All Roads Really Do Lead To.....

Studio Shopping

This page is meant as a guide of what to look for in a studio and how to compare the apples and oranges of different studios and their rates. We also want to answer questions as to why one studio is $25 or 35 an hour and another $45, or $75.  Our aim is to remove confusion with information.  This gives you knowledge which empowers you to make good decisions for your recording needs.  This is probably one of our longest but most informative pages.

What makes a professional recording?
From a musical perspective you can look at writing, arranging, and musicianship as the key performance elements of a professional recording. However, even a perfect performance of the music can result in an unprofessional product due to poor recording. By the same token, a less than perfect performance can be enhanced by professional recording. However, there are limits on this but in the end we can help you sound your best.

What elements are necessary for a studio to produce a commercial quality recording?

1. Proper Acoustics
2. Quality Equipment
3. Professional Engineering

All of these elements are interdependent. If any one of these elements is deficient it will impact other factors and more importantly affect the finished product in a negative way. Some would say your studio is only as good as its weakest link/element.  

Please Note: These are in no particular order and meant as an outline of the most major categories that would encompass nearly everything that could affect the quality of the recording.  For example, proper wiring and grounding would be assumed as being completed during installation but could have major impact on the quality of the signal being recorded.

3 Elements Detailed

Quality of Material Being Recorded: I mention this first because I didn't include this as an element necessary for a good recording.  The reason for this is simple.  You can have a great recording of material that is not very well written or is poorly performed.  The studio doesn't have any direct control of quality or your writing or performance.  The quality of the writing and the arrangements is up to you, as is the quality of musicianship.  However, we can assist with tips, suggestions and encouragement along the way.  One the simplest ways we help with this is we help you feel comfortable and relaxed while recording.  Believe it or not, this is something you don’t get at some studios. On the other hand, you might some that are controlling and difficult to work with.  When you are here you are part of the Rome family and you are treated like it.  We want you to feel totally free to be yourself here at Rome. That’s why you will never get judgment or attitude from us.

1. Proper Acoustics: Room acoustics are often overlooked or improperly treated at most studios. First, you have your control room acoustics where you listen to your monitors to mix and master your songs.  Acoustics affect how your monitors sound and thus will alter your final mix unless the control room is properly treated.  The goal is to hear the speakers not the room.  Interestingly enough our new location has a larger and better sounding control room than any of our previous locations. Second, you have your isolation rooms where you record with open mics.  You have to sound proof that area enough to record without getting outside sounds.  The trick is you also have to treat it correctly to have a smooth natural sound.  It can’t be too dry but it can’t have too much room echo either.  (Dryness refers to the natural reverb decay, commonly thought of as echo, in the room)  Third, you avoid having parallel walls as much as possible.  Parallel walls cause standing waves and other sound altering anomalies that corrupt your recordings which in turn affects your mix.  That’s why we have no parallel walls at Rome!  Fourth, Size matters!  Small rooms result in frequency build up that totally destroys your frequency curve.  This is why small project and home studios have so many problems in getting a commercial quality recording.  It is also why Rome has larger open rooms with proper acoustic treatments.

2. Quality Equipment: The better the quality of the equipment throughout the entire signal chain the better the outcome of the final mix.

It starts with Quality Microphones and Preamps.  With over 35 different mics, and more than half of them being high-end mics, Rome has some of the most coveted mics you can find. Mic and Preamp selection is the equivalent of the painter choosing his brushes and colors.  Having this many choices allows us the select a mic and preamp that corresponds to the sound we are seeking along with what works best for the source being recorded.  When it comes to Mic Preamps we have over 32 channels of mid and high-end preamps.  (One of our Preamps is the exact same preamp used by Alicia Keys on her last couple of projects.)

Several of our top mics cost around $3,000 to $5,000 each and have a sound to match the price tag. Many others fall into the $700 to $2,000 range.  Only 8 of our mics are under $300.  When you pair one of our best vocal mics with one of our high-end preamps and A/D converters you have a signal chain that cost over $10,000.  That's more than most low cost studios spend on their entire studio!  If these pricey mics didn't sound better do you really think anyone would spend that much on them?

  Imagine what you could sound like on equipment like this!

Then it goes into your recording device which in our case is Protools HDX with Mac Pro 12 Core computer.  This new system replaces the HD TDM systems that were the top-of-the-line for over a decade.  Grammy award engineers like Dave Pensado and George Massenburg are proclaiming it as the new industry standard and raving about how much better is sounds than the HD TDM systems.  The key to that sound is the quality of the new upgraded digital converters.  (It’s not just the software)  Today everyone uses Protools but it’s important to distinguish that it’s what you use with it that really affects your sound not the program itself.  For instance, the plug in collection we have gives us an insane amount of options during mixing to dress up your songs in the best possible light.

