How to Choose a Recording Studio in Los Angeles?
There are lots recording studios in Los Angeles but choosing a recording studio is not as easy as choosing where to go for a cup of coffee. It’s not something you can afford to do everyday.
Most musicians save up their money for a long time before coming into a studio. Those who have been around for a while have most likely gone into a nice spacious studio with the best gear only to leave with a song that doesn’t sound how they wanted to or is sub-par. Why is this and how can this be avoided?
Don’t choose a studio just on the gear and space alone.
If you were looking for a guitarist for your band or to play in the studio with you would you pick someone with the best guitar without hearing him play? The guitar itself doesn’t sound good without a skillful player. Jimmy Hendrix would sound amazing on a $100 guitar compared to a kid with a $3000 guitar that has only been playing for a week. Yet somehow, most musicians seem to think with recording, the gear and equipment is what makes the recording sound good and that this the most important factor. This is the first myth and mistake that musicians make when choosing a studio.
Have you ever gone to a live sound gig at a venue and it sounded amazing and then went back to that same venue and the sound was crap? What changed. The venue is the same, the equipment is the same…. the engineer was different. The skills of an engineer are strangely overlooked by musicians but a talented engineer is the key factor to making a good quality mix and recording.
Recording studios in Los Angeles
There are million dollar recording studios in Los Angeles with kids in them who don’t know what they’re doing. You could book a top studio and end up with an intern or inexperienced engineer recording your session and the truth is, it happens way more than you think. If someone buys a Ferrari, that doesn’t make them a good racing car driver. Put them on a track in a race and they will probably loose.
There are many people in the world that have rich parents or own a side business or came across a large amount of money. Just because they have money, doesn’t mean they made that money from music. Like the guys on the high way with Ferraris, most of them did not afford to buy that Ferrari from racing.
If a studio looks amazing as full of great gear, it doesn’t necessarily mean it comes with someone who knows how to drive it all or that their success paid for the studio or that they even own the studio. In fact, the majority of the larger studios are not owned by the engineers who work in them on a daily basis, more on this in a minute…
Large Recording Studios
Ah Los Angeles, the home of the recording industry in the US. Studios everywhere, so many to choose. Should you just choose the biggest most luxurious studio to get the best sound?
Most of the large recording studios in Los Angeles are advertised without an engineer at all in their rates! This is because most of the large studios in Los Angeles are not operated by the owner. The studio owner might have worked in the studio at some point in time but on average, when you book a large studio, you are getting an employee who works for the owner. Some of them are very talented. Some of them aren’t. How do you know which one you will get? This is the problem. You might go to a big studio one day and get an amazing engineer and an amazing sounding recording. You might go back to the same studio next week and your recording sounds like shit. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it might have happened to a friend of yours. It happens way more than you think.
Could I get a Bad Recording from One of the Large Recording Studios in Los Angeles?
The chance of it happening is pretty high. Property and rental prices have soared in Los Angeles over the last 20 years but music sales and music budgets have been on a significant decline since the 90s. Most of the huge studios of the 80s and 90s have shut down. Out of the top 40 biggest studios in the 90s, there are only a handful or two remaining.
Artist development deals are a thing of the past too, which means musicians have to pay to record and promote their own music before being considered to be signed. Modern technology/computers/DAWs revolutionized the recording industry which made it cheaper to setup a recording studio and the mid-priced and home studio market came in a slaughtered the large sized high end studios in Los Angeles leaving most of the really large studios bankrupt. The ones that have survived have had to lower their prices and often in order to make ends meet, they will pay their engineers less too.
What does this mean?
This has pushed a lot of the talented engineers away from the large studios. Why would a talented engineer work for $30 an hr as an in house engineer in a large studio when he could setup his own home studio and earn double? This is exactly what has been happening. The talented engineers have been leaving the larger studios to start up their own studio with themselves or with other engineers. This way they can charge lower prices to their customers and still create music that is on par or better than what the larger studios are doing.
Since most musicians have a budget for recording, being able to pay less per hour means more hours in the studio for the engineer to work which, as long as the engineer is talented, results in a better sounding recording and mix.
