While the advent of digital audio workstations (DAWs) has very significantly changed the order of things in as far as creating music is concerned, the need for professional recording studios is far from diminished.
Many of today’s DAW-using recording setups are home-based and seemingly cheaper and more accessible for artists and songwriters who require these services.
However, a comparison of the quality of output from these setups and that from professional studios suggests that the former often produce works of inferior quality.
The need for an acoustically-appropriate recording space just can’t be wished away.
This superiority and the proven resiliency of the professional studio despite today’s technological shifts can be your motivation for launching your own recording studio small business, but which must be prepared to co-exist with modern approaches to production.
That being said, the music recording industry is vibrant.
This is no mean feat, especially when you consider that in 2017 there are 1693 sound recording studios in the United States.
Encouragingly, U.S. sales of recorded music totaled $7.65 billion in 2016, up 11.4% from the 2015 total of $6.87 billion. This represented the first double-digit growth for the music industry in almost 20 years.
Additionally, the country’s recorded music industry (including concerts and touring) grew to $18.3 billion in 2017, a marked improvement on 2016’s $17.2 billion.
Streaming accounts for majority of the revenue. This is a trend that has seen a phenomenal rise in the last few years.
In turn, the three main categories of streaming revenues are subscription, digital radio and ad-supported on-demand as can be seen below:
Convinced and ready to go all in?
Here’s what you must know about starting a professional recording studio small business.
1. Do you have the qualifications and/or motivation required to be a success?
While getting a college education in areas like Audio Engineering or Sound Technology can be helpful, eventually all that will count is the kind of experience you can bring to the table. This experience, borne out of actual exposure to various facets of music recording, is vetted practically when people can sample your latest release, get details about your latest recording project, or get to know who you’ve been working with.
2. The home studio and reasons for transitioning to a commercial recording studio
If you, true to word, have been genuinely interested in recording music, then you are most likely the proud owner of some semblance of recording equipment, or at the very least, a computer and relevant software.
Chances are that your passion for recording is being financed by an actual job.
To be able to convince people to record their music with you, however, you will need to work hard at putting together equipment you can work with. You can then set up your home recording studio in your bedroom, basement or garage, and then start doing actual work that is worth showcasing.
- DAW (digital audio workstation) / Audio Interface Combo
- Connectors and cables
- Studio monitors
- Microphone stand
- Pop filter
You also need to get the room’s acoustics right; for the sake of your budget, room arrangement is a practical solution.
After honing your skills for a while, perhaps earning some money and investing some into more equipment, and generally validating your idea, you may want to think about transitioning to a commercial professional recording studio and walking down the path blazed by legendary studio luminaries.
This is, of course, a natural progression for people who foresee themselves in a full-time recording career. Many people, including Dan Cooper, have done it this way.
Borrowing from his post, these are some of the factors about the transition that you’ll need to weigh when you get to this stage including:
- Space requirements with regards to future business and operations
- Cost of renting studio space
- Cost of getting the space studio-ready
- The commute
- The aura of professionalism required
- Location of the space and how this will affect your business prospects
- The work ethic required
- Your family’s privacy
- Your family’s security
After weighing these factors and reaching the conclusion that a commercial studio is where you need to be, it will be time to start making the necessary arrangements for doing so.
Becoming a full-time entrepreneur isn’t a decision to be taken lightly; the implications are massive and you have to face them head on. Primarily, this decision is about ensuring that you have enough money to sustain you (and your family) until your venture can start earning you some income.
With this taken care of you’ll be good to go.
In fact, this guide’s focus is on how to go all in into the recording studio business.
3. Location and space requirements for your professional commercial recording studio
For your commercial studio, finding a space that you can use, in a suitable location, is the first obstacle you’ll have to clear.
It’s really not possible to put a finger on the ideal location.
For example, Dan Cooper’s studio is on a busy high street frequented by many musicians.
