If you wanted to record something of reasonably good quality 20 years ago, you generally had to go to a recording studio that had a professional-grade tape machine, a console, and a whole slew of outboard gear and mics.
That studio would have had an engineer, too. Back then, the engineer was pivotal to the whole thing working out, since—at the time at least—most musicians didn’t know how to operate all of the equipment, how to place mics and set levels, or how to make good musical decisions that would translate well to a finished product based on years of experience in the field.
In general, musicians of the past worried mostly about playing well, and left all the audio minutia to the engineer.
Sure, an experienced musician would likely have had a good understanding of the overall process and of how to get the most out of a recording session, but they wouldn’t usually wade into all of the technical details. There was a pretty clear specialization and delineation between the two worlds.
Part of the reason for the then-unquestioned separation of powers was that building and outfitting a studio was an enormously expensive undertaking in the past, even at the lower and mid-levels. This ensured that only the most dedicated and serious individuals would even bother entering the studio business.
If you were going place a bet on the success of your studio, you had better know what you were doing, because it was not easy to keep the doors open. You had to provide good service, keep the facility maintained and functional, and hopefully, offer something unique to the marketplace to stay relevant. The old joke emerged: “How do you wind up with a million dollars after 5 years in the studio business? Start with two million”.
Fast forward to the turn of the millennium, and things had changed significantly: Computer power, memory and storage space had skyrocketed, while the price per GHz and GB kept on falling. Recording hardware and software became much more affordable too, to the point where it was finally attainable for anyone who was looking to record themselves. Gone was the necessity to shell out the big bucks at a commercial studio. In more recent years, the gap between the high end and semi-pro electronics has narrowed even further.
Naturally, most musicians will happily invest in some form of recording technology to allow them to work at home. Not only because it seems like it should save money but because they can work at their own pace and have total control of the outcome of their recording. Sounds pretty ideal!
At a glance, the benefits may seem to outweigh the potential pitfalls. But do they, really?
Are you ultimately presenting your music in a way that will attract fans and listeners, thus furthering your music career?
Does your music always turn out better, or more authentic, if you choose the exclusively DIY approach?
Are the tradeoffs worth the money that you save? And, are you really saving money in the end?
These are serious questions, worth asking, and in practice, the answer is not always what we might expect.
Regardless, there are many reasons artists will give to avoid hiring an audio professional to help with their project. Each one of them seems valid on the surface, but on further reflection, these rationales often fall apart, and may not always lead to the best outcomes for the artists’ music—or their careers.
Let’s look at a handful of the most common:
1. “I prefer to have full control of my music”
This is a regular refrain among DIYers, and the statement has some merit.
When you are recording yourself, the buck stops with you. There’s no need to explain what you’re looking for, no reason to justify the song, the arrangement, or how long it is. This is your baby, and you’re 100% in charge so you can do what you want.
You can record when you feel like it, and not bother if you’re not “feeling it”. You can work on your own sounds on your own time, and only start recording when you’re happy with them.
Plus, you’re fully engaged in the process the whole time. You’re never waiting on someone else to change mics, patch in a compressor, tweak an EQ or verify the levels. Boring!
But with this level of control comes added responsibility, and this responsibility can split your mind in three: Now you’re the artist, the producer and the engineer. Cool, huh? That sounds impressive.
So at any one time, which job is most important? How and when do you decide which of these jobs you will focus on? Primary focus, by definition, can only be applied to one thing at a time. This is one of the great limitations that you force upon yourself when you record yourself: You cannot be everything at all times.
If you’re really focusing on playing well, then there’s no way to be cognizant of levels, compression, the way the track fits together, or how well you just played. These decisions are more obvious during playback, when you take off your musician hat and put on your producer hat…or your engineer hat.
What if you had a great take but the mic pre was distorting? You have to do it again. Or maybe the compression was too aggressive, or you record-armed the wrong track? Do it again.
These details are easier for someone else to keep track of when that is their primary job. If you are a musician first, then by default, you are everything else second. And, when you do put those other tasks first, you end up putting your focus on your music second or third.
Most people in most fields would rather not compromise on such important tasks when a good outcome is essential. But when you do it all yourself, these compromises are built in to the equation.
Far from giving you more control, doing everything yourself can actually make you lose some control of your music.
2. “I want to learn more about recording”
I understand this one, because that’s how I got started recording in the first place.
If you’ve gotten so obsessed with audio that you want to make a career out of it yourself, don’t let me talk you out of it. (At least not in this article…) But bear in mind that when you focus on learning about recording, your development as a musician may very well take a back seat to your development as an audio engineer.
For most musicians, the whole reason to record is to capture their music in the best way possible, so they can share it with others, or sell it to promote their band or project. This should be the focus.
Because the music is so personal to each musician, it’s natural to want to learn to capture things as you hear them in your head, and granted, there really is no better way to learn more about recording than by actually doing it.
When you record yourself, you learn what works and what doesn’t directly. This is usually more effective than having someone explain it to you. Experiential learning often goes so much farther than simply reading books or watching videos. If you want to really learn, you have to get your hands dirty. But are your own releases the best place to learn?
Early in my recording career, I learned so much from the many stupid mistakes I made that I couldn’t imagine learning any other way. Making mistakes for myself helped ensure that I would never make the same mistakes again, because the outcome was awful and embarrassing. This became particularly salient for me because I was always working for other people who had paid good money for a good recording. (Well, at least decent money.)