When you hire out a recording studio for your project, you’re getting everything that comes with it. The gear, the software, the location, engineer, and even the reputation will all have an effect on your final product. Here are six points that I recommend folks ‘check off’ on their list before they drop their cash for that first deposit on a recording studio experience.
This point comes first because it is arguably the most important. If there’s going to be a conflict between proprietor and customer in this process, it typically revolves around payment for the project. Does the studio bill hourly? If they do, what’s included in that hourly rate? Can you arrive early to load in or is load in and setup of gear counted as studio time? How does the studio handle problems that (will inevitably) arise during the process? I’ve been in more than one studio that took an unreasonably long time to fix a ground loop hum or computer problem. Some of them tacked on time to the end of our session for this, some didn’t. How a studio handles these problems is a reflection of how your final product will turn out.
Many recording studios and engineers will bill based on a final product. You may get charged a fixed rate per song. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but you will want to be clear up front with how you will both determine a song is ‘done’. How many times will you be allowed to make changes? Will you be present during the final mix down (don’t assume you will be)? Will the file be properly prepared for mastering, or will some form of mastering even be included? These are all things that you’ll want to address before you agree to pay for a ‘finished’ product.
You might be thinking, “What does it matter to ME what digital audio workstation the studio is using? I’m just playing the tunes!” Well, there’s actually a few reasons you’ll want to know not only the DAW they are using, but even the version can come into play in your final decision. In many cases, you can think of the DAW being used in a similar vein to the tape format being used back in the day. You always kept your master tapes so that if you wanted a different mix you could bring it elsewhere and continue to work on your song. If your engineer recorded on a format that was unusual or very proprietary, it limited your options as to where else you could go! The DAW choice can have similar pitfalls. If you record your initial tracks in one DAW, it may not be easily transferrable to another format. This may or may not be important to you, but if you do plan on bringing your project to other studios to work (or even work on it yourself) you’ll want to make sure that the engineer is using a DAW that you have access to.
The backline availability can come into play if you're using a band or even if you’re a singer/songwriter that plans on utilizing some house equipment. If you’re going to lay down a bunch of guitar tracks, having access to a variety of amps and cabinets can really help to bring some variety to your sound! If you’re going to be adding keyboards, having a selection of keyboards or a great library of virtual instruments will be crucial for filling out the sound of your project.
The backline situation can also affect your billing/load in issue that I addressed earlier. Obviously, if there is a ‘house’ drum set as well as an amp that your guitarist is looking forward to using then you don’t have to worry about loading in your own. Having a large part of the gear you plan on using already set up and ready to go will significantly cut down on setup time, leaving you more time for actually tracking!
Microphones can be a very personal choice, and knowing what kind of mics that an engineer chooses to use on each source can say a lot about what your final product is going to sound like. Again, a variety of choices in this category can lead to a more diverse recording down the road. Are they going to mic your guitarist’s amp or are they going to record him or her ‘direct’? If they are going direct, is that ok with your guitarist? You may have some psychological ‘prep work’ to do with certain members of your band if they need to be made more comfortable with the tracking situation. Is there a selection of microphones that can be used for lead vocals? Although there are certain venerable choices (like the U87) that will likely yield a decent sound in just about any situation, it’s good to know that you’ve got a few different options if your singer’s voice has some strong presence in certain frequency ranges.
As a studio owner myself, this question is typically at the top of my list before I go to work offsite. Getting a feel for the person who is going to be ‘at the helm’ is priority number one for me. Remember, this is the person who is going to make a majority of the choices regarding the above categories. Having an engineer who seems flexible, open to suggestions, and confident in their choices is that ‘perfect mix’ of qualities that you need to get… well… a perfect mix!
Does the engineer need to be on the absolute bleeding edge of technology and have a slew of personal devices with blinky lights and knobs? Probably not. The engineer should, however, know their gear better than anyone. They should be able to get a good sound quickly and efficiently, and be able to think on their feet when things aren’t going as planned.
The location of the studio is something so few bands consider and it can be so important to keep the day productive. Is it incredibly far away from one member of the band, making it more difficult for them to get there after the initial tracking day for mixing and/or overdubs? Is it in the middle of a busy city with no access to parking or a load-in area? Is there food readily available? Don’t laugh, but that last one is incredibly important. Who wants to waste 2 hours of their tracking time waiting for someone to drive far away to get food (which you will invariably need if you’ve booked a full day of recording!). None of these factors may necessarily mean you can’t use a specific studio, just that you’ll have to plan ahead to tackle the issue!