How to Choose A Studio
Advice on what to look for in a commercial studio when considering your first recording venture.
Deciding on a studio in which to make a recording can be a difficult task to the inexperienced individual or band. David Simpson offers guidance by outlining some major points to look out for when calling or visiting studios.
At first thought it may seem surprising that we should feel it necessary to include an article advising readers on how to choose a professional studio, considering that HSR is essentially a magazine about home recording. Allied to this, no-one is more aware than us of the tremendous advances made in the past few years in the field of home recording.
During the 1960's, anyone wishing to hear a half-decent recording of themselves had no option but to use a professional set-up. However, in the early 1970s the now famous Teac 3340 paved the way for a succession of multitrack machines aimed at the budget market, culminating in the advanced 4 and 8-track cassette and reel-to-reel recorders available today. Nobody will deny that used properly, recordings of 'master' quality are possible from these machines (witness Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska' album recorded on a Portastudio). Why then, write this article?
Well firstly, there are quite obviously many things that are not possible on a 4-track set-up. Every track bounce degrades the signal quality, and even with noise reduction, tape hiss still builds up. It is also difficult to record any group of musicians without bouncing, which reduces the control available over the sound in the final stereo mix.
Even if under optimum conditions no bouncing were necessary, and you were able to assign a separate track to each instrument in a trio, say, plus a fourth track for vocals; although separate equalisation is possible for every instrument in the mix, you could not, for example, change the level of the bass drum relative to the snare. Anyone who has ever recorded on 4-track will be only too aware of the limitations.
Even if you were lucky enough to afford an 8-track recorder, as soon as it is installed in your room problems arise regarding monitoring. How do you hear the sound going onto tape with a drum kit exploding in your ear? The answer is to record in one room and monitor in another, which in turn leads to problems of foldback, which in turn... until finally, the budget breaks!
Long before this, most people will have decided that a budget set-up is just that, and will respect its limitations. If a high quality tape is required, then a few days in a 16-track studio can cost less than a cheap compressor, and provided the home set-up is used to work through ideas prior to the session, time-wasting will be cut to a minimum and a cost-effective demo capable of impressing people will be the end result. Hopefully.
Those whose finances extend to fitting out two rooms, installing a foldback system and buying some outboard effects may end up with a studio capable of producing professional results. At which point they may also see the potential profit in encouraging others to use it on a paying basis. The question is, how do potential customers decide whether your studio is the one for them?
Obviously locality can play a crucial part in your choice of studio. If you live in the wilds of Northamptonshire, the trek to London can be tedious, especially if more than one session is involved. It might be prudent to begin with the local guy, particularly if you've heard good reports from previous users. Word of mouth can make or break a studio, and in my experience, a good tape from a studio can encourage customers, whilst a bad tape does nothing but harm. Listen out for the bad reports and try to find out for yourself, why the client was dissatisfied. Don't let a bad report stop you contacting the studio though; just bear it in mind!
Whether you establish contact based on locality, word of mouth, or simply scanning the classified ads in Melody Maker, you still need to find out if the man on the other end of the telephone can provide the service you require. Obviously, nothing can beat a good look around a potential studio prior to recording, but most things can be elicited over the phone. It's certainly out of the question to visit several studios all over the country, unless you've got the money to spare for petrol, train fares etc.
The first point to be aware of, is so fundamental that it is hard to overemphasise. At the same time I never cease to be amazed at the limited number of people who are aware of it - namely, the effects of room acoustics.
It has to do with the sound distorting characteristics of a room. Although any given set of speakers may give a flat response ie. the speakers do not alter or 'colour' the sound passing through them, the room in which they are placed does introduce such colouration - and in some cases it's pretty extreme.
For instance, many rooms have carpets and curtains. Such material has the effect of absorbing the treble frequencies emanating from the speakers, and cuts down sound reflections and natural reverberation. However, if you monitor on the speakers, because the room has 'sucked in' some of the higher frequencies, you tend to compensate by boosting the treble controls on the mixing desk. The net result is that although the tape sounds good in the studio (as it should), when you take it home and play it on another system, you are likely to find that the tape is too treble biased. Ever wondered why people complain that their tape sounds great in the studio but lousy elsewhere?
There are three ways in which this problem may be avoided. The most common answer lies in the vogue for monitoring on small, limited response speakers such as Auratones. These are supposed to approximate the speaker upon which your sound will eventually be heard. However, although excellent as a supplementary monitoring source, if used on their own, grave discrepancies can creep into the final mix. It's difficult, for instance, to obtain a true idea of what the bass guitar is doing, or what the overall stereo image is like.
The second and third methods of avoiding the colouration introduced by the listening environment involve a process known as spectrum analysis. This involves putting a quantified noise source through the speakers, analysing it into separate frequency bands and comparing it with the uncoloured signal. Once the distorting characteristics of the room are known they can then be remedied.
The first way of doing this is to actually change the shape and features of the room. Bass frequencies can be absorbed by building 'bass traps', whilst middle and high frequencies can be dealt with using sound absorbent material.
As you can imagine, this process can be time consuming and costly, involving advanced studio design, and is therefore not within the scope of many smaller studios. The alternative way of 'flattening' the room response is to use graphic equalisers, patched into the audio system before the speakers, to boost or cut the frequency bands causing the colouration (as indicated by the spectrum analyser) and so compensate for deficiencies.
Larger studios tend to make use of all three methods; small speakers, graphic equalisation and room design. Many others rely simply on the small 'reference' speakers which is far too inadequate. Anyone paying good money for studio time has the right to expect the sound heard in the control room to be a true representation of what they will hear at home.
