Should you record your music at home or in a ‘proper’ studio?


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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?

The recording studio is where the vast majority of pro bands record their music, but is it the right solution for everybody? With so much great and affordable home recording kit now available, many of us can get very respectable sounds out of our own bedroom setups...

The recording studio is where the vast majority of pro bands record their music, but is it the right solution for everybody? With so much great and affordable home recording kit now available, many of us can get very respectable sounds out of our own bedroom setups…

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.

Spanish band Jah Chango (www.jahchango.com) in the studio. The more you know about the production process - and the array of complex gear involved - the more hands-on you can be with the sound sculpting of your recorded music.

Spanish band Jah Chango (www.jahchango.com) in the studio. The more you know about the production process – and the array of complex gear involved – the more hands-on you can be with the sound sculpting of your recorded music.

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.

Guitarists can relate the studio to their pedalboards: lots of knobs to twist and buttons to press, and everything will change your sound somehow. Plus, the more gear you've got, the more toneshifting you can accomplish - but the more you'll need to know to make it all sound good!

Guitarists can relate the studio to their pedalboards: lots of knobs to twist and buttons to press, and everything will change your sound somehow. Plus, the more gear you’ve got, the more toneshifting you can accomplish – but the more you’ll need to know to make it all sound good!

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 looks like a fun little room on first glance, but there's probably not many people out there who know what everything does. If you feel this way about recording, it's probably best to get to a studio and let the pros look after you!

This looks like a fun little room on first glance, but there’s probably not many people out there who know what everything does. If you feel this way about recording, it’s probably best to get to a studio and let the pros look after you!

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.

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Leave a comment

A Lopez on September 10, 2016 Reply

For me, personally, I feel there is only so good a mix I can get in my home studio, mostly as a result of a small room and not having acoustical treatment. I think tracking everything and then going into a studio to mix can be a good compromise, that way you can capture the magic in a relaxed, affordable environment, but then pay for bringing that magic alive and as best sounding as possible in a room designed for mixing.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 17, 2016 Reply

    This is probably how we recommend most non-professional bands go about the recording process – budget permitting! Because it can be hard to produce that magic when you’Re playing in a studio environment. THis way, though, you get to benefit from both sides by doing it this way 🙂

Mark on April 15, 2016 Reply

We did a lot of the tracking for our last album in my home studio. We then took that to a pro studio and spent 2 days recording the drums and another couple of days recording overdubs and last minute ideas that the engineer threw up.
So I guess a mix of both is what works well for us.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 15, 2016 Reply

    Yeah, a similar comment came up recently too – what’s to stop you tracking instruments like electric guitars at home and then heading to the studio for drums and the like? Seems to make sense, and as the technology allows it, we’ll probably see a lot more bands doing things this way in future. Best of both worlds!

Alessandro on April 15, 2016 Reply

And what about recording guitars and bass at home till perfection and then going to a local studio to lay down well recorded drums and vocals (you can also take with you guitar and bass DI tracks to have them reamped in the studio)?
I record everything at home because I have no budget (AVID Eleven Rack for guitars and bass, EZ Drummer for drum parts), but I’m sure that doing REAL drums in a studio environment can give a boost to a band’s music.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 15, 2016 Reply

    Interesting point, Alessandro, and a cool idea! Why not do instruments like guitars at home (where it’s easier to get pro-level results) and then do things like drums at the studio? We’re sure there are more drum options when you’re in a dedicated studio environment – it’s a different case to electric guitars, that’s for sure…

Nick D on October 19, 2014 Reply

This article basically describes the pro studio as an expensive endeavour. In some cases it is, going to Abbey Road or paying for Rick Rubin to produce is not going to be affordable for most musicians. The local studio is a great alternative between home studio and a huge learning curve and the out of reach pro studio. There are many lical studios which are equipped to get you a great recording and mix. They will probably offer advice about your mix, but a producer will always cost more. Having a producer is a separate entity and should be determined no matter where you record.
Most rock bands are better off going to a local studio than buying equipment to record. Micing a drum set to get modern sounding drums can take more than a couple mics, preamps, cables, etc. andclets not forget about the room. The price can climb very quick and you could have just bought your entire time in a local studio instead of thinking you needed to buy a console, a special microphone, or a digital to analog converter.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 21, 2014 Reply

    Cheers for the feedback Nick. We agree that a studio can be the best solution for bands who just want to lay their music down. If you’re tight and prepared, you don’t need long in the studio at all – in that sense, it can be a no-brainer. A decent studio will certainly have all the gear you need, and as you say, the choice of a producer or mixer afterwards is also one you can make based on how much you’ve spent already. There’s a definite argument for both methods here.

