Functions and Parts of the Recording Studio
What’s a Studio For?
Recording studios are one of the music industry’s foundations. Generally, when an audio product needs to sound professional, a studio is where it’s recorded, mixed and mastered. There are studios that only do recording and mixing, some dedicated to mastering, some for film scoring and electronic music production, and others do post-production for video and related audio.
Recording Engineer: The main engineer at a large studio is usually a seasoned expert with a myriad of skills. It takes a deep knowledge of audio programs, audio effects, mic placement, ears that know what a good individual sound and full mix sound like, some psychology to get the best performance possibly out of the performers, and many other skills.
Producer: The producer sees the big picture and makes sure everything runs smoothly. What should be recorded first? Should we use a click track for everything? Are we getting the sound we want for every track? For larger projects, the producer is hired to book the studio, hire a contractor (see the next term), make sure everyone has the right music, and communicate between everyone hired and the project’s manager. For smaller projects, the producer could also be the composer, engineer, the spouse of the artist being recorded, etc . . . and have any number of other titles. Since the financial and technical barriers to entry are lower than ever, artists are increasingly producing (or doing everything) themselves.
Contractor: The contractor flexes networking muscle to find the best musicians for the job, taking into account any number of factors—usually maximizing quality while staying under budget is the top priority. The contractor must have a large pool of musicians and know quite a few details about most of them. Hiring the wrong musician for the job can create major issues; and it may be difficult to find a new musician in time, especially if a union is involved.
Musicians: Full-time studio musicians are among the most skilled players and singers in the world. They have to sound amazing in many styles, sight-read and improvise exceptionally well, and get along with others in the session. Any issue with the musician and the studio may never call back. On the flip side, studios often record garage bands, family Christmas albums, and other artists of questionable musicianship. The prime rule of recording great music is to start with a great performance, which usually begins with great musicians. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (like wanting a 100-voice choir), it’s usually better to pay higher rates for top-tier musicians, since they make up the cost difference in time savings.
Parts of a Recording Studio
This is where the engineer lives during most of the session. The room usually contains a large desk with a computer, multiple screens, monitoring speakers, control surfaces (like a mixer), and racks of outboard equipment. Depending on the studio, it may also have keyboards, guitars and other instruments; several sets of monitoring speakers, couches and chairs for people to sit on, and windows that allow the engineer to see what’s going on everywhere in the studio.
Most studios have at least one large room to record in, for anywhere from a drumset to 100+ orchestra members. Usually, the entire room is treated to have a pleasing amount of reverberant energy; this leads to a natural-sounding recording. Often though, the room is either treated incorrectly or treated to sound different in various locations on purpose, with configurable baffles that give the engineer more flexibility. “Live” refers to a room or sound that has a pleasing amount of reverberant energy (reverb). “Dry” refers to a sound with minimal reverb. Both live and dry recordings have their place.
Iso booths are often off to the sides of the main tracking room(s). They range from tiny closets to rooms large enough for a small band. Unless specifically built for a single instrumentalist, they can usually fit a drum set. Since it’s such a small space, they are usually heavily-treated.
We’ll go over gear extensively in other sections. To be brief, studios have:
- Computer(s) with some sort of recording interface to send and receive audio signals
- Software recording programs (DAWs) with virtual instrument libraries
- Processing units to affect audio signals, such as compressors, reverbs, equalizers, etc . . .
- Acoustic, electronic and MIDI instruments
- Controllers and mixers, with plenty of buttons and faders to go around
- Speakers and headphones, with headphone splitters
- Microphones of all types, with all their accessories
- Mic stands, music stands, speakers stands
- Possibly more cables than a large suspension bridge
A couple pages forward and we’ll go over what a beginner on a budget can do to build a studio without spending a small fortune on everything listed above.
Large studios have lobbies, a kitchen, meeting rooms, and a green room to relax in and possibly play some pool. Decor is a large part of the studio experience as well. Most studios have a coherent color theme, with acoustic treatment that compliments the aesthetics—music is an art, after all. Look up random images of recording studios, and you’ll be sure to find recessed lighting, smooth gradients, colored foam, stylish diffusion panels, and all sorts of other eye candy (some of which helps the sound).