I was really sorry to miss the theatrical release of the film Standing In The Shadows of Motown, but I finally had the opportunity to see it on DVD. During its heyday, I was a big fan of the Motown sound. So many years later, watching the film inspired in me an even deeper appreciation of just how remarkable the Motown sound really was. After getting over the initial shock of how greatly I had previously underestimated [I’m so tempted to use one of my favorite George W.’isms- mis-underestimated- but I’ll refrain…] tambourine’s potential for greatness, I began to realize how incredible it was that all that amazing music was recorded in a converted house. The more I think about it, the more I think that in this regard, Hitsville, USA was incredibly ahead of its time. A Google search led me to pictures of the control room and studio. Not exactly your front-line studio, but did it do the job or what? Ultimately, what is a studio anyway? Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was recorded in a converted church. Sir George Solti’s 1960’s recordings of Wagner’s Ring Cycle were recorded in an “improvised” studio.

When recording devices were the size of washing machines, having a professional studio in one’s bedroom or apartment was a little impractical. With the advent of hard disk recording, sometimes the most practical place in the world to record is, in fact, one’s home. My how things have changed! At least in some regards. Fact of the matter is that a set of (acoustic) drums still takes up just as much space as it ever has. Oh, and did I forget to mention that those drums are still as loud as ever too? Sure, you can always find alternatives to doing things the way you would if you didn’t have to be concerned with resources, but at what price to overall project quality? And therein lies the essential message of this article. As it always has, producing compelling recordings requires an instinctual ability to know how best to match resources and talent, hopefully in the pursuit of bottling some human spirit/magic. The focus of this article is to examine when it’s smarter to take it into the studio, and when it’s smarter to leave it in the bedroom.

Money vs. Equipment

I’ve never met a studio owner who wasn’t concerned about money. Big or small, there’s always another piece of gear, a new piece of software, or some amount of rebuilding lurking around every corner. Every purchase needs to be carefully considered for the impact it will have on productivity. The proliferation of increasingly affordable high quality recording equipment often seduces the prospective studio owner into thinking that building a viable, versatile studio can be affordable. Of course it can be, but affordability is relative, as is the definition of a “viable, versatile studio”.

I dabbled in recording as a teenager, and by my early twenties, with a group of friends, owned a small demo studio that was located in the basement of a house in which I rented a room. Without giving away my age, let’s just suffice it to say that this was before digital recording had become available to any but those able to avail themselves of the world’s most lavishly appointed professional studios. As soon as I could finagle my way, I infiltrated such studios, getting acquainted with world-class tools. In so doing I gained a visceral appreciation for what a reasonably well-designed, well-equipped recording studio has to offer; since then, I’ve never lost that appreciation.

How things Have Changed

In the meantime, the recording landscape has changed, almost beyond recognition. All of the progress in microelectronics and computers has bred an entirely new subset of the recording industry- the fully professional home recording studio. When ADATs were announced, not yet even released, I was one of the first people on my block to plunk down a deposit. Quickly I began to see recording in a whole new light.

Suddenly, it was easy to go where there was no studio, and in relatively short order, set up enough gear so as to be able to capture inspired performances in interesting places. When I wasn’t set up in houses in the woods or kitchens behind stages in nightclubs or churches, etc. etc., I set up my meager pile of gear in a spare bedroom in my house. Suddenly, outside the confines of professional studios, I was doing work that I could consider using on real masters, on my own schedule and without having to shell out large sums of money on an hourly basis. It was this type of recording freedom that got me thinking of these new possibilities as “guerilla” recording. I was hooked.

Well of course now ADATs are ancient history. Hard disk recording busted open the doors upon which ADATs began knocking those years ago. 1998 was an incredible year for me. I was just finishing a year on the road playing in David Byrne’s band. Through a series of random events, my wife and I decided to find a new home- one with a separate building that we could convert into a studio. I landed a project scoring and doing all of the audio post-production for an independent feature film. I had resisted for as long as I could, but resistance had finally become futile, it was time to invest in a serious Pro Tools rig. As the technology has evolved, so has my outlook on how best to use it. As I began to think about the design for my studio, I put a lot of thought into what I could afford to do and what I couldn’t afford to do. I knew I wasn’t going to have a very large facility. This limitation greatly aided me in deciding how to optimize the little space and relatively small budget I had. Based on my finite budget, I made a conscious choice to focus on being able to record a small number of signals with world-class signal chains, rather than a large number of signals with less-than-world-class signal chains. I decided that if I took on projects that required more signal chains than I had, I would just have to go to a bigger studio. I’ve never regretted this choice.

Recording Steps

My decision-making was heavily influenced by prior recording experience. When I’m producing an album for a band, a typical recording project might follow this trajectory:

1) An indeterminate amount of time in pre-production, generally one-on-one or thereabouts, with the songwriter(s).
2) Pre-production rehearsals in the band’s rehearsal space.
3) Anywhere from one day to a couple of weeks recording basic tracks with as many musicians playing simultaneously as possible.
4) A few days or more to choose/composite basic tracks, either accompanied by an indeterminate number of band members, or to hold down costs in the case of a Pro Tools savvy band member, editing done by a band member(s).
5) An indeterminate amount of time recording overdubs, usually one-on-one with the player overdubbing.
6) Editing and mixing, usually mostly alone.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that in this scenario, most of the time spent producing an album can be done very effectively outside a bona fide studio. In fact the only step listed above which really requires the attributes of a bona fide studio is step 3. Since my studio opened, it’s only been every once-in-a-while that I’ve needed to book a larger room, almost always for the purpose of recording basic tracks, and rarely for more than five days per project. I always relish these field trips, not only to work in a bigger, better-equipped studio, but also to rub shoulders with my peers. I always learn something every time I do. The point is managing resources wisely. If a project takes three months, and only one week is required in an expensive room, why waste the money staying in an expensive room when the resources are way underutilized? Even before home recording was so popular, producers would often use big, well-outfitted studios for basic tracking, then move to a smaller, cheaper room for overdubbing, then back to a specialized studio for mixing. This concept has just evolved as the definition of a “smaller, cheaper room” has grown to include home facilities.

Studio vs. Home

A well-designed, well-built professional studio has a number of attributes that the home studio is not likely to have. These attributes include soundproofing (for sound transmission in both directions- into and out of the studio), good acoustics (rooms that aid and abet recording and listening), large quantities of world-class equipment, and an environment that is conducive to recording. Soundproofing isn’t imperative, but the lack of soundproofing can lead either to ruined takes or angry neighbors. Good/interesting-sounding rooms aren’t imperative, but not surprisingly, it usually takes more engineering skill (or good luck) to make a good-sounding recording in a bad-sounding room than it does to make a good-sounding recording in a good-sounding room. And the downside of this, especially in this day and age of instant recording studios, is that generally, people who are just learning to engineer are doing so in bad-sounding rooms. I know from years of gradually building what is still a relatively meager pile of gear that it is EXPENSIVE to have enough gear to simultaneously record even 16 channels of high quality audio. It isn’t at all difficult to spend more money on one world-class microphone than on a brand new car! And last but not least- I’ve lived this one- after you’ve turned the refrigerator off to keep the house from vibrating [said vibration leaking into your mic stand, leaking into the signal carrying the performance that it took seven hours to record], and after you’ve finally finished recording, you and your wife realize that all of the food in the freezer has thawed … This is when having at least a semblance of a real studio starts to become necessary for survival, unless you don’t mind sleeping in a doghouse.

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