For most of the time that the modern music industry existed you’ve paid for the equipment they’ve got and for the experienced engineers. But nowadays you can build and setup your own small studio for 1k and achieve an amazing quality. And it doesn’t even take the thousand bucks if you already got a decent computer (no matter if win or mac) and let’s say a mic and an interface. Freeware sounds excellent nowadays and so you just need to learn how to use it. If you already got money to spend, no matter if you’re a solo artist or a band it might be better to buy some recording equipment instead of just ‘renting’ the stuff. You don’t need a 128 track mixing console to get good results. Owning the stuff yourself will pay off when you want to record another song/EP/album.
Recording and mixing music isn’t that hard to learn (but to master – which is another story). Basically it boils down to this:
- Adjust your ears to the overall sound instead of just your instrument
- Understand what which piece of equipment does (EQ, Comp, Gate, Verbs...)
- Know your hardware (adjust ears to monitors, know your plugins)
- Practice repeatedly
Throw in some diligence while editing and you’ll be able to produce a nicely balanced mix of your songs. The ‘old masters’ weren’t born mixing engineers – they learned a lot ‘on the fly’. New technologies popping up all the time back then, tons of analog hardware with different characteristics (even if it’s supposed to sound the same) and so on. If you read The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook (by Bobby Owskinski; no ad here, just a reference) you will notice that the most valuable part of this book is indeed the one containing the interviews. You’ll notice that almost all of the engineers are very vague about rules and fixed settings. They just know what they want and how to achieve it. Years of practice may come in handy if you want to get a certain result. And that’s what you’re paying for. Their experience and understanding of (your) music. So if you know a studio or engineer that repeatedly was involved in the making of records whose sounds you love and don’t have the time or interest to learn – go for it. If you have a very precise idea of the result yourself – learn how to achieve it.
I am not bashing studios here. If no one in your band (or you as a solo artist) is interested in recording and mixing then using their services is fine. If you got an album prepared and never recorded or mixed before you shouldn’t consider ruining your creative work by practicing on it. But if you are a/the songwriter/composer and if you can hear the final song ‘in your ear’ while writing it then you might be better off learning to record and mix yourself – at least in the long run.
What do you need to begin is a PC or Mac (tablets can do the trick but for handling more than say 6-8 tracks I wouldn’t bother), some sort of interface and a DAW (recording software). There are a lot of ‘recording beginner buyer’s guides’ and as they change constantly due to new hardware I suggest that you just search for those or head over to sites like gearslutz.com
As soon as your system is up and running and you grabbed all the free plugins (e.g. vst4free.com) you need/want you should begin recording and mixing. Not the full tracks but riffs and parts. Try a little automation. Get used to your monitors. You don’t need a pair that costs 2000 bucks and is the most neutral one can buy. It’s more important that your ears know what they’re hearing. So listening to your favorite tracks (sound wise!) isn’t a bad idea. If your first mixdowns sound like you want them, choose the song with the simplest structure and fewest instruments involved to practice. There are many small traps ahead. I will let you know for which ones I fell in a future blog.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. It is right if it sounds right. Of course there are many ‘ideals’ you can aim for (‘hear everything clearly’, ‘punchy and tight sound’ or ‘warm and vintage’ etc.) and there are some basic qualities which separate the ‘decent quality’ mix from the ‘well-I-placed-a-mic-and-pressed-record’-mix. But the ‘sound’ of a song (or a whole album) is part of what the listener experiences so it might as well add some character (your character) instead of being a generic production. Just to clarify that: a studio will (should) add character too. But it might not be what you originally intended. That’s another reason why I chose to do everything myself. It might not be the best possible quality in the ears of some but it’s closer to what I want than any mixing engineer could ever achieve. The only thing I would give away is the mastering. A second pair of ears for the final polish cannot be that bad.
PS: I mostly trained on soundsamples I made. Just like this one here
Or this one (for a competition):