Studio or DIY? –

Guest Author Gary Simmons: Sooner or later most bands want to record themselves. It might be a simple demo of cover songs to help book gigs or a full-length CD of originals, but eventually the day will come to put it down for posterity. The price of studio time hasn’t changed much in the 30+ years I’ve been recording bands, but the cost of recording equipment has dropped dramatically. In this guest blog post I’m going to weigh the pros and cons of doing-it-yourself (DIY) versus paying for studio time.

When I started recording in the 80s, a nice 8-track project studio would cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on your appetite for nice mics and analog outboard gear. Analog tape gave way to digital tape (DA-88, ADAT) which made expanding to 16 or 24 tracks more affordable, but it was the move to computer-based recording that really changed everything.

Today, you can buy a decent computer, a simple mixer, an 8-channel audio interface, some mics, and some recording software for a fraction of what the old project studios cost. For that matter, a digital mixer like the PreSonus Studio:Live 16:4 can double as your audio interface and let you record up to 16 tracks at once! It’s crazy how much capability you can buy for cheap these days.

For anything less than an EP/CD release I think most bands should consider the DIY route because it is simple, cheap and a great learning experience. All it takes is enough mics to record the whole band, a stereo PA mixer, and a stereo recording device. Basically, set up your PA but hook up a stereo recording device instead of the main speakers. I recommend recording to a computer to make it easy to edit the recording once you’re done. Even something as simple as a Zoom H1 ($99) will get the job done.

It can take a while to dial in a good mix, so be patient. You have to record a bit, listen to the recording, adjust the mix, and repeat until you are happy with it. Think of it as an extended sound check. That “adjust the mix” step sounds easy but it’s where you will learn a lot about setting signal levels, using EQ and adding effects. Once you think you have a good mix, record it several times and pick the best take.

The recording process should be fun but being able to hear everything you and the rest of the band are playing opens the door for critical self-examination. Everything is fair game under the bright light of the studio: timing, execution, tone, and how each part works with the other parts. You might be surprised (not in a good way) at what is actually being played when you can listen to the whole band instead of focusing on your own part. In the end, you will become a better musician, the band will be tighter, live shows will sound better, and you will be better prepared if/when the band goes into a commercial studio and the clock is running. It’s all good.

It’s easy to step things up to DIY multi-track recording using a computer (plus audio interface and software) or a portable multi-track recorder. Recording the band to multiple tracks lets you get the mix right after the recording and also lets you experiment with overdubbing extra tracks such as backing vocals, percussion, guitar leads/fills, etc. Recording the band “live” to eight tracks at once (Ex: kick, snare, stereo overheads, bass, two rhythm guitars, scratch lead vocal) and then overdubbing final lead and backing vocals, guitar leads, percussion, etc. can result in a recording that can rival a local studio recording with enough experience and a few well-chosen bits of gear.

So when is booking time at a commercial studio the right choice? If the band just needs a demo to get gigs and promote themselves online, perhaps the path of least resistance is to book a few hours of studio time, play live to multi-track, then do a quick mix. The band just has to focus on playing well and the engineer can handle all the technical stuff. Note that the band needs to be tight enough to knock out a keeper in a few takes per song and the studio must have enough space and gear to record the entire band live. This approach should cost under $200. You’ll get a good sounding demo, but the pressure is on the band to perform when the red light goes on.

If your band plans on putting out an EP/CD of original music you want it to sound good when played back to back with professional recordings of similar bands from record labels. That’s a lofty goal for local studios and even harder if you DIY. If the band’s pre-production multi-track recordings sound good enough to release, then go for it. There’s a lot to be said for having unlimited time to experiment with ideas, record that perfect take, or dial in a mix. But for the majority of bands, I think that DIY pre-production followed by a trip to the studio for the “real” recording is the way to go.

I have recorded a lot of bands over the years. My rule of thumb is that bands should budget for 10 hours of studio time per song for a local release. That includes multitrack recording, overdubs, and mixing. If a band is really tight and wants a mostly “live” recording, then knock that back a bit. If a band isn’t all that tight, or the songs aren’t finished, or they want a more produced result, then increase the number of hours.

Studio time can range from $15/hour for someone just getting started in a garage or spare room to $60/hour for a nice commercial facility. I think the best bang for the buck is in the $25 – $40/hour range. That will get you an experienced engineer in a home-based studio or a modest commercial facility.

Let’s do some math. Say you want to record a 5 song EP of originals that you’ll sell for $5 each at gigs (a buck a song). By my rule of thumb, that’s about 50 hours of studio time. No one is getting rich playing local bars, so let’s assume you choose a home-based studio for $25/hour to save some money. That EP is going to cost the band $1250 in recording time plus mastering costs plus CD duplication costs ($750+ for 500 CDs). You can easily spend $2000 for a simple EP in a jewel case with a small booklet.

The band will have to sell 400 of those 500 CDs to break even. That’s a LOT of CDs (been there, didn’t sell that). If you work at a nicer commercial facility ($40/hour) you’ll have to sell closer to 650 CDs to break even. Bottom Line: it’s hard to break even on a CD release unless you have a large following, so expect to lose money on it and chalk the expense up to promotion. A digital-only release eliminates the CD duplication costs, but they are harder to sell because you don’t get the impulse sales at bars, iTunes/whoever takes their bit of the sale (~30%), and you may not see your money for a long time.

Assuming the math hasn’t scared you away, I think there is a strong case for spending your money at a local studio for a CD release. As the hourly rate goes up you expect the quality of the gear and the facility to go up as well. A wide variety of high-quality microphones, boutique preamps and outboard gear, and accurate studio monitors in acoustically correct rooms are not cheap. It takes a serious investment (way over $10K) in a home studio to offer similar quality.

But (hopefully) the most important thing you get at a studio is an experienced recording engineer. They’ve recorded and mixed hundreds of songs in a wide variety of styles. They know their gear and software inside and out. They let the band concentrate on making music while they concentrate on making the technology disappear and providing a creative environment. In the best case, they become a creative partner, coaxing the best performances out the band, and ultimately, making the band’s vision (or better) come out of the speakers.

Since most local recordings are self-produced, the engineer often provides production advice. Don’t discount the value of an independent, objective set of ears in the control room. Finally, in my opinion, mixing and mastering are black arts. It seems so simple to adjust volume and pan to be able to hear everything at the appropriate level, but the reality is that it’s hard. Really hard. Sure, you can make a listenable mix without too much trouble but really good mixes take years of experience and that’s something you can’t buy at Guitar Center.

Finally there is a third option splits the difference. If you have a modest computer-based studio at home, consider recording basic tracks (drums, bass, and rhythm guitars) at a commercial studio that can supply the mics, isolation booths, headphones, etc. Then transfer the tracks to your home studio computer (running the same or compatible software) for overdubbing vocals, lead guitars, and other parts that might take a long time to get right. All you need is a few good mics and a nice mic preamp or channel strip. Then do the final editing and mixes back at the commercial studio where you can take advantage of the engineer’s experience and monitoring environment.

I guess I have argued both sides of the coin which isn’t surprising since I’ve paid for studio time, recorded my band’s recent CD in my home studio, and have spent countless hours recording demos and CDs for other bands live, in my home studio, and in my commercial studio (now closed). Hopefully this post has provided a useful perspective on your recording options. Rock on!