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The Basics To The Recording Studio Business

By  Brandon Drury | Published  03/27/2007 | Getting Started
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Getting Started In The Recording Studio Business

You've just purchased a great soundcard, a high end computer, a great piece of recording software, and you've made a few little recordings for yourself. Now you want to start bringing in other bands and musicians to help them make great recordings. How much should you charge? Before we get into that, let's define the problem.


It's Hard Choosing A Recording Studio
Just like with any service based business, choosing a recording studio is difficult if you don't know any of the studio owners / engineers / etc. Just looking in the phone book or on the web for a recording studio is generally not indicative of the quality of the recording and quality of the experience. Sample mp3s can help, but even this isn't a perfect judge of the level of quality you are going to get because your band is not the band in the sample mp3.

If a studio costs too much, well, it costs too much. If a studio charges too little, you'll expect to get an inferior product. So what does a person do? Everyone has heard great recordings done for very little money and we've all heard very expensive recordings that sounded like crap.

Because of this, most bands will go with studios where friends have had positive experiences.


Word Of Mouth Is Everything
There is usually no point in putting an ad in the paper (except maybe to create awareness of your facility) because I bet that an overwhelming amount of your clients are going to come from friends of other clients. You can have a Battle of The Bands contest and give away a recording to generate a buzz for your studio, but most people aren't going to jump on your studio unless they really know you or until they actually hear the way that the recording turned out by the band winning the Battle of The Bands.


Charge Nothing For The First Client
In my experience, there is a price that everyone likes. (At least the customers like it.). It's called FREE! So, if you don't have a name for yourself yet, find the right band (we'll get into that later) and record a 4 song EP for free.

A free recording is much like the free cookies, summer sausage, or pizza you get at Walmart sometimes. You give a person a tiny piece in hopes that they will buy the entire box of X product. In this case, however, you are not giving just the band a sample, you are giving the entire local music scene a sample of your work. If you are a likable person and provide a solid recording, the band will tell all of their friends. It takes about 2 seconds for this to kick in. Of course, by that time you'll need to start charging.

What Client Should You Pick
There are probably only two or three bands in your area worth recording for free unless you live in a large metropolitan area. There are a handful of things that this band must do for you since you are not getting any cash on the deal.


The band must be connected. If this band doesn't know lots and lots of other bands, there is very little point in working with them. We are looking for the word of mouth to kick in immediately. If this band is totally secluded, your freebie was a waste of time.


The band must play shows. You want to find one of the most active bands in your area. Active bands know other bands, but they also know lots of bar owners, lots of music store employees, lots of newspaper writers, radio Djs, etc.


The band must actually print up the cd. If you record a band and it ends up as a cd-r in a stack of junk, you wasted your time. This cd must be printed up and it must have your name in the credits somewhere. The band must actually intend to sell this recording or at least give it away as a sampler. You want your name on something that is being handed out on your night off.


You must like the band's music. You don't have to love the band's music, but you need to understand what they do. If you don't have any faith in their music, you definitely don't want to record them on your freebie deal. You'll get all kinds of “out there” bands calling you later on which you can charge for. However, I would recommend finding the band with the most potential for commercial success and record them first. This is the only way to get the word out to the most people. For whatever reason, the black metal bands always seem to hear about where X radio band recorded their album, but the radio bands don't ever know where X black metal band recorded their album. (Note: I'm not criticizing black metal or any form of music. I've recorded black metal before and had fun doing it. I'm simply giving business advice)


After You Start Lining Up The Bands
Once you get the process going, you'll have bands waiting in line to get into your place. (Assuming you have the work ethic, personality type, and recording quality necessary). Every band you record will tell a different set of friends.

It's EXTREMELY important that you continue to record the best bands in the area. If you record substandard bands (I'm speaking of bands who are bad musicians who have no sense of timing as a band), you will see noticeable drops in the quality of your record. So, the first handful of recordings must be good, tight bands. DO NOT RECORD KIDS (OR ADULTS) WHO DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING!

If a record gets out by a crappy band, people start to wonder if your recording quality is a hit or miss thing. Overall, it reflects VERY poorly on you. Of course, you may have done an even better job engineering the crappy band, but that recording will sound much worse and people will blame you.

Price vs Your Worth
It's up to you to figure out what you are worth. There many different theories you can consider and many different routes you can take. If I could do it all over again, I would stick to the per hour method and I would add a dollar per hour every project or every month as long as my quality was indicative of the price. Of course, once you get even a decent grasp of audio engineering you find out that the “quality” has a lot more to do with the musicians in the band than it does the engineer.


So, really you are just charging for the musician level of bands you've had in the past. Remember this. This is a MEGA fundamental. If you don't agree with this, look at it another way. Think about bands who pay big bucks to work with huge, platinum producers. The only reason a huge platinum producer gets to charge a premium rate lies solely in their past work with other bands.


The Problem With Working Too Cheaply
I know a lot of hungry, ambitious people that jump into recording and are willing to work too cheaply too long. I fell prey to this situation some time ago. Working too cheaply causes a number of problems. While I have worked with some great bands who were totally broke, I've also had problems with these bands.

A band with no money usually has few fans and therefor won't sell many cds. This means that if you have further ambitions for your studio to grow, it probably won't grow much. All bands expect great sounding recordings. The broke bands won't want to pay for it.

New bass strings, new guitar strings, and new drum heads are a requirement for most tones (there are exceptions, but these are fairly rare). When a musicians is too broke to buy bass strings, guitar strings, and drum heads they are immediately sabotaging what you are trying to do.

