Studio Shopping

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By Johnny Dwinell

Studio Shopping

Every singer/songwriter/artist comes to a point where its time to record your songs and you are relegated with the task of finding the right place to record or studio shopping. This can be very daunting, especially if you have little or no experience at it.

What should you be shopping for?

What Studio is a good studio?

Do they have the necessary gear?

Will they work within my budget?

Should I go online studio shopping or should I use a tangible brick and mortar studio?

How can I get the best recording for the cheapest price?

Should I be overdubbing track-by-track or should I record a live band?

The short answer to all these is that there is no right or wrong answer per se; it depends on what you are recording and whether or not you have a band or need a band, etc. Although, if you are engaging a studio in the possibility of spending money with them, they will make an argument that will focus on the advantages of the type of recording THEY can deliverwhich makes sense, they want your business.

I thought maybe we could address some of these questions with regards to a full band or a track by track approach, and the type of recording you are trying to get.

So lets dig in.

STUDIO SHOPPING: ONLINE DEMOS

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Some of you may or may not be aware that there are Online Studios that offer virtual recording services for Studio Shopping studio pros imagesongwriters and artists. Some of the bigger players are Studiopros.com, onlinerecordingmasters.com, supremetracks.com, and I am sure there are many more. Pricing for these online studios typically ranges from about $1,000-$2400 per song depending on the site, how many musicians are required, and any ala carte services like producing, mastering, and consulting, etc.

PROS:

  1. You Can Choose The Musicians This is cool as you can actually shop for the players you are looking for. This is particularly beneficial when it comes to matching singers and their styles to a particular song you have written.
  2. Convenient to Use You can access these sites from anywhere in the world.
  3. Service Typically all these sites offer quick turnaround times
  4. Talent All the musician and engineering talent will be stellar on these sites. Again, You know exactly what you are getting.
  5. Interactive Experiences some of these studios offer live video interactivity so you can watch your song come to life (with a live band) from anywhere in the world. This allows you to feel present and still avoid the costly trip to another city where the studio location is, like Nashville.
  6. Live Band Online Recording There are some services that offer live band sessions where all the players are in the same studio at the same time. Many of these companies offer real time interactive access allowing the writer to participate in the session without actually being in the studio.

CONS:

  1. No Live Tracks Typically (almost always) these online studios will have great players track your songs, but they are not in the same room at the same time. Some online companies boast live tracks that utilizes some pretty incredible technology (that amazingly avoids mission critical latency issues during the recording process) which allows musicians to cut a track simultaneously from remote locations. Personally, I feel the musicians all have to be in the room for the magic to happen. The remote thing I find fascinating and creepy at the same time.
  2. No Studio Magic this is virtually impossible for an online studio to create. There are countless times where, as a producer, I have a very specific arrangement and vibe in mind for a song before we record it. Then, while the musicians are messing around with the arrangements (as they always do before a take) they stumble on some other vibe, beat, feel, or arrangement that is just undeniable; everyones face lights up…you know the look….it’s like “WOW, THAT WAS COOL”. When this happens, its always amazing.
  3. Disconnect there often is a certain disconnect that occurs with regards to the energy of the track. It sounds more sterile, more contrived for some reason.
  4. Elevator Music I often hear writers complain that the tracks have low energy and sound like elevator music to them. To a degree, this is somewhat predictable if you take the time to logically dissect the process. Typically drums will get tracked first, then bass. The pro drummer and bass player will almost HAVE TO deliver somewhat sterile/bland arrangements to ensure they are not stepping on any guitar arrangements or any color instruments that will be tracked after their respective takes. Essentially, without everyone in the room together, you definitely are opting for more sterile arrangements, vibe, and energy on the track. Keep in mind this may not be an issue if you are just recording the song for posterity.
  5. Communication Log Jams Most of these companies (understandably) prefer to keep the musicians, engineers and producers away from the clients, so there is only 1 contact for you to use. Typically this contact is called a producer but they are an office person at the company. They then are telling the producer and/or musicians what you want so the proverbial telephone game can ensue; thus, diluting the message and lines of communication. Quite simply, it can sometimes be a drag telling someone to tell someone to tell someone what you want or what you are “hearing”
  6. Not as much fun Whats more exciting than hanging in a studio with the players and watching it all go down LIVE, man???
  7. Pricing I think there are better prices out there for someone who is willing to shop.
  8. Band Recording How exactly does this work if you want your band on the tracks? It doesnt.