So now you know… when someone says they have ProTools, ask them if it’s HDX not just HD.  Also ask them if their software and plugins are all 100% legal.  I figure if someone is willing to use stolen software to make money they probably can’t be trusted in other things.

The monitors are last in the chain.  Quality monitors allow you to hear what your music really sounds like.  Our JBLs are so good that they are found in many high-end mastering facilities where monitoring has to be the very best.  Plus we have an alternate set of Event monitors to get a different perspective and refresh our ears.  By hearing an accurate representation of your music, we can give you a mix that will sound good on any playback system. If you don’t have accurate monitors or your acoustics aren't correct, then you’re not able to hear what is really being recorded, which means you can’t get a good mix.  This is one of the primary reasons why the hobbyist studios don’t deliver a commercial quality product.

Defining Quality Gear.  Quality gear is the gear that is characterized by being the best of the best or used by the best in the industry. This is the gear that is used to make the best gold and platinum albums. You’ll note that an Mbox and a Behringer mixer don’t fall into this category. Unfortunately, quality comes at a higher price and frequently a much higher price.  It is also characterized as sounding better.  That doesn’t mean you won’t find the occasional exception that sounds good at a lower cost.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at what the industry leaders buy.  Hint.  It isn’t the cheap stuff.  Why do you think that is?

Do you think the stones would play on a $300 drum kit and $300 Guitar and $300 amp and sound good? Then why would anyone think a studio with cheap gear, poor acoustics and little acoustic treatment with an inexperienced engineer could get them a professional product?  If you wouldn’t play out live with cheap instruments why would you record with cheap recording gear?

Let me explain what low quality gear does.  For example, if the sound source (i.e. guitar, bass, drums, vocals, etc.) is going into the recorder through microphones, mic preamps, compressors and eq’s that are low-quality, they will add distortion, noise, harshness, too many highs, too many lows, drop-outs, and will not capture the true fidelity of the original performance. This would constitute a bad recording. The end result of such a low-quality signal path will undoubtedly yield a low-quality copy of the original performance, which translates to 1) unhappy client, 2) wasted investment, 3) ineffective product in hand.

3. Professional Engineering: Engineering is important because having the great gear that we have wouldn't matter if we didn't know how to use it and didn't understand all the sciences involved in the recording process.  Rome Engineers don’t have to tell you how good they are, the bands they produce do it for them.  Our engineers come from an analog tape background that requires a lot more knowledge of the recording process than the recent computer guys who never learned all the intricacies of engineering.  

While I have been engineering a long time, I also had several employees engineering for me in the past. However, when I wasn't happy with how things were going I decided to go back to my roots and do the engineering myself.  Since I have taken over all the engineering duties every client that has worked with my other engineers has told me I should have done this a long time ago.  To be honest, I was quite surprised.  I didn't realize there would be such a dramatic improvement in the sound of the mixes that my clients would actually notice.  My clients also express a higher level of comfort working with me than the other engineers.  I am humbly thankful to God for the gifts he has given me in music and engineering and am grateful for the opportunity to use those gifts to help others.  I bring 20+ years of engineering experience to the table and over 30+ years of experience as a musician.  This business takes many years of ear training and development.  You don’t become a professional engineer overnight or by learning some recording software or coming fresh out of college. I believe everybody has gifts and I am hoping that mine can be used to bring out the best of your gifts.

Beware of engineers who try to compensate for lower quality equipment by claiming to be a better than average engineer who gets more out of their equipment.  A lot of hobbyists and home studios try to use this false reasoning to convince you to record with them.  So let me get this straight.  This guy with very little engineering experience on a cheap mic and a laptop is going to get a better finished product than the experienced engineer on quality equipment?  Better equipment with a quality engineer will certainly get you a better finished product than the same engineer on lower quality equipment.  Mario Andretti in a Yugo can’t beat my grandmother in a Ferrari.  Think about it.

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Cost vs. Rates

All studio rates are not equal just as all studios are not equal. Just because a studio charges you a lower rate does not mean you will pay less.  You could use a lot more hours at a lower hourly rate, and end up paying more than you would for a higher hourly rate that does the job quicker.  What a person should be looking at is, “What will my final cost be?” and “How good will my final product be?”

After all, if the end product isn't very good does it matter how cheap it was? 

There are also studios that lure people in with a low teaser rate and either increase the cost later or charge extra for things like using the drums, amps or engineers. 
It is also important to consider that slower recording at a lower rate can cost more than faster recording at a higher rate. The good news is we offer both higher quality and low-cost specials that result in very affordable end cost.

