This is a question many independent artists and bands face when they're ready to begin recording their music. It's a reasonable question if you or someone you know is at least remotely technically inclined. Which choice is right for you–to record yourself, or go to a professional studio–is dependent on a myriad of factors, ranging from ambition (what do you want to accomplish with your recording?) to audience (who will be listening to your recording?) to acoustics (how do you want your recording to sound?). There really is no “best” way to record music. It all comes down to your goals, and what's best for your songs. This article is not intended to persuade you one way or the other, despite that its author is a full time studio owner, producer, and audio engineer. It is intended to lay out the pros and cons of each method in an effort to help you decide what's best for your music.
What do you want to accomplish with your recording?
Are you trying to make a demo for you and your friends? Are you trying to compete with radio and/or your favorite Pandora station? Will getting gigs be the primary use? Is the goal to have something to sell at shows and/or on iTunes? To some degree, there is self-recorded (DIY) music that is commercially competitive (Sufjan Stevens, Owl City, Jack White, Aqualung, and Imogen Heap come to mind). But, for the most part, it's very difficult to make a song in your bedroom or rehearsal space that can compete sonically and emotionally with songs coming from professional studios. In saying that, it's NOT about the gear. It's about the operator's experience. Certainly there are engineers that can make your songs sound worse, or nothing like you intended, but the good ones will always pull the best out of your music–making it as good or better than you thought possible. This is true, though to a lesser degree, even if a good engineer were to come to your space and recorded with your setup. If your goal is to record yourself for a commercial release, realize that audio engineering is a black hole of acquiring gear and information. Many would-be artists fall into this trap, never to finish a record or write another song again. Years later they may emerge with a full beard, a pile of gear, and an online audio forum worth of knowledge, offering recording services to those still making music.
That paints quite a bleak picture, but doesn't mean it's that way for everyone. Recording yourself can be very rewarding. One of the primary benefits is that you're in total control of the outcome. You can tweak sounds and overdub to your hearts content, with no regard to budget. Though, all this control and freedom can also become the noose by which your recording hangs. Some people need that kind of control and time to realize their vision. Others are never able to say "it's finished." If one of your goals is to record your own record, go for it. There is always the studio route to fall back on.
Who will be listening to your recording?
Are you just getting started? Do you already have a following? Is there already income from existing recordings? What kind of recordings do other bands in your genre have? Are they making their records themselves?
A lot of younger bands/artists have an aversion to the term “commercial,” as if it is at war with art, and synonymous with Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Commercial, in the context of this article, simply means you want to sell your music to people. There is no connotation to lack of artistic integrity. Many bands have little to no ambition to have their songs heard by masses of people. And that's okay. You just have to be honest about what you want. This plays into the need/desire to make your own recordings or get others involved in the process. You have to gauge what your market (the people you will be selling music to) is used to hearing, and expects to hear from you. If you are just starting out, the expectations of your audience will be much lower. You may be able to get away with lower quality recordings. It may even become part of what people love about your sound, if done right. That's not to say that "DIY" is synonymous with low quality. There is potential to record very compelling music yourself; there are just many more obstacles in the way. A good studio removes as many of those obstacles as possible, so you can focus on a great performance, rather than worrying if you're in the right space, with the right microphone.
More important than any recording are your songs. A great song recorded with an iPhone is still a great song. People usually know a great song quickly. They prompt moving and the audience is singing along by the first chorus. Will recording that same song in a professional studio make it a better song? No, but it could make a much more compelling recording, and that framing and packaging could help you reach a larger audience: more people singing along with deeper head-bobs.
Perhaps your audience is used to hearing self-recorded music. If that's the expectation of your fan base, you may risk fans by going into a studio. This is also true in reverse. If your fans are used to commercial releases, you may be risking fans by trying to record yourself. If you're unsure which direction to take, ask a band you admire how they recorded their music. Veteran bands will likely have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share, and most are more willing to share than you might think.
How do you want your recording to sound?
So, you know the sound of the record you'd like to make, your ideal audience is decided, and you know what type of record they're listening for. How are acoustics going to help you decide whether to record the music yourself or go to a studio? Acoustics are how the room surrounding you react to your instrument or voice–like fish in water. Are your vocals going to swim best in a closet or bathroom? A cathedral? A vocal booth? If the sound you're hearing for drums is huge and roomy, you're going to have a difficult time getting that in your living room. Sure, the trend is just to program the drums, or replace all the recorded drums with samples, but your song and your audience may be better served with something more authentic. Or perhaps samples are the perfect thing for your audience and music, and you're well-suited to program them yourself.
A great example of this conundrum is solved by Hanz Zimmer, one of the most prolific movie scorers of all time. He will score an entire movie on his computer, but will always have a real orchestra re-record all those parts. The result is always more compelling and serves the movie best, even though he has access to the most realistic samples and reverbs in the world.
The best case scenario, and the way major label records are usually made, is a hybrid of DIY and professional studio. An artist will first demo out all their potential songs for their album at their home studio or co-writer's studio. Nothing helps making sure your ideas are solidified like going through the recording process, even if it isn't the final recording. Recording really helps work the kinks out. Another option would be to record yourself, then bring those files to a professional studio to be mixed.
Obviously there are many other factors that will play into your decision of how you will record. The major problem is that the world isn't full of individuals who are all at once highly creative, highly technical, and highly organized. If those three adjectives describe you, then you are probably a good candidate for recording yourself. If not, find someone who helps you in an area you're not great at. It's ok to relinquish some control to someone you trust. One of the beautiful aspects of music is how collaborative it can be. If you focus on your ambition, audience, and acoustics, you should begin to get a clear vision for your recording. DIY could fall perfectly into that vision. If not, find a studio that fits that vision. We're very fortunate in Cincinnati to have some wonderful spaces to record, and engineers to record with. Whatever you choose, go make some great music.
About the Author
Brandon Weaver is the CEO and Chief Audio Engineer of Iron Wing Recording Studios located in Covington, Kentucky. He is a master of his craft. This is one of a series of recording-centric articles written by the staff of Iron Wing Studios, and is intended to help local bands on their way to success in their career.