The question any musician with home gear eventually has to ask themselves is, when should I take my project to a studio? Sure, who doesn’t want to create an entire project in the studio, but who has the budget for that? I sometimes I hear bands say they’re saving up the money to come to the studio, but in the mean time are working with several different “cheap” engineers who work out of their homes, but everything comes with a price.

The following will be covered…

  • The best time to use a professional studio
  • Instruments needed in a pro studio?
  • Mixing at the studio?
  • Before getting into the studio.
  • The best time to work from home/smaller studios
  • Instruments to record at home?
  • Making the studio process easier at home.

The Project Triangle.
Have you heard of the Project Triangle?  It’s a tool engineers use to outline the goals of the project. At the top point you have the word “Good,” the left point you have “Fast” and on the right point you have “Cheap.”  You can only pick two, which two do you pick—good and fast, fast and cheap, or good and cheap?  No matter what your project is, you’re going to need to sacrifice one item (and I hope you never sacrifice “good”).  The thing is, you can have a studio quality recording while still doing most of the work at home – it’s just knowing what’s best to do where.

First things first, have a plan.
The very first thing an artist should do before recording is pre-production.  Deciding if you’ll play to a click, picking a tempo, and KNOWING everyone can follow that tempo.  Crafting out parts, harmonies, alternate chord structures, sounds and effects to make the piece more interesting, any little idea of what you want the song to do and where it will go.  Figure all of it out ahead of time.  The studio is not the place to see if you can finally come up with that middle harmony – that’s just time and money wasted.  All this can be done at home or in a cheaper studio setting.

Outlining the plan: make a dummy track!
After you’ve crafted what the song will be like, make a dummy track for you and/or the rest of the musicians to follow.  This just means you record a demo of the song, and then create a few different mixes: first the full demo, then a version without drums, and another version without drums or bass.  That way, while you’re tracking the final version, every musician has something consistent to follow.

Tracking: studio vs home.
Now you’re ready to start deciding what will be done at the studio and what will be done at home.  A good rule of thumb to follow is if an instrument’s sound is affected by the sound of the room, it should be recorded at a professional studio.  This includes most acoustic instruments: drums, piano, strings, brass, etc.  Instruments that can be plugged in, such as electric guitar, bass, and keys can be done anywhere, so why not at home?  There are some fantastic amp simulators on the market right now, many of which offer decent demos of their products, so there’s no loss of sound or power by just recording your guitars direct and then altering the sound in the box.  However, you’ll never be able to fake your way out of a boxy sounding drum track.

As for acoustic guitar, auxiliary percussion, and vocals, they can be done anywhere, but make sure they’re recorded in a space that doesn’t add nasty reflections to the sound (think empty square bedroom, linoleum bathroom, etc.) or outside noise (cars, airplanes, roommates, etc.).  Remember, once it’s recorded, that’s your sound.  So if you’re committed to that ‘80’s tiled bathroom sound, then by all means track your vocals in the can.  But if you want more control over the sound in the mixing process, then try and track in a space that doesn’t add anything more than what the artist is putting into the microphone.

Mixing, editing: what you can do yourself and what you should pay others to do.
Once you have everything tracked, you might want to think about going back to the studio for mixing.  Studios are made to hear things your home system can’t hear – the room itself is specifically tuned to cut out building and phasing frequencies, the speakers present a broader and more even frequency range, and the gear is pro.  However, you can make the mixing process in studio go a lot smoother by editing and doing a pre-mix at home.  If the mixing engineer has a place to start from and doesn’t have to worry about creating crossfades or cutting out the tom mics when they’re not being played, they can spend all their time making your mix sound as good as possible.

What about mastering?
As for mastering, I have to encourage you to go to a pro. Mastering is a specific skill; it looks at the mix in a completely different way.  You can have the mixing engineer do a quick and dirty compression and EQ, but nothing can take the place of a skilled mastering engineer.

What if my band wants to record live together?
This is all, of course, assuming your band isn’t tracking live together. If you want to track together, and you feel confident and tight as a unit, you should save up the scratch and go to the studio together – also something home recording usually can’t offer.  You can still do the pre-production, editing, and pre-mix at home, but if you can get 5 full songs tracked in 10 hours, do yourself a favor and do it at a studio.

Will any studio and engineer do?
Take some time to research studios in your area: who’s worked there?  How do their products sound?  Can you get a tour of the studio?  Also, take the time to research engineers – sure your brother took that digital music course for a semester two years back, but when you’re in the studio all the gear in the world won’t do any good if the hands aren’t skilled.  Is the engineer at all affiliated or familiar with the studio, do you know anyone who’s worked with them, can they send you a sample of their work?  Most importantly, does the studio give you a good vibe and is the engineer someone you can stand to be locked in a room with for 10+ hours?  If the answer is no, they’re not right for you.

So, instead of wasting money creating project after project in cheap studios while you save up money to finally track that single in the big one, record smart and divide up the work between home and studio. You’ll find the whole experience to be easier and cheaper in the end because you did it all right the first time. Plus, you’ll have some amazing sounding music!