We had one client that spent 20 hours on a slower recording system, but recorded on our ProTools system in just one 10-hour day. (That’s half the time!) Just to be thorough, both projects had the same number of songs and the same band members and both were tracked in the exact same style.

The old adage “You get what you pay for” really is true when it comes to recording studios.  In the Columbus area I’m not aware of any professional quality studios charging less than $35 or $40 an hour and most will charge more than that.  The truth is it’s hard to pay for good equipment for anything less than that.  So if you are looking at a studio that’s charging less then there’s a reason why they are charging less.  It’s usually a good indication that they are deficient in multiple areas of the 3 elements necessary for quality recording.

Cost Value Approach

Okay, here’s another way to look at it.  What are you paying for when you buy studio time and what factors into the cost?

Well, you are paying for the use of the equipment, the engineer and his level of experience and skill, as well as the rooms the studio is in.

With that in mind let’s suppose you are looking at a $20-$25 an hour studio. (In the Columbus area) Most studios in this price range are lucky if they have $10,000 in equipment.  Maybe you find one with $20,000 in equipment.  Most will have acoustic problems that aren’t properly addressed and most of the engineers will be guys with little track record and less experience than most professional quality studios.

Now let’s look at a typical studio that charges $40 to $50 an hour which is double the other studio.  In this class of studio equipment varies greatly but you’d be hard pressed to find a studio that didn’t spend at least $60,000 to $70,000 on equipment and most would have spent well over $100,000.  A studio in this class also pays more attention to acoustics and has invested at least 3 or 4 times as much as the cheaper studio.  Finally, these guys tend to have 3 to 4 times as much experience, knowledge and skill.

To summarize, For only 2 times the rate you will get 3 to 10 times the equipment which does translate into better quality.  You also get a minimum of 3 to 4 times better acoustics and easily 3 to 4 times the engineering.  Do you see the value here?  Studios in the $40 to $50 range are a bargain in Columbus.

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Why Audio Samples Are Misleading

Some studios like to provide samples of their work to prove their quality.  There are several problems with this practice.

1. First, this practice is largely done by amateur studios trying to get their start in the business.  I have yet to see professional quality studios do this.  Most of the High-end studios in our area have been in business a long time with established track records where sound quality is really not an issue. As a comparison you might ask a local deli for a small sample but you wouldn't ask a 4 star restaurant for one. 

2. Most musicians shopping for a studio by samples are actually paying more attention to the writing and musicianship of the band than they are the sound quality. (But not Intentionally)  Most musicians (if they're honest with themselves) have not trained their ears for listening to a mix and really don’t know what to listen for in the first place.  However, a reasonably decent sounding mix will satisfy most untrained ears.  Engineers who study hearing in relation to audio engineering know how easily even the best ears can be fooled if not trained on how to overcome audio deceptions.

3. Most samples are in MP3 format or some similar lossy codec which has lost the depth of the recording that is necessary to determine quality.  These files even at their better resolutions are not in a high enough resolution to judge sound quality which is far different than judging the mix attributes which we talked about in the previous paragraph.  In order to judge sound quality one must have a high resolution audio format and be listening on full range high quality speakers in a quiet, acoustically balanced environment.  Ear buds and most headphones and car stereos won’t cut it.  Furthermore, we again have the necessity of ear training to know what to listen for.  A trained audio engineer is listening to things that most people including good musicians haven’t even thought about and will hear things that most people miss.

4. Finally, even if you are able to judge the balance of the mix you always have to remember that the client is the one who ultimately directs how we mix.  We do everything we can with our recommendations during mixing but we have had clients direct us to do things in a mix that resulted in a less than professional finished result.  (Thereby, invalidating the sample.)   For example, some people insist on too much reverb not realizing that too much reverb is the first sign of an amateur mix.  The second most common mistake is mixing the vocals at too low of a volume where they end up being overpowered by the music.  Fortunately, we often use other commercial releases to compare in setting the proper volume.

In summary, for the reasons outlined above samples are virtually worthless.  Plus you will have your own sound which you really can’t compare to someone else anyway.  

We will cover details elsewhere but when shopping for Mastering samples are even more misleading. We will explain more on our FAQ Mastering page.

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Caveat Emptor – (Buyer Beware)

This section has some things to watch out for when shopping for a studio.

Be careful of people pretending to be what they aren't.  For example, some studios are okay for a demo but really can’t deliver on a commercial project.  The problem comes when they don’t recognize or admit their limitations and present themselves as a professional studio when they aren't.  The ones who admit that are the ones you can trust to be honest with you. (Usually)

Another example is the home studio trying to present themselves as a professional facility.  It is certainly possible to have a professional studio in a house and there are many in places like Nashville. However, it usually requires a very large home with a lot of special construction and I'm not aware of any of those around here.

