pure unadulterated analog goodness. There are no amount of “in the box” plug-ins that will get your recording even close.
He has ProTools and an Otari MTR 90 2” tape machine. He’s also got all sorts of goodies like Echoplexes, a rack full of Neve 1073 micpreamps/EQ’s, an AKG box Spring reverb and even a Cooper Time Cube (!).
Some of this stuff exists in plug-in form, but having someone around who really knows the nuances of the room and how to use the equipment makes a huge difference on your recordings.
The sound of an acoustic piano is still one of the finest things in music. But what if you don’t own one? Are you just going to settle for your keyboard? Pyramid and Spin both have magnificent pianos. Spin’s Yamaha C6 grand is probably my favorite in the city. It’s rich and creamy on its own, but its true greatness lies in its ability to sit in a mix perfectly without needing a touch of EQ. Pyramid’s 1923 Baldwin Baby grand is perfect for rock, jazz and indie rock.
Pyramid also has a lovely vintage Hammond organ and Leslie speaker. Plugging a guitar into the speaker is unlike anything on this planet. Sure, there are plug-ins that emulate the sound of a Leslie cabinet but they pale in comparison to the real deal.
A Bloody Good Record not only has 2 good-sized booths, but Mark Law, the owner, has handpicked a nice selection of guitars, basses, and amps to choose from during a session there.
In addition to gear, a great studio should have great personnel.
It seems like everyone is an engineer or a producer these days, and finding the right engineer or the right producer can feel like a daunting task. In addition to asking around and doing some googling, ask prospective engineers and producers for a “reel” and find out what their personal involvement was for each music clip. Was the engineer the tracking or mix engineer (or the assistant)? Did this person produce the record, or was there another producer? Do your homework and don’t be afraid to ask questions! Remember that as an engineer, my job is to make YOUR life easy, not the other way around. YOU are the client, and as recording professionals, WE are providing a service, not doing you a favor. If your engineer is talking to you like a child during your first meeting, chances are that won’t change.
At the end of the day, what you want is an affordable, comfortable space with a person who has a vested interest in helping you to make the best record you can make. If there is a specific person you want to work with, go over your needs and the engineer/producer will help you to find the best studio for your budget. Many freelance engineers work at many studios, and you may wind up working at three or four different places.