Save Money on Your Home Studio
by Brandon Stoner of Thieves & Lovers
Recording technology now allows for songwriters and musicians to create professional sounding productions from their bedroom with just a few pieces of gear, and many musicians are choosing to go this route over working in a traditional studio.
While this approach certainly has its pitfalls (do you even know how to record?!) it also has many creative and financial benefits. You don’t have to worry about a ticking clock and the expense that comes with that, you can be more at ease in your approach, you can take your time and try out different song parts and arrangements without being rushed, and you can experiment with creative mic placements and gear selection.
We all work within some kind of budget, whether you are an aspiring songwriter that just wants to lay your songs down or you run a studio business by working with outside clients. Here are some ways to save money on your home or project studio so you can focus on what really matters – making music.
Only Buy What You Need
GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is all too real, and it’s hit all of us at one point or another. It’s easy to get caught up in buying and trying new studio toys, but it’s important to distinguish between want and need. There are a number of great resources on the internet and in print to help you find the right gear for your exact needs - so do your research.
Look into testing out gear before you buy. You want to know that the products you spend your hard earned budget on will provide the functionality you need. You don’t want anything collecting dust. In the event of needing to return something, keep in mind that some places have restocking fees, and some don’t even accept returns on open boxes. If you’re stuck with a dud you might be able to flip it on a site like Reverb, but you’ll probably take a hit on the purchase. Do your homework and prevent buyer’s remorse.
Make a budget and stick to it. Don’t have a budget? Then you probably shouldn’t buy anything!
Set Yourself Up
Learn how to do your own guitar and drum setups. You’ll get to have your instruments set up to your personal specs and save on paying a tech to do it. You can even offer this as another service to the artists you record to make some extra money.
Don’t Forget to Wipe
Use string cleaner to wipe down your guitars after every session. This will help extend the life of your strings. Keeping your guitars in cases can help to prevent climate from corroding the strings faster than they would if they were on a rack or guitar stand at room temperature.
With a little electronics know-how and some patience you can make professional quality gear right at home. There are a number of companies that sell kits for everything from preamps and microphones to guitar pedals. Some of the kits come with all the necessary components, some provide some of the parts and you’ll have to chase down the rest, and some provide only the PCB (circuit board) and instructions.
In this life you are surrounded by cables and if you are trying to get into making your own gear, that’s the perfect place to start DIYing! Cables are the easiest kind of gear to make and learning how to make your own will save you money while helping you get into the nuts and bolts of electronics and soldering.
Do you know that it’s possible to turn a $100 microphone into a $1000 microphone? Even the cheapest Chinese condenser can become a powerful addition to your mic locker with a few simple mods (like upgrading the capsule). Almost any piece of studio gear can be modded, from preamps and compressors to guitar pedals and guitars themselves.
The learning curve can be a bit steep, but once you’re handy with a soldering iron learning how to modify your gear can save you a fortune and give you access to equipment of a much higher quality than you could otherwise afford.
There is some great gear to be had on the used market. Keep an eye out on the internet, Facebook groups, Craigslist, or anywhere else that musicians might be flipping gear. Something to keep in mind when making purchases is gear value depreciation. Software depreciates at a rapid rate and can rarely be resold. Companies fold, or stop offering updates and support for products. Hardware retains a somewhat static value on the used market.
Poor Man’s Acoustic Treatment
I’m going to preface this by saying there is no substitute for proper room treatment. It is an absolute necessity, but it can be expensive and time consuming to treat the specifics problems inherent to your space. Even with the more moderately priced outlets it can require quite a bit of product to properly treat a room.
Moving blankets are great for a number of things in this regard. You can hang them in the corners of the room to help reduce reflections, or throw them over a mic stand to make great and easy baffles (or gobos, if you prefer). You can also place the baffles in specific spots around the room to help reduce unwanted nodes and reflections. Despite what you’ve seen in movies, egg cartons do nothing to help treat a room. Mass is what absorbs sound.
This is really important so I’m going to say it again. There is no substitute for proper room treatment! Before you buy another mic or preamp that you probably don’t need, treat your room. The John Sayers’ studio design forum is an amazing resource to get the best sound out of your studio.
Get to Know Your Gear
Don’t continue buying more equipment until you’ve really explored the limits of what you already have. Remember, it’s not necessarily what you use, but how you use it. Do you have a bunch of plug-ins or hardware that you really haven’t put to use? Try them in a new way, you might find some new sounds. Or try some alternate settings to find new sonic ground with familiar gear. Try a different mic than you would normally use. Step out of the box, and use old favorites in new ways to find novel sounds.
Do you even need more gear to find the sound in your head? There are so many innovative recording techniques out there to get unique sounds that you might not need to purchase anything at all. Youtube channels like Creative Sound Lab are a wealth of information about these off-the-wall ways to discover new sounds. You should also check out legendary recording engineer Sylvia Massey’s book Recording Unhinged.
Time IS Money
When I was attending school for the recording arts, one of my professors had an expression he liked to use – “Being in the studio is like burning 100 dollar bills”. Even if you’re just recording yourself, time is valuable and you want to be as efficient as possible. Plan your sessions out and stay focused. You’ll end up with better results at the end of the day and save time.
Instant recall is one of the best things about modern recording technology, but things like hardware settings should be noted. This goes for microphones, preamps, outboard gear, and guitar amps and pedals. Keep track of what mics you used, mic positions, distances from the source, etc. Be as detailed as possible because you might have a session down the road where you want to dial in the same sound you used three months ago, only to find you have no idea what your setup was.
They Sent the Tax Man
Consider setting yourself up to function as a business so that you can make deductions. The process for this will vary based upon where you’re located, but even if you’re just recording yourself there are legal ways to claim a variety of things on your annual taxes. It’s best to consult with an attorney about your specific situation.
If you have a lot of gear running you’re going to be drawing a lot of power, spiking your electric bill. When running a few racks of gear, consider using power conditioners/distribution switches so that only the gear you need at the moment is powered up. If you have clients in and out, you also have to think about water usage when they use kitchen or bathroom facilities. And depending on what state you’re in you can collect recyclables (reduce, reuse, recycle!) and cash them in.
If you deal with clients, have a contract. Every time. You don’t need to be working on a major label release to need your legal ducks in a row. You may run a smaller operation, but this should not change your mindset or approach. Contracts keep you in the legal clear and can prevent a number of headaches down the road. It also lays out the expectations for you and your clients about how your business relationship will be conducted.