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As musicians or artists, we’ve all felt a feeling of longing to be able to fulfil our wish-list of equipment, productivity tools and furniture to create our ideal home studio at whatever the cost. More than ever we are looking through the window into other peoples homes, lifestyles and practices, and making impairing reference to our own lives.

There’s an intimidating amount of articles online detailing Home Studio Essentials, The Top 10 Hardware Synthesisers You Need Right Now!!, 14 Ways To Increase Productivity At Home, but I really believe there’s a more important elementary holistic process to go through before the practical advice in these becomes easy to separate, and potentially ignore. In this article I want to challenge the perception that somebody else is going to be able to tell you how to approach creativity at home and influence the mechanics of the space in which you do so. It’s likely you’ve already got everything you need.

What is a home studio?

Let’s look at the terminology. Almost all definitions of a studio suggest that it’s a separate room designed for work and creative practice. For many of us, I’m certain a dedicated environment is an opulent and unachievable goal, and through time various spaces in our homes have had to sustain multi-disciplinary activities; to this day my kitchen table functions as the production suite.

During your studies, you’re likely to come across or have encountered already the structure of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which details a five tier model of human needs, from physiological up to self-actualised. Some of the basic and physiological needs (including food, water, warmth, security, resources etc.) may seem self-evident to talk about, but I think it’s important to reinforce their place when it comes to supporting and sustaining creativity. They strengthen the importance of home in the term ‘home studio’, that it’s an adaptable space and that your creative endeavours are going to be built on solid foundations.

What’s the primary function of my home studio space?

Firstly, I think it’s fundamental we become comfortable with both the present and future function of a home studio. Try and transport yourself to where you might be in a few years times based on the opportunities you see opening up for you, or where you’d hope to be. If you see the bulk of your work being realised in recording and rehearsal facilities, then you may want to consider the focus of your space to be a source of inspiration and a place to explore new ideas, of which you’ll then continue in external environments. Is there anything you can change about your current set up to support changes in the future? Unused equipment…unused space?

For me, the primary function of my creative space is to be able to very quickly explore ideas. Minimal waiting, loading, patching….whether that’s to satisfy capturing ideas with immediacy, or squeezing creative time around other demands of home life.

What items do I need?

This is a very personal list you’re going to make, and not one I’m looking to influence and the items within it. The purpose of asking yourself this is just to distinguish between wants and needs. If I spend enough time looking at Instagram of a day, I guarantee I can convince myself I need a certain pair of monitors, or a valve pre-amp…but honestly, for me…the bulk of my work has never deviated outside of laptop, interface and speakers….and I really intend to keep it that way. It promotes flexibility and mobility in my set-up which is what I need in my adaptable creative space. Make sure you have a firm grasp on what is essential, and that it’s not dictated by others.

What factors can sustain creativity?

Further from the basic and physiological needs I referenced earlier, there’s some important factors to consider to help us sustain creativity at home.

Firstly, separating your environments is worth considering. If you’re able to make space to be creative and work outside of your bedroom, I hugely recommend it. In my experience, associating my bedroom with work and productivity only served to effect my quality of sleep and sleeping patterns, and when you start to go down this road this will start to effect the quality of your work, which further reinforces meeting those basic needs.

Secondly, take a moment to consider the visual stimulus in your creative environment, these being items from which you draw inspiration or motivation. How does your current environment make you feel? Is there anything you could change that would empower you to feel more creative? For me, it’s just natural light and sitting close to a window that aids that process. In the past I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a Brighton sea view in my home creative space while writing music, but at the moment the view from my space is north facing, and watching the incoming weather roll off the South Downs and over the city is a really exciting a new source of inspiration.

What can I take away from this?

It’s a minefield out there. Stay focused on your personal journey through it. Try and make purchasing decisions objectively, not subjectively. Sitting with these thoughts an ideas, you’ll likely build a heightened appreciation for your current set-up, and explore the different applications it can offer.

As a final thought, I see many artists becoming increasingly more aware of the environmental impact of their work. If you’re looking to further the conversation in this article, maybe ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to meet the requirements of the environmentally conscious artist we should all be aiming to be. Some very simple first steps could be considering how to save energy, buying second hand equipment and furniture, and sharing equipment for recording purposes in
your community.

