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"Hope you're well - I'm also script doctoring a West End show this weekend and starting a new TV script on Monday for shooting later on in the month! Was there ever a time when we complained about having too little work? [John Byrne] [Serious Writers Guild Member - London]
DEMOS vs RECORDSDemos are out –– Records are in. “The fact is,” according to Paul Carlsen, a veteran engineer/producer (Nirvana, Cypress Hill, the Doors), “no one makes demos anymore, everyone makes records.”
And when you think about it, Carlsen is absolutely right. What he’s talking about is the “sonic quality” you tend to hear on recordings nowadays, and the fact that most artists no longer limit their recordings to only a few songs. Today, artists use recordings in a variety of ways: they’ll sell them at shows, give them to fans, use them for reviews, send them to radio, pitch them to music supervisors and, last but not least, shop them to labels.
In fact, Music Connection has noticed that very few acts use the typical demo format anymore. The majority of acts have a complete album, and even those that don’t, go that extra mile for a quality production. Now, it seems that most artists use a demo as a tool in their songwriting process, rather than as a finished product suitable for industry and the public. This practice corresponds exactly to how professional acts have always demo’d their songs. As a result, it’s much more common to see up-and-coming artists peddling an album of 10 to 12 songs than it is to see them promoting a three-song demo.
With that being the case, sonic quality becomes a major concern. Music is a very competitive field and a recording is a direct representation of an artist’s work. Obviously, how that recording is perceived can significantly affect an artist’s career –– either positively or negatively.
Of course, with technology being what it is today, artists have a lot of options available to them when it comes to recording. Home studios are not only reasonably affordable; they also level the playing field to a large extent. But, there is a good reason why professional musicians use professional studios, and it generally boils down to that old saw –– “It’s not the technology, it’s the technique” –– i.e., the skill and experience of an engineer within the environment of a professional recording studio. It’s an eye opening reality that just because an artist may have a reasonable facsimile of a pro studio in their home, it doesn’t mean they’re going to get the same results a professional facility can produce.
The ultimate question is whether or not the quality of a recording really matters to industry (and the public). Of course it does, and to think otherwise is naïve. There are very few industry players alive today who can envision a finished and polished production after hearing a rough demo. In fact, most of the recordings A&R receives are mixed, mastered and polished to perfection.
“The bar has definitely been raised,” notes Simon Gillies, head of A&R for Tonos, an independent A&R company. Gillies listens to almost one thousand songs a week in an effort to place artists with industry opportunities at labels, publishers and production companies. He points out, “Sometimes a simple recording will do, but most of the time it won’t. Artists should realize that they might only get one shot at industry ears, and often decisions are made in less than a minute. Generally, if a recording isn’t comparable to what record execs expect to hear, it will probably be passed over.”
“Wait just a minute,” artists are probably screaming –– doesn’t A&R always claim, “It’s about the songs!” Yes they do, but they’re human too. And, with all things being equal, the superior-sounding recording will get more attention.
Doorslammer recording artist, Danny Blitz, who recently received a major sponsorship from Budweiser, is a perfect example of the results you can get with a high-quality recording. “John Hammond is dead,” Blitz sighs, “and his kind of ‘record man’ hardly exists anymore. The sad truth is demos don’t get you signed today, and they definitely won’t get you the type of support you need to advance your career. You need a professional-sounding product if you hope to attract industry and sponsors.”
Apparently, the only exception to this rule is what veteran record producer, Dito Godwin (No Doubt, Motley Crue, KISS) calls “The Bette Davis Eyes Syndrome.” “If you have an obvious and undeniable hit,” Godwin relates, “you might be able to get away with a less-than-professional recording. An acoustic guitar or piano with a vocal recorded through a boom box could possibly do the trick. Of course,” he qualifies, “that depends on the person hearing it, and if they have enough record savvy to perceive a finished product.”
THE HOME STUDIO ADVANTAGE
Even with the above admonitions in mind, there are a number of significant advantages a home studio can offer. The first and most obvious is cost. “You can buy killer equipment for $5,000,” Godwin maintains, “and even if you spend 10 times that, you’ll still save money in the long run working from home.” Godwin also brings up the comfort factor. “You can’t discount the fact that at home you can record whenever inspiration strikes, even in the middle of the night; and, you can always take a break without worrying about the time.”
