6 Questions to Ask Before Booking Studio Time

There naturally comes a time in a musician's life when they'll want to record their music. While some are content to self-record at home, others will want to experiment with recording in ways that are outside of their immediate spatial and technical means.

Whether you're looking for access to a better recording room, gear, or even just a more knowledgeable mind, paying for time in an established recording studio is, inarguably, a solid way to expand and achieve your sonic ambitions.

But simply paying for studio time won't solve all of your musical problems, especially if you're unwilling to be self-critical and logical before going into the process. It’s not hyperbolic to say that if your aspirations in the studio are unrealistic or if you go in unprepared, you could be dooming yourself both creatively and financially.

In order to help prevent this unfortunate outcome, we've picked the brains of some of the best and most in-demand NYC producers and engineers to find out what you should be asking yourself before booking your studio time.

Am I ready?

The most important question to ask yourself before booking studio time is, "Are my songs ready?" And secondly, "Do I have the ability to perform these songs perfectly in-tune and in-time?"

No engineer is going to be able to fix those things for you (though some may valiantly try). If your songs or performances aren’t fleshed out enough or properly arranged, you'll likely waste time and money by taking them to a studio.

Every moment spent making the song better and your performance better is money in the bank compared to spending time in a studio," - Quinn McCarthy

Quinn McCarthy, owner and head engineer at The Creamery in Brooklyn, agrees. "If you have a good song, that matters way more than where and how you record it. Every moment spent making the song better and your performance better is money in the bank compared to spending time in a studio," McCarthy says.

Of course, it’s a great feeling to be able to go into a studio and just jam out ideas. Sometimes, you'll even hit gold. But when money is on the line for you to record on premier equipment, it’s best to go in as prepared as possible. If you are at that earlier stage in the recording process, perhaps a budget or demo studio is the right way to go.

According to Wayne Gordon, esteemed producer/engineer for Daptone and Wick Records, "When you are handpicking a recording studio, it’s not a good idea to waste time on writing songs in the studio… You start by writing a demo, taking it through pre-production, and then you get to the studio where something can spark."

The Creamery Studio in Brooklyn (Photo via thecreamerystudio.com)

What objectives am I trying to achieve?

When you get into the studio, the first thing your engineer is going to ask you is what your objectives for the studio are. As an artist actively paying money to create something, you absolutely need to be able to answer this question.

Ask yourself if you're hoping to record a single song, an EP, album, or the next Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. If you can’t clearly answer this question, or if you sound completely delusional to multiple people (including yourself), you probably shouldn’t be trying to record on a Neve… yet.

Do I have the resources?

Studio time is obviously expensive, and if you have unrealistic expectations, you might end up blowing through your budget quicker than expected, leaving you with a series of unfinished songs and no way to finish them. This can be an especially easy trap to fall into if it's your first time in the studio.

The good news, though, is that studios are often willing to work with you, and if you go in with an honest budget, you should still be able to get your goals accomplished.

Erin Tonkon, a producer and engineer for David Bowie and Esperanza Spalding, says, "Money (and resources) can always be planned out beforehand. Part of my job as a producer/engineer is to keep things moving on schedule. The more important thing to consider is who you are recording with."

Is this the right studio for me? Is the engineer a good fit?

This question seems like the most simple, but it’s also commonly forgotten. Just because a studio exists in proximity to you doesn't mean it's the right place for you to record your music. Many studios will let you check out the space beforehand and meet your potential engineer, but outside of that, it’s important to do your own research.

You pay for what you get, and everyone has to be on the same page going in." - Erin Tonkon

Check out the engineer’s portfolio, look at the gear list of the studio, and compare prices around town. Does the proposed engineer have the same or similar tastes to you, and has the studio or engineer ever made a record like yours?

To this end, Erin Tonkon says, "You pay for what you get, and everyone has to be on the same page going in." While it may feel nice to do so, you don’t want to record a dirty punk record on an SSL 4000G console if you can get the sound that you want out of an MBox 3 or a Tascam 388.

What’s the difference between an engineer and a producer?

Traditionally, the worlds of producing and engineering are separate. In the past, producers focused on arrangements and fleshing out the song, while the engineer’s job was to sonically maximize the performances by doing the actual technical recording and mixing.

Wayne Silver, the co-owner and engineer at The Ice Plant, puts it simply, "The producer back in the day was more like the director and literally ran the show, and the engineer was there just to get it to sound good."

Today, the lines have blurred. You have producers that can engineer and engineers that can produce. As pretty much every one of the professionals we consulted made clear, it is exceedingly rare in the modern world to be a high-level producer who’s worked with big names but doesn't also have engineering chops of their own.

With all of this said, unless you are explicitly involving a producer or producer/engineer, no one but you is going to make major tonal decisions for your guitar, suggest vocal harmonies, or help you arrange your song. That’s your job.

As the non-literal School of Steve Albini teaches, if you are paying an engineer for engineering services, their job is still solely to record what you are doing and your ideas — not the other way around.

The Ice Plant in New York City (Photo via theiceplant.com)

Are my instruments fully functioning? Is my guitar/bass properly set-up?

Unless you are James Jamerson or Hound Dog Taylor, there is no excuse for going into a paid recording session without an in-tune and recently serviced instrument. What’s the point in paying for studio time to record out-of-tune guitars with dead strings and scratchy pots?

A good recording starts at the source. In other words, if you don’t have a good-sounding instrument hitting your microphone, no matter how much outboard gear you have, it’s not going to work." - Wayne Silver

If you are considering paying hundreds to thousands per day to record, you should more than consider paying an additional $60-80 to a tech or luthier to make sure your guitar and bass sound good on the most basic of levels. While some studios will have a backline of instruments as part of their appeal, not every studio does, and you can’t rely on them to have every guitar (or bass) for every need.

As The Ice Plant’s Silver points out, "A good recording starts at the source. In other words, if you don’t have a good-sounding instrument hitting your microphone, no matter how much outboard gear you have, it’s not going to work. Your Korean (or Indonesian) Squier will not sound like a ‘58 Strat just because I turn some knobs on my console."

What’s more important: paying for recording or mixing?

Paying for studio time doesn't automatically mean you're using that time to record there. Often, musicians will book time at a studio solely to mix a previously recorded song. Since the world of home recording has exploded over the past decade-and-a-half, it has become possible to record excellent-sounding tracks anywhere.

In theory, you can take tracks you recorded in your practice space and have them mixed in a world-class studio. And if your bedroom recording was done properly in a good room with properly set-up instruments and tight performances, your fully mixed final product might just sound amazing.

The bottom line here is that if the components of the music that you can control — gear, performance, arrangement — aren't up to snuff yet, it's not going to matter where you recorded, who is doing the mixing, or how much money you have to spend. Make sure that you're confident about what you can control, and then go from there.

Erin Tonkon says, "If you’re not clear on what you want your record to sound like, then that’s when you are going to get into trouble… wanting to over-mix the songs and do fifteen different mix passes, because you just didn’t really know what you wanted to do in the first-place."

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