For more advice in setting up your own home studio get in touch.

After spending weeks and months writing your band’s new record, make sure you then spend those extra couple days completing the small tasks that will save you time in the studio.

1. Prepare your click tracks

This might seem like an obvious task to have completed before entering the studio, but it’s the smallest details that can make or break your new hit record. Due to adrenaline, when you’re rehearsing or performing your tune, you are always going to play it that touch faster. So when going into the studio, make sure you have rehearsed the tracks to click and have decided the tempo of  your songs. The tempo of the track can dictate the feel of the song, so start there when preparing for the studio.

2. Pre-record your ghost tracks

To save your band time and money, pre-recording your ghost tracks are essential. Emailing over an MP3 only takes a minute, whereas recording your ghost tracks when you turn up to the studio can take up to a couple of hours. The time spent recording ghost tracks in the studio is essentially wasting your band's money. Make sure your ghost tracks have all the details necessary. For your drummer to get a good vibe, and start the recording process, make sure they have everything they want in their ears.

3. Record demos

Recording demos is a very efficient way to gauge how your song is feeling and sounding. To hear your music back without playing it, gives you the opportunity to focus your ears on the track. It also allows you to look at the song as a songwriter and not as a musician. This allows you to chop and change the song accordingly.

This can be adding one bar to a verse, doubling up a chorus, taking away instrumentation and allowing more room for vocals. Recording demos is also important for your producer. Sending the demos in advance allows them to understand your music. This allows them to analyse the provided reference tracks and start preparing for the session.

4. Choose the right producer

Going into the studio with a producer that has the same vision as you is integral to the creative process. Having a producer who shows a keen interest in your music and all the nuances is a good thing. Your initial reaction when someone wants to change (improve) your music is to defend it, which you should! You should have a passion and belief in what you are creating, but taking suggestions from others is also very important. Choosing the right producer can definitely change the entire feel of your record. If you are a pop band, you need to work with someone that has a good knowledge of pop production and pop songs. If you are a metal band, you need to work with someone that understands the metal scene and metal production.

5. Freshen up

Before going into the studio, make sure you have restrung your guitars, put fresh skins on your drum kit and have more than enough sticks and picks. If you have dead heads, your drum kit is going to sound flat and if you have old dirty strings, your record is going to sound dull. Having fresh heads, new strings and polished cymbals gives the producer more to work with.

Make sure you have done this before turning up to the studio so the producer can get straight onto micing up the kit. Once you’ve freshened up your sound, it’s key that you tune your heads and you have flexed your strings. Your guitar is about to be played heavier than usual and for a long period of time, so they need to be played in.

6. You don’t have to go in perfect

We’ve discussed how prepared you need to be to record, but one thing that is equally important is having room to breathe and embellish parts on the day. You don’t need to have every single drum fill decided in advance, the same way you don’t need to have every note of your solo finalised. Part of being in the studio is trying out different ideas. Maybe the new drum fill needs to follow a certain bass line or there are some underline melody accents that need stabs. Having this freedom is as equally important as being fully prepared. That being said, you must still know the large majority of your parts going in.

Here is a great example of a prepared studio musician.

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How are you going to create the budget for recording an album in 2020? And, more importantly, how much are you going to spend overall? The immediate answer is somewhere between nothing (it is entirely possible to create an album for no money) to £30,000 and upwards.

That’s a lot of money in 2020, but in historical terms it’s peanuts. My album “Jam” which was released in 1993 cost at least three times that. We would have probably spent £30,000 on the preliminary demos before tracking the actual record. However, we would have been selling CDs for £20 which were manufactured for 25p. There were huge margins, and we do not have this luxury today, hence there are smaller budgets and different approaches to monetizing music.

You may be closer than you think to making a career-defining record

Let’s pause and think about this, recording an album is secondary to the important aspects which are songwriting and pre-production. This is where the album is made, and these two things are entirely free. With that in mind, let’s examine the tips which will facilitate the budgeting of your album.

