Living in the country, our home's water supply is fed by a natural well dug almost two hundred feet into the earth. While it looks amazing to fill a tub with almost "water park" blue water, it can be rather hard on certain appliances. This was certainly true last year when our virtually brand new water heater, with less than 4 years of use, popped a leak from the effects of the water sitting in it. I was aware of flushing your water heater as routine maintenance, but had never heard of one failing in that amount of time. Because of the style of our home, safety regulations, and the desire to minimize the risk of this happening again, I decided to go the route of the tankless water heater to remedy our situation. After many of the other home repairs and DIY projects I had tackled before, I felt confident I could tackle this one as well. I was about two full days of work in when I swore, in more ways than one, that next time I'd be hiring someone who had done this before.
Which brings us to why we are here.
The last several years have been like a dream for home recording enthusiasts. Equipment entirely capable of being used to create radio ready hits has never been more attainable than now, and acquiring the knowledge necessary to put these tools to good use is just a mouse-click away. Then again, there's no shortage of home repair lessons provided by the University of YouTube, either.
Don't misunderstand; there's no magic wand needed to learn how to mix a track or fix a water heater. Popping a CD (we'll talk about the reported "death of the CD" at a later date) into your ride so you can hear your mix in all the sonic glory you imagined it, is absolutely feasible. So then why pay someone for a job you could probably do just as well yourself, and why trust them to care as much as you do about your music which you have invested much time and poured much emotion into?
Acoustic Space - Anyone who has ever read a thread on home recording techniques anywhere on the internet has undoubtedly learned that the typical home bedroom already sets you up behind the 8-ball. It is not the ideal location to record or mix due to the physics, acoutiscally speaking, that the size and shape of your room will introduce into your recordings. Getting a great recording in the beginning can lead to a stellar track in the end, and it can go a very long way to not only making it easier to mix your track later, but possibly making it so that you don't need to do much mixing in the first place. Reflections and phase issues, color added by surface materials (i.e. drywall of a bedroom, concrete floor of a garage, etc.), unwanted transmission of waves through materials, etc.; these are all potential problems of recording at home that have most likely been addressed in the construction and treatment at a recording studio.
Gear Versatility - As we covered earlier, there's never been a more affordable time than now to get your hands on some great gear. That being said, while a small recording package of decent quality may cost as little as a few hundred dollars ("little" in the relative meaning), to get the amount of versatility a recording studio might have could cost you into the thousands upon thousands of dollars. If you don't do this full time, can you justify that sort of expense? A good general purpose mic is a must and definitely enough to get good recordings, but there's an entire palette of color and texture that having access to other mic's can provide. The attitude of a ribbon mic on an amp. The subtle but defining character of a tube pre-amp on a vocal. Not to mention the difference that can be made from mic'ing each piece of a drum kit versus one room mic. There's no doubt that great drum recordings have been made with a mono, one-mic'ed-drum approach (think 60's/early 70's, a' la the Beatles), and there's definitely no need to worry about things like phase cancellation. However, having the extra capability when you really need those drums to envelop the listener (modern rock, pop, etc.) is virtually a must. The chance to get "that sound" you don't even know you're looking for yet isn't just limited to recording equipment. Some studios can even outfit you with a guitar, snare, or other instrument for your tracking session that just might be the polishing touch you end up loving. To quote one of my favorite characters, Dr. Frasier Crane, "Ah, but if less is more, just think how much more "more" will be!"
Noise and Neighbors - Here is a little known fact; while you may feel you're living the dream and just one drum fill away from being the next John Bonham, your neighbors may be one rim hit away from setting fire to your rehearsal space. Sound proofing your jam spot is an astronomical task not to be taken on by the faint of heart, or light of pocket book. So while leaning a foam, egg-carton mattress pad up against your window might do the trick, you may be better off finding a place that has addressed this by either investing in proper sound management, or planting their roots in a somewhat isolated location in the first place. "Are the walls to keep people out? Or keep people in?" That's an idea that's been said many a time during a suspenseful movie moment. The sentiment is applicable here, as well. Sure, you increase the odds your car won't be egged every weekend if you keep your impressive, vocal growling mayhem away from the wake your neighbors are holding for their much loved, recently deceased auntie, but you also don't want their lawnmower as the ambient track for your stripped down acoustic hit. Using a studio that has taken effective measures to eliminate or even just reduce unwanted noise may just save that perfect, once in a lifetime take.
Objective Mixing - Let's face it, the vocalist is the only element that matters. What's that, dummer? I apologize, I meant the percussion. No, you're right, bassist, your groove definitely needs to be showcased throughout the entire LP. Having an objective party mixing your music, or even tracking for that matter, can mean the difference between your CD being an unbiased and perfect balance of all the elements vibing together more greatly than the sum of the parts, or your track sounding like the earth rattling, car-show-winning Impala from a block away, even though you're in the same room as the speakers. Which are only three feet away. Input from the band is definitely something that should be freely given and taken during a project. The importance of that input is even more evident when you consider, for instance, the countless hours a guitarist will spend on the tone of his axe. For that, communication is key and the benefit of an objective person behind the faders is easy to see. A drummer who owns some recording gear may not have the same vision or perspective to sculpt the EQ of said guitar to compliment the song, and heaven forbid he mixes this week after he had the eye of a certain, special someone stolen by the guitarist's blazing leads at last week's gig. Let's be honest; ego's are in no short supply in a room full of musicians, after all. Having an objective mixer working for you can help to ensure everyone shares the stage in a way that would be best for the music.
