Here’s a tricky question to answer without stepping on someone’s toes?
“My band has decided that we are ready to go into the studio to record our first album. We have about 10 songs that we’d like to do. We are not a big time band and probably won’t even play a gig anywhere but we just want something to be able to listen to and sell to our friends. What kind of prices would we be looking at for recording, mixing, engineer and all that jazz? We’d like to keep this as cheap as possible cause like I said, it isn’t a real big thing.”
Well, have you considered recording it yourself? Okay, okay! We sell gear. I had to go there first. Actually you are smart to use a pro studio if you aren’t in to all the recording technology. Nothing’s worse than someone spending thousands on gear only to learn after the fact that they have no aptitude for recording and production.
Recording studio costs can vary wildly, and depend on the market you are in more than any other single thing. Assuming you don’t want to explore traveling hundreds of miles to potentially save a few bucks on recording time your best bet is to simply find out about all of the places in your area. In most markets recording studios can be broken up into three major categories: 1) Big time studios that charge big bucks and probably don’t even have time to mess with some band because they are busy doing post production, film, TV, major label album, and video work. 2) “Project” studios that cater to bands and artists, or at least music production. 3) Basement or home studios. You are probably going to end up in one of the latter two.
Project studios can range from world class to glorified basement studios, and you will generally find they are priced accordingly. Since these guys are in business to make money (not just have fun with gear) you should be able to get in and out with a decent product. You should visit each one, talk to the owner or manager, and the house engineer or producer (who is often the owner or engineer). Let them play some stuff for you. Listen critically, and then talk to them about what you want to do and how much they think you will spend. They’ll never want to promise how much you’ll spend because they don’t know how effective your band will be in the studio, but you can get an idea from talking with them about how you will record it. No matter how good what they tell you sounds don’t make a decision yet. Go to as many more as you can. At the end one or two will have impressed you enough to take the conversation further.
A home or basement studio is operated by someone who simply wants a studio for their own work. Most of these guys never run an ad, so you’re probably just going to find out about them from a mutual friend. In many ways these can be a great bargain. You can occasionally find excellent equipment and someone who really knows what they are doing who is happy to record you for the fun/experience of it. This is rare. More often you will find a mish-mash of equipment put together in a way that serves one individual and is not at all ready to serve the needs of a band. Again, talk to a few and feel them out. Listen to what they’ve done and get their take on what they think they can do for you. If anything sounds vague or cloudy stay away unless the time is virtually free, and even then you should be very careful. It’s a terrible feeling to spend a week (even if the time is free) in someone’s basement studio and end up with a terrible recording that you have to redo.
Project studio rates will vary between $20 and $90 per hour in most markets. Basement studio rates will vary between free and $40 per hour. There are exceptions to both, but that’s a general idea. You usually get what you pay for, but not always. Definitely don’t write off a studio because they are $10 more an hour than the one down the street. They may be able to help you do the project faster, which will make up the money, and it is likely the results will be better and more to your liking. One strategy is to do one or two songs at a couple of different places. Pay as you go and tell them you will use those results to decide where to do the rest of the project. You’ll most likely end up with some portion of the record finished and the knowledge you need to do the rest of it in the best way for your band. If you end up having to redo some or all of one of the songs that may still be a small price to pay for getting everything right in the end. Some studios offer packages for a whole album. These can be a great deal, or they can be a disaster. It just depends on how committed the studio is to getting what you want. Talk to other people who’ve recorded at the studio to find out how things went and if they were happy with the results. If a studio doesn’t want to give you these referrals that’s probably a good reason to stay away. But don’t be cheap. Sometimes a little extra money can make a big difference in the outcome. Just like we preach at Sweetwater every day. Price is only one part of value. There are many other important ingredients.