How Recording Studios Work


Legendary recording artist Elvis Presley recorded in Memphis' Sun Studios.
Legendary recording artist Elvis Presley recorded in Memphis' Sun Studios.
Liaison/Getty Images

In 1953, a skinny 18-year-old with slicked-back hair walked into Memphis Recording Service. He wanted to make a personal recording and was looking for owner Sam Phillips. Since Phillips wasn't in, the teen talked to secretary Marion Kiesker. When she asked what style of music he played, he responded, "I don't sound like nobody."

Although few people ever heard that first $4 recording, Elvis Presley turned his personal style into worldwide fame with the help of Sam Phillips and that recording studio, which became the legendary Sun Studio. The studio was also home to Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and B.B. King [source: Rockabilly Hall of Fame].

Sun Studio may be what comes to mind when you think of recording studios, or the Beatles' Abbey Road in London -- or maybe even Chess Records in Chicago where artists such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley and Aretha Franklin produced recordings that introduced the blues, jazz and gospel to listeners far from the Mississippi Delta [source: Save America's Treasures].

While recording artists still need some type of music studio for cutting and mixing music, the digital era has simplified the process. Plenty of large studios still exist to provide sophisticated, high-end services, but many musicians have turned to smaller studios using computers and digital sound equipment.

How did recording studios start? And, what's involved with putting together a recording studio? Check out the next page to find out.

History of Recording Studios

In the 1960s, technology made it easier to mix instruments, allowing the Beatles to record.
In the 1960s, technology made it easier to mix instruments, allowing the Beatles to record.
© Bob Whitaker/Getty Images

The history of recording studios traces back to the 1800s with Thomas Alva Edison and his invention of the phonograph. Initially intended to improve the telephone, the phonograph created a way to record and play back sound. Edison applied for a patent in 1877 for his talking machine, which used foil cylinders.

Ten years later, Emile Berliner found a way to etch the sound-carrying groove on a horizontal disk's surface along with a way to mass produce recorded disks.

Coin-in-slot, sound-reproducing boxes became popular in arcades in 1889, and the New York Phonograph Company opened the first recording studio a year later. By 1902, recordings were being reproduced on thick wax disks, and opera singer Enrico Caruso had completed his first recording. Then, in 1904, Lee de Forest's invention of the triode foreshadowed the demise of the hand-cranked Victrola in the 1920s and the beginning of electronically recorded music [source: History of Rock].

Western Electric made electronic recording using microphones and amplifiers possible in 1925. Before that, performers in a music studio had to sit very close to the bell of a horn to record. This could mean crowding a large band or orchestra into a small space without a way to balance the volume produced by the various performers. Sound waves traveled through a membrane and onto a wax-coated disk.

Using the new technology, large groups could sit in their usual formations and sound volume could be modified, but larger halls were needed to produce the acoustics for a natural sound. Until the late 1940s, though, recordings could not be edited. That's because records continued to be produced by sending sound direct to disk and then creating a metal master to use in making copies [source: London: A Musical Gazetter].

That changed when the recording industry began using magnetic-coated sound recording tape. A German company, I.G. Farben, had improved the tape-coating process during the 1930s, but the tape didn't become available to the United States and other Allied nations until after World War II.

The arrival of multi-track recorders in the 1950s allowed studios to take cutting and mixing music a step further by taping and then combining separate tracks recorded at different times. The move to two-channel stereophonic sound in the late 1960s extended sound mixing even further by allowing studio engineers to experiment with effects like echo and reverb.

The 1970s saw long-playing disks (LPs) replaced by cassette tapes, which made music portable and offered technological advances like Dolby B noise reduction. However, the compact disc and digital tape recorder had superceded cassettes by the mid-1990s. The digital tape recorder allows studio tapes to be re-recorded onto digital tape, which is then used to burn master laser disks. From these, aluminum-coated plastic copies, or CDs, are made [source: History of Tape Recording].

The move to digital technology has extended beyond just tape production. Using digital devices and sometimes little more than a computer, musicians can easily and inexpensively combine composing, performing, recording and mixing functions.

Are you considering the option of building your own recording studio? Let's look next at what you'd need.

Building a Recording Studio

Most professional studios such as this one feature a separate room where musicians perform.
Most professional studios such as this one feature a separate room where musicians perform.
© Dave Hogan/Getty Images

If you're building a recording studio, you have plenty to consider, starting with the digital equipment you'll need for recording, editing, cutting and mixing music. To learn about some of the equipment you'll need for a functioning studio, read How Recording Sessions Work. Beyond that, you'll have soundproofing and acoustical concerns. And, depending on how much you're doing, you may want to consider construction or remodeling of the actual space.

A professional recording studio usually has a room where the musicians perform, sometimes itself called a studio; a control room containing the equipment for recording, editing and mixing music; and possibly a machine room and smaller rooms, or isolation booths, where high-volume instruments like drums are played to separate their sounds from those the microphones in the main room are picking up.

These rooms are carefully constructed to promote sound quality. That's been a concern for decades in the recording industry. Chess Studios in Chicago, for example, was one of the first in the 1950s to design a music studio with none of its four walls parallel (and several clipped in place) to allow desired vibrations.