SUMMARY

I think the online recording studios can be pretty effective with regards to song demos that a writer plans to pitch or songs a writer wants recorded for posterity or vanity reasons. I dont think they are very effective for an artist trying to cut a custom record or artist track. Artist tracks in today’s music market need to be AMAZING. Amazing really requires a producer and in my opinion, a real relationship between the producer and the artist; this really fosters the necessary creativity from both that is required to elevate the track to a competitive and iconic level. Since music has become essentially free, it is disposable; therefore, the song and track have to kick mortal ass to garner any attention. Period.

STUDIO SHOPPING: LIVE DEMOS

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Lets break down the pros and cons of finding a studio that cuts tracks with live musicians in the same room.

PROS:

  1. No Elevator Music The tracks will naturally have more energy in them as the band is all performing and communicating together at the same timethere is a certain magic that happens here as musicians get instant inspiration from what the other musicians are playing and feeling; they “vibe” off of one another.
  2. FUN!!! There is just no replacing the amazing experience (which still gets me to this day) of watching and hearing a full band transform a song from a work tape reference to an amazing live track right before your eyes. It’s truly an indescribable experience.
  3. Optimal Communication the writer has direct access to musicians and producer. Since you or your producer (or both) are in the room with all the musicians, communication is instantaneous. The writer can insure that he/she is getting exactly what they want; make changes on the fly so-to-speak.
  4. Clever Arrangements It is much easier to facilitate more clever music arrangements when the whole band is tracking at the same time. Happy accidents can happen and you are there to say, I LOVE THAT. When you over dub every single track (like the online studios do) the professional musicians will HAVE TO deliver somewhat bland arrangements as they cant hear what each other is doing (especially the first tracks i.e. drums and bass) to ensure they do not step on any other parts that havent been recorded yet.
  5. Band Punching This is great for a last minute arrangement change. Simply punch the whole band as a unit. Impossible to do with an overdub type recording model; it would require a major editi.e. major surgery. Think about it, if you had a 16 bar musical break or solo on the work tape and at the last minute decided to cut that to 8 bars, this is easy with a “band punch”. If you are in an overdubbing situation, you can do the surgery but the context and flow of the solo will often suffer, making the surgery sound obvious.
  6. Pricing Depending on your negotiating skills and your contact list, there is definitely ways to get your songs cut in the most inexpensive fashion this way. NOTE: the pricing will be better in areas where there is a bigger market for these kinds of sessions (like Nashville), thus, more competition. In smaller towns or areas where there isnt much competition for full band live demos, it actually may end up being more expensive.
  7. Service Live demos definitely facilitate quick turnaround times; the band cuts the tracks all together.
  8. Band Recording If you have your own band, this is the only way to really get it done.

CONS:

  1. Speed Things tend to go fast in this environment. A writer or the producer needs to be on their A-game to ensure you are getting the vibe that you want. Pre-production is really important here. Especially if you are attempting an inexpensive artist track as opposed to a song demo. NOTE: This isnt really an issue when you are in good hands with a capable producer, but writers who find themselves at the helm with little experience tend to get swallowed up in the chaos.
  2. Producer is Necessary 5 or 6 musicians at the same time is a lot of traffic to direct. Someone has to be at the helm. Also, when you have 5 studio musicians, this will be a tight team so an outside personality offering instructions or direction can often be a challenge; especially if that outside person is less experienced, that band will smell that like a dog smells fear! This challenge ensues because these musicians will undoubtedly have communication scars that come from the many newbies or rookie writers and artists who dont know what they want and dont have experience to articulate their desires. This communication barrier is often difficult to overcome for a writer or artist with no relationship to the band; thus, a producer or engineer that has a working rapport with the band will champion any ideas the writer or artist has ensuring the message is getting received by the players.
  3. Proper Recording Studio This is a necessity. Some studios simply dont have the bandwidth (computing power, I/O infrastructure, or cue system) to handle all those tracks at 1 time in a live session. Additionally, some studios dont have the space or enough isolation rooms to facilitate such a session.
  4. Access To Talent Clearly you need access to a huge talent pool to assure that a complete and capable band can be put together. Lets face it, most people do not have access to the kind of talent that is readily available here in Nashville.
  5. Non Studio Musicians Live recording in a studio with a full band of studio musicians is quick and quite awesome to see. However, if you are a self contained band, this can become costly as everyone in the band needs to play their respective parts perfectly to make this work. If your band doesnt have a ton of studio experience, then this could become problematic.

SUMMARY

The live band recording is much more advantageous to any singer/songwriter/artist that is looking to cut artist tracks. This is just the best way to record any music that requires players of some sort. Trying to cut your album with an online studio can be a bit sterile. However, if you are recording POP music, certain kinds of R&B, or Rap music, these genres typically involve programming and a band is simply not necessary; aside from the occasional overdub of a color instrument of some sort. Additionally, for songwriters, there are places where you can get GREAT deals on song demos with a live band.

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