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Recording studios in 2021...

What are the most common types of studios in 2021?

The same technology that allows anybody to record with a minimal financial effort has also had a major impact over traditional recording studios. Advancements in audio technology have actually made possible for a lot of people to make their own studio, and has led to more competition in the recording business, which has benefitted the customer: the musician. It’s also allowed for a wider palette of studios when it comes to their purpose and expertize. So we have large, medium and small sized studios (the last includes home based studios). We have top-tier, mid-tier, project and home studios, we have major studios, Engineer studios, Music Producer & Engineer studios, beat-maker studios. Confusing, right?

Before analyzing them, let’s talk a bit about economics. Beside technology, there was another factor driving the change in the recording studio world. A large top-tier studio usually has a couple of rooms (control, production and live rooms), and on top of that auxiliary rooms (maintenance, tape-machines, plate reverbs, lounge, office, kitchen, etc). Usually almost all of the work for the major labels was done in this type of studios, and with large budgets.

As technology changed music marketing and distribution, budgets have shrunk steadily. A large studio is a large investment, and has serious overhead expenses. On top of that, real estate value has increased in all major music centers (NY, LA, Toronto, London, etc), putting additional major financial pressure on existing studios, and acting as a discouraging factor for those planning to build new studios.

But it was more than just the technology and financials driving the recording studio industry: in 60’s and 70’s most of the top engineers/producers worked as employers in the major studios. They soon realized that they were what drove many customers to the studio where they worked. So they went independent or freelancing, and dealt directly with the artist’s label or management team. In the end, everybody wants to work with somebody with experience, which takes many years to achieve. Some of these independents opened their own studios; while the major studios have an edge when it comes to space, acoustics, equipment, however, a big chunk of the production (mixing especially) has moved outside of the large studio system.

With this in mind, let’s look at what recording studios you can find in the market right now.

Top tier- large studios – Here, you get what you pay for: top acoustics, top equipment, pro personnel with all the related services. These studios usually have a very large room, tailored for bands or orchestras, and a few booths. Usually you’re paying from 100 dollars per hour and up. Given the economics, the competition, the shrinking budgets of the major labels and the way the business evolved, many of these studios have closed their doors. Others are trying to compensate for the lost revenue by starting to organize training courses, which are usually much better than all the courses advertised on FaceBook and YouTube, where everybody tries to pose as an expert and is trying to sell you the the impression that if you do what they say, you will become a successful producer/engineer. In large studios, you learn with pros, using top equipment, and you can properly learn things like mixing, and the particularities of proper music production process.

Mid-tier studios: these studios have many of the facilities of the top-tier studios. The significant difference is in the quality of acoustics, and, especially, their equipment. Therefore, they are cheaper, in the 60 to 90 dollars’ range, and you can also negotiate some packages if you’re doing a large project and have some time flexibility. They usually cater to the same segments like top tier studios, like bands and orchestras, but usually they have limited access to top artists and major labels, their clients being more from the local roster.

Project studios: here we have basically Engineer’s studios and Music production & Engineer’s studios. Back in 70’s, 80’s and 90’s most of the acts were bands. It was the rock & roll era. Starting with 90’s, and continuing today, most artists are singers and rappers. What they need are music producers: people who understand how to produce a track. From the 60’s to the 80’s, music producers were kept out of the public’s view – the label’s marketing decided it was more lucrative to only promote the act or the band. But producers slowly made their mark, and everybody slowly recognized their importance. Behind every major artist was always a top producer. Very few artists were the exceptions, with Prince being the most notable and important one. In the last 3 decades, the producer was the one doing or directing the entire making of a song – from composition and arrangement, to how the final product needed to sound.

So, in the project category we have the
Engineer’s studio - they do mixing and mastering. These studios are generally smaller; they rarely have a large live room, with usually a vocal booth being available. However, their equipment is very good, and allows for a lot of flexibility and performance. Their prices are close to mid-tier studios, sometimes way higher (just check how much it would cost you to master with Bob Ludwig or Stephen Marcussen, or mix with Michael Brauer or Chris Lord-Alge). Many of the famous engineers that went independent opened their own studio and do strictly mixing and/or mastering.

Overall, their presence increased in popularity quite a lot. Most of these studios are independently owned, may or may not be commercial, and usually operate from an owned space, like a house. When checking these studios out, be suspicious if rates are lower than 50 dollars; that usually reflects a lack of experience, and, therefore, need additional incentive to secure your business.

The second type of Project studios is the
Music Producer & Engineer studios. They are basically the most modern type of studio, as you can create music, putting together the instrumental aspect, and do recording, and, in many cases, the mixing and mastering. They generally command the same rates as mid-tier studios (or higher sometimes), have top equipment, often both analog and digital, and a large variety of high quality, vintage, and boutique instruments, synths, drum machines, as well as tons of sound libraries, allowing them to put a song together at a professional level.

Most of these studios have a live room, a booth of some sort, as they sometimes hire some musicians like guitarists, bass players, percussionists, horn players, and so on. They often cater less to bands, as they work mostly with singers, rappers, songwriters, but will also produce music for film, games, and media. It is a good idea to listen if they have samples in their website. While many famous producers are kind of specialized in a certain type of music, there are many producers that are extremely capable and versatile, and can produce more genres of music with confidence as they have a strong musical background.

A particular case of music production is beat making. Many beat makers call themselves producers, but I am have some major doubts about that. Most of the time, beat makers sell their beats online where other people will buy, record other things over it, and the original beat makers do not care how the beat is used. A real producer on the other hand, despite the fact that he may be doing the beat, cares about the full song, helps the artist at every step of the way to produce a cohesive vision, rather than a patchwork of sounds.

Most beat makers are actually operating out of their computer, in home studios, with some software and/or drum machines, and some are indeed very talented. However, music production is much more than making beats, no matter how interesting and groovy those beats may be. A real producer, no matter what their background is, knows what they want, how to achieve it, and, most importantly, understands sound, arrangement, recording, and how to direct the mixing. Which is much more than just creating the beats…

Home studio: there is no easy way to define it. Some of them are as good as top-tier studios, and some are just a waste of time – and everything in between. Most project studios are also built in a house, but in reality it is hard to call them home studios when top equipment, acoustics and experience are the main ingredients. Having a studio in a commercial location involved massive overhead other operating costs, as we’ve discussed, and running a studio from your home is more convenient and way cheaper. Also, there are many producers or artists that invest in their own studio, and they actually choose the artists they are working with, many times promoting them and having a vested interest in the artist’s songs and career.

Similarly, most beat makers operate from their home, often working on a single computer using all virtual instruments, though sometimes drum machines and synths as well. Also, some may have a preamp, a microphone for vocals, to eventually do some recording. However, when it comes to mixing and mastering, there is so much more than a having microphone and a computer: you have to solve the room acoustics, the monitoring system, and have a powerful computer. That is actually expensive, especially if you add pro equipment.

A word of caution: always do your homework when choosing a studio, know what you want, get informed, talk to the music producer/recording & mixing engineer, listen to what they did before, to avoid the eventual pitfalls. With limited budgets comes lack of acoustics, low-cost equipment and poor recording/mixing experience; many people set up home studios like a hobby and try to make a buck, luring the customers because of the very low prices they ask.