Seriously, if you want a professional recording why would you go to somebody’s house?

Here’s a tip – Look around. If all you see is a computer on a small desk with a couple small speakers for monitors and only a couple mics chances are you are looking at a home or hobbyist studio.  You might also see a small Mackie or Behringer mixer.  (Those are 2 brand names you don’t usually find in pro level studios)

Unless a studio has a very nice console (mixer) there should be at least a couple nice preamps around. If a studio doesn't have any preamps and is using a cheap mixer or using built in interface preamps you should be very leery of using them as a professional facility. 

Beware of any person claiming to have a record label and wanting money from you to promote you.

Here’s another thing to watch for.  A studio website that says any of the following:
We are the only choice… or 
We are the best in Columbus or Ohio…. or
There’s no one better than us….or  
We have the ears….or
The other studios with all their gear can’t just don’t get as good of sound as we do…. or
Our engineering can make you sound good no matter what we use to record you. 

Watch out for anyone who says Acoustics or Equipment doesn't matter or they can get just as good of a sound with their (fill in the name brand) $150 mic.

For those who brag and claim to get professional results on consumer grade gear imagine how much better it would be with professional gear.  I don’t have a problem with people trying to get the most out of their home recording systems.  I only have a problem when people try to make themselves out to be something that they aren't.  Recognizing strengths weaknesses and limitations is key in the recording business. 

Watch out for those who say they deliver “Radio Quality”.  Very few professionals would make a statement like that because Radio is over compressed when it gets aired and the sound quality seldom matches that of a standard CD.  Radio is not the standard we are looking to match.   This phrase would be a good indication of someone who likely doesn't know what they are doing.   

“Radio Ready” vs. “Radio Quality” The term “Radio Ready” is also an overused term people use to describe quality, but again not so much by professionals.  However, radio ready doesn't mean it’s been mastered.  I've seen recordings used on radio with little more than a decent mix at reasonable levels.  We've produced radio shows for clients as well so all we’re saying is radio ready is really not saying much.  Some people use the term Record Label quality which is reasonable comparison.  I’d prefer to hear someone to say “CD or DVD Quality” or even “Commercial Quality”.


Things To Look For In A Studio

First and foremost look for studios that are clearly the most complete in the 3 elements described on this page.  Maybe write down some questions from some of the suggestions I have written below.

Look around and notice if there are any parallel walls and if there are substantial acoustic treatments. Notice how your voices sound as you talk and move from room to room.  Some rooms are way too dead and some are way too live with strong room resonances.  It’s usually good to avoid either extreme.  It’s also hard for the average person to really judge the acoustic qualities of a room.

Don’t be shy when visiting the studio.  Ask prying questions.  

For Instance, ask the engineer to describe the mic you are most likely to sing on and why.  And don’t be afraid to ask how much it costs unless you know gear well enough to already know.  While cost isn't everything most people do sound better on more expensive mics.  (I said most because there’s are exceptions)

Then ask what he usually uses for your vocal preamp and again don’t be afraid to ask how much it costs.

It’s okay if he doesn't know the exact mic and preamp yet because we often use different mics and preamps on different people and for different styles.  However, he should be able to give some detail on at least one or two mics and preamps. A lot of engineers prefer tube mics on vocals because they tend to capture a richer full bodied sound.  And you can ask him if it’s a tube mic.  

Assuming you’re in a studio with decent size rooms ask him to show you where you will be singing and why he chooses that particular spot.  If he talks about the sound of the room as a reason that’s a good sign because he’s paying attention to acoustics in his room and knows his room.  You’d be surprised how many engineers have no clue about acoustics.  (I’d be concerned if anyone puts you in a small vocal booth.  Vocal booths do have their place but they tend to make vocals dull and lifeless.)  

When looking at a control room where the mixing takes place, make sure it is has plenty of space for several people.  The larger it is the better.  Smaller rooms are hard to mix in because the room colors the sound of the speakers.

Of all the elements the hardest one to discover is how good the engineer is.  If you ask the previous questions and he answers with a lot of detail and shows a lot of understanding of acoustics and the recording process chances are he’s showing signs of being a professional engineer.

During this question and answer process you’ll discover a lot by how he responds.  Is he easy to talk with or does he exhibit arrogance?  Is he knowledgeable or confrontational?  I would be cautious of any engineer who has a problem with your questions.

When you’re finished you should be able to tell if you feel comfortable enough in the studio to be able to perform your best.  That includes comfort in the rooms and settings as well as with the engineer.