You'll want to consider how you'll subdivide and soundproof your space. At the very least, you want to provide performers with a soundproofed space separate from the control room. And you'll want to check local zoning ordinances to make sure you comply with any anti-noise provisions.

You don't need a lot of equipment for a home recording studio. Here are two suggestions for putting together an economical digital system, one for under $1,000 and the other for $4,000:

$950 Basic Digital Studio

  • Mac-mini computer with memory and hard-drive upgrade, $675
  • M-Audio Fast Track USB, $100, or M-Audio Mobile Pre, $150
  • Shure SM58 style or inexpensive Chinese condenser microphone, $100
  • Connecting cables and adapters, $25
  • USB MIDI Keyboard, $100

[source: The Deli Magazine].

$4,000 Digital Studio

  • Computer: 2.8-GHz Windows PC or 1.6-GHz Apple Mac, with 1 GB RAM and 100 GB hard drive space (PC: $1,500; Mac: $2,500)
  • Speaker upgrade to Behringer MS16, Harman Kardon Duet or Sony SRS-Z510 ($30 to $80)
  • Editing software: Cubase SL for PC or Mac, Sonar Studio for PC only, Logic Express for Mac only ($300)
  • Microphone: Shure SM58 or SM86, Behringer B-1 or B-2, or Blue 8-Ball ($100 to $200 for a mic; $60 for cable, stand and boom)
  • Interface to pre-amplify the audio signal, convert it to digital and transfer it to the hard drive: PreSonus Firepod, MOTU 828mkII or Yamaha O1X ($600 to $1,000). Allow recording eight voices or instruments at once.

[source: USA Today].

Along with home recording studios, what are some of the other types of recording studios? Let's look at some of them next.

Types of Recording Studios

Home recording studios are becoming more popular such as this one owned by Robin Gibb.
Home recording studios are becoming more popular such as this one owned by Robin Gibb.
© Homer Sykes/Getty Images

Recording studios vary by type -- ranging from a small studio tucked into a basement corner all the way to high-end music recording studio. In between the two extremes are middle-of-the-road project studios which are typically used for voice-over recording.

The advent of inexpensive digital recorders and music software programs has made it easier than ever for anyone to record. In most instances, all it takes to record is a desk with a digital recorder or a computer with a MIDI computer set-up. For more on MIDI, check out our article on How MIDI Works. Often, home studios are a hobby for the owner. These studios can be very minimal or more sophisticated depending on the owner's experience. The recording can vary in quality as well [source: Richard Cleaver].

Usually more sophisticated home studios can be found in the home of a producer or engineer, and they often form the middle tier of recording studios. They're known as project studios. Besides being used for voice over recording, they can also be used by bands to record demo albums to present to prospective producers, to record commercial jingles or to produce sound effects for a movie.

And, at the very top are the high-end recording studios used for music, which can cost more than $100 an hour. These feature an acoustic control room, several performance areas and high-quality equipment. Recording at a high-end studio allows performers to mix various instruments, using professional equipment such as microphones, synthesizers and mixers.

No matter what type of studio it is, a studio must be able to capture, record, combine, re-record and edit sounds. And, the studio must offer a sound-protected environment. It also must allow engineers and musicians the ability to listen to playback. [source: Audio Training Consultants].

Not ready to start your own recording studio? You can rent instead. But what should you look for when renting a studio? Check out the next page to find out.

Renting a Recording Studio

London's Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles recorded, represents the high-end of recording studios.
London's Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles recorded, represents the high-end of recording studios.
© Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

If you're renting a recording studio, you'll find that no one recording studio is right for every musician. Different types of recording studios specialize in different services, ranging from those for high-level professional recording artists and other musicians to those at a middle level for voice-over professionals and others who don't need such high-level sound -- and even inexpensive music studios catering to amateurs.

Remember Elvis's first $4 recording? You won't find anything that inexpensive, but you should be able to find something to fit your needs and your budget. Probably the key questions to ask are: What services do I need, and what's my budget?

High-level recording studios charge $100 per hour and more, while mid-level studios may range from $45 to $65 per hour. But an hourly price probably shouldn't be your main consideration. Here are other factors to consider in choosing a recording studio:

Sound engineers - This is the most important factor, says Brian Kozelman of Back at the Ranch Studio near Waco, Texas. An experienced engineer not only has more skill, but can also work faster. This saves time and money. Look for an engineer skilled in working with your type of product, such as a music album, song demo or commercial.

Equipment - Don't be misled by a lengthy list of equipment, Kozelman says. Look for high-end mike preamps, a choice of major name microphones and classic and high-end outboard gear.

Acoustics - Does the facility match your group's needs? You'd want a large live room for an orchestra, but a small room for a solo performer or quartet. Look into the sound quality of the control room and monitoring system to make your final product sounds like it did in the music studio. You'll also want to check whether the studio has an isolation room, if you need it for a loud instrument like drums.

Past work - Ask for a past project list, as well as references from past users with similar needs to your own. Check to see what they thought of the studio's work.

Finally, think about discussing your project with the recording studio and then settling on a project rate instead of an hourly one. Studios vary on how long they take to complete a job, and the lowest hourly rate may not actually be the best value.

For lots more information about recording studios and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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