So you have a song you want to record. Maybe you have a band, or maybe you are a solo act. Perhaps you've played around with some recording software and even recorded a demo - or not. In any case, you want to take it to the next level and record at a proper studio. Congratulations!
So how do you tell a good studio from a bad one? And how do you pick the good studio that is right for you and your project? Here are some things to consider:
When it comes to location, there are only 2 types of studios - 1) those conveniently located to you 2) those you can ignore. Face it, unless you have a huge budget and want to travel to an exotic place and pay for room and board on top of everything else, that far away studio is of no use. Confine your search to studios in easy driving distance.
First and foremost, a studio is a space. Granted the equipment in that space is important too, but so is the space itself. The space could be big, it could be small. If you have a large band with a full brass section, strings, and a choir, that cozy little studio probably isn't right for you. And if you are a solo singer song writer, you may feel lost in a large live room, making the cozy little studio a better choice for you. Bottom line - pick a space that works for you.
Any room smaller than a large concert hall has "modes" in the bass frequencies. These are frequencies where the bass resonates with the room and causes the bass to be exceedingly loud in some parts of the room and almost disappear in other parts of the room. Left untreated, the bass modes can wreak havoc with tracking. Accurate mixing is almost impossible in such a room.
Fortunately it is possible to tame bass modes by using special acoustic traps. Foam, blankets and mattresses on the walls won't fix the problem - those solutions only dampen mid and high frequency reflections while the bass modes remain - leaving you with a muddy sounding room.
Look for a room that has purpose designed bass traps. The room should also have "life" to it. A carpeted room with all the walls covered in absorbers is going to sound dull and lifeless. If the only bass traps are foam on the walls or a mattress, find another studio.
Every studio has its own vibe. Grungy, spiffy, homey, industrial, psychedelic, the list goes on and on. How the studio makes you feel is important because it influences how you play, and even how you think when it comes time to make creative decisions. Make sure the vibe of the studio works for you and the other members of your ensemble.
There is no right or wrong answer here. And remember, to a certain extent you can alter the vibe of a studio by bringing in posters, potted plants, beads, and other decorative items. This may seem silly, but feeling comfortable and inspired in the studio will have a noticeable positive impact on your performance.
There is a huge difference between the microphones you will find at a high end studio and a wanna be studio. And choice of microphone is often more important than any piece of gear you can place after the microphone.
Look for a studio that has a healthy collection of classic and respected microphones. Breath of choice is almost as important as quality here - you want options. A U67 may be one of the most revered mics of all times, but that doesn't mean it is always the best mic on a particular source. Having a wide choice of microphones (and an engineer or producer who knows the mics well) will allow you to find the mic that best complements your source.
Good studios have a great selection of instruments at the ready to serve your creative needs. And while you and your band may own all the instruments you need, don't overlook the value of having a much wider palate of sounds at your finger tips. That vintage guitar in the studio might just be the sound you are looking for on a particular track, or playing a real Hammond or real Rhodes might give your song a significant boost. At the very least, hanging out in a studio with a lot of cool instruments is inspiring.
Another big difference between your home setup and a professional studio is audio processing equipment. You may have plug ins for things like compressors, equalizers, and various effects, but a good studio will have real outboard gear. It doesn't just look cool - it sounds better (and can be used when tracking with zero latency). The studio will probably have a large console as well - which is not only much more efficient than mixing on a computer screen with a mouse, it also generally leads to a better mix.
And finally, yes, you do have to pay the studio, and the better the studios typically charge more. But a good studio will help you achieve a more professional result - and get you there quicker. In the end, the good studio might save you money vs a studio with a lower hourly rate that takes longer and delivers an inferior recording.
That said, a great studio that is way out of your budget is as useless to you as an affordable studio that doesn't meet your needs. Find the best studio that you can afford AND meets your needs.