Technology has given us musicians the freedom to record our masterpieces from home, and for little money. With nothing more than a guitar, amp, microphone, computer and a few connectors, it’s possible to bring whole pieces of good quality music to life from the comfort of your bedroom. What’s more, this home recording lark is not just for amateurs; plenty of well-known bands have laid down classic records from home too. This week, then, we thought we’d discuss the pros and cons of recording at home versus paying for time in a ‘proper’ studio…
Foo Fighters, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Beck, Bon Iver… all these seminal acts have recorded brilliant albums at least partly at home. Dave Grohl and the Foos famously relocated to Grohl’s garage to lay down 2011’s Wasting Light exclusively on analog equipment, while the Stones decamped to a villa in the south of France to record Exile on Main St.
But of course, the vast majority of professional artists hit the studio when they’ve got new music to track – and let’s not forget the fact that Grohl, Richards, Jagger and Co. are hardly short of cash. Their home setups were probably more extensive than many of today’s pro recording facilities, and the Foos even brought in mega producer Butch Vig (he of Nevermind fame) to look after their record.
For most of us reading this, though, the situation’s completely different. We’re not professionals, we don’t have copious amounts of cash to spare, and we certainly can’t afford to book an entire studio for months at a time.
When we’re ready to lay down our songs, then, is it best to book some precious time in a pro studio, or can we do the job ourselves and record at home?
Let’s look at the pros and cons of both methods.
First off, studios can be amazing places to be in, especially if you’re still young and full of wonderment at the whole music thing. Trust us, the jaded part will come later!
Pick a great studio, and it’ll be full of character as soon as you walk through the door – you’ll feel the magic that has been created here in the past, and it’ll inspire you instantly. And nothing is better than feeling inspired when you’re about to hit the big red button.
Most studios also come with a huge range of gear for you to try out. You might have a handful of guitars at home, a couple of amps and FX pedals and a decent mic or two, but any studio worth its salt will be equipped with a range of classic instruments, amps, FX and mics suited to every genre and style. Just think of the possibilities! You could spend hours just searching for that elusive rhythm crunch tone, tweaking your rig until it’s perfect.
And, if you go to a studio, you’ll have a pro engineer and/or a producer there with you, guiding you, sharing their expertise, helping you to get the best out of your recording. They’ll ensure you supply the best takes, and they’ll then worry about getting your material sounding as good as it can. It’s a collective pooling of talents, with everyone bringing their strengths to the table.
But there are also downsides to recording in a studio. First off, they’re expensive, especially when you consider the home alternative, which is basically free.
This might mean you can only book a day or two there, which could rush your recording process. You’ll be feeling under pressure, and the drummer’s running late anyway, you’ve got work in the morning, and how on earth are you going to perform your best in that situation? Well, you’re not, quite simply.
And some people get scared in studios. They’ll be shredding happily away until the producer hits the record button, and then everything goes to pot and they’ll be all over the place. It can take time – and take after take – to nail it all down.
So the crux of this point is this: only go into the studio if you’re truly ready for it. Have your material burned into your musical muscle memory already (so you all know what you’re doing in advance), know what you’re there to achieve, and go in there and get it down. Then let the producers work their magic, and bam!
The alternative is recording at home. Thanks to free programs like GarageBand, Reason and Audacity, multitrack recording devices are free to all of us these days. And they’re just the beginning: the more advanced and ambitious you get, the more you can invest in your home studio, all the way up into the thousands. The sky, and your bank balance, are the only limits.
There are many great things about recording at home. You’re in control, for one. When, why and how you go about the recording process is entirely up to you.
That might mean you record at night, when everyone else is asleep, or on a Saturday afternoon when the family goes shopping. You’re the boss. You can record whenever inspiration strikes, and put the guitar down and watch TV instead when it doesn’t.
You also have complete artistic freedom, and a relaxing, familiar atmosphere in which to let those creative juices flow. What’s more, there’s no time limits – you don’t need to nail that solo today, because you can come back to it tomorrow and it won’t cost you any more money to do so. In a studio, you probably won’t have that luxury.
What home recording also offers is the chance for each band member to record his or her parts remotely, before sharing them with the others over the internet. We’ve even known whole albums get recorded, produced and released by bands when no two members were ever in the same room together at any one time! While this approach requires good organization, it also allows each band member to keep their favorite recording rig set up at home, and everyone can get their bits done when they’ve got the time and motivation to do so.
But there are limitations to working at home. You most likely won’t have special isolated rooms to house your micced up guitar cabs, or a dedicated booth for vocals, or a pro engineer to tell you how to do complex things in Pro Tools.
Recording at home is a great learning curve, that’s for sure, but you will be limited by what you can do with your equipment. This is true for the tools you need – studios will almost certainly have more gear than you, offering more tonal possibilities – and for the post production phase, in that digital audio workstations are complex things. If you can’t work out how to perform a mixdown, or how to automate your bass track, or how to add plugins to your lead guitar overdubs, there won’t be anyone on hand with the answers.
This might all mean that your home recording ends up sounding slightly less professional than a studio effort would. It might not be as climactic, or exciting, as a track that’s been expertly recorded, produced and mixed.
But we mustn’t lose sight of what we’re doing this for. Recording at home is a whole lot of fun, and enjoyment, after all, is the reason the vast majority of us are in this business. Of course, studio recording can be a whole lot of fun too, but in most cases, we’d say it’s best left for the pros and special occasions when you really feel it’s worth spending the extra cash.
What many semi-pro bands do, in fact, is lay down demos at home, get everything as ready as it can be, and then go in and rattle off albums at full-on recording facilities. This seems like a good way to do things, to us at least. You’ve got all the time in the world to hone your track, get the parts all written and ironed out, and then you can go in and use the experts to get the best sounding results possible.
But that might not be the best way for everyone. We’re really interested to know how you guys go about recording your material. Do you prefer the home environment, or a studio, or a mix of both? Is it ever worth paying for dedicated studio time anymore?
Let us know!
First published: October 16 2014. Most recent update: October 09 2015.