Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Are studios irrelevant these days?

Recording Studio Control Room
It looks just like a real studio

In this day and age, you can see why people would ask this question. Why bother spending your hard earned cash when you can go and buy some ludicrously cheap software and track stuff yourself? We all know people who have (ahem) illicit copies of software that us respectable types have spent thousands of pounds on, who are willing to record for free.

Or of course, why not go the whole hog and build your own studio? If you have the time and resources available, that’s a truly fantastic idea, and one that I would love to do myself. I’ve got a rudimentary understanding of treating a room, and it would probably “do”. I’d probably have a nervous breakdown with all the woodwork involved, as I’m not a patient chap with woodwork. Anything else I think I’m pretty cool with, but woodwork? Forget it…

Even with a good, solid amount of treatment, you’re not going to completely stop sound getting in and out. If you’re building your studio in a house, then even after treating the room you’re still probably going to have to look out for your sound leaking out and disturbing the neighbours. Or you could have their sound leaking onto your tracks. Then there’s the issue of building a treated area for mixing. Even if you’ve had your room calibrated, you run the risk of disturbing other occupants, and having to stop recording or mixing just when things are hotting up is a real end to creativity.

All of this is moot if you have a farm somewhere, and you can convert a barn or an out house. If this happens to be in the Dordogne, I’d be delighted to come and help you set it up and perhaps engineer for you.

The way that things are going, it’s even easier to get hold of some very good equipment for a fraction of what it used to cost. You don’t *need* a huge console these days, although of course there is a time and a place for these. Preamps and channel strips range from the easily accessible budget options to boutique beautiful stuff you’d have to save for a few months for. There are some very good mics out there that can be picked up for around £150, and some that you could buy for the price of a second hand car.

Let me state this case first of all, a great engineer will get a good sound using a cheap mic and the inbuilt preamps on a USB box. But in a studio, you’re going to get a combination that is really hard to beat. You will get rooms that have been properly treated and will sound good. You’ll get some nice mics, hopefully Neumann, Telefunken, AKG, Schoeps etc. You’ll get the more expensive boutique preamps like Neve, SSL, Avalon or Focusrite.

Neumann U87 Microphone
A microphone, yesterday

“But that’s all for show isn’t it Chris?” I hear you cry in despair. Well, no. I've written a bit about this in another blog, but the fact of it is, it's simple. These tools are the tools used by professionals on professionals. If you really want to get the very best sound out of your instrument, be it guitar, voice, sax, tuba etc., then you want to have the very best microphones pointing at it, and you want it going through a great preamp. Besides, you’re paying for it, and who wouldn’t prefer 5* to 1*?

In larger facilities you’ll get options to use different equipment, different drum kits, different amps. Also in larger facilities you will get the big console, and in the top end studios you’ll get Neves or SSLs, and you’ll incur the cost of having someone who can maintain them and who actually knows how to use them!

Wherever you go, you’ll also have an engineer who knows how to use these and get the very best out of them.

The benefits of having an engineer with you are manifold.
They can worry about setting mics up and everything else while you can concentrate on the important bit of getting ready to get the tracks down.
You don’t have to worry about whether you’ve gone into record, or worry about getting levels as they have got it all covered.
They’ll be listening to really make sure each instrument sounds the best that it can.
They’re a good and independent set of ears, and they can act to help you get the most of the session.
They’re also going to be keeping track of your takes.
You’ll have someone who can sort out monitor mixes for you, so one of the band doesn’t have to stop and adjust a (real or virtual) fader.
In many cases, the engineer will take a co-production role with you if you ask them to, and they can help, offer advice, and in some cases they can coach.

This is a simplistic list, I do not mean to belittle the activities of an engineer, they really can be an important but transparent instrument in the band.

But yes. You certainly can record at home, and there’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact it’s brilliant that we can have such incredible technology at our disposal. It can be such a boost to creativity. But I don’t think it’s going to be replacing the need for a permanent full on studio facility just yet, especially for recording live instruments.

Christian Thomas is Production Director at Space Studios. He hates the smell of Rockwool in the morning.

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