There is a bigger fundamental here to broke bands that is most scary. After compromising for maybe years and years, a person can begin to accept his/her situation. A person who hates their guitar amp, maybe subconsciously effecting the quality of their playing. I'm not saying that a crappy amp makes you a crappy player. However, I am saying that when I bought my Rivera Knucklehead guitar amp when I was 18 (and nowhere near good enough to get any real tone out of it), I had to sit down and say “Why is my tone sub par when I have awesome gear?”. The answer pointed back to me and my skills (or lack there of). I realized that I had to get better. I needed to improve my vibrato and all other aspects of my playing.

I guess I'm saying that a person that sounds like crap with mega pro instruments is forced to look at him/herself to find the problem (assuming they can actually hear the problem). This is common with drummers with DW Drum Kits. The drummers I know who have had to save up to eventually get their mega pro drum kit often had to grow into getting them to sound great.

However, it's possible that a person may sound amazing with cheap instruments. I've seen this a number of times, too. A person who really knows how to hit drums usually knows how to tune them. This kind of drummer can sound great with just about any drum kit of reasonable quality.

My experience tells me that this kind of person is a rare breed. In the end, you are much better off working with people who have the cash to do it right. By default, charging a realistic price for your services is the only way you are going to get the real talent in. It means you are going to scare away the bands that aren't serious, aren't ready, or just can't afford it.

Avoiding The Low Price Trap
If you are recording broke bands, overall the quality of your recordings will suffer. Its the way it is. You may get lucky and find some bands that sound great from time to time, but in the end, you are stuck. It's hard to increase your prices when you are not happy with the quality of your recordings.

If you get stuck in this trap, there are a few things you MUST do!

#1 You need to take a little break from recording bands.

You are not judged on quantity, you are judged on quality. If you are frustrated that your quality isn't any better and the quality of bands isn't getting any better (both of these go EXACTLY hand in hand), you should look at the list of movies that Steven Spielberg directed in the 90s (as stolen from IMDB.com http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000229/.


The Unfinished Journey (1999)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Amistad (1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Steven Spielberg's Director's Chair (1996) (VG)

Schindler's List (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Amazing Stories: Book One (1992) (V) (segment "The Mission")

Hook (1991)

The Visionary (1990) (V) (segment "Par for the Course")


I see Schlinder's List (which is about as amazing and powerful as a movie can get) and I see Saving Private Ryan with Matt Damon (in the Team America retard voice). I see a few movies that I should probably check out and a few movies that I don't want to check out.


The point is, in 10 years, Spielberg directed 2 great movies, a few movies I should look into, and some stuff I don't give a damn about.


If you think recording non stop for 10 years and continuing to make the same mistakes is going to get you anywhere, I think you are mistaken. Of course, it depends on if you look at yourself as a person who wants to do great things or a person who simply wants to do his part and serve the people. My personality type doesn't allow me to simply make the same mistakes over and over again. I want to do great things. (Neither personality type is necessarily good or bad).


#2 You need to hang out with producers you respect.
The Michael Wagener Recording Workshop was a life changing even for me. I learned about a zillion things about recording that I had never known and quite a few life lessons, too. If you are into Wagener's work, spending 10 days in the life of a super producer will change your outlook on how you approach the concept of a local “demo” for $200.


If it's not in your budget, quit blowing your money on junk and figure out another way.


If you are not into Wagener's work, find other ways to hang out with the producers you respect.


I spent time with Wagener and right after that I spent time with Malcolm Springer (Collective Soul, Matchbox 20, Full Devil Jacket, Faith Hill). The time spent with these two guys completely changed my outlook on recording. The time spent with these guys has armed me with the mentality to make great records. (I still have to sharpen my skills, but at least I'm pointed in the right direction mentally now).


My Situation
After running a home recording studio and working with probably 100 bands, I decided that the ditch digging way of making records wasn't right for me anymore. In other words, I don't get anything out of having a new band come to my house, slapping mics on the instruments, hitting record, and then asking the band if they liked the take.


I record music because I love being involved with the music. Using the method above, I feel like I have nothing to do with the music process. I'm simply an operator of the recording rig. To take music out of the engineering process makes no sense to me and would explain why records I had made in the past were often sub par both musically and sonically.


I decided that it wasn't worth the money for me to continue recording band after band every single weekend. These bands usually had low budgets and were in a mad rush to slap down their songs to avoid paying more per hour fees. Then again there were some bands that we finished 5 songs in a day and I love those songs / recordings.


Now, I'm working on being a real deal producer. Every day I'm doing my best to record the best music possible. I'm pushing the musicians I work with to do something more and to make music that is more intense than what they thought they could come up with. I'm not great at it and I'm certainly making much less money, but I feel that this is the only path to eventually get me to my Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.


I still get local bands calling me or emailing me who want me to make a very low budget recording full of compromises. It's difficult to tell people I otherwise like that I can only work with the bands that have the best chances of doing something great.


Conclusion

The recording studio journey is a tricky one. The quality of your work is highly dependent on the work of other people. In a lot of ways, running a recording studio is kind of like being a coach on a basketball team. You can provide the framework for success, but if the team is missing their shots, there really isn't anything you can do.


It's up to you get the best players on your team.


Now doing all this and still trying to turn a profit is very tricky. It's up to you to decide how much money you want to make now verses how great you want your record to be down the road It's a tricky path.


Charging for your services is necessary. However, sometimes the quarterback has to take a pay cut to get a better offensive line. Of course, this is only if you want to win the Superbowl. Maybe you are just wanting record some music. In that case....who knows!


Brandon


 
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