    We’re actually pretty surprised that most other feedback we’ve had on this blog has been in favor of home recording though. Anyone else prefer the tried and tested real studio method?

John Maurin on October 18, 2014 Reply

As a home recording enthusiast I can tell you I’d rather work at home. I have learned much and I did it by recording not only my own stuff but other bands for free. When I was a beginner I was eager to learn and my friends had bands that couldn’t afford to go in the studio so I would use them as guinea pigs and record them for nothing. As long as I got decent takes that were properly recorded I then had infinite time to experiment with mixing techniques. If you work really hard at learning how to use your gear, and developing your ear you can make some really great sounding recordings from home. There is what I call a minimum investment involved because you can’t make radio ready songs on free programs like audacity. The amount of money you would spend recording in a pro studio can definitely buy enough gear to get you started but you do outgrow things and eventually you need to buy more gear. I have a setup now that would probably cost around 15k to just go out and buy but it didn’t start off that way. I took baby steps over the course of four or five years and let my level of expertise grow with my setup. Currently I am at a crossroads and it’s time to start thinking of other ways to improve what I do…and that’s going to involve a real estate agent. I have outgrown my surroundings and I am now looking for a better place to live that can also be a better space for my hobby. You can do amazing things in a home studio but it’s more than an investment of money it’s an investment of yourself. Buying the gear is one thing but learning how to use it to its full potential is another thing entirely. Learning how to use EQ, and compression properly…understanding that sticking reverb all over everything doesn’t make it sound good are all paramount. There are tons of educational resources out there for free (youtube) that can help you hone your production skills. Once you get into it and start yielding decent results it becomes pretty addicting. I will always recommend the DIY way of doing things because I believe that music is going to keep heading into this direction. The technology is right there for the consumer and a piece of great gear that is financially out of reach to you right now will eventually be available to you on Ebay…just wait it out.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 21, 2014 Reply

    John, thanks for this really interesting and informed response! We’re similar to you in thinking, in that we reckon you can develop so much by going through the home recording process yourself. The more you learn, the better you will become, of course – and the more useful bits of gear you will accumulate. Sure, you first efforts won’t sound as good as a pro studio job would, but it’s a real labor of love and, like you say, an investment in yourself. It’s kind of like DIY stuff – something you’ve built yourself is always going to have a higher sentimental value to you than something you mostly paid for. Well, that’s our two cents anyway… 😉

trrigeminy_henry on October 18, 2014 Reply

Great article! I love recording at home, if you’re self motivating it great! I’m writing on an EP right now with a fellow guitarist from the Netherlands! We’ve never met in person, however we are able to record music together! Doesn’t get better than that.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 21, 2014 Reply

    That’s cool to hear, Henry, and best of luck with the EP! We’ve known bands who never met in person until after they made an album together, when they met up to play some shows afterwards! It’s a really cool idea, and loads of fun.

Rob on October 17, 2014 Reply

Recording at home is without a doubt the best way to record music. You get three things out of it. A recorded song, the development of a skill with your instrument or DAW and money…You get to keep your hard earned fucking money.

Learn the basics of recording, stick with it for a year or two and you’ll never pay for studio time ever again.

Pro Studio’s are fossils, pre-historic relics of an era before technology set creativity free.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 21, 2014 Reply

    Hi Rob. You make three really good points here, although we didn’t dare to go so far as saying studios are dead 😉 In general, though, we’re with you – in this day and agew, why would you pay a studio if you can do as good a job yourself – if not a better job – in the comfort of your own home?