Big budget or small—expert advice to help you get the most out of your recording studio time—and your music.
When you are ready to hit the studio, solo or with your band, you have a ton of choices to make. Where to go, which engineer to use, and what equipment you use will all influence the final product. Studio time can be expensive, but fortunately there is a large amount of preparation and decision-making that you can do well in advance that will save both your time and sanity.
Get ready ‘cause here I come
Studio owner, producer, engineer and musician Erik Rutan runs Mana Studios in Florida. His current band, Hate Eternal, is represented by Season of Mist, an independent French record label for metal and rock musicians. For bands preparing to record in a studio, a DIY dry run at home can be helpful
What I suggest is practice, practice, practice...you know the ole’ saying “Practice Makes Perfect”. Recording pre-production and rough demos of all your material is also a great way to better prepare for the studio as well. I always suggest someone in the band, if not all [members], get Pro Tools, get an interface and a few mics and go through the recording process ahead of time. This is so helpful.
Also, it allows everyone to try new ideas, change stuff, alter arrangements, make sure everything is prepared etc. at home rather than burning valuable studio time. [It] also allows you to send the material to the producer/engineer so he may give his thoughts and opinions as well as familiarize himself with the material.
SugarHill Studios is known as the “Abbey Road of the South.” In operation since the World War II era, a variety of artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Beyonce have recorded there. SugarHill studio manager Casey Waldner advises musicians to have a meeting with studio staff before they even unload their gear.
Be prepared! Band members should know their parts and come into the studio with a professional attitude, ready to work. At SugarHill we always recommend a pre-production meeting to discuss logistics, expectations, and creative goals. Once the engineer and the musicians are on the same page the recording session has a greater potential for smooth sailing.
Studio owner, engineer, producer and musician Jonathan Plum has worked with bands like Pearl Jam and Mechanism (photo) at London Bridge Studios. You may not know the studio name, but you most likely know their work. London Bridge Studios was central to the 1990s grunge explosion that changed both the city of Seattle and the entire music industry. Plum advises bands to be prepared—particularly with your gear, but also flexible.
Fortunately most bands we work with at London Bridge come in pretty prepared. The key things are: Have your song well rehearsed, gear and instruments tuned properly and an open positive attitude. I've worked with bands that come into the studio with notes on each song about where and when they want to add parts.
The more organized and prepared you are the faster and better the recording will go. Having your guitar or bass intonated before a session will save piles of expensive and frustrating time trying to fix tuning issues. Have your gear in top notch shape but also be open to using another piece of gear if the engineer suggests trying it. Try to be diplomatic in the studio. Let people express their creative ideas and try them before making any decisions. Be open to all good ideas or good mistakes.
Always check references
Don’t pick a studio simply based on its advertised gear or specs. When choosing a studio, and the particular engineer that will record you, nothing is more valuable than their past work. Producer, engineer and musician Scott Wiley owns June Audio Recording Studios, where he has worked with bands like Neon Trees. He reminds novice musicians to listen to past recordings made by the engineers they are considering.
Although a studio like June Audio offers a lot of bells and whistles—many instruments, mics, gear, etc.—the main thing to look (listen) for when choosing a studio are the recordings that have been done there, and, more specifically, recordings made by the engineer you will be working with. A good engineer can make a great record with a [Shure SM] 57 and a Zoom recorder, a lousy engineer won’t be able to make a good recording with all the gear in the world.
The truth is you are paying for the engineer and his/her ears. It takes a lot of time and experience to become a great engineer which makes them more rare than studios in general, so choose carefully and judge based on their work!
Is your budget a mansion on the hill or used cars?
Now that you have found a studio and engineer whose past work you like, it’s time to start thinking about the less exciting part of your recording plan: your budget. There are numerous stories of bands spending months and millions of dollars on albums. On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album was comprised of tracks he recorded alone as demos. Most musicians will fall somewhere in the middle, and it is important to consider where you can spend, and where you can save.
Musician and engineer Pete Mignola began his recording journey with an open reel deck that belonged to his father. Today, he owns MetroSonic Recording Studio in New York City. Mignola knows that cost is an important consideration, but warns that a low priced studio can be too good to be true.
For many, the primary criteria for choosing a studio is the price/rate. Yes, it is important to be sure that the studio you choose fits your budget. It is also important to remember that in choosing a studio, there are many variables in play and, as they say, you often get what you pay for. If you save $200 recording your music at a particular studio instead of another, but in the end, you are not happy with the results, you have to ask yourself, what did we really save? Conversely, spending more does not necessarily guarantee better results.
Find a studio that fits your needs, one where the body of music done there best represents your esthetic and you will likely be in the right place to get your project done. Meet the manager and get a sense for the place. If you feel comfortable & like the people you meet, again, you are likely headed in the right direction.
Anthony Spinnato works at The Cutting Room, a New York City studio that has helped artists from Lana Del Rey to Jay Z. With such diverse experience, Spinnato knows that one size does not fit all. Even if you are only recording a few tracks, a professional attitude and investment can pay great dividends.
The most common misconception or mistake, is that everyone needs to record a full record to have success. Musicians that work with us on smaller EP projects and put the time into making everything sound great, have a much better outcome and experience.
(Finding your) sound and vision
For a big project with a large budget, or a short EP with a tight allowance (or any combination thereof), planning and research should be an important part of your recording groundwork. With so many choices for studios, engineers within a studio, and technology at that engineer’s disposal—it pays to take some time to find the best match for your unique musical vision.