Watch out for inexperienced engineers though with too cheap rates, they’ll just take longer to do everything. So a cheaper hourly rate doesn’t necessarily mean a cheaper recording when you’re finished if it takes longer to do.
What you want is a talented engineer working away from the large studio rooms. This way you’ll get a better sounding recording.
Without an engineer?
Have you gone to a large studio and seen the rates? These rates often all come without an engineer! How crazy is that? What good is a studio without an engineer? It’s almost like they have given up and been like… “Well, our best engineers are gone now, so you work it out.” lol. They have in house engineers available for hire but who are they? Are they any good? Who are you getting exactly and where can you hear their recordings and mixes? These are the questions you really need to ask if you are using an mysterious un-named in house engineer.
You can search for an engineer and hire them and bring them to your studio of choice but if you try searching for a “sound engineer” or “recording engineer” or “music producer” it’s much harder to find someone than it is to find a recording studio but if you are going into a large studio I would recommend looking beyond their in house engineers, especially since they give the option for you to bring whoever you want in there.
Studio B, C, D
One way that the large studios have attempted to compete and fight back with the rival mid-sized and smaller studios is to add smaller studios within their large studio. Most of the large studios that are still around in LA now have a studio B. Some of them even have another studio, C and maybe even another one, D. These are basically mid-sized or home studio sized studios, within the same building. They hire out these smaller rooms either with an engineer or without. Sometimes the in house engineers might even be more talented than the ones in studio A and sometimes they suck. Or even worse, you might even end up with an un-experienced engineer or even be an intern!
So you need to find out more information before just booking the room with their in house engineer. A studio B, C or D is going to be better value for money. If all you need to do is record vocals and maybe a couple of instruments, if you’re not recording drums or a full band, save yourself some money if your going to a large studio and don’t book studio A.
The new kings of the recording world. Thieves of the income of the larger studios. The rebels. The engineer and producer owned studios. This is where it is at for independent artists, singers, rappers, songwriters in my opinion.
I read online that there are estimated around 7000 mid-sized studio in LA! I’m not sure if this is true or not or how anyone would be able to measure that so I assume it’s just a guess. This includes some pretty serious off the radar home studio setups too though, usually in the home of the engineer and/or producers. Google certainly does not show 7000 studios in LA. There are lots completely off the radar, with no website, hiding in the shadows but for now, we’re just going to be talking about the ones that are on the radar as they are most likely the ones you can actually visit as an independent singer, rapper and/or songwriter without personally knowing the engineer or producer beforehand.
How to choose a mid-sized, engineer and/or producer owned studio.
At this point, I know I said gear doesn’t matter that much earlier but you want to make sure the studio has more than just a Macbook and a cheap $200 microphone. Checkout the gallery, see if they have a gear list and pay attention to the space. They should have some acoustic panels on the wall and you are going to be spending a lot of hours there so make sure it looks comfortable.
Listen to the music!
The most important thing of all is to listen to their music! Don’t listen to it on your phone or laptop, give it a proper listen, hook your phone or computer up to some nice speakers or plug some nice headphones in. You’re in the car all the time so the car is a good place to listen.
If a studio doesn’t have music on their website, walk away.
Do You Like Their Quality and Style?
If an engineer is used to mixing your genre, you’re more likely to get what you want from him/her. You might not find someone who does your exact sub genre/style but most sub genres and recorded and mixed the same as their parent genre. Urban, Pop, Dance and Rock are the 4 main genres you will find studios specialize in.
Rock Studios Vs Urban, Pop and Dance Studios
The mid-sized studios in LA that do rock are more likely to be in areas where the rent is cheaper as they need more space for live bands. The studios that do Urban, Pop and Dance can get away with a smaller space and are more likely do be located in the main music hubs/areas such as Hollywood, West Holllywood and North Hollywood.
So in the mid-sized studio category there is a bit of a separation between the rock/band studios and singer, rapper and songwriter type of studios. Luckily this alone, makes it a bit easier to choose a recording studio for your style. Then you just have to work out if the engineer and/or producer is good which comes back to, listen to their music!
In a world where people are fascinated with celebrities, it can seem tempting to book a studio where so and so recorded. It’s a very common marketing tactic for studios because it works. If it’s good enough for Kanye, it’s good enough for me! That’s what most people will think. Sure that make sense, sort of… Kanye has most likely also gone to McDonalds, does that make McDonalds a good restaurant? Kanye has probably also peed in the park or the side of the road when drunk, does that make it the best toilet?
