Picking A Recording Studio

For most of you itíll probably be cost that decides the matter, but there are some considerations you should at least be aware of and take into consideration before you book the time!

Microphones. By and large this is the make or break point in a studio, especially if you are doing good vocals for ballads or live drums.

Top of the line studios (those charging over $150 an hour) usually have a good compliment of out of print tube microphones. We discussed these in our first music special back in 2002, but letís go over this point again.

Tubes sound great, transistors and chips donít. Just ask any guitarist. The four most popular amps are either the tube Marshall for metal, the tube Mesa Boogie, Fenders or Ampeg for clean sound.

These days many high-end producers are stocking up on tube out-board effects and microphone pre-amps (largely the Neve pre-amps, which come out of old mixing boards).

Tube microphones are by far the best for recording good vocals on an airy song. They delivery a great sound spectrum from low to high. They are also ideal for cymbals, acoustic guitars and strings such as the violin.

The most sought after tube mics are the Elam (or later issue by AKG called the C-12 and stereo C-24) and the U-47 Telefunken. These mics are priced used from $4,500 to $15,000. It is common for some producer or engineer to buy one that isnít working right and then have a special technician fix them up!

Today, the Chinese are making some really great sounding mics (although they may not hold up for decades as do the Elam and Telefunkens) based on the original specifications for both the Elam and U-47, but with modern tubes (the 12AX7, found widely in guitar amps and Church conversions of the U-47 Ė the original uses a special German tube that hasnít been made since the 1960ís, so you have to find them used for big bucks).

These mics are made in lots of 500,000 and sold through a variety of outlets in the pro-audio scene.

Other good mics you may find in a low priced studio ($50 to $100 an hour) include the AKG C-414, the Audio Technica 4033 and the Sennheiser U-89. This last mic, when I did and A/B test at Hit City West in Los Angeles, compared favorably to an old Telefunken U-47 tube, even though the U-89 is an FET (field effect transistor) solid-state circuit.

All of the mics Iím taking about here are often referred to as ďbig diaphragmĒ microphones and they are also of the condenser type. What this means is that the gismo what hears your sound (be it singing or playing) is a circle of thin plastic-like film between 1 and 2 inches in size. It weights very little, like a butterfly wing or a soap bubble and is usually coated with a micron thin film of solid gold. These are often called gold foil mics.

The consider aspect of the mic means that when it pulsates to your singing it moves an electrical circuit that generates the power signal for recording. Stage mics, like the Shure SM58, use a moving coil of wire inside a magnet to generate the power. They are called dynamic mics. They also use a heavy metal plate for their diaphragm (the gismo the senses your singing) which is clunky and heavy. As a result this mic is great for screaming vocals on stage, loud snare drum hits and Marshall stack guitar amps, but not for recording studio vocal work!

Most studios will let your audition the room and even set up a mic for you. Try going into a big price ticket studio and have them set up a U-47, put on the headphones and listen to your voice. Now go to the $25 an hour studios and have them put up their best mics, put on the cans and listen.

You job, of course, is to go through the list of $25 an hour studios looking for one that has at least one microphone that sounds about as rich as the one in the rich studio!

The next consideration is those head phones. You have to live in them so you also want a studio with lots of good headphones and headphones amps.

Are there enough headphones for everyone? Do they fit securely and comfortably? Do they filter out noise? Can the drummer hear the music through the cans?

How many different headphone mixes can be done? The drummer will certainly want a separate mix from everyone else.

Next, how big is the recording area? Is it big enough for the full band? Is there room to walk around a bit? Is there an isolation room for the vocalist? Can you see each other? Can you see the engineers in the control room?

These really amount to the primary considerations for a studio. It doesnít matter where the studio is located, be it in a house, a strip mall or an industrial district. It doesnít matter much what the walls are made out of, nor the floors unless you are recording acoustic instruments such as guitar or violin.

For acoustic instruments you do want to see a lot of wood around the area, along with some curtains or sound absorbing materials on at least two adjacent walls.

For a band with drums and amplifiers, however, almost anything will do so long as the mics and headphones are decent.

Microphones for the application:

Vocals and acoustic guitars need a very good, large diaphragm consider mic.

Drums need nothing more than SM58s for most of the tom toms and snare. A nice condenser mic of small diaphragm type for the snare drum would be an asset. A higher quality mic for the kick and floor tom, such as an RE-20 or D-12 would be an asset. Good larger diaphragm mics for the overheads are a requirement if you want a really good drum sound. One AKG C-24 or two M59s would work nicely. Two C-414 AKG mic will also work well.

Amps work well with SM58 or 57s, although Sennheiser 412s are even better.

Keys and bass generally work best as a direct line into the recording machine.

As to the recording machine itself, these days most people use computer, although there are still a lot of analog tape units in use. See our piece on recording media for the pros and cons on this area!

Any computer generating wave files that are all flush to the starting point will work. Just get a copy of the raw waves in CD-R and if possible DAT tape.

Remember, when booking studio time tape and disk media are not included, so plan for this cost in your budget! While CD-R disks are very inexpensive, analog tape runs a lot of money. A 2Ē master tape costs over $300 a roll and you only get a few songs. Analog tape is also getting hard and hard to find locally, so youíll either have to order what you need in advance or pay studio prices. Studios usually make a very good mark-up on blank tape! A roll they sell you for $100 may cost them only $60 or less.

When using analog tape, make sure itís virgin (never used before) and fresh. Bulk erased tape has a strange nose to it, plus it may still contain an imprint of previous recordings low in the background!

Our 2004 Music Special continues with these offerings...

Why Few Women Producers? | Picking A Studio | Drums | Drum Heads
Drum Pedals | Cymbals | Hammer Head Freeware | Omar Sosa
Drummers | Drum Books | Music Of The Tropics | Benchmark Records
Profile: Blind Lemon | Music Reviews | Resources | Poem: Music Of The Mind

Our Music Special Issues Continues With These Other Offerings from 2003:

Our Regular Music Reviews:
Featuring: Omar Sosa - Keith Jarrett - Melissa Gibson - G-Spot - Chronophonic

Articles and Information from the 2003 Music Special:
Grass Roots Music | US Copyright Extension | The Promo Pack | The ECD | The Music Video
The Birth of the Recording Industry | California Arts & Music Expo | Peformance Rights Organizations


Got Gear?  Best Prices on the Net!

Ecelectic and Underground CD Reviews:
Jon Denzene/The Torrent | Distilled | Hook The Captain | Jesse Morgan
Tesknota | Living Space | JM Cruiz

Indiana Area Local Club Bands:
Sonus | The Mumble | Northern Kind | Archies Address

Articles and Information from the 2002 Music Special:
Learning Music | Promo Pictures | Booking Agents| Managers | Producers | Pressing CDs
Record Companies | Copyrights | Recording Software | Sound Cards | Guitar and Bass
Multi-Track Recorders | Live Sound Gear | Microphones | Recording Engineer | Bands in Texas
Teen Band: Y@nK | Gigs and Clubs | Music Theory | Radio Airplay

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