Importantly, your choice of location will considerably affect the amount you pay in rent. Expect this to be higher in city centers and cheaper in the suburbs.
Purchasing or building a space is an option you can consider if you can afford the expenses and satisfy all the requirements for securing a Certificate of Occupancy (CO).
Alternatively, you can lease space, in which case your potential landlord has to obtain a CO that’s relevant for your business. The landlord will also need to obtain a new CO in the event that significant renovations have to be carried out before you launch. In this case, it’s prudent to have a clause in the lease agreement specifying that lease payments will only start after the new CO has been obtained.
The dimensions of the space you plan on using are vital.
A small studio comprising of control desk and vocal booth can work. This will however not be enough if you’re looking to record bands, in which case you may need two rooms.
Toydrum’s space is extremely roomy and this has made it possible for a couple of other studios to set up in the same premise. The pair used second-hand building materials and gear to optimize it to their liking.
4. Preparing your studio space
Acoustical treatment for your studio is a prerequisite for achieving the type of sound that you are looking for.
Essentially, this is about taking care of the following aspects of acoustics:
- Acoustic isolation — To keep external sounds at a minimum
- Control room and monitoring design symmetry — The listener, speakers, walls and other acoustical boundaries need to be symmetrically centered about the listener’s position
- Frequency balance — The room design should maintain an acoustic signal’s original frequency balance
- Reflection — The manner in which sound waves bounce off surfaces in a room should be carefully controlled to enhance sonic character
- Absorption — This involves the use of room designs and surface materials that can absorb unwanted sounds thereby improving acoustics
- Reverberation — This has to do with the persistence of reflected sound waves continuing even after the original sound has ceased
Typical approaches for making your studio acoustically-ready involve designing it using software like ModeCalc, ensuring that it is suitably bass trapped, and covering the room with acoustical absorption products. For the latter, starting by covering 50% of the room is advisable.
5. Handling the legal and financial aspects of your business
a. Choosing a legal structure. Forming a limited liability company (LLC) may be advisable as your personal assets won’t be attached in the event that the studio is sued
b. Get licensing that permits you to run your business in your location
c. File a doing-business-as (DBA) with your local government if the studio is called anything else besides your legal name. A separate tax ID and sales tax ID number may be required
d. Open a business checking account; resist the urge to commingle funds
f. Get health and property insurance
6. Equipment and accessories required for your recording studio small business
You will need the following equipment for your studio:
- Digital audio workstation
- Audio interface combo
- Connectors and cables i.e. instrument cable, speaker cable, microphone cable
- Snake cables
- Patch board
- Studio monitors
- Studio headphones
- Microphone stands
- Microphones i.e. condenser mics, ribbon mics, dynamic mics
- Pop filters
- Mobile sound-dampening panels
- Digital mixing board
Sourcing for second-hand equipment is most advised with respect to your constrained budget.
Computer: This will be used to run all the recording software; a minimum of 4GB RAM and several gigabytes of space is a good starting place.
Soundcard (PCIe audio interface): This will be used to convert audio into digital.
Recording software: There is an abundance of software in the market including Logic Pro, Sonar Studio, Mackie Tracktion 3, MOTU Digital Performer, etc. Price range — typically $150 to $500; on the extremes you opt for freeware or spend as much as $1800
Digital Audio Workstations (music creation software): This is software that allows you to record, process and edit audio; your options here are just as plentiful. Top names include Ableton, Pro Tools, Frooty Loops, Reason, Cubase, Studio One and Spectrasonics Stylus RMX. Read about the best DAWs for 2017 here.
Audio interface: A chassis with 2 to 16 mic preamps, A/D convertors, and a USB, FireWire or Thunderbolt port used for sending digital audio to your computer via a single cable. Manufacturers include Apogee, M-Audio, Mackie, Edirol, Akai, etc.
NB: Recording device options (other than the computer and DAW/Audio Interface Combo) include a 2-track recorder, an iOS recording system, a recorder-mixer, a separate multitrack recorder and mixer, and a keyboard workstation.