Objective Feedback - Yes, once you post your hit to SoundCloud you will have the chance to finally just sit back and watch all your new fans fill the comment section will nothing but love for ya'. Assuming you can get your music heard by more than a few listeners, that is (more on getting your music "out there" later). If there's one thing that is certain though, the internet is chock-full of critics, good and bad alike, and it seems you don't have to wait long before someone gives the most soul-crushing and offensive review of your beloved baby. A thick skin is necessary for that reason, as is remembering that there's a good chance they didn't even listen in the first place, but is there something else you could take away from their words that you might have missed? There's something potentially separating you from realizing the whole truth that would otherwise only help you to perfect and hone your craft; personal connection. There's something to be said for facial responses, eye tone, and other nuances that are lost in a Facebook feed. Having an objective ear and opinion to bounce ideas off of can really help you navigate your way to any good ideas that might be had. It's also worth mentioning now, if you think that no one can care about your music as much as you do, you might be mistaken. There are plenty of audio artists working a console who have invested their time and effort into making a song sound as good as it can. To them it's more than just a paycheck, and if nothing else they may be looking to your rocking hit to propel them to future business. The success of your work together may stand them to lose or gain something, too. You should always be able to determine and dictate just how much input you want from your mixer, but having just the love of your music between you can pave the way for honest, good, unbiased, constructive criticism.
Experience, both good and bad - I doubt I sit alone in the truth that once I hit my adolescent years, I did not enjoy having to endure hearing about the "life lessons" my parents had gone through. I hope I also don't sit alone in the truth that as an adult, parent no less, I have come to realize just how much wisdom they actually had. Had I listened to the things they had learned along the way I might have been spared a multitude of lessons I had to learn, and suffer, through experience. There exists a striking similarity between that and the world of audio production. Earlier, I wrote that there's no magic wand needed. That's good, because the truth is that no magic wand exists. I have seen little to no evidence to support the idea that in the recording world there's any substitute of equal value for experience. Even those who have completed prestigious audio programs are handled with skepticism if they don't have a catalog of work behind them. When I compare my mixes now to those of when I first ever recorded and mixed a tune; well, let's just say there was much room for "experience" to be had. Mistakes, many mistakes, were made in EQ, compression, and a few other areas anyone who has spent even a short amount of time reading on home recording techniques will be familiar with, but there were aspects that at the time I had never even heard of. Phase correlation, LUFS, overhead, gain staging, resonant frequencies; the cards are stacked against the budding engineer usually before they even set up their first mic. Now, these things can be learned, to be sure, but that takes time. Time that could be spent writing more music and perfecting craftsmanship. There's a camp that believes that not all songs written are hits, and to get to the hits you have to write more and more so that you can get past the not-a-hits. Unless you're looking to start a new career path, spending all your free time reading, testing, and repeating instead of writing, recording, and performing might only serve to separate you from that which most likely got you into all this to begin with; the music. Not to mention the frustration you might encounter if you finish your CD only to realize it doesn't even come close, sonically speaking, to stacking up against the radio hits. Not that a station would ever play it anyway, since it just simply isn't up to snuff, recording wise. There's some truth to the idea that a well crafted song will transcend any deficiencies that exist in the recording, but it will never get that far if the vocal is so brittle that it physically results in blood and tears upon hearing it. Chances are, whomever is recording and mixing your grammy-worthy hit at a studio has already fumbled their way through most of the mistakes a first time home-engineer will inevitably make.
None of this is an attempt to scare anyone into scrapping their recordings and running as fast as they can to their nearest recording studio. In fact, with the drop in gear prices and the virtually unlimited access to educational resources (of quality and substance), I feel it's a very exciting and opportune time to grab that interface, plug that mic in, hit record, and lay down that gold track. My water heater is still running, we enjoy hot water, and you can record your own material. When someone washes their hands in my sink though, I bet they can't tell the difference between the water this machine pumps out versus the last. The question you need to ask yourself is, if you put your recording on a playlist with something recorded and mixed in a studio, will you, or someone else be able to tell the difference?
If the answer is "no", then kudos to you. You should drop me a line. I am always eager to hear new ideas, learn and talk shop!
If the answer is "yes", drop me a line. I am always dying to hear new sounds, make new friends, and make some music!
Oh, and while you're at, feel free to take a moment and subscribe to this blog or even the newsletter. It's a great way to keep up with mention-able things here at the studio. Plus, you might get a surprise just for signing up!