So about 2 days ago, I had an intriguing conversation with a rapper at an open mic show here in Chicago about home vs. pro recording studio setups. After he found out that i was a professional audio engineer who worked out of Studio 11, he claimed he didn’t need to go to a recording studio to work on his music since he had one at home. He disputed the fact that professional recording studios aren’t needed anymore due to the fact that the quality equipment needed to record, mix and master has become not only inexpensive, but easy to use. So lets outline this debate. Do musicians still need the services of professional recording studios?
Most of the salesmen and women at Sweetwater Sound or Guitar Center would love for you to think that if you purchase a certain DAW system, microphone, audio interface and descent pre-amp, that you can in fact produce a professional, ready for radio sounding recording. In all reality, it is in fact technically possible, so this rapper’s claims when we spoke aren’t that far off base. However, the real question is, is it possible for you to do so? When i listened to one of his songs that he recorded and produced at home, the quality was terrible compared to the quality that myself and the rest of our staff aspire to here at Studio 11.
The art of audio engineering is a skill just like playing the drums, piano or training to sing. To be frank, it probably takes much much longer to become savvy with all the aspects and techniques that are involved in audio engineering than learning an instrument. 99.9% of all audio engineers aren’t very good when they first start out in the profession. Many start learning the craft by going to a school, interning at one or several recording studios, and shadowing other skilled audio engineers in the field.
When it comes to myself, i interned at 3 different studios after my first year at college. After leaving college during the middle of my sophomore year, this internship i had eventually led to an assistant job, where i met and shadowed many different highly skilled audio engineers and producers. I was literally at the studio 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day learning everything i could from them. You could really call these people my mentors. 24 years later, i am still friends with some of the engineers and producers i assisted for. And i still ask them questions from time to time, however, they also ask me questions from time to time now too.
Overall, it can take aspiring engineers anywhere from 5-10 years or longer to acquire the skill set that will allow them to swim in the same waters as other highly skilled engineers when it comes to proficiency and client satisfaction. A lot of aspiring engineers never become good at the profession. I would say it took me about 6 years to understand and utilize the skills i learned to become proficient enough to produce high level recordings for clients.
When it comes to musicians, they are used to purchasing music equipment to sound better. Purchase a nicer guitar, it sounds better. Purchase a nice amp, its gonna sound better than a cheaper amp. So to these musicians, that mindset should translate to when they purchase a good microphone and recording equipment. Their recordings are gonna sound better since they have nice gear. But is that really gonna be the case?
When it comes down to it, you could purchase the best gear available and still sound like ass. What a lot of musicians seem to forget is that when you’re purchasing gear, you’re just purchasing the gear. The gear you purchase is just one link on the chain. Its as if a kid who never made a beat before spent 20k on a system to make beats. Then Timbaland comes in with a $100 Casio drum machine. Who do you think is gonna make a better beat? The quality of the system used to make the beat doesn’t make the kid magically better, its the skills learned over time that do so.
Shortly after most people purchase recording equipment to establish a home studio, they begin to find that the recordings they are producing don’t stand up to the recordings they listen to on a daily basis from their favorite bands and recording artists. So what do these dotards do? They go out and purchase even more expensive recording equipment and systems. Its as if they say to themselves, “Well, I just need a better microphone, preamp, audio interface, speakers, plugins, etc, then I’ll get it right”.
Its the ear not the gear!!
The truth is, what these home studio cowboys need to understand is that they have to learn how to record and mix their audio properly through what they already own. Check out this Studio 11 article on the 7 Commandments of Audio Engineering.
When it comes to proper engineering, any good engineer that does their work from a DAW can produce a great mix with only the stock plug ins that come with the software. The idea would be slightly different with engineers that only work on analog systems. But, because the principles of recording and mixing are pretty much the same for both the analog and digital world, engineers that prefer using all analog systems would still be able to produce a great sounding mix on a DAW. The only hindrance would be the engineer’s lack of knowledge in how to use the software.
