Cheap Recording Studios – Worth Every Penny!

I started out writing this as a private reply to someone that asked, and as it progressed, I found I had much more to say about the subject than I had initially thought. Therefore, I thought I would share it with all of you, or at least any one who are interested. What he asked me about was my admonition on my home page not to use the cheapest bidder, when it comes to studio time. Here’s what I came up with.

As to the studio thing, let me first relate a little analogy from a book by one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett. If you haven’t read him, you should, he’s hilarious.

Anyway, one of his characters is a guardsman. While the author is talking about the guardsman, he also says something very enlightening about his boots. Let’s say we have two guardsmen, one from a poor family, with a wife and kids to feed at home. He buys $20.00 boots. Our other guardsman is from a wealthy family, with no wife and kids, and he buys $200.00 boots. $20.00 boots last about a year, if you are willing to walk around with holes in the soles for the last six months or so, because $20.00 boots come with crummy soles, and are not worth re-soling. New soles would cost almost as much as new boots.

$200.00 boots, on the other hand, will last a lifetime, if properly cared for. Anytime they need new soles, they are certainly worth it, because they are good quality boots, and cost much less to re-sole than replace. Also, the original soles, and consequently the replacements, are of much better quality, and will last maybe three or four years.

So, over the course of a twenty-year career, the guy with the $20.00 pair of boots buys 20 pair, for a total of $400.00. The guy with the $200.00 pair of boots buys one pair, plus maybe six re-soles. Let’s say re-soles cost $15.00 apiece. This brings his total to $290.00.

Not only does the guy with the cheap boots pay more, he also walks around with wet feet half the time, because of the holes.

How does this relate to studios, you may be asking? Well, it’s surprisingly simple, once you think about it, but it took me awhile to figure it out, too.

Over here in Studio A, you have a guy that is charging $25.00 an hour. Over there in Studio B, you have a guy that is charging $75.00 an hour. (A mid level rate, although it may seem low to those of you in New York or LA)

Why the difference? Is our man in Studio A just too stupid to realize what he could be charging for studio time? Maybe he’s just a humanitarian, and wants to help us poor musicians? Probably not. (But if you meet one of the humanitarians, let me know).

Probably the reason Studio A is less expensive is because he has less experience, less and/or inferior equipment, or maybe because his “control room” is his bedroom and you record in his living room. Probably all of the above.

At Studio B, however, you get to record in a real studio that was designed to be a studio. You get professional level equipment that includes much more in the way of outboard gear, mics, isolation panels, rooms, etc. You get a real, experienced engineer, instead of someone that bought some gear to do their own recording, and then decided to try and make some money with it.

At Studio A, you may find yourself waiting, and waiting, while the “engineer” tries to get a drum or bass sound that will make the drummer or bassist happy. Or, worse yet, he may try and try, and finally give up, saying something like “Oh well, we’ll fix it in the mix.” (Don’t ever fall for that one!) Then, don’t forget, he has the other instruments to do.

Remember, someone is paying for all this time he is spending trying to get a sound. If he spends an hour setting up and getting a sound on the instruments, the price of the first hour of actual recording has just doubled. Sometimes it can take longer than that. If he takes a little over two hours setting up, you’re up to the rate of Studio B for your first hour, and that is just in your first hour of actual recording. (Remember, Studio B has to do a little setup too, he’s just much faster at it.)

Then take into account that each tune you record is likely to have different requirements, so he is probably going to have to do more setup, and since he is not experienced, it is going to take longer than it should. Time flies when you are paying for it.

I’m sure you get the picture, here. The engineer should be a help, not a hindrance. Unfortunately, I’ve run into all too many situations where the “engineer” is the most expensive thing, time-wise, in the whole process.

Oh, and lest I forget, a good engineer speaks when spoken to, at least when it comes to your tunes, unless you have hired him to be the producer, as well. Too many of these $25.00 an hour guys will hardly shut up. The best engineer I’ve ever worked with kept his mouth resolutely shut, and then, when asked, invariably came up with something brilliant. More about him later.

Okay, so let’s say you’ve endured all that, gotten all your tunes down to tape or disk, and now it’s time for that magical thing; mix down. You will finally be able to do and hear better than the rough mix, hear the way it is supposed to sound. By merely tweaking a few knobs, Presto! That sound you’ve had in your head all along, the reason you were inspired to purchase studio time in the first place.

