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Richard Lightman: Using Professional Recording Studios

Sounding Off
By Richard Lightman

Why would you use a professional recording studio?

There are a vast number of recordings, many of reasonable quality, being produced in garden sheds, bedrooms, basements, whilst on the train, in the bus station waiting for a bus and in, dare I say it, recording studios.

There are project studios and medium‑sized studios, and then there are big, luxury spaces like Metropolis, Air, Abbey Road and Kore. But why would you go to the expense of using the top‑notch studios when you can build your own home studio in the living room for a couple of thousand pounds? Some say that all you need is a laptop and some decent software to get a professional result, but how many tracks recorded at home end up as successful downloads on Amazon or iTunes? Yes, there are a few, but the majority of the music on your iPod has come out of pro studios.

There is also a consensus of opinion among recording professionals that quality recordings can only be made in studios where the equipment is of the highest standard. The Neumann M149, and its cousin, the U87 are highly revered, and few pro studios would be caught dead without a vintage collection of mics and a C12 to capture that golden vocal. But how important is the crème de la crème of the equipment world to the end product, in reality? Well, there are examples of artists that only use SM58s for vocals. This is a mic that costs less than £100, but has been part of the equipment arsenal used in the making of multi‑platinum recordings of artists like U2 or Bonnie Raitt. There are also those that swear by the latest developments from Universal Audio, or extol the virtues of Massenberg EQs and fashion‑conscious microphones with interesting colour names and cool-looking shapes.

Ultimately, though, it's not the equipment itself that makes the recording, it's the people who use it and the quality of the content. Yes, I've said it! The content! Remember that?

So where am I going with this? What does the professional recording studio give you that the bedroom doesn't? Essentially, an environment that removes all barriers from capturing the ultimate recording. If you want to use expensive mics or record in 5.1 surround sound, you can. If you want to set up the full band and record live, or record one part at a time, you can. You don't have to make compromises. If you think the guitar sounds better when the amp is in the toilet, you can do it or simulate it. Again, your choice.

If you record in your bedroom, you are compromising rather than having the freedom of sonic expression. You are getting around barriers, you are fudging it. Sometimes you do get great results, but you are limiting your choices. Some would argue that this is a good thing, that you have to deal with the limitations, and that your solutions contribute to the integrity of the recording. But experience shows that if you remove those barriers, you open up the creative pathways, and new and wonderful things happen as a result. So someone can suggest that you can stick a backwards guitar through an overdriven compressor and send it to another amp which is recorded with ambient mics. Not so easy to organise in the bedroom, but in the fully equipped studio, you can try it.

I'm not saying that your initial recordings, writing, thinking and arrangements shouldn't be done at home: the more you prepare for the recording session, the less time you will waste on getting things organised and the more time you will have for trying ideas.

This of course, leads on to using experienced and professional engineers and producers. You may know how to set up a mic or record a grand piano, but you are there to capture the creative performance and you don't need barriers to the creative process. Engineers and producers can eliminate the barriers and you can be free to create music.

So why use a professional recording studio? Answer: creative freedom and a better flow of musical ideas. Now where's that SM58?

About The Author

Richard Lightman is a producer, sound designer and composer and is Vice-chairman of the Music Producer's Guild. He now works primarily on TV and film music, and lectures in music and sound design at Kingston University.

Published April 2011