Over the last few months, I have been in the process of producing an album. It has been a great journey. I wrote a blog a few months back chronicling where I was in the process. Recording music is one of the most exciting things I have ever done. Very few things are better than getting into a REAL and professional recording studio to record music. Hearing the final product of something you put your heart and soul into is a feeling I can’t describe. I get asked quite frequently what are some of the key components to making a great record. Aside from having great songs that are performed and arranged well, getting amazing recordings are just as important. You can have the best songs in the world, but if they are recorded terribly, and sound unprofessional, your chances of fans liking your music are slim to none. Especially in today’s music business when almost everyone can record music at their home on low budget Digital Audio Workstations, this makes the market extremely competitive. Technology has made recording music easy, but knowing how to record does not guarantee you will help great recordings. Getting great recordings that capture the essence of the sounds and can standout in the market place among everyone else’s music really is an art form. What some musicians do not realize is you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get great recordings. You first need to be well prepared, so you don’t waste time on the clock in a studio. Most importantly you need to have a great engineer who knows their way around any studio, and almost any type of console or gear that is put in front of them. Aside from that, you also have to find the RIGHT studio to record at. Here are a few things to consider when looking for the right studio to record your music.
1. The Rooms
Having a great live room is essential to any recording. The live room is the big room where most instruments get recorded. No matter what console or mic you are using, if you are recoding in a terrible live room, you instruments will not sound good. Especially drums! Great drum recordings are incredibly important to me. And they should be to you! The fact is, that many musicians, engineers and producers can record vocals rather well. Guitars, bass, and keyboards can be recorded rather easily. You can record them direct, or use some amp simulator programs and be able to simulate almost any room you want. But this is not the case with recording live drums. This is where the professionals separate themselves from the amateurs. Having a great room that is constructed well with great acoustic treatment is important. Obviously it needs to be sound proofed. I always walk around the room, hear myself talk and how it sounds, while listening to how everyone else’s voice around me might sound. Many musicians clap their hands to hear how the sound travels around the room and what it sounds like. This will give you an idea of how a snare drum might sound. Avoid using small rooms with parallel walls and rooms that have an almost cubical dimension. Rooms like this usually have a ton of treatment on the walls to absorb typical wall reflections and they probably are NOT ideal to record loud instruments with heavy bass frequencies like drums. A bad room can negatively affect the recording of your music, by adding booming frequencies, excess reverb, and an excess of harsh reflections. A good room will end up giving your recordings an attractive coloring to your sound by adding a real reverb. Great rooms won’t color your instruments tone with any unwanted frequencies that will be impossible to fix during the mix down.
Great studios have separate isolation booths where you can record vocals, place amplifies, or other instruments you might wish to have a dead sound while recording. Look for places that not only have a great room, but dedicated isolation booths.
2. The Console
The recording console is the big, long, sexy looking board found in the control room of a recording studio. It is the device that is covered with knobs and buttons. A recording console is essentially an electronic device that is used for combining/mixing, routing, and changing the level, timbre and/or dynamics of any type of audio signal that is recorded and sent into it. Without getting super technical and confusing the heck out of all of you, mixing consoles have three sections. Channel inputs, Master Controls, and audio level metering.
Channel Inputs, which are the long strips running from top to bottom of the console, are separated into these sections:
Dynamic Processing – dynamic range compression, and gating
Routing – this included direct outs, aux sends, panning control, and subgroup assignments
Many consoles color code these sections in order to make them easily identifiable. Each signal, or audio, has its own channel on the console. This allows you to alter or process each sound on its own with effecting anything else.
I recommend finding a studio that has a vintage Neve, Trident, SSL, or API console with a minimum of channels you require to record the amount of instruments and microphones you will need during your tracking session. Many smaller studios today just track direct to Pro Tools with some type of interface used as a controller. This could be acceptable if they have a sufficient amount of outboard gear to help you warm up your sound. Some engineers and producers use computer plug-ins to simulate the sounds from great consoles and amazing mic pre’s, but I still think nothing works better than the actual hardware that those plug-ins are trying to imitate.
3. Microphone Selection
A great microphone selection is something to look for when booking time in a professional studio. I look for a place that has a variety of microphones the engineer and I can utilize to capture the performance of a musician in the most accurate and pleasing way possible. Look for studios that have dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics. These three types will give you everything you need to capture the best performance possible. With Dynamic mics, the motion of a conductor that is within a magnetic field generates the audio signal. In most dynamic mics, a very thin, lightweight diaphragm moves in response to pressure that is caused by sound. The microphones diaphragm motion causes a voice coil suspended in a magnetic field to move. This generates a small electric current. Musicians and engineers are attracted to Dynamic mics because they are less sensitive to sound pressure caused by excessive audio levels and higher frequencies, than condenser mics. Dynamic mics generally can take more punishment, tend to be less expensive, and are perfect for drums and electric guitars. The most popular snare mic of all time is the Shure SM57, which can also be used on guitar amps. I have known engineers who used Sennheiser MD421’s on toms, and an AKG D112 on kick drums.
