Pro Audio Files

How Should I Spend Money on My Recording Studio?

[The new Pop Mixthru tutorial from Matthew Weiss is available now]

Originally, I was going to answer this question as a video for my Ask Weiss series, but there’s no short answer to how you should spend your money. Therefore, I’ll answer this question in the form of an article.

I think the largest portion of this question comes down to your priorities.

If you’re looking to set up a place where people can record — that’s one thing. But if you’re looking for a personal-use studio where you focus on mixing, editing, and overdubs (like what I have), that’s another. If you’re looking to make this a career — that’s one thing. If you are doing this as a hobby, that’s another.

Hobbiest

Let’s talk about being a hobbyist first.

Making music for fun is awesome. In this scenario, purchases should be based solely on means and immediate needs. If you sing and play and acoustic guitar, then two mics, a two channel interface with built-in preamps, and some kind of recording software is all you really need. An inexpensive dynamic microphone like an SM58 can yield a perfectly acceptable vocal capture. For acoustic guitar you’ll probably want a condenser, and those are a touch pricier, but a used AKG451 isn’t going to break the bank. If it is, that’s ok — just go with a cheaper mic. The point is, you’re not competing with top-of-the-line studios no matter what you buy, so just go for getting that sound into the computer.

On that note, Reaper is very affordable recording software (and it’s quite good), and hey, even Garageband can work. The other consideration is that if you do have disposable income and really want to make a great record: go to a studio! That is what they’re there for. Work with an engineer that you enjoy hanging out with who will take your music seriously even if it’s just for fun. Do some demos on your inexpensive home setup. Go in there and have fun.

Professional

Now, on to those of you who are building a studio as part of a career.

Again, we need to discuss priorities. The biggest deciding factor in choosing how to spend money will be this: is this studio just for you, or is it for the general public?

If it’s for personal use, like you’re a guitarist who gets hired remotely for session work, you obviously want to play to your strengths. Focus on equipment specific to your needs and purchase things that will stand the tests of time.

Spending $50 on something you’ll ultimately replace will save money in the short term, but ultimately isn’t the best use of money in the long run. If the choice is between a $100 mic that you’ll replace or a $700 mic that you’ll keep throughout your career — go with the more expensive one. Yeah, the $600 difference might seem like a big deal in the short term. But $600 over say a 10, 20, 30, 40 year career is pretty negligible.

The other side of this is that there’s definitely “keeper” gear that’s also in the “budget-friendly department.” Going with the guitarist example, a Shure SM57 is a keeper mic for recording off the cab, and it’s only $70-$90. You can upgrade later as your business grows, maybe pick up a Royer 121, but you’ll still want to have your Sm57 around. So do your homework!

Career

This same idea applies if you are looking to be a career recordist.

My first mic was a Samson C02 — which genuinely isn’t bad for the price, but ultimately is not a “keeper” mic. I would have been better off saving for longer and purchasing my second mic, an Audio Technica 4033a, earlier on. That’s a mic that I still have and use regularly, and it cost me $250 when I bought it.

The fact is, even going by the “keeper” yet “budget-friendly” approach to purchases, if you want to do this on a serious level it’s going to cost you some money. You need to look to save money where you can. Buy secondhand whenever possible. Do as much DIY as you can. There are kits where you can build your own gear, and some of these kits are very good. Acoustic panelling is fairly easy to build yourself and will help infinitely in the short and long run. I’ve done a number of my own gear mods, acoustic panelling, and even turned an old oak school desk into my mixing station. It took a lot of time and effort, but probably saved me thousands of dollars.

Clients

This becomes even more important if you expect to have clients coming to your studio. Discipline is very important.

The temptation is to buy compressors and EQs, but you really should only do that if you have a budget that warrants purchasing outboard equipment. It’s more important to focus on equipment that will deliver results, and that starts with the front end of your recording chain (recording environment, mic and preamp), monitoring (acoustic environment and speakers), and decor. Making your space look professional is paramount — which you should be able to do fairly inexpensively.

The key to all of this is to remember that you’re building a business, and that business will be built on the clients’ results and experiences. Make purchases that will directly serve that end.

A couple quick do’s and don’t’s before I wrap this up.

