Updated: Jul 27
Studios are fun.
They usually have nice and comfy interiors, nice people (if the people ain't nice, the studio's soon out of business), big monitors, nice shiny microphones and lots and lots of black and colored knobs, faders, VU meters, lights. Better than Star Trek!
To say nothing of the apparently unlimited reserves of coffee, biscuits and, I'm told, spoons (don't ask).
Unfortunately, studios are also expensive.
Maybe not crazy expensive, but certainly more expensive than doing it at home.
Back in the old days, even having skills and knowledge, it was virtually impossible to achieve commercial level quality with "home" kit.
The kit was simply not good enough. You had noisy preamps with paltry gain, questionable recording meda (musicassettes, anyone?), good microphones were practically unaffordable, and so on.
All of which made it so that home productions were easy to recognize, and inferior to commercial ones. Plus of course for most people it was totally impractical to run a small production of the most "professional" playback medium of the day - a vinyl disc.
Not to mention distributing and selling it to listeners.
Nowadays it's absolutely no longer the case. The unspoken promise of today's equipment is that yes, you can do it at home and it's gonna sound as good as in a studio.
And indeed it's true.
We have fantastic mics for quite low prices. We have great, clean preamps with plenty of gain in most audio interfaces. Digital recording with cheap general purpose computers is there for everyone, translating your precious music onto a recording medium with pristine quality and more dynamic range you can possibly use, super easy to distribute and sell (if you find someone interested, that is!). We have plugins that put at our fingertips the best signal processing there is, once the realm of uber-expensive hardware processors, at a fraction of the cost and in almost unlimited numbers. The list is long.
All of which makes it possible to create fantastic productions at home, completely indistinguishable from commercial productions. Indeed, many commercial productions these days are made in home studios, also by names who could easily fund serious studio sessions.
Sure, there's the matter of skill. Skill cannot be bought with money, but with enough determination and attention, it's perfectly possible to learn the ropes and do very well indeed.
Helping with skills is, after all, the very reason why I write this blog.
All this said, the question stands: is there still space for recording studios?
If one looks at the number of studios in the world, and the amount of people actively using them, it's perfectly clear that the answer is much less space than there used to be. Commercial studios are almost extinct, with only the seriously major ones still in operation, and generally propped up by side activities or simply seen as a cost element of much larger businesses. Many boutique studios are run more as a side affair than a serious commercial operation.
So let's rephrase: is there still a reason for going to a studio, for you?
Much depends on how you make music and why. That said, however, the answer may surprisingly still be "yes". But maybe not for the reasons you think.
First of all (given that today the quality of the kit that you can use at home is, by and large, comparable to the kit you find in a studio) there's still one aspect where good, purposely designed recording studios still have a technical edge which is hard (and very expensive) to reproduce elsewhere.
And that is the quality and ease of use of its recording and mixing spaces.
We know already that in order to make a great recording, the quality of the recording space is second only to the quality of the performance in importance.
And fact is, most of the times, the best you can do with a home studio is to take a bad room and add acoustic treatment to improve it.
Now: properly done, that can give you a definitely good sounding room, where reflections are somewhat controlled - and customizable - both for recording and mixing.
(As a side note: customization of the acoustic treatment is important. For example, it's quite good to have a degree of natural reverberation when recording guitars, but the same reverberation will likely kill a vocal take. At the mixing seat things should be as dry as possible, so that what you hear is your mix and not the room you're in).
Acoustic treatment, however, is not the easiest thing to get right. It can be outright impossible if said room has to be used also, say, by your partner, or a as a guest room, or as a space for your kids to play in. Acoustic treatment is bulky and quite evident (a trick I use is that all textiles are white as the walls..) so it may simply be hard to keep it permanently installed on the walls and ceiling at your home.
Regular house rooms also tend to be square, on the small side, and with relatively low ceilings. They contain furniture and piping and stuff that sometimes you can't move. It's possible, but not super-easy to treat a room like that so that it becomes really, really good. If the room is small enough, it may not be at all possible.
Sure, you can certainly find a good compromise, and by making a habit of recording on the dry side it's possible to still get very good results. It's worth saying that certain sources work better than others: for example, it's far easier to record vocals and guitars in a home studio than, say, mic a bass cabinet; and conversely certain instruments are almost impossible to record in a house - both due to the average room size and to the noise levels involved. I did record a drum kit in my living room once, but it's not something I would want to do very often (the room was large and had a reasonably high ceiling, but moving all the furniture on the side wasn't fun, and we had to make sure we were done by the time the neighbors got back from work!).
But overall it takes effort and skills and attention, and the possibility of error is always lurking nearby. It all distracts a little from making music, especially if you don't enjoy the technicalities.
