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DIY recording vs recording studios...

Recording studio or DIY recording?

Recording studio vs DIY recording: what you should know!

The impact of technology on the music business is enormous – it’s changed the way music is produced, and has radically altered its distribution. I won’t dive deeply on how music is consumed today. Suffice it to say that internet/streaming/online sales have brought changes to the way the business is done, cementing, in some cases, the position of major labels that own large catalogues of music, and bringing the Apples and Spotifys of the world to the table where the pie is divided, where they get a big chunk of said pie just because they act as the bridge between the consumer and the music source in a way that puts convenience and profit above anything else. But, by the same token, all this technological change gives musicians from anywhere on the planet a chance to be heard.

I would rather discuss the impact of technology over music production in the last three decades. In one of my previous blogs, I discussed and analyzed the pro and cons of DIY recording; it is definitely a feasible solution, especially in the beginning of your career, when part of your goals will be to save some money during the recording process. The advance in technology allows musicians – at least to those willing to put an effort in it – to do so. But lately, I’ve started having second thoughts about the reality of the situation. The truth is this, DIY home recording is likely to be a limiting factor as much as it is freeing.

That limitation for music production comes from two sources: the process itself, and the changes in the recording studio market. Let’s tackle these sources one by one.

It is not too expensive to get to record yourself today, but don’t expect to sound like it was recorded at Capitol Recording. A computer, a cheap audio interface, a DAW installed (like Cubase, Ableton, Bitwig, etc), a MIDI controller, a mic preamp (a lot of audio interfaces also have a mic preamp), and a microphone and you’re good to go, right? Well yes. But... you guessed it. There’s some fine print: you’re good to go for one track at a time, and chances are that it will not be too great.

In order to have a great track, you need a controlled space, you need to know how to record (everything from the technical recording aspect to proper microphone placement), you need to be able to both perform really well and control the computer (which can be actually quite complicated!). Logically, you shouldn’t expect a great recording with a 200 dollar audio interface, and the same for the microphone/preamp, when many studio’s microphones are three times those two put together. Sure, there could be exceptions, theoretically speaking, but I have yet to see them.

So, you do some production with samples or loops, add some instrument/vocal recorded by yourself, you mix it... and then wonder why it sounds weak. There’s nothing wrong with samples and loops (beside the fact that it limits enormously your creative process in a way, taking you in a direction that most of the time is different than your original vision), but there are loops and loops, samples and samples. There is a reason the major libraries are expensive: they were recorded by professionals, in rooms famous for their sound, with professional engineers and equipment, and effort put into doing that recording in proper acoustic spaces.

A little variation of this scenario here, a better one I think, is if you’re doing DIY recording, make the song arrangements, some recording, but leave the vocal aside and go to a studio to record it. Even better, have the mix done by a studio. You have to let it go sometimes. You’re losing some control, but you know what? Every major act has a producer, uses a mixing engineer, a mastering engineer, and there is a reason for this. If you’re too attached to the song, chances are that your vision becomes way to narrow, you still want a great sound, but you completely lose perspective.
I had people in the studio coming and asking me to mix for them, and they actually complained about the mix done into another studio. I listened to it, and actually the mix was pretty good. But no matter how good a mix, it cannot fully cover up a poor quality recording. A major part of a mix is the preparation stage: most of the time, when the tracks are samples or virtual instrument based, you would have sent them out of the computer and run them through some fancy preamps/compressors/tape units/harmonics units, to improve the sound right off the bat. Imagine doing this for 30 tracks of a song with a length of 4 minutes: preparing and listening when re-recording each track, you’re looking at least a few hours worth of work. So, if you’re going down the DIY recording route, you have to be honest and understand that you can’t have something decent for 200 dollars, period. Nobody works for free, this is the harsh reality.

What gets lost in translation is the fact that, in the process of trying to save a few bucks, you lose your focus; you get distracted by details that you may have difficulty understanding, so you have to wrestle with them. And that’s not what you, as an artist, want to be doing: for you, the music should be your sole focus. The whole DIY process is fun, sure, and very challenging and rewarding. And it allows you to dream about hitting it big and making a killing. But, at the risk of tempering that enthusiasm, I would suggest to look around you and see who your competition is, and, more importantly, how their music sounds. Not compositionally, or musically, but the quality of their recordings. Chances are: your stuff still has a long way to go before it’ll ever sound like that.

I personally think that as an artist you have to keep at improving your music, and for the technical side you need to have a team on board – musicians, a producer, a recording studio. There’s nothing wrong with doing sketches and arrangements on your laptop; but knowing the limitations of that process is very important. Once the song is built and you have a good idea about its identity, then think of the next step: what do you need to sound good? Maybe that’s recording musicians, or using good libraries, or good sounding hardware units, and the rest of the whole nine yards. I would not bother releasing something that is not interesting and doesn’t sound good; the truth is harsh, there is so much music out there that sounds good, and, if I want to have more listeners than family and friends, I would definitely try to be as professional as possible. The fun is in the way you go for what you want, and that comes in time, with patience, with effort, putting the time in honing your craft, and getting to work with interesting people.

In the next blog I will analyze the impact of technologies in the world of recording studios, and I promise it will be extremely interesting, I lived this transformation for the last three decades, and you will get an honest – maybe even controversial look – into the world of studios.