DO: A lot of research. Figure out the equipment that will last.
DON’T: Assume you know stuff when you don’t. I’ve seen many poorly constructed vocals booths in my day. Don’t waste your time doing something incorrectly.
DO: Focus on the experience your client will have when they walk in the door.
DON’T: Spend money on supplementary gear that doesn’t play to your priorities. You don’t need a high end compressor if you don’t have a high end preamp.

I hope this helps! Please share your experiences of getting your studio started in the comment section below.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.


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  • Greg

    When it comes to monitoring, don’t assume spending big money will help you mix. Instead of spending outrageous money on top range monitors, buy yourself 2 pairs of mid-range monitors, and perhaps a pair of high end headphones. I have found variety trumps quality in this area.

    • Matthew Weiss

      Great advice!

    • Ni No

      Hey, I’ve had a different experience. But then again everyone is different. I knew a guy who had no room treatment, a cheap set of speakers, knew nothing about mixing but everything sounded very good in the end.

      When I decided to turn writing and production into my full-time profession, I went the rational way and put almost all my dosh into two decent Speakers (KH o300), then got 2 good cables(vovox), decoupled the speakers, got a clean monitor controller and my mixes translate much better. I also treated my room with rock wool and basotect. To me, speakers are the “eyes” in the studio. Now I don’t use my ns 10s to check anymore.

      They are in a different room incase I do want to check in a dif environment or record stuff that is too sound more roomy. Due to the translation people come in and have me master stuff, though I am not a mastering engineer and my room isn’t treated as well as a mastering studio.

      Apart from that I started off with a 1073 stereo preamp, again a decent set of cables and two neumann km254s. I still had plenty of your usual drum mics(sm57,md421,boundarymics,small condensers,etc). Having a great signal in the box makes plugins sound better…Then I got some UADs and just started adding the little things. Got a better shock mount, better pop filter, to optimise the signal chain. I feel it improved by 20% which is v significant to me if you consider it being processed after..

      I hardly own any outboard gear. I like to be fast and flexible and to be honest, often the outboard gear just doesn’t come in relation to the money you earn on the jobs. I do prefer outboard but lately the UAD emulations like the new pultec, fairchild or la2a &1176, have stopped my craving for it. They are extremely good. One decent compressor to tame some sources would be nice but that’s it.. I actually used a tube opto 8 (500 €) to record drums and was happy enough to buy it for some extra valve-colour when I need it. It sounds a wee bit rough and maybe it lacks a bit of depth but it adds some harmonic distortion that i sometimes need.
      Once in a while I will buy a decent plugin but I mainly focus on sound sources now(Samples or dif Guitars, toy keyboards, strange percussion, etc.) I’ll be improving converters soon. Later preamp colours though I’m not sure wether I might go UAD on those,too. Haven’t tested it properly yet.

      To me, getting the basics right and slowly growing and learning what I don’t need was more important. Also I stayed mobile (Laptop) which has often been good when I needed to track stuff in dif places. I feel it’s often a deal maker if you can offer sound quality without having to book an expensive studio for recordings with more tracks.

      Hope it helps. I could have done with some advice like in this tutorial at the time. I spent ages racking my brains. Jeez.

  • Nanfer

    Hi, Matthew, thank you for share your skills. I’m from Dominican Republic but I moved to USA New Jersey, I’m Hip-Hop Producer I only understand a little of English but I always watch your videos and I learned to much with you. .I Wanna buy your Hip-Hop tutorials videos but I can’t understand all that you say in English. Can you put Spanish subtitles for the last tutorial Mixing HIP-HOP Part 2 ? Is a lot hispanic people like me watching your. ..is if you can’t Any way thank you for you tutorials I keep following you and I hope meet you in the future, really thank you so much for your videos. .

    ATT: Nanfer..

    • Dafydd A. Mann

      Voy a hacer un proyecto para mi curso en la universidad a traducir documentos, y escribes mis propios. Actualmente estoy traduciendo esto ahora. https://www.facebook.com/ukestudios Si necesitas ayuda con algo pones una repuesta en mi pagina de facebook.

  • umbra

    Great Article…. Being somewhere in between hobbyist and Pro . . . Its tough Im getting a lot of second hand stuff online and building piece by piece…. Like building a brick house…

    Cheers

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