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Finding the Right Recording Studio for the Right Price

When it finally comes down to going into the studio, this business of making records is not fueled by rational thinking, but by the imaginative dreams of songwriters, singers, musicians, engineers, and producers. So when you get to the point of negotiating a studio rate that will actually fit into your budget, we usually let fear and fantasy reign when it's time for the other side of our brains to kick in. VI'hen asked about choosing a studio, Donald Fagan of the pop duo Steely Dan recently said that studio cost was the most important single factor. And this from a guy that spends over a million dollars on a single project in studio time alone!
Most of us don't have the luxury of that kind of budget, so we need to be wise in choosing a studio and negotiating the use of that studio. Some simple factors need to be assessed before you begin your search:

  • 1. Who is the project for: Custom record? National label? Songwriter demo? Artist demo?
  • 2. Are you using musicians, or is it all sequenced using only synthesizers and maybe one or two musicians?
  • 3. What kind of budget can you afford? What are your expectations sound-wise? Don't expect $10,000 to sound like $500,000, a figure that is often spent and even exceeded on today's top selling records.

Only after asking these questions (and about a million more that space doesn't allow) should you even begin your search for the right studio. The next step is to familiarize yourself with all the studios in your area. I would venture to say that in every town in America with over 100,000 population there are usually several studios with different layouts, sizes, and tracking options available. Some are project studios for artists, labels, or agencies and therefore not available to outside clients. Others are merely toys for amusement. Stay away from these; they are bad for your audio health.

Try to find studios with two main ingredients: quality equipment (that is in good working condition), and a trained staff. Digital eight-track machines are wonderful tools, and people are making records on them, but they do not constitute a pro audio facility. Make sure the studio is spacious enough to accommodate your group and that the signal path going from microphone to tape is of the highest quality you can afford (if you don't know what that means, find someone who does and ask them to come with you when checking out studios).

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Finding the Right Recording Studio for the Right Price

After you have narrowed your studio list down, find out about the hourly rate for each place. Does that include an engineer? Do they offer a lower rate if you book several days in a row? What about evenings? After midnight? How is their attitude? Are they are eager to work with you? Will they talk to you about the recording process and try to access with you if this is the best place for you? One of the most important but underestimated aspects of making a record is the attitude of the staff.

When you have compiled all the facts and figures, you are ready for the final factor in this complex equation:

  • - their availability versus your need
  • - Has the studio been vacant for some time?
  • - How desperate are they for your business?
  • - Is this the only studio in the area that will work for you?
  • - Can you afford to block-book the studio for a week, two weeks, a month? (block booking is hiring the studio for several days/weeks/months in a row; the good news is that this will dramatically lower your overall rate, but the bad news is that you had better be prepared when you go into the studio, or you will waste time and money)
  • - Do you have to finish the project this week, or can it be delayed a month when the studio is open and in need of clients?
  • - You really want to work with their engineer.

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