It wasn’t that long ago when recording anything would require a large amount of money to do so. To start a recording studio, you’d have to spend at least 100K on all the gear. This doesn’t include the money required for the space the studio would occupy, nor does it include the money needed to develop the correct acoustics while building the studio. Proper acoustics mean everything when it comes to producing professional recordings and mixes.
Here in 2022, really all you need to start recording your music is a descent laptop, microphone, interface and studio monitors. The bar to get in on the ground floor of recording is considerably lower than what it used to be back when i was younger. In all honesty, most musicians can learn pretty quickly how to make decent demo recordings at home on any average DAW. But keep in mind, the keyword to that last sentence was demo, not professional. It’s like i tell clients of mine, when it comes to home vs. pro recording studio setups, use your home studio to record, practice and perfect your ideas. This way, when you come into our studio to record and bring these ideas to life, you’ll know exactly whats gonna sound good while doing so.
Truthfully, i make most of my clients rerecord their material here at the studio when they bring me projects to mix that they recorded at home. Not only do we have significantly better gear here at the studio that we use when we record, but the experience myself and the rest of our staff have in producing a great sounding recording is light years ahead of the experience our clients have. The end result always produces a much better mix. Sometimes it can be a challenge convincing them to rerecord their material, but once we convince them there is no turning back.
Its pretty typical for musicians to react emotionally. To them, if they like the music they are making then other people should like it too. But the real question is, will these other people ever get a chance to hear it. Will they purchase it? Will they listen to it while in their car, on their earbuds, or in the club. Just because your home produced song sounds good to you doesn’t mean it will sound good to other people on whatever medium they listen to music through. A song that is mixed poorly doesn’t translate well to other formats and systems.
Ever since radio began, it was used as a medium to get music to a mass audience. Over time, this eventually led to a standard on how each of the different genres of music should sound. If a song doesn’t fit into the acoustical standards of other comparable music in the same genre, then the chances are pretty small that it will be considered for a radio playlist. That not only includes AM/FM radio, but streaming services such as Spotify, Soundcloud, etc. Even club DJ’s depend on the music they are playing to sound as good as possible. They want their set to have the most impact they can get with the patrons on their dance floor. Once again, if the sound quality of the song is lacking, then the chances are slim that DJ’s would play it or give it any attention.
Releasing a poorly mixed song doesn’t necessarily mean that people won’t hear it, but it can affect whether people will like it or even remember it. A normal listener either likes a song or doesn’t. Usually these people won’t be able to tell you why they like it or not. However, if your song lacks transparency or punch, if key elements that drive the song can’t be heard clearly, if the vocals are not in tune with the music, or the song is too quiet compared to the playback of other songs, then any or all of these issues can turn someone off to your song.
The convenience of having a professional engineer and producer work on your music is that he or she can offer you direction, help you deliver a better performance while recording as well as make suggestions to improve your songs to make them more marketable. Most artists on major record labels work in the recording studio with a professional engineer and or a producer. The studio may not always provide the engineer or producer, regardless one or both of these kinds of people will usually be present during the project.
Since many musicians and recording artists record their music at home, that not only means that they are wearing the hat of the recording artist, but they are also wearing the engineer and producer hat as well. But what they always forget is that in the music marketplace, they are competing against songs that are professionally engineered and produced. And these producers really understand the trends in the marketability of each genre.
Home Vs. Pro Recording Studio Setups – The Environment
When it comes to home vs. pro recording studio setups, high quality equipment isn’t the only thing that makes going to a professional studio better than doing things at home. The environment which the recording, mixing, and mastering is occurring in is equally important, maybe even more important than the quality of the gear you are using.
If you don’t want to be recording the sound of your neighbors fucking upstairs, traffic whizzing by outside, construction on the building next door, then you will need proper isolation and sound proofing in order to do so. Most of the time when people build their little home studio setups, they do so without thinking about the ramifications of properly isolating and sound proofing their recording space. If you can hear all these extra sounds coming into your home while your recording, that means the equipment you are using to record can pick it up too. So not only are you recording yourself but you are recording the environment around as well.
