Recording: Where Ducats Go Away

Is recording music a worthwhile investment? I'm not asking if making music is worth doing; of course it is. I'm talking about shelling out to go to a recording studio to create your art. It can be a very expensive endeavor, especially if you aren't familiar with the recording process. The hefty price tag can be a deal breaker for a huge margin of starving artists, but what's the alternative? Are home studio options really worth looking into?

I've been a recording engineer in Denver for a little over two years. I have very little in the way of other people's records to my name, and I've been reflecting on why that is. Sure, I could have gone out to more shows, met more bands, and passed out more business cards (which I'm still not convinced aren't a waste of tiny rectangles of paper), but I did that with almost no results for months back when I was an intern at CCM. I sponsored a prominent open mic at the Meadowlark, giving out coupons for free or discounted studio time on a weekly basis. I've had exactly one of those actually walk into the studio, despite befriending the majority of the winners over several months. I once handed an acoustic guitar-equipped singer-songwriter a 50% session coupon, to which he immediately whined about the $25 an hour price tag. To that icky hipster I ask, how can you value your own creation so poorly? Is $25 an hour for the opportunity to work in a treated space with an experienced engineer using tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment really too much to ask? The number of musicians I've met out here that want, nay, expect, to record albums with no budget has absolutely blown me away.

Now don't get me wrong, I completely understand how difficult it can be to make that kind of investment. If you're simply going on someone's word that they can offer you a superior product, without proof that they can deliver, utilizing that studio can be a huge risk. This is the difficulty I've had in establishing myself, because not only am I just starting out, but the studio I worked for had very few full band samples to showcase; we are set up more for singer songwriters and hip hop. That's why I eventually stopped sponsoring the Meadowlark open mic; if I had artists scoffing at dropping a measly, almost-nothing $25 for a vocals and guitar-centric track, how could I possibly land a decent band gig? The trust has to be there, and there are a myriad of ways to break that trust. I've lost clients because I my quote was different than the studio ended up charging them, because the end result of a single vocal take didn't sound "professional" enough (for God's sake, we can't pull gold records out of thin air, put the damn work in if you want something good to come out), and because the headphone mix wasn't loud enough while they were tracking. On that last one, I had maxed out the volume on our headphone input (read: ear-splittingly loud and totally being picked up by the mic) only to discover later the artist had a hearing impairment. What she expected me to do about that, I have no idea, but these are the kinds of problems you have to solve on the fly or risk losing the client forever.

Expectations, namely the unrealistic ones, can completely ruin your recording experience. As a general rule, however long you think it will take to record something, double it. However expensive you think it's going to be, triple it. Unless you're capable of handling all of the pre-production yourself (by which i mean writing out the entire instrumentation and having the entire song in your head going in), nailing every take so time isn't wasted on just getting a "correct" take, and providing the engineer with a clear, concise view of your vision for the song, it's going to take time. Hell, it will still take time even if you can do all of those things. You still have set up, tuning, preamp settings, mic adjustment, tracking, re-tracking, re-re-tracking, mixing, mixdown bouncing, listening parties, car tests, second mixing sessions, mastering, pressing, packaging, and shipping. To walk into a studio without knowing exactly what you want and expecting to cut an album in a month is borderline delusional, and you're setting yourself up for failure by thinking otherwise. Not to say that those kinds of turn times can't be met, but you'd better be prepared to rent the studio out by the week, and expect to be putting in 10-12 hour days, every day.

The increasing prevalence of the home studio is diluting the perceived value of the recording studio as well. While it's easier than ever to produce something decent on your own, this still doesn't strike me as being much better than when 8-tracks became easily affordable. Sure, applying delay or reverb effects via plug-ins is infinitely cheaper and easier than buying a $1000 verb tank, but overall, plug-ins are not an adequate substitute for every process. I've yet to hear any compression or limiting plug-in suite that can approach the quality, ease, and effectiveness of their hardware-based brethren. You can buy a highly praised suite of plug-ins that are modeled after LA2A's, 1178's, and on and on, and the ease of use and flexibility they offer is nice, but at the end of the day, they really don't sound that great, and a great sound is what you're supposedly trying to capture in the first place. No one ever bragged about how cheap and easy it was to make that gold record. Unfortunately, someone with a $1000 budget is going to wonder why they'd spend that, and likely much more, at a studio when they can buy a laptop loaded with garage band and a handful of generic freebie plug-ins. And while that is a legitimate viewpoint, look at what you're not getting with that $1000. You're not getting a treated room specifically designed to have certain characteristics like bass trapping, low floor noise, and deadened standing waves. You're not getting an experienced engineer to help you economize your time, provide honest feedback, and operate the equipment in an efficient manner. You're not getting access to any equipment, studio musicians, artists, printing companies or pressing plants you don't own or know about already. If all you care about is getting that song out of your head, maybe you should just bang out  a demo and move on with your life, because everything I just listed is at least as important as how new your Macbook is, what plug-ins you have, and how talented a musician you are. Also, producing great sounding songs is expensive, no matter which route you choose, be it time, money, or both. Get used to that idea.

Having goals and a reasonable plan to achieve those goals is the first thing you need to do after deciding to make a record. If you think you can record on your own, go for it. If you have the money, I absolutely recommend going to a studio staffed by people you can trust and spending your money there. It sometimes helps tremendously to simply take some power out of your hands and give it to someone more capable. I've been developing Random Battles' full length for what feels like the last fifty years, and I'm at the point where I realize I need to give up some of the mixing and mastering duties so that I can actually release it someday. Sometimes a budget constrained by hourly rates can be a good thing, especially if you're the type to continually mess with something until it's 'perfect'. It's never going to be perfect and you're more likely to get so sick of it you can't bear to listen to it again before you're happy with it. At least that's the way I am, and it's a terrible curse when I'm working unrestrained. Time and money can be great motivators to getting an album done and in people's hands where it belongs.

Ultimately, there are a galaxy of choices out there. There are a ton of studios in Denver. Seriously, Google 'recording studio Denver'. It's ridiculous how many results you get. Most of them are a joke, offering absurdly cheap deals in an effort to justify the fact they have junked out rooms and gear and no idea what they're doing. If you're going the DIY route, just know that a decent A/D converter alone can cost upwards of $3000, and you don't want to skimp on the interface between your preamps and your computer. Is it worth the investment? That's up to you. I certainly wouldn't build a home studio just to record myself, but that's just me.

-Rex

Read - Haven't really been reading much lately...so how about you read EVERYTHING BY IRA GAMERMAN. There's little you could do in life that would be a better use of your time.

Watch - The Avengers is out tomorrow! Buy it. Watch it. Mouth every word. Invite all your friends over, get drunk on white wine, and bitch about how Roseanne-era Joss Whedon would have made such a better movie and he really sold out and hey all the friends where are you going.

Listen - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple. She kicks ass all over this record. And it sounds sooooo goooooood.