When you are trying to capture to purest, most detailed sound possibly, using a condenser mic is the best choice. Condensers microphones, which are used often on vocals, respond excellently to the speed and nuances of sound waves. Condenser microphones have a simple mechanical system that consists of a thin stretched conductive diaphragm placed close to a metal disk, which is the backplate. This set up creates a capacitor.
Condenser mics require an electric charge by an external voltage source, like a battery or dedicated power supply, or phantom power supplied by a condole. The diaphragm vibrates slightly in response to sound pressure, causing the capacitance to vary and producing a voltage variation – the signal output of the microphone. Condenser mics come in both solid-state and tube variations, but I recommend using one with a tube to give the warmest most pleasing sound. Neumann U47, U48 U67, U87 are some of the best Condenser mics you could use.
Ribbon mics were used extensively in the golden age of radio, and Jazz recordings. Ribbon mics were the first commercially successful directional type of microphones. Today, ribbon mics are still widely used. New companies like companies Royer Labs has helped Ribbon mics have a sort of a renaissance for the beloved microphone. Ribbon mics have a unique type of mechanics. They respond to the velocity of air molecules moving a small element suspended in a strong magnetic field, rather than responding to sound pressure levels. Sound pressure levels are what generate a response from most other microphone. In the recording studio this functional difference isn’t that important, but it can be critical during any type exterior location recording where you have natural elements like wind involved. Vintage ribbons, which are still highly sought after, such as the RCA 44 and 77DX were notoriously delicate. But today’s newer ribbon mics like the Royer R121, and R122, were designed to handle the rigors and abuse of daily studio recordings.
4. The Gear
Finding a studio that has a fantastic arsenal of outboard gear is essential. Some studios that do not have a great analog console will supplement the lack of processing from not having a console with a slew of outboard gear choices. The term “outboard gear” was originally used to describe certain pieces of audio equipment that existed outside of a primary analog recording console. In today’s digitally dominated music industry, analog effects are also considered “outboard gear” when they are used in conjunction with console free computer based digital recording stations, i.e. pro tools, etc. Make sure you use a studio that has the most recent edition of Pro Tools. Many artists use other types of software in their home studios, but Pro Tools is the industry standard today, so it is essential to have a studio with Pro Tools.
Outboard gear is used to alter how your musical instrument sounds. Outboard gear devices are separate from the effects that may be applied by using a recording console or digital audio workstation. Look for a studio that has a sufficient and wide range of outboard gear/effects processors like: Analog to Digital converters and digital to analog convertors, MIDI, microphone preamplifiers, EQ, Dynamic effects units (compressors, limiters, noise gates), and time based effects units (reverb, flangers, delay, echo, chorus, etc.). Even if you are working in a great studio with a fantastic analog console, it is still important to find a place with great outboard gear so you have many options of effects and ways to process your audio signal.
The staff is often be overlooked by novice producers and engineers, but I think it is one of the most important aspect to look into when choosing the right studio to record at. All too often people look for big names to either be working at a studio, or to have worked there in the past. But I look into if the staff is knowledge and experienced working in THAT studio with THAT equipment. Find a studio that has engineers, assistant engineers, runners, etc. that are knowledgeable and experienced in those rooms on their equipment. If they have platinum records to their credits, fine, but many times these people who have a Grammy or RIAA Certified award on their walls don’t know as much as you think. I know plenty of industry cats who have gold and platinum records, as well as numerous Grammy’s to their name, and they are killer producers and engineers. But I have also come across just as many who are NOT killer producers and engineers.
Is there an on site tech staff? Well, if you are working on a budget project, there probably won’t be. But, that would be nice! If there are any technical issues, or equipment breakdown, having a knowledgeable tech staff that can quickly repair anything is a priceless luxury.
Plus, how is the upkeep of the studio? Obviously I want to work somewhere that is clean and orderly, but I am speaking about the condition of the gear, mics, and equipment. Ask the staff if everything is working. Find out what technical issues are common there. Find out what equipment and devices have weird quirks. If something does, get an assistant to stay during your session and help you out with any type of equipment that has quirks to it. NOTHING is worse than when you have spent months preparing your project, to go into studio and hit a dead stop because the console, an essential microphone, or some important outboard gear breaks down. Make sure to not only have your songs and performances by the musicians prepared, but also investigate the technical issues any studio might have, prior to getting in to record.