Tip no.1 - decide on the overall spend

We are solely talking about making a record, the promotion, marketing, and social campaigns will be dealt with in another video. Right now, let’s formulate the budget which will get this record made. I want to break this down into four financial categories;

Example 01 | budget £0

What do you do if you have nothing to work with? It may be surprising, but you are actually in a strong position, some of the best music ever produced has been made in similar circumstances. Very often the things that restrict your art are the primary contributors to the reasons why it becomes great. Diamonds are formed under extreme heat and pressure, and music is the same.

We have five stages to consider; writing, pre-production, recording, mixing and mastering. All of this stuff can be done at home, it can be done in garage band, you can borrow mics and gear to get the thing done. The only thing that will restrict you is your creativity and imagination. If the songs are great, then the album will be a hit. Can it be done for free? It absolutely can.

Example 02 | budget £500-£1k

All the band members have chipped in, you have a small budget and in essence a homemade album. You now have a few options that will upgrade your art, it’s essential to prioritise. With a few hundred quid, you can’t do everything and so you need to decide on what will make the biggest difference, I would recommend the mixing and mastering.

This allows you to give a home-recorded album to someone with a bit more gear and experience who can step it up at the mix stage. This could make a fundamental difference in the quality of the record. This immediate upgrade is going to cost hundreds of pounds as opposed to thousands.

When working with these limited budgets you need to pick battles that you can win. There is no point in spreading yourself too thin. Take a few hundred quid and put it into something that will count. This will undoubtedly be the mixing and mastering.

Example 03 | budget £1k - £3k

What happens if a couple of band members have day jobs and between you, there is slightly more to throw at the project. This is not a huge budget, so you need to make it count. With this extra bit of capital, you have two choices and your decisions depend on the record you are making.

If it's a live based indie or rock record, the drum sound will make the most difference. However, if it's pop or electronic orientated put your money into the mix. When I say drum sound, I’m specifically talking about tracking in a world-class studio, you will be paying for an excellent sounding room, a competitive mic collection, a brilliant desk, some industry-standard outboard, and an experienced engineer. If you can also get a bit of bass and rhythm guitar, that's a bonus. However, let’s concentrate on making the drums great.

Due to the fact you have planned this album carefully before you have even started the recording process, we will not need as much time in the studio. This means that with a limited budget you can still afford to use some of the world's best studios. You could look at studios like Rockfield in Wales for example, where major albums have been tracked by the likes of Queen, Oasis and Royal Blood. With a budget of two to three thousand pounds, there is nothing to stop you from being at a studio in that league.

Example 04 | £???

What do you if money is no object and there is an unlimited budget? It may be surprising but after the £30,000 threshold, you do not get much more for your money. At this point, you can work with some of the world's best producers, engineers in the top studios for very affordable prices these days.

You need to find the right producer and engineer, to do that you need to conduct research, google them, ring them up and make a deal. You should be expecting to pay somewhere between £200-£300 per day for an experienced and current producer.

Tip no.2 - allocate and cap individual budgets

The individual costs for recording are comprised of; songwriting/pre-production, the producer, the recording process (studio rates), mixing and the mastering. It’s that simple, if we allocate for this then its job done.

It's important to allocate the budget for this and cap it, as recording is an open-ended process and budget control can go out of the window very quickly. To illustrate the point, here is a simple budget that I have used;

Songwriting and Pre- Production - £0

Producer (10 days) - £2.5K

Recording Drums and Bass (3 days in a higher-end studio) - £1.25K

Tracking (7 days in a cheaper studio) - £1K

Mixing - £1.2K

Mastering - £350

Total - £6,250

Tip no.3 - budget your time

In the same way that you have a plan for how to spend your money, a plan for how you spend your time is needed. As we all know, time is money. Most artists think that a record is started the day they set foot in the studio; this is not true. It commences before that, in the rehearsal rooms where you take the songs and start to analyse the arrangements and parts.

The great thing about the pre-production phase is that it is free. If you have your pre-production, recording, mixing, and mastering stages, a logical way of segmenting your time is to spend a longer period (a month to six weeks) getting the arrangements right. Then record quickly in ten days, mix in five, and then send it for mastering for a one day turn around. Get it done in two months, job done.