The truth about credits is, it doesn’t say what that person did there or what they did for that person. If they come into the studio for a photo shoot or for a video, they can legally use their name as a credit. Or course all the big studio have big name credits, people need a large space to shoot photos, videos and impress their fans. That doesn’t mean they even recorded there and if they did, it doesn’t mean they were happy with the result or if the staff there even did the work. It simply means they were there. Well, lots of celebrities have been to my laundromat too according to the photos on the wall so that must be the best laundromat! lol. It’s Los Angeles, celebrities are everywhere.
Should I Just Make A Home Studio?
If your a singer/songwriter, I think you should have your own basic home studio but pretty soon you’re going to find out that you’ll need a good engineer to make a radio ready song which you can market properly to get exposure, fans, sales, streams, airplay etc..
Don’t expect to be able to take your home recording and have it mixed. It’s likely, without spending thousands on room treatment, expensive mics, pre-amps and converters that you’ll get the same result in your budget home studio as you will in a mid-sized studio or studio B. You’d have to have a pretty serious home studio setup which means big money, for that price, it would be cheaper just to go to a mid-sized/priced studio unless you’re recording every day.
The Importance of a Music Producer
Studios rarely come with a music producer. People use the term Producer in exchange for beat-maker sometimes but that is really just an incorrect use of the definition. A producer isn’t someone who just chops up some loops and samples. A producer is the director of the song. Just like the director for a film, the producer has the vision for the song. He can picture the finished song in his mind and knows all the steps and elements needed to get there.
Not just a Beat-Maker
A good producer in 2019 can play the piano, play by ear and works with singers, musicians and rappers to direct them. He/she tells them what to do and pull all of the sound design together. He/she might also be a “beat-maker” but the difference is that a good producer is trained in music theory and cares about the end product, not just the beat/music. A beat-maker these days typically uses samples and makes the music first. A real music producer can accompany a melody or vocal and play instruments to suit an existing idea and collaborate in real time. He/she works with the musicians, singer(s) and/or rapper(s) to get the best possible performance and outcome for the song.
An old school music producer might just do the directing part but these days the definition has expanded and most modern music producers are more hands on.
How to find one?
Unfortunately, it is super rare to find in a good producer for hire these days. Most producers just work with signed artists or a signed to a label as a producer. This forces them to work with only the artist on their label. If a famous producer can actually work with people outside their label, they often charge $10k-$20k. That puts Quincy Jones, Diplo, DJ Mustard, DJ dj Khaled out of reach for most independent artists. It’s best to find a talented non-famous producer.
With the internet and the misuse of the word “music producer”, it’s hard to find the real ones! I’d say 99.99% of people who call themselves a music producer, are just beat-makers working from home. They often don’t see or work with the artists or typically even hear the finished song.
Who am I?
I should give a little plug to myself, as I’m one of the only handful of experienced music producer’s for hire in LA that have their own recording studio. My name is Tom Watson, I own and operate Current Sound. I’m a pianist/keyboardist/beat-maker who makes music from scratch with no loops or samples for artist, singers, rappers and songwriters. I help artists get the best performance while creating a unique sound and style for each of my clients. I’m also an mixing and mastering engineer which is quite rare for a producer. I operated Current Sound in Australia full time from 2003-2018, which I have now relocated to Hollywood, Los Angeles.
I’m new to LA so I don’t claim to know about every studio here but I’ve been in the music industry long enough to know the mistakes musicians make when looking for a recording studio. Often my clients would complain about the sound of the recordings they had from other studios. So hopefully you find this article helpful so that you don’t make the same mistakes they did.
To summarize… When looking for a recording studios in Los Angeles, if in doubt, listen to their songs! No music on their website, walk away. Like the music on their website? If they don’t own and operate the studio (as in it’s a large studio), get the person that recorded and mixed it to do your session and make sure if you have to pay a deposit that any deposit you pay is on condition of that person doing the recording and mixing. The laundromat can’t record Kanye either so look for more than just credits alone. Good luck out there, LA is a crazy place!