Microphones: For recording purposes there are three types of mics to choose from i.e. condenser, ribbon and dynamic, as determined by the type of element used. Mics with a cardioid pickup pattern are useful thanks to their ability to cut out room acoustics and therefore achieve a tighter sound.
- Condenser mics — Popular for all types of recording situations; represent sound sources very accurately
- Ribbon mics — Despite not being very versatile they have excellent mid-range detail. They are however significantly pricey and fragile (merely slamming a door in a tight room, dropping or blowing into a ribbon mic will break the element).
- Dynamic mics — Can’t quite match the accuracy of condenser mics. They are however very resilient and capable of handling high sound pressure levels. They are also quite inexpensive.
Phantom power supply — This is used to power condenser mics’ circuits and it uses the same cable carrying the mic’s audio signal. Not required if your condenser mic has a battery, or if your audio interface supplies phantom power at its mic connectors (mostly the case)
Mic preamp — This is used to amplify a mic signal to a higher level (line level) required by mixers and recorders
Studio monitors: These are used to listen to the audio interface’s output signals. Go for accurate monitors, and which are characterized by the following qualities:
- Wide, smooth frequency response
- Uniform off-axis response
- Good transient response
- Clarity and detail
- Low distortion
- High output capability
Headphones: They are used for the same purpose as studio monitors but more so when:
- You need to eliminate the effect of room acoustics
- You need similar tone quality in different environments
- You need on-location monitoring convenience
- You want to hear minute changes in the mix
Cables — There are three types of these:
- Instrument cable — used to convey a weak, un-amplified signal
- Speaker cable — Used to convey a strong signal from an amplifier to a speaker; the larger the diameter of the wire, the better the signal flow
- Microphone cable — Used to carry a relatively weak signal from a mic
7. Preparing for and conducting a recording session
For success in audio recording there are three fundamentals that must be take into account i.e. quality sounds, quality mics and proper mic placements.
When preparing an artist for a recording session that’ll involve vocals it’s necessary to make a number of arrangements that will result in getting the best recording performance possible. Key steps involved in doing this include:
- Putting up the mic and letting the artist running through the track a couple of times. This is not for recording purposes but just to let the producer identify the standard of vocal take desirable for the song. Doing this will also a producer about how much emotional input they require from an artist with regards to the song. For this the producer must ensure that the artist is as relaxed as possible.
- Preparation must also include getting a superb mix for the vocalist in the headphones. It’s imperative that an artist likes what they are hearing in their ears prior to the recording.
- Comprehensive preparation will allow for the selection of the right mic for the right sound, and the necessary preamps
- Other tips for ensuring a great vocal take are using a pop filter to eliminate breath pops and trying different distances to the mic to find out the optimal sweet spot with respect to tonality. Of course, distance-to-mic requirements are different for background vocals, spoken word, and choirs and orchestras.
Note that this preparation is just for vocals. Preparing for a recording session involving an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, reed and brass instruments, or drum kits i.e. electronic drum set or percussion drum set, etc, will involve markedly different approaches and knowhow as can be appreciated in this guide.
The first step is setting up the studio and involves:
- Giving the studio a general cleanup
- Placing AC power boxes according to the layout
- Positioning the baffles (if any)
- Setting out chairs, stools and music stands as per the layout
- Running a headphone extension cable from each artist’s location to the headphone junction box
- Placing mic stands, ensuring that mic cables have adequate slack, and then plugging cables into the appropriate mic input panel or snake box
- Setting up the mics, checking that the switches are in the right position, placing them in their stand adapters, connecting the cables, and lastly balancing the weight of each boom against the mic
- Finally connecting the musicians’ headphones for cueing
The second step is preparing the control room as follows:
- Turning up the monitor system
- Carefully bringing up each fader, one at a time, listening to each mic. If everything is okay you should just hear normal studio noise. Unusual sounds may be the result of bad cables, hum, dead or noisy mics, faulty power supplies, etc,; correct these before you begin
- Verifying the mic input list with the help of an assistant who will scratch the grille of each mic with a fingernail to identify the instrument that the mic should pick up. If you are alone scratch the grilles and listen via headphone.