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“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Benjamin Franklin

No matter how big or small the band is, too many musicians arrive at the studio under-prepared for the physical and psychological gauntlet that they have to endure during the recording process. How many times do we have to be disappointed with the end product to realise that the blame is maybe due to the songwriting, performance or musicianship?. You can avoid the common pitfalls by working out what you are looking to achieve and by having a clear plan.

(1.) Invest in a recording set up

There are no excuses! We’re happy to spend our hard earned cash (or from the bank of mum and dad) on accessories such as mobile phones, fashion, games console, nights out and holidays but we’re not willing to sacrifice a little and buy ourselves a laptop, interface and a microphone.

In fact, music shops couldn’t make it any easier to give you interest free finance. This is where the fun begins! I would start with a Universal Audio Arrow, Sontronics STC-2 mic and an Apple Macbook Pro. Add a recording software (Digital Audio Workstation), cable and a pair of headphones and you’re on your way.  Before you consider going into a studio you should be demoing at home for weeks, if not months, in advance.

(2.) Pre-production

So you’ve written your songs, demoed them on your laptop and practiced in rehearsals. Are you ready for the studio? The answer is: Not yet.

I spend a lot of time with bands during this important part of the process looking for ways of improving the song - whether it’s the arrangement, tempo, tone, parts and also feel. Understanding what felt good is crucial so it transfers across into the final version.

Most of the time we work it out in a rehearsal room or we sometimes go back and re-record parts on the demo. Be critically honest to yourself. For example, if you couldn’t perform the song competently from start to finish then you’re not ready. Don’t be afraid to re-build the song again from the ground up. I know it’s arduous, but time in the studio is a luxury.

(3.) DIY at home

You know all that lovely gear you have purchased to get you started (see point 1 above)? Well, the technology that is condensed into a tiny box is now at a pro-studio standard. I’m not kidding. I’ve worked on a number of label releases where it’s the same recording chain used at home and we ended up using the vocals or certain elements from the demo because it sounded good. We never felt the sonic quality was tangible enough to retract from the listening experience – what’s more important was the performance captured!.

Back in my own band days I would spend a lot time prepping my song templates before going into the studio. This means, all the tempos are set with all the guide instruments recorded (including vocals) and all we had to do was record a sonically better version of the same parts. This will save you hours and buy you the opportunity to get creative on some ear candy. You know all those romantic stories you’ve read where Producer X forced the drummer to set up a drum kit on the roof to get the perfect sound… The fun part!

(4.) Be realistic

We all love larger than life sounding records. It’s part of the reason why we fell in love with music, and you asked yourself how did they do that?. I want to sound that big! But let’s be realistic. Those records take a lot of time, skill and resources to make, but it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve success.

Focus on the writing and nailing the performance.  What’s more important is the ability to make your song resonate with the audience. Put your hand on your heart and can you say, “Did I put everything into the song and did my absolute best?” “Is it conveying what I’m trying to say?” A great song is a great song and a great performance will bring it home - no matter how or where it was recorded.

(5.) The Mix

I remember back in the day when I started my band and bought my first humble recording set up. I thought this is it; I can finally make my own record, send it out to labels, upload it online and everyone’s going to love it. Wrong.

I went through the above process and it wasn’t sounding close to a finished product. It had no punch, energy, and the balance was all over the shop. I had a go mixing, but it opened a whole new can of worms. I didn’t know where to start on getting this to sound like the records I grew up with.

It dawned on me that I needed someone with; experience of mixing albums on a daily basis, who understood the dark art and is able to translate what was intended onto a pair of speakers. I got obsessed and started my search for a Mix engineer, listened to albums that were in a similar genre and worked out who was the mixer from reading album liner notes. I contacted a few engineers and attached a link to a couple of songs I had done. Establishing a mutual respect and understanding here is key. If he or she feels excitement in the songs, they will be able to put their heart and soul into it.

There are plenty of mixers out there and don’t dismiss someone who is local and relatively new to the art. Have a conversation and start with a song. If it works, then take it from there. Again, be realistic - a mixer can only work with the material given!. If you’ve done your job as musician, then you’re 75% of the way there.

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