In fact, time is one of the main concerns eliminated by a home studio set-up. “When you’re in a professional situation, time is always on your mind,” Blitz contends, “because every minute costs more money. And that sort of pressure can affect your performance.” Without such constraints, however, experimentation is possible and, according to Blitz, that’s when magic can happen. “You can be much more creative at home using a trial and error approach. And, sometimes those errors can lead to something really special.” Indeed, Blitz believes that “art” can be created in a home studio much easier than in a professional facility. “Pro studios usually avoid that trial and error process,” he says, “but if you’re not careful they can also produce a generic result. And, that’s the last thing any artist wants.”
Of course, those benefits assume that there’s somebody who knows how the equipment works inside out in a home environment. If not, you’re not likely to get a satisfactory result. “That’s one of the biggest problems,” relates Dee Robb, co-owner of Cherokee Studios. “Very few recording projects go the way you expect them to –– even in a professional atmosphere. In your home a million things can go wrong, and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing, or you’re going to waste a lot of time and effort.”
Indeed, a compromise might be to hire an experienced engineer to do the recording for you. There are quite a few pro engineers who offer mobile services, and they’ll come right to your home base. Carlsen suggests, “A skilled engineer can get very good results in a home studio –– close to that of a professional facility. Additionally, some of the new gear today eliminates a lot of controls, and instead has pre-sets built in that were programmed by engineers like myself. In effect, the expertise is built right into the system. And, with the right person working the board and setting up the mics, you can get an excellent recording.”
THE PRO STUDIO ADVANTAGE
Every person we interviewed agreed that pro studios would consistently give you superior results. One of the most frequently cited benefits of a pro environment are the “tuned rooms” that are acoustically designed and controlled for the best sound. That’s something you’re not likely to have at home, because even under the best of circumstances ambient sounds, echoes and outright disturbances are commonplace. The dog will bark, the phone will ring or someone might yell outside. Unless you’re totally closed off and sound proof, those noises will bleed right into your recording. That’s not going to happen at a professional studio. And, even if you can protect against outside interference, rooms at home generally don’t have the “lively acoustics” a pro studio provides.
In addition to the sound, the co-owner of Office Studios, Bob Kulick, talks about the “vibe” factor. “Pro studios such as ours have rooms large enough to accommodate an entire band. We can do live recordings here and use multiple microphones to pick up every dynamic in the sound.” Kulick believes that when players see each other playing it elevates their individual performances. He contends, “There’s just something about a whole band playing together that makes their performance more organic and, consequently, more real.”
Another important aspect to consider regarding pro studios is the organization and support network they provide. Joe Robb of Cherokee Studios (Dee’s brother) emphasizes, “Pro studios usually have a wide range of services available. When you need something like a new piece of equipment, different gear, a particular sound or even another player, our support system can supply it. We’re tapped into an industry network that has everything you need.”
Cherokee’s Dee Robb also mentions the camaraderie of other musicians. “A lot of creative ideas originate in our lounge area. Artists from different sessions will get together and talk about what they’re doing. They’ll bounce suggestions off each other and inspire one another.” This sort of thing rarely happens in a home studio, but appears to be quite common at professional facilities. And, there’s really nothing like bumping into Bruce Springsteen or your favorite superstar to motivate your muse and kick up your performance. In fact, Dito Godwin has noticed that for many musicians simply knowing that one of their idols has played in a room improves their performance.
Lastly, pro studios have the obvious –– top-of-the-line equipment and skilled engineers that are usually second to none. Huge consoles, an endless supply of sophisticated gear, and ears that have produced gold and platinum records are all there.
All you have to do is pay for it –– and there lies the rub.
Because of the cost involved, many emerging artists cannot afford to do a whole project at a professional studio. According to studio owners, you can expect to pay from $500 to thousands of dollars a day for a great room. That’s serious money for most people, but it need not prevent you from utilizing professional services for different aspects of your recording. In fact, everyone we interviewed mentioned several steps in the recording process where a professional facility is essential. They are so important, that you can’t afford not to take them if you want your recording to be taken seriously. Indeed, Bruce Bouillet of Office Studios (Kulick’s partner) advises, “The cost will be justified by the end product. There are some things you just shouldn’t shortchange.”
One of those steps involves tracking live drums. If you are recording acoustic drums (as opposed to using a drum machine), Godwin insists that you need to use a drum room to get the right sound. “Some home studios use a bathroom to bounce the sound off the tiles, but you’re never going to get a realistic sound from the kick and snare that way. In a pro set-up the drums will be isolated and mic’d to the max so that every beat is captured.”