In big music cities where opportunities for a music career actually exist, most people live inside apartments or condominiums. These apartments and condos are usually made out of various constructions of drywall and wooden frames, flooring and ceilings. Other weak points in construction also include entry ways, doors and windows. These weak points mean you’re going to get a lot of external ambience and noise coming into your apartment, as well as going out of your apartment. Isolating the space you record in
Another thing that is important when it comes to home vs. pro recording studio setups is the acoustical nature of the space the studio resides in. Most amateur home studio setups either incorporate no acoustic treatment at all, or the treatment that is done is very minimal and/or improperly done. This means you’re not just recording the source, but also recording the sound reflections of the room. In addition, it means the accuracy of the sound you are hearing coming out of your monitors will be low in quality, which even for the most experienced professional engineers could make it hard to produce a mix that translates over a number of different audio systems. The accuracy of the sound you are hearing is everything.
Depending on what genre of music you are working on, the size of the studio could even be an issue. If you’re just recording vocals and producing beats on your computer then an average sized room should be sufficient. However, if you’re recording full bands, they’ll probably want to play and record their songs together. Most apartments and condos aren’t large enough to fit an entire band in to do a proper recording. In addition, your neighbors probably won’t be to happy with you either. So when we add this context to the argument between home vs. pro recording studio setups, professional studios win every time.
Home Vs. Pro Recording Studio Setups – The Equipment
When it comes down to the gear, most professional studios usually have amazing choices of gear thats way in excess of what most people have in their home studio setups. Choices in microphones, pre amps, outboard eq’s, dynamics processors, A/D converters, effects, speakers and more can really define the quality of sound a recording studio can capture. Not withstanding, the divide between home vs. pro recording studio setups keeps shrinking. But still, the range of gear alone will most likely bump up the quality. When finding the right gear for the right application, the ability of the engineer to audition and select different equipment is essential in capturing the right color and timbre of the sound sources being recorded.
The seasoned abilities of the audio engineer in addition to the combination of acoustics, isolation, and gear of a professional studio will produce a far greater quality than most people can get at home. This goes for most high and mid priced recording studios. Even if you purchase all the recording equipment in the world, you’ll more than likely still need a professional studio because that is in fact where professional audio engineers work out of. The main contrast between a serious home recording studio and a professional recording studio is most definitely the set of skills the audio engineer has. Based on that skill set, the difference between the end product produced is usually quite drastic.
So in summary, after all the arguments i presented, is it wise to build a home recording studio if you’re a musician or recording artist? You’re probably thinking that because of the positive points i made about professional recording studios that my answer to that question would be no. But in all actuality, i definitely think it’s important for aspiring musicians and recording artists to have some kind of home studio setup. Why is that? For the benefits of songwriting and to help deliver confidence while performing when recording.
Writing and performing in a professional studio under pressure can be quite stressful, and expensive. The more you write and rehearse at home, the less stressful going to a professional studio can be. Once again, what i always tell my clients is write, record and flesh out your ideas at home before you come into our studio to record them. This way, you’ll have a better concept of how you’ll wanna record your project since you’ll already know how your performances sound playing back through the speakers.
Whether you’re a singer, rapper, or musician, having an idea of how things sound will help perfect your writing and performance of that writing before going to a professional studio. The only way to know how you sound and whether your ideas are good or not is by recording those ideas. Cause at the end of the day, how will you really know if what you wrote is good or not if you don’t hear it back after performing it? How will you know how to perfect and tweak what you wrote if you don’t hear it back? In the long run, this will only make you more prepared when coming to a professional studio such as ours to record.
If you’re looking to record a song in Chicago you’ve landed at the right place. After 20 years of servicing Chicago, Studio 11 brings you the best combination of recording equipment and engineering. Call us for a consultation on your project at 312-372-4460.
Kris Anderson – Head Studio 11 Engineer
R Kelly, Chief Keef, CeCe Penniston, Ministry and many more!