- Checking all the cue headphones by playing a tone or music through them and listening while wiggling each cable. Ensure that they are playing at a reasonable level, not extremely loud
Sequence of events in a recording session:
1. Recording the basic rhythm tracks for several songs during the first session (done to enhance efficiency)
2. A dubbing session where all the songs’ overdubs are done
3. A mixdown session where all the tunes are mixed.
(Read a definitive guide of how to mix music.)
4. Tunes editing and album mastering
NB: Bear in mind that, for some musicians, completely recording one song at a time is more preferable.
After the musicians arrive at the studio allow them some ample time to set up and make themselves comfortable. Listening to their live sound for some time will allow you to make suggestions as to what can be improved e.g. instrument tuning, replacing/repairing faulty equipment, etc. This is also the time to optimize the studio’s recording atmosphere e.g. by adjusting studio lighting etc.
- Before starting it’s advisable to make arrangements for recording the monitor mix. The producer can take this home and use it to evaluate the performance
- Import a vocal template on your DAW
- Set recording levels then cue mixes for the musicians’ headphones. Note that the monitor mix affects only what is heard but not what is recorded.
- When you are ready to start recording you can either briefly play the group a metronome at a desired tempo or play them a click track via the cue system. Alternatively, the drummer can use stick clicks to set the tempo.
- When the recording starts make a note of the recorder counter time. Now hit the slate button (if any) and announce the tune’s name and take number. The group leader or drummer will now count off the beat and the group will start playing.
- As the song progresses the producer will keenly listen to the musical performance, the engineer will check for any audio problems and you may make small level adjustments if necessary. An assistant engineer (if available) will run the multitrack recorder and keep track of the takes on the track sheet while noting the tune name, take number, and whether the take was complete
- Don’t use the solo function as the song progresses as the abrupt monitoring change may disturb the producer. The producer, on the other hand, should let the performance progress despite minor mistakes; only major ones can warrant stopping the performance
- At the end of the song the musicians should remain silent for a few seconds after the last note. For songs that end in fade-out they should continue for about 30 seconds to ensure there is enough material for the mixdown
- Now you can either play the tune back or go for another take. If you had connected the multitrack recorder to the insert jacks use the faders to set a rough mix with EQ and effects. This will allow the group to catch their flubbed notes and you to listen for audio quality
- Record other takes or tunes and then pick the best takes. Correct errors on these takes or fix errors with editing
- Prevent fatigue and protect your hearing by limiting tracking sessions to four hours or less and have breaks in between
Importance of relating to the musicians:
As an engineer working with artists, having both people skills and technical skills is vital. Knowing how to relate to these artistic personalities will help to foster creative energy.
- Learn the musicians’ names and refer to them as such
- Try to minimize their nervousness at the beginning of the session with humor, conversation, talking about their background and journey, offering snacks, letting them know that mistakes are normal and fixable, asking them if the technical aspects of the recording are suitable, etc
- Ask for their opinions and input before implementing something you think can be done to improve a song
- Try not to point out errors during playback — let the musicians identify these for themselves — or complement the performance then ask if they can do another take
- Offer to break if you notice that they are having trouble with a song — or offer to skip it and then come back to it later
- Find a technical way to go around hitches like equipment malfunction and software glitches
Add overdubs after you have recorded the basic or rhythm tracks for all the tunes. A musician will listen to recorded tracks over headphones and record a new part on an open track.
