With the rise of the independent studio, there are more choices than ever when it comes time to get your music recorded. This gives the artist a lot of power, but narrowing down the list of options can also be an overwhelming process.
In order to make your decision easier, here's a checklist that I use every time I look into studios for my projects or those of friends of mine. Going down this list in order should help you to sufficiently narrow down your options and figure out what studio is going to give you the best results you can afford!
With recording technology becoming more and more accessible as time has gone on, many engineers who have gained proficiency on their own home rig have moved up to recording bands. These days, you can find somebody, somewhere to record your music, regardless of your budget. Many audio classes need clients for their students to learn and practice with, and by reaching out to colleges with audio programs, you may even be able to get some time in the studio for free! You often get what you pay for in terms of quality, however, so it's important to immediately define how much you're willing to spend on a studio before you start narrowing down your options.
Some key things to consider when defining your budget: first off, anybody who has spent time recording is well aware that things often take longer than expected. Plan on booking a few more hours than you think you'll need – you'll usually be glad you did.
Secondly, make sure you're considering the other costs that go into recording. Are you going to need to hire session musicians? Are you going to need an in-house engineer? Are you hoping to rent studio instruments/amps? Be certain that all of these are factored into your budget, as you'll often need more than just a nice-sounding room!
With independent studios cropping up everywhere these days, you shouldn't have trouble finding a great-sounding room that's close to where you're based. Depending on what city you're in, however, a little traveling could be required if you're looking for a specific sound. One thing to define early on is how far you're willing/able to travel. Doing so will really help you narrow down your search, as you’ll only have to look for studios within your designated area.
You may also want to travel to a studio just to be far from distractions! This is fairly common among groups that can afford the travel costs; home life can be distracting and possibly interfere with your recording mindset, and recording somewhere far from home will allow you to focus on the project alone.
Once you've narrowed down the list through budget and location, you can focus on sound quality. Listen to recordings of your favorite groups, and try to hone in on what you like about the recording itself. Then compare that with the studios you are considering. If you or someone in the band is not familiar with basic recording/production, I'd recommend bringing in a friend who is to help with this part of the process.
Almost every studio has some kind of page, be it a website, SoundCloud, or some other sort of social media, that has sound samples posted to it. Are the samples pleasing? Are they reminiscent of the sound you're striving for? Does it have any samples posted of groups that are similar to yours? If not, ask the staff over email if you could hear some sample recordings of bands they've done that are in the same genre as you. Typically, as long as you're making a serious inquiry, they'll be willing to help you decide if they're the right fit!
4. Facilities and equipment
At this point, you've hopefully found a few great-sounding studios that are in your budget and desired location. The next step is to decide on the kind of equipment and facilities you will need access to. Most (but not all) studios will have a selection of musical equipment for clients to use (or sometimes rent for an extra fee). Are you going to need a piano? How about a pro-quality, well-tuned drum set? Or vintage guitars/amplifiers? Not all studios will have this kind of gear, so make sure you look into it on the studio website (or ask them directly via email or phone).
If you know a little about recording, you might also have a few pieces of recording gear that you're looking for specifically. Do you want to go for vintage sound, tracking through vintage tube preamps and microphones, and captured on tape? Then you better make sure that the studio has the kind of gear to accommodate that!
Also consider the size, layout, and location of the studio. If you need to record with the whole band playing at the same time, then you might have trouble getting a great sound in a one room basement studio where everybody needs to stand close together with their amps in the same room. Do they have a kitchen, or are there at least places to eat and get coffee that are nearby? This sort of stuff can really help a session go smoothly, and going with the studio that can provide the sort of gear and facilities you desire can help the entire process move much more efficiently.
5. Reputation and history
World-renowned studios such as Abbey Road, Electric Lady, and FAME Studios are well-known for having a "signature sound." Some of these studios aren't accessible to independent artists, but there are plenty of other famous studios that are. If it happens to fall in your budget and location, it could be worth it to get into one of them for their specific sound.
This also has potential marketing benefits. Having the name of a famous studio on your record can give it some validity to industry professionals who might otherwise skip it. It's certainly worth a shot!
Learn more about studios:
- How to Get the Most Out of Your Studio Time [Video]
- How to Create Your Own DIY Recording Studio
- How to Soundproof Your Home Studio Like a Pro
Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist, based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.