These are usually non-issues in a good studio.
A good studio will have usually purpose built rooms, often room-in-a room designs whose shape, cladding material and acoustic treatment (including things like rooms within rooms and resonators between walls) are all designed together to give you lower reflections or easily customizable ones. The mixing seats will be as dry as they should be, and monitoring will not be compromised by reflections.
And of course any self-respecting studio has a room large and high enough to allow you to record a drum kit in its all magnificence! A drum kit recorded in a small room tends to sound small.
Also, in a proper studio, you walk in, set the mic where you like the sound and push record.
The recording quality is usually pretty good without much effort. The only thing that matters for the result is the unadulterated quality of the artist performance, which is how it should be.
I write "good" studios, because obviously it's worth keeping in mind that there are "studios" which amount to little more than some kit and absorption panels put up in a generic room... just as much as there are "mastering engineers" with nothing more than a DAW, some plugins and headphones.
In these cases you really need to use your ears to determine if you are - literally - been asked to pay for thin air... and most often you can just as well record at home instead.
All in all, the reasons above are really the only technical ones for going into a studio nowadays. It boils down to size, shape and acoustic properties of the recording spaces.
That's essentially what you pay for.
There are, however, also a bunch of non-technical possible reasons.
The most obvious one is that in a good studio you will have skilled people, taking care of the operational aspects of recording on your behalf.
Both are important factors.
As you know if you've read some of this blog, recording is not just about putting a microphone in front of a source and hope for the best. Nowadays, skills make for a great part of the quality of the result, much more than gear. And skills are expensive to acquire - you pay in time, errors and experimentation.
So, unless you really enjoy the recording process (as I do, for example) you may better off shelling out some little cash to take advantage og someone else' skills.
It's also worth noticing that, even in Internet times, talking face to face with a skilled person is still a very good way to learn, and even more so it's observing someone good while they're doing their thing, or working together. Going to a studio can give you a huge boost to your own abilities, so long you can lurk around or work with the resident engineers.
As above, be aware of makeshift "studio" owners who really have set up some kit in a room. The presence of egg cartoons on the wall is a deadly giveaway, and so is the idea of using a couch as a bass trap!
The other factor - having someone taking care of operating the equipment for you - is often underestimated. Given than the absolute pinnacle of importance in a recording is the performance, if you're both the recordist and the artist it can be difficult to give 100% to the performance if you have to remember to reduce the ASIO buffer size or navigate the DAW with the mouse to set up a track for a new take.
How much this is important really depends on you, of course.
There are lots of good things to be said about recording at home - no time pressure, for one, and some may even find the relaxed environment of home more conductive to a great performance than a studio with a bunch of people looking at you. But if you routinely get frustrated with the technicalities of recording, it might be a good idea to go recording into a good studio.
Then there's efficiency.
Studio engineers record artists and instruments all the time in the same room, so they soon develop a sense of where in the room a microphone sounds good for a specific take, which microphones work on what and how to set up a room for a specific activity. That leads to fast rigging times and more time spent on making music - not a small thing especially if music making is a side activity for you.
Another aspect of going to a studio which is often underestimated is the networking factor.
Being in a studio allows you to get to know both other musicians and artists and people with some connection to other aspect of published music - label owners, engineers, you name it.
First of all, this vastly improves your chances to learn something useful and to get in contact with equipment that you might not ever see otherwise. Even if said equipment is not essential for making a good record, it can be nice and inspiring.
Second, if your music is worth listening (and it is! Why would you make it otherwise?) you will have more people that get in contact with it - that is to say, more of the right people.
The spreading of music is definitely based on subjective judgement, but in order to judge something people must have a chance to hear it. A studio is often a good launching environment in that sense.
Once again, your personality and goals matter. If you're super shy and won't speak to anyone when in the studio, or you are totally uninterested in anyone hearing your music, this aspect is absolutely irrelevant. But if not, it's worth giving a thought.
That's pretty much it - which well explains why the number of studios has decreased so much in the last couple decades.
Given these factors, you may think a little and decide if a recording studio is something for you or not.
Especially if dealing with the technical parts of recording makes you feel frustrated and uninspired as a musician, or you want to do produce result quickly, studios can be a viable option and it may be worth to invest in studio time as opposite to room treatment and recording and mixing gear.
Demos, you can always cut on your phone. :)
If you do go that way, make sure you pick up a good place and not something made up hastily by someone trying to take advantage of your enthusiasm. They key is to go and look beyond the shiny equipment, and to how the rooms are designed.
And - I repeat - the presence of egg cartoons on the walls is an absolutely warning sign!