After the session is over:
- Take down the equipment and store as required
- Put the labeled recording and session documents in a file folder or labeled box
- Keep the multitrack recording for possible future work — unless the group wants to buy it or rent it
- Backup the multitrack recordings (audio and session files) to another suitable medium
In many cases, a final master recording may need its leveling, equalization and dynamics suitably tweaked in order to create a final “master” recording that has the best possible sonic qualities and marketability.
A mastering engineer will be required for this part of the process. It’s however important to note that two mastering engineers may take very different approaches to achieving a desirable sound.
8. Staffing requirements for your recording studio small business
The primary job that a producer has is to help an artist and the record company to create the very best possible recorded performance and final product that captures the artist’s vision. In addition, the producer will handle the scheduling and budgetary requirements of a recording project.
As the owner/operator of the business and working in the producer role you can either fulfill a number of duties in an individual project OR have complete control over a project’s artistry, finances and program content.
Your most probable task, however, will be to guide an artist throughout the entirety of the recording project, and in doing so:
- Assist in songs selection
- Assist in focusing the artistic goals and performance to ensure that the music is superbly conveyed to the audience
- With the engineer and mastering engineer assist in translating the performance into a final, salable product
The ideal producer for a recording project is one who can bring the following qualities to the table:
- Business acumen
- Business connections
- Creative insight
- Mastery of the recording process
The engineer can aptly be described as “an interpreter in a techno-artistic field”. As an engineer you must be capable of expertly combining the artist’s music and the producer’s concepts and intents via recording technology. You must therefore have a reputable repertoire of tastes and skills necessary for success in this position.
In this role you will be responsible for:
- Coming up with the best technological approach for capturing a performance
- Documenting your process for other engineers or future production purposes
- Placing the musicians in desired studio positions
- Choosing and placing the mics
- Setting levels and balances on the recording console or DAW mixing interface
- Recording the performance onto hard disk
- Overdubbing additional musical parts into the session that might be needed for later use
- Mixing the project into a final master recording in any number of media and mono, stereo, and surround-sound formats
- Helping in meeting the needs for project archiving or storage
The assistant engineer
Your studio may, like many other studios, typically offer to train future engineers by having interested individuals work with visiting engineers. This position is mostly unpaid but sometimes a small compensation is provided.
In this role the assistant engineer will be responsible for duties like:
- Mic and headphone setups
- DAW setup
- Helping with session documentation
- Session breakdown
- Occasionally performing rough mixes and balance settings
You and/or a suitably qualified workmate may take up the role of maintenance engineer, a task that involves ensuring that the studio’s equipment is superbly maintained and promptly repaired if this is required.
9. Charging for your services
Professional recording studios charge for their services based on the guidelines below which you can also adopt:
- A musician who wants to record will pay an hourly rate. This rate will be discounted if the musician books and prepays for blocks of time
- If you book someone, say a session musician, to work on a project the studio will take a fee that is a portion (10% to 20%) of the hourly booking rate charged for that individual. The rest will then be paid to this individual.
- If you book a top hit-making producer for a project the studio will get 10% of what the producer will be charging
- There are varying hourly rates for audio engineers, session musicians, background singers and producers.
- Tip for profitability — Whenever possible charge higher rates (price discrimination) and make deals for large projects
10. Diversifying your recording studio’s range of services
To be a commercial success your recording studio needs to be earning revenue for at least 12 hours each entire day. If this isn’t the case then it means that its equipment is being under-utilized.
There are quite a number of ways through which to create alternative revenue streams for your recording studio small business. Offering these services will require you to expand your range of skills.
These services can include:
- Sound engineering
- Commercial music and voiceovers
- Mixing and mastering
- Renting out equipment needed for live performances e.g. mics, amps, speakers, mixing boards
- Translation dubs jobs — Commercial enterprises with online videos that wish to expand their marketing efforts using foreign languages can be another target market if you wish to take up translation dubs jobs. These jobs are normally available via freelance job sites.
