As both a musician and an aspiring recording engineer, I spent years trying to accumulate enough gear and knowledge to be able to record my music professionally without having to pay for studio time. I learned quickly that this was a lofty goal, but I kept at it because I was working on a budget and wanted to learn as much as possible about recording (I still am, and I still do).

I encourage anyone currently employing this strategy to reconsider. In no way am I saying that it is impossible to do this. It’s very possible; I’ve done it, and others will continue to do so (with varying degrees of success). But I’ve learned over time that the process can be much easier, much more effective, and yield much better music, once you learn a few things: to focus your energy, figure out what’s worth spending your money on, and that, sometimes, it’s worth it to spring for studio time. You can do a lot on your own, but sometimes it’s worth it to get some help!

First, let’s talk about time investment. Any time you spend doing something means less time that you have to do something else.  So, all that time I spent learning about microphones and interfaces meant less time that I spent perfecting chord changes, nitpicking over lyrics, or writing harmonies – or rather, focusing my energy on the music itself. Conversely, all that time spent playing guitar and writing songs was time that could have been spent experimenting with preamps and compressors – becoming a better engineer.

Practice makes perfect, but who has enough time to be perfect at everything? I don’t regret the way that I spent my time – writing and performing music is still a passion of mine, as are engineering and producing. There’s no arguing, though, that I’d be a better musician, or engineer, had I chose years ago to narrow the focus of my attention. I still actively do both things, but neither pays the bills. As they say back in Virginia, “them’s the breaks, kid.”

Over the years, my playing and songwriting improved, and the recordings gradually got better and better. They never got great, though – in part because I spent more time playing music than studying recording techniques, but also because I didn’t buy the best equipment I could. Rather, I bought what I thought I needed.

As far as spending money on gear goes, my golden rule is this: anything worth having is worth waiting for. Don’t settle for that cheap microphone because you think it’s all you can afford – in the long run, those things don’t last. A $200 tube condenser microphone may sound tempting, but ultimately you’ll get to a point where that sound isn’t good enough for you and you’ll need to replace it. Instead, consider saving longer and getting a $600 tube condenser – it’s much more likely that you’ll still be using that microphone in 10 years than the cheap one.

Eventually I wanted to be able to record a full band, so I bought a $500 interface with 8 preamps, and it sounded pretty good – but just pretty good. Instead, for the same amount of money I could have bought an interface with fewer preamps, but of a higher quality. Then, anytime I needed to record more inputs (drums, typically, or tracking a live band), I could have spent a few hundred dollars on some studio time to get the best quality recording I can. All things considered, this method yields better results for less money than spending years buying budget pieces that don’t last.

Lastly, sometimes it’s worth saving up for studio time for tracking or mixing. Sure, it’s 2016 and the market for home recording equipment has never been better, but unless you’re going for a lo-fi sound, it’s tough to get results that will stand up next to professionally-recorded material entirely from home. Consider doing basic rhythm section tracking in a studio; you likely don’t have room (or friendly enough neighbors) to record a live band in your home, anyways. For the same $500 I spent on that interface, I could have gotten a few days of studio time and recorded key parts at a much higher quality. Or, if you have decent equipment and some know-how, consider recording everything at home and then invest in having someone else mix for you.

While all this may seem obvious, it’s worth remembering: narrowing your focus gives you more time to master your craft, buying cheap stuff is generally a waste of money, and sometimes it’s worth buying studio time. 

About the Author:

Rob Dobson is an LA-based musician, composer, and engineer, as well as Press & Content Coordinator at Westlake Pro. He earned a BA in Music from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he spent his spare time experimenting with recording techniques and obsessing over liner notes to his favorite records. In addition to several years working as a recording engineer, Rob has experience with sound design, voiceover work, and live sound. Rob spends as much of his time in the studio as possible, composes music for film and television, plays guitar and bass as a session musician, and leads a rock band called Big Air.