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Guidelines for Starting a Studio

Sometimes clients contact me for an evaluation of their small to medium studio setups. In terms of size, these are studios that usually have less than 50k invested in gear. Thy are often run by part-time musicians, people with day jobs, or semi-retired from their other means of income. These folks are trying to get the most out of what they have, whether for personal projects or the occasional outside project.

I’ve seen one consistent theme during 25 years of working with clients in this way. Musicians who are getting into recording often don’t know how the gear will work in their space, or how all of the pieces of the studio puzzle go together. They do not understand the long term ramifications of their purchases.

Some people rely on their music supply company representative to guide them to make the right choices. However, these companies (Sweetwater, B&H, American Music Supply, etc) have one goal, and that is to sell product. They may have better than average sales reps most of the time, but the bottom line is – they can’t see your setup and studio space in person. I recommend doing your own due diligence with purchases, and not following only what a sales rep says.

Even after a purchase decision, there’s always a learning curve to any piece of gear. I’ve seen clients spend ridiculous amounts of money on gear that they barely know how to use. The client may not even understand why they purchased a particular piece of gear, or its limitations when combined with other items in the setup. I’ve even seen fairly expensive gear sitting unopened for months because the buyer didn’t know how to connect it. In another extreme case, gear was purchased that didn’t even fit into the physical space of the studio.

All of this madness can be stopped if folks slow down, stop blowing their money, and follow these guidelines.

  • Carefully consider your studio goals, and what you have to work with in terms of not just budget, but space, and time to work on getting everything to work properly. Some folks think that building a studio for themselves is cheaper than renting studio time. Generally, it is not. When you have your own studio, you have the added responsibility of maintaining it, keeping it up to date, and keeping it secure. If you are thinking about starting a studio, you should take time to think carefully and answer these questions:
    • Is this a private or public space?
    • Is the space going to be purpose-built, or a renovated space?
    • How will I handle security?
    • Is there sufficient, properly installed electric at the location?
    • What challenges will you have with noise (both inside and outside)?
    • What is your budget?
    • What do you want your workflow to be?
    • Are you comfortable with computers?
  • Research – Check reviews, YouTube videos, and talk to other product users whenever possible. Seek out experienced individuals whom you can trust, preferably folks that are nearby who can see the proposed studio space. While it’s hard to have a hard and fast rule, generally the amount of time I spend researching something is proportional to the cost. A new professional grade audio interface will take more consideration than a $200 boutique guitar pedal. For one thing, the guitar pedal is not going to have as significant an impact on my workflow, cabling, and studio layout for years to come.
  • Cut through the hype. Music manufacturers love to use hyperbole and FOMO (fear of missing out) in their advertising. All too often, the hype machine convinces the unsuspecting buyer that they need XYZ gadget to be a “real” studio, or a “real” musician. There’s also a lot of misinformation on the market, whether it’s the age old arguments about Mac vs PC, Analog vs Digital, or which DAW is the best. Of course the only real answer to all of those is – it depends. Any one taking an evangelical approach to those questions should be taken with a grain of salt, and sometimes just avoided.
  • Take a course and/or read a book about basic recording technique. Don’t assume, or ever think that you know everything. Learn as much as you can about mic placement and recording basics. Those will serve you well in almost any environment.
  • Keep your priorities straight – It makes no sense to spend large sums of money on your preamps and mixing console if you don’t have clean power in the studio. It doesn’t make any sense to buy a computerized setup if you don’t know how to use a mouse. It also doesn’t make any sense to completely refurbish a space for studio purposes without first considering what you want your workflow to be, and what gear you expect to install.

My consults generally start with an assessment of the client’s goals. I also strongly suggest that they don’t buy anything right away. Instead, I prefer to work with what they have. Using this approach helps drill into any deficiencies in the current setup, and we can formulate a plan on how to properly solve them.

Knowing one’s goals is critical. Do you just want to mess around and make beats? Do you want to record “in the box”, or with lots of ambient mics? Are you recording guitar, bass and drums in a live room, requiring monitoring for all the players? Is this for your own personal project, or will there be other people involved? Are you planning to charge money for studio time?

Let’s take a closer look at that last point. Over the last 10 years, prices for good recording gear and computing power have dropped substantially. The power and quality of gear have gone up. There’s also a lot more training available, online and elsewhere. Those developments make it feasible for almost anyone with a bit of cash to create a “studio”. There are a lot of really eccentric studios, in bedrooms and basements all across the country.

But there are “studios” and then there are studios.

If you are going to open a studio thinking that you’ll be rolling in cash, think again. There are already so many really good studios – private and public – that it hardly makes sense to open one expecting to “get clients”. The exception might be if you’ve done serious market analysis for your region, and have something others can’t offer (like a unique space, or other amenities). A studio is not just the gear. It’s also the space. A properly designed studio space costs more than regular building construction, whether you are starting from scratch, or repurposing an old space. In fact, repurposing an old space can cost even more.

A studio also consists of the people involved. A studio wont last without a good team of knowledgeable people. Usually, when I hear that someone wants to start a studio, there’s one person who is the creative part of the team, and another person who is the money side. The person on the money side rarely understands what goes into making a studio work. The creative person has lots of romantic ideas about what it means to have a studio, but often lacks the insight into just how expensive studios can be.

A better approach would be to work at a studio first, learn what works and what doesn’t, while also building up relationships with people who could be potential clients down the line. Even after that, opening your own studio is a big risk – in any economy.

I have some more thoughts on this general topic that I will cover soon in an article titled “ How to Combat Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Learn more about my consulting services.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.