Last Updated on May 26, 2020
When movies show recording sessions, we see beauty shots of massive audio mixing boards and soft yellow lighting. A handful of people look into the recording space from the control room, and when the performance finally comes together, everyone smiles and nods, knowing they’ve just recorded a big hit.
But while fancy professional studios are all well and good when you have the time and the cash to access one, they’re just not always a viable option, especially if you’re only a fledgling musician, producer, or engineer.
Whether you’re a seasoned bedroom pop musician or a score composer who’s logged hundreds of hours in the studio, we want to talk to you about the benefits and limitations of the fabled home studio.
To get the real scoop on making music from home, we talked to in-demand musician and producer Gervais Maillard. Maillard’s international upbringing exposed him to many disparate types of music, and after studying piano and bass for many years, he started tackling many different projects in music and entertainment.
Maillard’s work includes original film scores, production for R&B projects, session work, and even heading up his own indie electronic band, People the Kangaroo.
Having spent a great deal working in both professional recording studios and home studios, Maillard was the perfect person to tell us all about how to create your very own home studio setup and what to expect from it.
As Maillard told us:
“I still use a home setup every day! Access to outstanding recording gear and digital resources has made it possible for home studios to compete with large facilities. I record in large studios when the session work I do for artists requires it, but I feel very well-armed with my home setup.”
So go ahead and open Reverb in a separate tab and get ready to learn more about home studios from a master.
Limitations of the home studio
There’s definitely still a stigma surrounding the use of home recording studios, at least when you talk to professionals who have never used one for an extended period of time.
In contrast, younger musicians and other industry pros are finding ways to use home studios to create professional-grade work.
But for the sake of fairness and objectivity, let’s talk about the limitations of home studios. After all, professional studios can spend millions of dollars to create an environment that’s ideal for recording, mixing, and mastering.
From Maillard’s perspective, the biggest gaps between home studios and professional studios are based on acoustic management and the actual skills of the person using it.
Let’s start by talking about expertise.
“The one true limitation of any studio is the skills of the person using it. It’s critical to understand your tools on a deep level to make the absolute best of what you have and stay efficient with your resources.”
If a 7-year-old was set loose on a professional studio, he probably wouldn’t make the best use of the tools available.
It’s a similar situation when working from a home studio. Yes, having solid, reliable gear is important (we’ll be talking more about gear in a bit), but knowing how to use everything effectively is just as important. Know your mixer, know your DAW. As an artist, you’re part of the studio, too. Make sure that you hold yourself to the same high standards.
As for soundproofing and acoustics, make changes to your home studio space to fit your needs.
“Building a home studio is as much about having powerful tools as it is about creating a listening environment. Musicians should understand and control the acoustic profile of the space they are working in. It has a considerable effect on how they perceive the music they are creating.”
If you don’t want an acoustically-dead room, that’s fine. But keep in mind that, as you listen back to projects on your monitors, you’re going to be hearing the room’s natural reverb.
If you plan on recording live instruments, then soundproofing becomes much more important. Otherwise, your $500 mic isn’t going to give you the results you want.
Tools of the trade
Alright gearheads, now let’s talk about some very basic equipment that will make your home studio more effective and more professional.
One of the flashiest components of any studio is the monitors. In particular, KRK powered monitor speakers have become extremely popular with home producers in recent years.
But don’t let your impulse buying make the decision for you. You might not need expensive monitors, and you might not even want monitor speakers at all, opting instead for monitor headphones that will keep you from bugging the neighbors every time you sit down to work.
You should also make sure that you already know how your set of monitors should sound.
“The number one piece of gear on the checklist is high-quality monitoring you are familiar with. Working with monitors you know that allow you to work your sounds in detail and produce accurate mixes is critical.”
For Maillard, good monitoring has a lot to do with the listening environment, which we’ve already touched on. If you’re going to be working in a boomy room with all kinds of room noise, take steps to solve this problem before spending money on expensive gear.
“Finally, a high-quality and versatile microphone and preamplifier combination is a powerful must-have tool in a home studio.”
Maillard is spot-on here. If you’re going to be doing any kind of live recording in that space, you’ll need a dependable mic and preamp.
Thankfully, there are a good number of low-cost options in these categories thanks to the likes of Behringer, Audio-Technica, Shure, and Focusrite.
Later, if you feel the need to upgrade, there will always be more expensive options that offer higher quality and more impressive build quality, but you don’t need to break the bank to get started.
Returning to the topic of workflow and time management, setting deadlines for yourself isn’t just a way to prepare yourself for professional recording environments, it’s also just a great way to maintain momentum.
Of course, when working in a studio, you’re always up against the clock. Studio time is expensive, leaving little time for fumbling with equipment or staring at the wall, trying to come up with the next idea.
Your home studio doesn’t have a timetable quite as strict, but you’ll soon find that setting deadlines for yourself inspires productivity and a sense of professionalism.
Maillard couldn’t do his work without setting, and adhering to, his own deadlines.
“Deadlines go hand-in-hand with a career in music. Setting deadlines is crucial to me because it helps organize a timeline for decisions that need to be made without getting bogged down in irrelevant details. The pressure to complete a project most definitely inspires me to be more creative and really draws out spontaneous, fresh ideas.”
Many artists have found this approach helpful over the years. Most famously, the long-defunct White Stripes often set rules for their recording time, often giving themselves only a week or so of studio time to record all tracks.
Deadlines and restrictions may feel limiting at first, but creativity often thrives within limitations. If you really want to make something, you’ll make it, regardless of the circumstances.
Keep your projects moving. You can also revisit specific tracks later, but getting your ideas recorded and developed in a reasonable amount of time is a great way to work.
Above all else, your home studio will give you one very valuable opportunity: the chance to hone your craft every single day, regardless of whether you currently have a music project that needs to be finished.
Once everything is in place, your studio can become a hub for other local musicians. If your studio creates professional results, start inviting musicians, producers, and engineers you’ve worked with elsewhere.
Collaborate on different projects as often as you can. This is the path Maillard followed, and it eventually led him to a new role that’s more about curating talent and keeping an eye on the big picture.
“Collaborating has always been a very important part of my process. Over time I’ve embraced an ‘Executive Producer’ approach to managing my projects. I curate a network of professionals I love to work with and invite professionals for specific creative reasons.”
We think this is a fantastic approach to take. If your ultimate goal is to be a producer, then go ahead and produce! Find the talent that will be best suited to each project.
In the process, you’ll build up a network of other musicians and creatives who can help make each track more exciting, more interesting, and more effective.
Years from now, you may end up working with many of these people in different professional studios all over town.
In the end, that’s the biggest benefit of building a home studio: instead of waiting for your career to come to you, you’re making your own luck. You get to make music on your own terms while getting to know other talented artists in your area.
If you build your home studio carefully and take the time to become a master with every piece of equipment and software, then the possibilities of what you can create are nearly limitless.