So, you start in on the first tune. As you begin to fine-tune the mix, you notice a peculiar “Thwump, Thwump!” sound to the kick drum. You isolate the kick, and hear a definitely unacceptable level of distortion. You look, and see the needle on that channel is in danger of breaking off as it hits the right side of the meter every time the kick drum sounds. Wham! Wham! Wham! You look at the “engineer”, he looks innocently back, and obligingly turns the kick down. Now you have the same distortion, only quieter. What happened? He has recorded the kick drum too hot, probably because he was listening on headphones while you recorded, and had the wrong source selected.

You now have three choices. A) Re-record the kick, which may take hours, because he may have done this on the whole album, (And your drummer is probably not used to playing kick solo with band accompaniment, although he may have fantasized about it), or B) turn the kick down in the mix, and wimpify your whole sound, while not really fixing the problem; it will leap out at you at every quiet passage, and always will, every time you listen to the recording, even if your non-musician friends will seem unable to hear it, or C) leave it as it is, put it as high in the mix as you wanted, and hope, (or claim) you are starting a new trend.

Okay, now, somehow you’ve gotten beyond the kick problem, but since it was the concern of the moment, you have, up until now, hardly paid any attention to your bass sound. Now you start to listen to it, really listen, and at first you are relieved because at least you don’t have the problem of having been recorded too hot. No sir, no distortion there! But then, you begin to really listen, and you realize it’s kind of thumpy, without much high end or definition. Definitely not what you had in mind! Well, guess what. You can always take highs away, but you can’t put ‘em there if they weren’t there in the first place. The best you can do is take lows away, and boost the gain, which will leave you with a louder, thinner sound, but not at all the big, round, bright-but-full sound you always knew your bass had in it.

I could go on and on about the problems with cheap studios. (No doubt many of you think I already have; I’ve only scratched the surface, believe me!)

Now, I’ve promised you more about the best engineer with which I’ve ever worked. He is also a bass player, by the name of Doug Rayburn, and for you older, more esoteric types, of “Pavlov’s Dog” fame. (He also owned the Mellotron that had belonged to the Beatles; on one of the tape racks, the lowest key played the solo guitar intro to “Bungalow Bill”. For those of you that don’t know what a Mellotron is, or “Bungalow Bill”, or maybe even who the Beatles are, forget it, I’m not going to bother, at least not right now. If you really want to know, ask me later.)

Anyway, as I said before, he always kept his mouth shut unless asked. This was not because he didn’t have anything to say; this was because, no matter the fact that he probably actually was a superior musician to any of us at the time, he realized it was not his place to say anything, unless asked. After all, it was not his project, nor did he write any of the tunes. However, as I said, when asked, he almost invariably came up with an opinion incredibly apt and helpful.

The best thing he ever did, however, was to just sit there and say nothing when we said we were going to run a tune down to warm up. Some of you may know I’ve mentioned this before, but this was a wonderful thing, and deserves a second mention. When you are just running a tune down to warm up, you have no reason to be nervous; it is not going to be recorded for posterity. Rather, it is just you and your band mates blowing off some nervous steam, and warming up. So you have that wonderful combination between nervous and relaxed, not anxious, but perhaps a little giddy. And it is often at this point that wonderful things happen. Since you know it is just you and the other band members, and you are just warming up, you take risks you might not ordinarily take, or at least risks you would never take while recording.

So we would run the tune down, be satisfied with the way it went, and say “Okay, we’re ready to do a take!”, and he’d say “No, don’t bother, that was it.”. You’d be amazed at how often he was able to pull that “trick” on us, and, how good those takes were. I miss him! Doug, if you’re out there, thank you!

Anyway, I could go on much longer, but I think most of you have the idea. “Expensive” studio time usually really isn’t. Don’t try to save money by skimping on your studio rate. Of course, I am also not saying that all expensive studios are good. If you hear a CD from a local band you like (And I am not talking about the style of music, but the sound), ask them where they recorded it, and what kind of an experience they had. Of course there are limitations to this. If you are in a Heavy Metal band, and you hear a great Polka recording, or vice versa, perhaps you should do some more checking. However, I have had some good recording experiences as well with engineers that were not particularly familiar with the style we were recording; they were just good engineers.

So, that’s my sum total of advice, or at least most of it. And the reason for that seemingly innocuous little comment on my home page. I know it was long, but if it saves anyone the same costly experiences I went through (At least costly for the “star”), it may have been worth it.

(C) 2002 – Kelly Marsh

Special to Guitar Noise with permission of author