A pro recording will also use a click track, and Godwin says, “That’s a wake-up call for a lot of drummers. You can see their life ebbing away as they try to keep time with the click. And, the fact of the matter is,” he reminds us, “the drum track is the foundation for most recordings.”
Another aspect that could benefit from a pro situation is the guitar solo. In a home studio many artists will record guitar parts directly to the hard drive. That will certainly get the job done, but Godwin maintains, “It will never sound as good as the real thing. With the proper mic’ing in a good room you’ll get all the tones and ambient dynamics. And, let’s face it,” he says, “there’s nothing like hearing that ‘whoof’ rushing out of the amp.”
Of course, all this tracking takes time and could be costly. Dee Robb advises that artists could save money by taking the tracks home and editing them there. “You can also overdub at home if you want to,“ he proposes. “That would be a good use of time and it’s cost effective. You don’t necessarily need to use studio time or a professional engineer for those procedures.”
FINISH IT OFF
An area that cannot be sidestepped, however, is the “finishing” process –– mixing and mastering. Without question, everyone interviewed agrees that this is the most crucial part of the recording process. You can skimp on every other aspect if you must, but don’t ignore the mix.
Office Studios’ Bouillet strongly states, “There’s no substitution for a great set of ears on a skilled engineer.” Indeed, Godwin firmly believes that every artist with a home studio should budget for a professional mix and mastering. “I’ve made a lot of records and worked in many different studios – including home studios. And, you can usually make almost anything work when you have to. But when it comes to mixing and mastering, it’s not a ‘Do It Yourself’ process. The result won’t be anywhere near professional quality if you try to do it on your own.” And, it seems that many artists realize that fact. MC’s Recording Studio Survey (on page 58) shows that post-production work has significantly increased at pro studios.
Carlsen suggests that the reason for this is the complexity of the task. “Artists frequently discover that they have more tracks than they can handle and have a difficult time mixing them. They need a pro to sort it out and put it together. It’s also important to be able to cross different media platforms so that you’re not restricted to only one.”
GET THE TRUTH
Once you have your record finished, it is crucial to get objective opinions before it’s mastered. Simon Gillies of Tonos indicates, “The problem is that some artists believe whatever they create is great, or they think industry can envision the final product. But neither of those thoughts is accurate.” Gillies recommends that getting objective opinions from people, including industry if possible. “Be honest with yourself and open to criticism,” he advises, “and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Blitz concurs, but cautions that you should approach those who have your best interest at heart. “Opinions can tear you down or tell you the truth,” he declares. “Be aware that some folks only have ears for the obvious, while others can identify artistic qualities. It helps if you know who’s who.”
Finally, MC’s sources suggest that you consider the purpose of the recording, because that will determine your course of action. What are you using it for? Is it simply a demo to work on your songs or are you marketing it and sending it to labels, radio stations or publishers? Those are all very different uses and the quality of the production can vary with each. Of course, you can never go wrong if you have the highest quality you can afford. The bottom line, according to Gillies is, ”If you truly believe your songs are that good, invest in them. Budget your money to get them properly tracked, mixed and mastered. You won’t regret it.”
GIVE IT YOUR BEST
Home studios can be very competitive, in both quality of product and cost of recording. But you also have to face reality if you want a music career. The artistic and commercial competition nowadays is rabid. More and more artists are utilizing the professional touch, and their recordings reflect that. Dito Godwin puts it simply, “You’ve got to give it your best shot. Time in a pro studio can easily be justified, if you use it wisely. Just know what you need and take advantage of it.”
Indeed, Danny Blitz is the epitome of an independent artist. He’s got his own vision and he’s pursuing it –– his way. But he realized a basic truth after working in a professional setting. “I always believed that if I could play loud enough, I could make a killer record anywhere. But,” Blitz now confides, “I learned that when your career takes a serious turn, it’s time to get serious and turn to professionals. If you want to make a top quality record, there’s no question about it –– you’re going to need skilled engineers in pro studios. I found out that recording with professionals produced the best work I’ve ever done.”
CONTACTS FOR THIS ARTICLE:
• Dee Robb, Cherokee Studios 323-653-3412 www.cherokeestudios.com
• Bouillet/Kulick, Office Studios 818-782-2287
• Dito Godwin, Godwin Productions 541-282-0303 www.ditogodwin.com
• Simon Gillies, A&R, Tonos 310-526-4600 www.tonos.com
• Danny Blitz, Doorslammer Records 323-464-2164 www.dannyblitz.com