Setting Up a Home Recording Studio & When to Hire a Producer
March 7, 2017
In the first of our new blog series on DIY music production, record producer Russell Cottier offers his advice on setting up your own home recording studio on a budget, and when you should get a producer involved in recording, mixing and mastering your tracks.
As a record producer, my colleagues might not all appreciate me telling you this story, but I’ll do so anyway...
I was mixing a track in Abbey Road Studio 2 (yes, that’s the Beatles room), huge B&W monitor speakers, a state of the art Neve mixing console and super high-end Bricasti reverb processors coming out my ears. All any mixer could dream of? Well yes, the mix sounded awesome but I wanted to approach the track a little differently to create an alternative version, so when I got back home to the north of England I basically remixed it from scratch.
The client needed the track ASAP as it was due to hit national radio and TV in a day’s time. I had to mix using the only software and headphones I had to hand, which were not renowned for their accuracy and detail. However, when I submitted the mixes, the clients and their management unanimously voted for the home mix. They loved it!
So what does this tell us?
Well it certainly doesn’t mean that home studio recording and mixing is always better than top flight studios, but it does give hope to musicians with limited budgets, allowing them to pick and choose where they spend their hard-earned cash.
As a record producer, my role is not only to make great sounding records, but records that will get finished, on budget and on time. I want my clients to make a profit and make more records.
If you’re dead set on creating your own home studio, then you can scroll down a little further to read my advice. But before we get into the details of setting up a home studio on a budget, let’s discuss when you should consider getting a professional producer involved.
Recording music at home or in the studio?
When should you hire a professional producer and head to the studio?
Home recording rigs are getting better and better, and software breakthroughs mean that digital mixing can sound great.
Some acts will no doubt have a desire to record at the top studios, and it’s often worth it sonically, but in the early days of your music career, a hybrid pro/home recording workflow can be much more beneficial.
Finding a producer
A great producer is not just an experienced record maker who knows what is going to sound good, they are also an outside force putting your music in perspective. They haven’t lived with those clashing chords or that cheesy lyric for countless gigs and rehearsals like you have and they will tell you if something is not up to scratch.
A good producer will also be sensitive to your budget and offer compromises for what you can record at home or in a cheaper studio. Remember to be vigilant; check out your potential producer’s previous work. If you like it, then you can trust them artistically. If you want to self-produce try to put on an objective hat on and be ruthless with yourself and your abilities.
Working with a producer can provide unbiased feedback to improve your tracks
Setting up a home recording studio on a budget
Can I record my music at home?
Whether you should record your music at home depends on what you want to achieve. Some records require a studio time, while some suit being home recorded or location recorded.
In terms of hybrid workflows, I prefer clients to send me rough demos during pre-production, or perhaps even the guide tracks all performed to an agreed tempo. Remember studio time is expensive and if we can hit the ground running we can make your record more profitable.
I always use record budgets wisely, to track a live band or just drums in a larger studio. Drums often need space, many preamps and many microphones. However, vocals, guitar overdubs and so on are usually well suited to smaller home studio setups.
Home studio essentials:
Digital Audio Workstation
Avoid 'gear-lust’ at all cost! Don’t go overboard and don’t listen to marketing hype. A good mid-priced audio interface with a couple of microphone inputs on XLR and capability for guitar/bass direct inputs (often labelled Hi-Z) should be sufficient.
The main brand players all have acceptable quality audio interfaces available, and remember second-hand can be a good option too. Manufacturers will often relaunch interfaces with a few extra features or an 'ultra-fast’ new version of USB, meanwhile the perfectly adequate systems that were state-of-the-art 18 months ago are now available for a cheaper price.
You should try to buy the best monitor speakers you can afford, but they don’t need to be large. For home setups, powered monitors work well. There are some brands that I am not a fan of, so try to listen to the monitors before buying. If you buy online don’t be afraid to return them within the 14 days of receipt.
But remember, room acoustics make a HUGE difference to how monitors sound. Keep the room symmetrical and don’t put them too close to a wall or corner. Generally, you want to be sitting with your ears level with the tweeters (small speakers) in an equilateral triangle to listen and test.
Buy quality and avoid second-hand if you aren’t 100% sure what you are buying. You will be better off getting one mid-priced large diaphragm condenser mic for vocals, guitars etc. Aston Microphones and AKG offer some great deals.
If you want something with character, you can’t beat ribbon mics. they sound great on guitars and smooth on vocals. The Cascade Fathead series are pretty robust and sound fantastic.
Remember you can often hire in microphones from your local studio or live audio hire company for as little as £15 per day for a £2,000 microphone.
Hiring microphones can help bring down production costs without sacrificing quality
There’s plenty of software out there for your home recording studio, so it’s important to find something that you’re comfortable with, whether that’s Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton or anything else.
I have the honour of having a signature Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and effects bundle from Harrison Consoles. The company that made the mixing desks used for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad, AC/DC’s Back in Black and many Queen and Led Zeppelin tracks.
Harrison’s Mixbus software feels and sounds like a real mixing desk, it's easy to use and I think it is ideal for musicians and engineers alike. The software is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, you can find out more at MixBundles.com.
Harrison Mixbus has an analogue sound, but the digital mix engines in almost all other DAWs sound nearly identical. Don’t be fooled by feeling like you need a specific package, start off with the one that comes free with your audio interface and get recording.
The stock effects plugins that come with your DAW will be good enough to make some great records with. Don’t feel like you have to start buying plugins straight away. There are plenty of free effects plugins out there too that are also great, for instance the Blue Cat bundle.
There's a whole world of free and affordable plug-ins out there!
Finishing Your Record
As a record producer and mix engineer, my role has definitely changed over the past 15 years in the industry. More clients are approaching me to me to 'remotely produce’ records, and more clients are sending me overdubs recorded at home. I even do mix consultancies for artists who want to mix themselves.
Many artists will also approach me at the end of a recording cycle and send final mixes for me to master. As a general rule if there are mix tweaks that might benefit a home mixed record I will suggest them.
Although I would rather be in on the project from the start in most cases, this is the way the music industry is moving and perhaps it is for the better. It means an unsigned DIY artist can release a professional sounding record and, with the help of Ditto Music, release your music online and reach a global audience.
I joked earlier about my colleagues not wanting me to tell a story, but in the main good producers and studio owners understand the modern independent music industry model and will be accommodating, don't be afraid of telling them your budget and sticking to it.
So, however you choose to make your records just remember, get them finished and get them out there!
Do you have questions about recording music at home or in the studio? Or any tips for other DIY musicians? Let us know in the comments and share this advice with your friends.
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