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  • Musicians: Is It Time for You to Use a "Real" Studio and Engineer?

    By Phil O'Keefe |

    Is It Time for You to Use a "Real" Studio and Engineer?


    Yes, you can do a lot with home recording...but at some point in your career, you may need to take the next step



    By Phil O'Keefe




    You're a musician. Maybe you're in a band and want to make a demo to help you get gigs, you're ready to record the music you've been honing during your live performances or it's time to step out with a solo project. You have a cool home studio, and made some decent-sounding recordings - but you realize they're simply not on the same level as commercial recordings. Reluctantly, you decide it's time to bite the bullet, save up some money, and go to a professional studio with a professional engineer to present you in the best possible light.


    But you can't afford to pay for something that disappoints you, and without a background in using studios and pro engineers, how can you tell the good engineers from the posers? How can you tell if a studio is sufficiently well-equipped? Let's find out. 


    In theory, you shouldn't have to learn any of the deeper details about what an engineer does to go into a studio and have one record you, although a general familiarity with the recording process from a musician's perspective, an understanding of basic recording-related terms, and a basic idea of what is possible and reasonable would all be helpful. And don't forget about time vs. efficiency - lots of things are possible, but not always the best use of your studio time!



    Start with a Tour

    Discuss the studio(s) and engineer(s) you're considering working in/with with other musicians in your area that you respect. Ask them where the good studios are, who the good engineers are, and which ones to avoid. Listen to the projects that they've recorded in various studios, and find out where the best-sounding projects were recorded. That can give you some idea, but remember that the amount of time they spent on the project, the budget they were working with, the quality of the material, and their own skill level also had a dramatic influence on the final results they obtained. You can also check with the local Musician's Union for recommendations.


    Ask to tour any facility you're considering to see if it seems like a comfortable environment that's conducive to making art. Shop around and compare! A good studio should be clean, well-organized and well-equipped with relatively current gear (or classic vintage gear) that is in good condition and regularly maintained. A relaxed, comfortable "vibe" never hurts either.


    Don't necessarily be impressed by a big computer system. These days, almost all DAWs will do what you need. Instead, be impressed by a solid selection of mics and quality monitors, because there's no way you can "fake" a good transducer. 


    Also, try to make sure the person who is giving the tour will be the same person engineering your sessions - because then it's time for the "job interview." You're hiring someone, so you'll want to ask some questions. 


    The Job Interview

    What makes a "professional" isn't the gear they use - some people think that dumping a bunch of money into a "Pro" Tools system confers being a "pro" on them. A professional is confident but not arrogant, helpful, and always places realizing your artistic vision above everything else - whether they agree with that vision or not. You should encourage them to voice opposing viewpoints, but always remember you're paying the bill. If Bob Dylan's first engineer had said "Hey Bob you're kinda pitchy, let's slap on the pitch correction" it was up to Bob Dylan to say "No thanks." But be careful: You need to hire an engineer whose opinion you respect. If you're constantly ignoring the experience and judgement a good engineer brings to a project, well...there might be a reason why what you recorded in your home studio didn't meet the standards of what you hear from top-tier artists.


    Ask a basic question, like "I've heard some people say they like to record with effects, while others say they prefer to record dry and add effects later. What do you think?" Which they prefer doesn't matter, because both approaches can be valid. What matters is how the engineer responds. If the response is condescending, or a "don't worry your pretty little head, we'll take care of it," that's an early warning sign. If the engineer explains the difference with the goal of teaching you and giving you a better understanding of the recording process, you're on the right track.


    Good engineers won't try to impose their will  on you. They'll explain the pros and cons of different approaches so that you can make a decision. And if your decision is to let the engineer make the decision, that's perfectly fine, too.


    Also, concentrate on results. An engineer should be confident, but if all they can talk about is how great they are, that could be trouble. Ask engineers to tell you about what was their most difficult project, why, and what they did to overcome the issue. If the response is excuses - "Well, the guitarist was a jerk, he kept getting in the way" that's not as good an answer as "Well, the guitarist had no experience in recording, so I lost a lot of time explaining what I was doing." There's a saying that "the only thing in common with your bad relationships is you." If an engineer keeps falling back on personality problems as an issue, that in itself is a problem. Good engineers get along with everyone, and leave their egos at the door - which artists should do as well, if they want the best results.


    Finally, experience matters...but not always. Some people are born to be engineers and can get just about anything to sound good, while others rely on acquiring the best possible gear and get decent results. If "experience" translates to "set in his ways," that's not the right kind of experience - you want the experience of choosing the right tool for the right job, and the right approach for the task at hand. You're often better off with the young engineer who will turn out to be the next George Massenburg - not the engineer who thinks he's George Massenburg.



    It's an Auditory Art, So Listen Up!

    Listen to some examples of the studio and engineer's previous work, and bring a CD or thumb drive with a couple of songs you know really well. Ask to play a couple of minutes of each so you can check out the relative accuracy and quality of their monitoring environment. Listen to the playback very carefully. Does it seem muddy, indistinct, or a lot bassier than usual, or overly thin and bright or otherwise unbalanced across the frequency spectrum? Unless you're used to listening on a really good system, it probably should sound more full-range,  as well as more accurate and detailed than what you're used to, but not necessarily "better" in any kind of a hyped way. That accuracy's crucial - if the room and speakers are lying to you, no one can really make accurate decisions while working, and the mix you hear in the studio may sound really good in there, but "translate" poorly to other playback systems.



    One Final Tip

    After engineering countless sessions over the years, I've noticed that what consistently makes the biggest difference in how well a project turns out isn't the studio or the engineer, or even the gear - it's the material (songs) and how well the musicians are prepared to lay them down with emotion and musicality. Generally, the more prepared you are in advance of any recording session the better; while it's important to do your research when shopping for a studio and engineer, make sure you're really ready to record too. The musicians should be well-rehearsed, and know what they want to accomplish. All the arrangements should be worked out, and all the musical gear should be checked out, well set-up, and ready to perform at its best without problems before the session.


    It's kind of like painting a room: The bulk of the time goes into the preparation - taping the edges of moldings, filling in holes or cracks, and painting with primer prior to using a roller and finishing up in a matter of minutes. Pre-production is crucial, not only because it makes a big difference in the quality of the final recording, but because time is money in the studio. Make sure you talk to the studio manager and the engineer, and whoever is going to be serving as the producer on the project to make sure you're all on the same page for a game plan. Make a schedule and go over what you expect to accomplish. While you may need to adjust your projections (nearly always upward), have a plan and budget mapped out from the beginning.




    Have questions about recording, engineers and recording studios? Then make sure to head over to the Studio Trenches Forum right here on Harmony Central!









    Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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