11. Ongoing expenses for a recording studio
Running your small business will require you to incur a good number of expenses. These include:
- Business rates
- Insurance (except health)
- Car and truck expenses
- Commissions and fees paid to other people/businesses
- Depreciation and Section 179 deduction
- Fees paid to ISPs for storage of backup copies of your work
- Legal and professional fees
- Service charges
- Commuting and travel costs
- Salaries and wages
- Repairs and maintenance
- Tax savings
- Consumables e.g. guitar strings, CD-Rs, snacks, toilet paper, etc
12. Promoting, PR, and marketing your recording studio
Making a name for your recording studio will be a process that will only show the desired results with time. Being consistent at what you’ll be doing will therefore help you succeed in your objectives.
There are many ways to make people aware about your studio including:
- Finding time to go out there and meet musicians and bands
- Marketing the studio’s output — Includes selling CDs, song downloads, ringtones and training materials via relevant channels like Tunecore (for iTunes downloads) and eCommerce sites like Shopify or Amazon
- Posting ads on Craigslist listing your studio’s services
- Hunting for work assignments by getting in touch with advertising agencies and TV/film production companies
- Applying for freelance jobs that require skills in creating advertising jingles, audio dubs for videos, etc
- Tips from Dan Cooper:
- Identifying your studio’s USP (unique selling point) and then using as the core of your marketing effort
- Regularly creating a selection of showreels showcasing your professional work and competencies
- Offering written mix critiques for inquiring clients
- Valuing the valuable clients by being a true professional in all facets of your interactions
- Using a “barter system” where people are given studio time in return for helping out in the studio e.g. assistant engineers who’ve helped in the studio are then allowed to bring in bands that wish to record; these can turn out to be paying clients in the future.
- Checking out what the competition is offering and then creating your own version of this product/service that has a valuable proposition of its own.
- Creating a space that draws people on account of its relaxed yet creative environment
- Having some prior experience in producing work; people will notice you if you can showcase several standout tracks.
- Targeting solo singers and artists — you’ll need excellent music output, a professional image and good advertising. Identifying your target market and knowing where they are recording. Target those that are struggling to pay expensive rates and convince them that you can offer a comparable service at a friendlier rate.
- Creating a comfortable and creative space that’s uniquely different from the competition.
- Ensuring that your setup is optimally efficient e.g. always being recording-ready and using software templates.
- Creating your own unique sound. Finding a band that has potential for popularity or is already considerably popular and having them showcase this sound.
- Tips from Brian Hood:
- Creating your own sound
- Using several approaches to differentiate your studio and services from the competition
- Creating a website
- Maintaining a reputation for integrity
- Starting with smaller indie labels and impressing with your work thereby leading to word-of-mouth advertising
- Growing with bands
- Getting work from online forums like Andy Sneap Forum and SoundBetter.com
- Using social media to showcase your projects and build a contact base.
- Custom-building a website for your studio, optimizing it for the search engines, and if possible use Google Adwords
- Tips from Disc Makers for how to run a successful recording studio, including meeting deadlines, being efficient and being consistent
13. Things you should know about music copyright and licensing
Copyright is a protection that covers published and unpublished works. It exists at the point of creation and arises automatically. Nevertheless, it must exist in material form e.g. a recording or a sheet of music.
Certain economic and moral rights are given to these works by the Copyrights Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988.
As a studio owner copyright issues can affect you in various ways and it is therefore prudent to be knowledgeable about this facet of your business.
At the very least, it is worth knowing that: “Copyright exists in the song and also in the master recording. Master rights are controlled by the artist and the record company. Song or music rights are controlled by the writer and the music publisher.”
This guide provides in-depth information about:
- Masters and re-recording restrictions
- Works with various published or registered statuses
- Sound recordings
- Architectural works
- Special cases
- Ownership of the master recording
- Collection societies including the USA’s three performing rights societies ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, and Harry Fox (HFA), the mechanical rights agency
You may also go further in-depth into this topic by reading this report from the United States Copyright Office.