The question to ask, therefore, when you ring your chosen studio for information is 'has the control room been spectrum analysed?' If the person you are talking to doesn't understand what you are talking about, politely excuse yourself and look elsewhere - and accept no compromises in the way of studio gadgets and free coffee. If you strike lucky, ask if you may look around.
Any decent studio (with the possible exception of the very large and very busy ones) will welcome a visit, provided a proper appointment is made - nothing is worse than people rolling up in the middle of someone else's session! Arrange a time and go and see the studio.
When you arrive, check that the hallowed graphics are in position and ensure that you bring a tape with you, whose content is familiar. If you have no stereo ¼" tape, take along a pre-recorded cassette. Ask the engineer to switch the graphics in and out and compare the difference in sounds; it should sound better with it in!
To be honest, if you are satisfied thus far, and find the engineer affable and the studio atmosphere workable, then you really do not have to look any further. The principle of spectrum analysis is that fundamental.
However, it is wise to check on a few further points, although any studio so far acceptable is likely to take such checks in its stride.
Microphones are obviously important. Neumann, AKG, EV, Shure and Beyer are several names to look out for. A comprehensive mixing desk is also a big plus. It won't necessarily improve your sound, but it may make sessions a lot easier, quicker and thus save you money. I do accept that, to those with no experience in this field it's hard to judge what is a good or bad desk, but if you do have any questions, ask the engineer. If he doesn't know the answers, beware!
So far, I have not mentioned what may seem to be of prime importance - the tape machines themselves. It may seem gross heresy, but I'm not sure that it matters that much. I stand by my conviction that, if used properly, master quality results are possible from most multitrack reel-to-reel recorders. Of course, some are far better than others, and until recently a good rule of thumb to observe was the greater the multitrack tape width, the better the quality. Although this still holds good, machines such as the Fostex B16 threaten to prove it wrong!
It is also worth checking that the master ¼" stereo recorder is 'half track' (the whole tape width is used in one direction) and that it runs at a tape speed of at least 15 ips (inches per second). Both factors improve signal-to-noise ratio (the amount of hiss and unwanted tape noise on your final mix recording).
Finally, we come to what are sometimes thought of as essentials, but are, in fact, the icing on the cake: the effects units or outboard equipment. Generally, the amount of outboard gear is linked to the price you are paying. There are several points worth making on the subject.
The one effect which is, in my view, essential is a good reverb device. Usually in a studio, the recording will take place in an acoustically dead environment. Then, during the mixdown process, reverberation units are used to replace the natural ambience lost during recording, to whatever level is desired (usually rather more than was lost!). This is a sweetening process, helping make instruments and vocals sound fuller and more alive.
It should be possible to add reverb to any sound source at the same time, usually by means of the effect 'send' and 'return' facilities on the mixer. Plate reverb used to be the studio standard against which all other reverb devices were measured, but recently the new breed of digital reverbs have equalled it for quality and excelled it in versatility. The next step down the line are the advanced spring reverbs featuring multiple spring mechanisms in strange-looking containers, such as the Master Room and Great British Spring reverbs.
It is worth noting that the difference between mono and stereo reverb is staggering, and that drums cannot be put through spring reverb units without occasioning undesirable side effects. If you want the type of vocal sound Barry Manilow got at the end of 'Mandy', you need a digital or plate reverb - very expensive. A crumb of comfort may be found in the fact that Yamaha have provided a digital reverb affordable to most studios.
A decent digital delay unit is also helpful. There is really no excuse for not having one now that the prices have dropped so low. Also, most units will provide other effects such as flanging, chorus and double tracking - handy stuff!
You really don't need much more. Compressors are useful for maintaining a good signal-to-noise ratio, as are noise gates. A good, versatile noise gate can, in addition, improve the controllability of sounds in a mix by reducing spillage from other instruments onto the track in question - isolating a bass drum, for example.
A good outboard equaliser can be worth its weight in gold, particularly on drums, since the sound produced by the actual kit, sometimes bears little relation to the sound finally required for the track. Normal tone controls on your mixer usually have fairly limited value in dealing with this type of situation.
Using a pitch transposer or harmoniser can be an amazing experience, but such frills are no substitute for a good quality, versatile reverb unit; overtly less obvious but much more beneficial overall.
If I have spent much of this article dwelling on aspects connected with obtaining a true picture of what is going on from the monitor system, I make no apology. No number of expensive effects units can improve defects in a sound, which only become obvious after the session has ended. Rather defeats the object, doesn't it?
I cannot advise on how to check the competence of the studio engineer, nor would I wish to, but below is a list of points to investigate when selecting a studio.
1. Is the control room equalised?
2. What outboard equipment is available?
(In order of importance):
(a) Reverb (plate, digital, spring - stereo or mono?).
(b) Echo (does unit offer other effects?).
(c) Equalisers (graphic or parametric?).
(d) Noise gates.
(e) Other: (pitch transposer, aural exciter, vocal de-esser).
3. Tape Recorders (track number, tape speed, tape width, track width).
4. Microphones; type, make and number (more the better).
5. Any instruments available free?
6. Cost; any hidden charges (VAT, tape hire, overtime etc.?)
7. Refreshments available?
8. Cassette copying (cost, type of machine/tape used?).
9. Car parking?
I hope now, that this article has helped in assisting at least some of you through the minefield of small studios currently springing up everywhere. Good hunting - and good recording!