Considerations re: large vs. small recording studios
The location of Tresbear Music’s recording studio in Dickson, Tennessee puts us close to Nashville — Music City, USA — home to major recording studios which have produced much of the music we’ve been listening to since childhood. Are are these grand recording studios necessary for the production of high-quality music these days? Here we’ll look at some facts concerning large vs. small recording studios.
Depending on your knowledge and experience, it may be helpful to begin by learning some of the basics about the music recording studio.
When I think of recording studios, I often visualize those big, old-school analog mixing boards with their sliding controls. However, thanks to modern technology, the reign of those old mixing boards has largely come to an end. As it stands today, the analog mixer has generally been replaced by computer hardware — the digital audio workstation — along with music recording & mixing software.
Some old-school music professionals and hobbyists tend to have a negative view of modern digital recording; some consider digitally recorded music to have a relatively harsh or hard-edged sound (and the truth is, this can certainly be the case). As a result, many plug-ins (software add-ons) have been developed for the purpose of providing software equivalents to the music effects that used to be created by mechanical boxes. One of the most important music effects for recording studios is reverb, which includes recreating the acoustics of various venue types and sizes: For instance, one can record in a very small room and the audio engineer could add an effect using a plug-in which recreates the audio effects of playing or recording in a large cathedral.
Other music effects covered by modern plug-ins include:
- EQ (Equalization)
- Pitch shift
- Noise reduction
Due to the advancement of these digital music effect plug-ins and other factors, large recording studios are no longer a requirement for producing high-quality music recordings. Much of what used to require a large/ major recording studio can now be accomplished in a considerably smaller recording studio by computers, music recording software along with quality equipment such as studio monitors, microphones, and the like.
The quality of the microphones available at a given recording studio is certainly one determining factor in the resulting quality of the music produced in that studio. Certain instruments, vocal features, and other music components sound better when particular microphones are used. Surprisingly, perhaps, the resulting audio can be inversely proportional to the cost of the microphone and thus fail to meet the naturally resulting higher expectations of more expensive mics. For a general discussion of types of studio microphones, check out the Sweetwater inSynch article on the subject. Some microphones emphasize bass, others mid-range, and some treble. For example, a mandolin, already being in the treble range, can sound comparatively harsh with a microphone emphasizing treble. Top-quality microphones generally seem to sound clear and full in wider ranges, or in some cases, in virtually all ranges.
Although the falling prices of some recording studio gear & music equipment have significantly reduced the need of and demand for full-stage studio use, it has not been completely eliminated. The article “When to Record with a Studio” from the Golden Clam Machine – a recording studio in Boise, Idaho – discusses the advantages of different types of studios for varying types of music as well as a chart showing the type(s) of recording studio that might be the best fit under varying circumstances. In another article, David Michael of Shattered Chain Records looks at the cost factor and also addresses the importance of creativity and how it can be affected by cost restraints.
One of the most critical components of recording studio effectiveness is the work of the audio engineer. This How Stuff Works article defines the audio engineer rather well. In practice, audio engineers — like all people — bring a vast array of varying qualities, skills, and experience to the table. While one audio engineer might lean toward the highly technical and thus be considered by some (somewhat derogatorily) to be a mere knob turner, another audio engineer might have an affinity for the creative, artistic side. Most sound engineers fall somewhere in-between.
In any case, a skilled audio engineer, through audio mixing, can create something quite different from the originally recorded product. While skilled mixing can make for some deeply enjoyable or even intense listening pleasure, the result might be difficult or even impossible for a performing band to reproduce live on stage.
A critical requirement for a good audio engineer is what’s known as a good ear. I have worked with sound engineers that can hear things I absolutely could not hear — no matter how I tried. A thusly good-eared engineer is capable of noticing an instrument ever-so-slightly out of tune or out of time, microscopically muffled notes, and minute volume changes. While the engineer uses sophisticated digital tools, they also necessarily depend on their ears.
Most engineers track (or record), mix (combine audio tracks), and master (ensure the various songs on a given CD are consistent in certain audio qualities) with powered studio monitors, which are a special type of speaker. Studio monitors are powered (plugged in) speakers, often relatively small in size, designed to reproduce all the audio — from a track — imperfections and all. As opposed to home speakers designed to make music sound great, studio monitors are extremely accurate such that the engineer can hear everything.
Another important variable with regard to the audio engineer is his style and method of interacting with the artist(s). Most artists want an engineer to be honest about any problems or issues. The successful audio engineer works as a partner with the artists. The engineer often is the control factor that keeps sloppy work from being recorded. So the artist generally has to trust the engineer’s critical judgement. As a result, one of the most common questions in the recording studio is, “Can we do that one again?”
Advantages of a small recording studio
The advantages of a small recording studio are often a number of subjective qualities. Due to significantly lower cost, there can be much less pressure on the artists during recording. An artist might be willing to attempt more difficult licks with less pressure and fewer restraints. There is less pressure to get it done in a short period of time. With quality equipment and a talented & experienced audio engineer, a small studio can produce music matching that of a larger recording studio in virtually every aspect.
Ultimately, technology does not make good music; people do.
 Digital audio workstation
It seems the term digital audio workstation, or DAW for short, can refer to the computer hardware, the software, or a combination of the two which are used to record much of the music produced these days.