Real Talk About Building a Home Music Studio with Recording Pro Bob Breen
Recording Engineer Bob Breen is an expert in designing and building studios, from state-of-the-art facilities frequented by superstars to DIY home studios where up-and-comers can record demos and independent releases. He is the former VP Eastern US and Canada for the Audio Engineering Society. After a career working with top acts at Burbank, CA’s Ocean Studios, whose client list includes Kanye West, Flogging Molly, and Haim, he now owns Armor Pro Audio Visual Inc and designs top-notch studios for clients like voiceover recording facility Voices.com.
Breen first fell in love with the concept of home studio recording when he read that Paul McCartney of the Beatles recorded his first solo album at home and that Pete Townshend of the Who recorded demo tracks for the band with himself playing all the instruments. He explains, “I’ve been involved in recording professionally since graduating from the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology in 1996, and of course as a hobbyist long before that. I have spent my time since working as a Voiceover Recordist, Studio Assistant, Studio Manager, Recording Engineer, Producer, Studio Owner, Builder and Instructor.”
Obviously, the man knows a thing or two about what it takes to build a career in the recording industry — and to build a home studio setup. We spoke to Breen about his suggestions for breaking into the industry, what owning a home studio is really like, and what home studio owners need to know before opening for business.
Breaking into the Recording Business
What’s your biggest suggestion for aspiring recording industry pros?
Oh my gosh, there are so many. Let’s focus on skill development.
First, get a good education in the subject, whether it is at an actual school or the “school of hard knocks.” There is a lot of technical information to learn and it’s hard to pick up bits on the Internet and then really understand what’s going on.
For most, I would recommend an actual school to start, and then additional practical experience with others at a working facility. A good school will give you the correct overview and context for all the necessary information you need. It will get you in the game at a higher level fairly quickly. Do your research; they are not all created equal.
Then, practical experience with professionals will show you how it’s really done. Even the best school will not make you a ‘pro,’ but now you can ask intelligent questions, be useful, and really accelerate your development.
There is the odd person who can come out of nowhere and be a brilliant self-taught Producer, but it just isn’t that common. Could it be you?
What advice do you have for people who want to break into the recording business?
As a Recording Engineer? Gain experience. I know of very few naturally gifted Engineers — practically none. Listening at that level of detail seems to be a learned skill acquired over time.
Having taught Juno and Grammy-winning Engineers, I saw their “ears” were not much better than that of the average person when they were starting out. The most significant gifts they had in common were dedication, hard work, perseverance, and (especially) personality. They stuck with it long enough to figure out the audio part and then became world class.
Practical experience with professionals will show you how it’s really done. Even the best school will not make you a ‘pro,’ but now you can ask intelligent questions, be useful, and really accelerate your development.
The Reality of Building a Home Studio
Who should consider building a home studio?
Anyone really! Theoretically at least, if you can hit “record” you possess the ability to create something which could change the lives of everyone involved, or maybe even drastically shift popular culture. Though most recordings don’t turn out that way, the mere possibility makes every session incredibly exciting. If you can swing the bat, you could hit a home run.
Can home studio owners expect to make any considerable income from building a studio or is it more of a convenience thing for DIY musicians?
The safe answer is no, you can’t expect considerable income from a studio build unless you already know enough clients to keep it busy. Generally speaking, nearly everybody has some kind of set up. Very fine existing facilities struggle to stay full. You’re essentially renting yet another hotel room when there are plenty of vacancies in the neighborhood. What makes you different?
There’s a joke that goes, “How do you make $1 million in the studio business?”
Answer: “Spend $10 million.”
You asked about convenience for a DIY musician. This is where the real value lies, in your ideas and creativity. You might be shocked if you saw some of the more profitable and successful studios flying under the radar. Sometimes the equipment is funky and out of date. Sometimes the people operating it know only the bare minimum and technically aren’t terribly good. So why does it work? Great projects and artists. Compelling ideas. Great “ears.”
It doesn’t matter how technically skilled you are, people need to feel awesome when stuck in a room with you for hours on end. They don’t generally want to know about the gear or techniques. They just want to feel great about playing music.
Getting Ready to Launch
How much should an aspiring home studio owner have budgeted away prior to starting the project?
That’s a huge question, probably worthy of a sidebar! There is such a broad range of options. It depends so much on what you are trying to accomplish.
Between $15,000 and a million???
Here are some ideas about how to allocate your money, at least. Always seek as much advice from multiple trusted sources as you can. It will likely all be different, but you can start noticing commonalties and drawing your own conclusions.
It is better to have 2 channels of conversion that sound amazing than 16 or 32 that sound average. There are some terrific cheap mics, not preamps or conversion so much.
Any interesting or cool space can be great to record in, but your monitoring environment, the control room, is much less forgiving. Much of what you hear from your monitor speakers is a function of the room geometry and build. It can be done well cheaply and intelligently, but the bottom line is you have to know intimately how your work is going to translate to any outside listening system.
Build your working space carefully and thoughtfully. Read up on acoustics or hire a pro.
Apart from gear, what else does someone need before opening their home studio to the public?
Let’s presume expertise. Have a good booking system and professional looking invoices. People are more likely to pay if invoices are not written on a napkin.
These will change over time but put serious thought into what your policies will be. The best way to do this is talk to other professionals! I find sometimes those who are inexperienced will worry about problems which will never occur and don’t consider extremely common situations. A few good friends, or friends of friends, with experience will steer you in the right direction.
What skills does a home studio owner need — apart from recording and producing skills — to run this type of business?
People skills. It doesn’t matter how technically skilled you are, people need to feel awesome when stuck in a room with you for hours on end. They don’t generally want to know about the gear or techniques. They just want to feel great about playing music. I was in a session with David Crosby once (and Stills and Nash) and he said, “fun hits tape.” So true!
The technology can disappear completely. You don’t have to call attention to what you’re doing even if it’s cool. Clients with an interest will ask and then you can be super accommodating and teach them things! Otherwise, it’s all about them.
Is there a certain mistake or misconception you see in the world of home recording that you’d like to address?
That $250 per song is a deal. I’ve heard so many people say they’re going to start a studio and consider that arrangement somehow irresistible. You’re better off recording for free for a while. Build up a nice catalog of great sounding recordings you can show off and most importantly happy people who have worked with you and will tell their friends about it. Advertising barely has any effect at all. Good word-of-mouth is everything.
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