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last updated March 19th, 2010
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by RML Labs

The DIY Dilemma

Now more than ever, musicians are making their own recordings. Money that once went to buy time in professional recording studios now more often goes for the purchase of equipment. The equipment sellers are so happy about this trend that they can hardly count, and they are happy to have folks thinking that making your own recordings is as easy as taking your own pictures. I have decided that a little caution and advice about all this is in order.

Benjamin Franklin once said “Experience keeps a dear (meaning expensive) school, but some fools will learn in no other!” This is where I raise my hand, saying, “Guilty as charged, your honor”. I have spent more time in the School Of Hard Knocks than in all other educational institutions combined. One of the more “advanced” lessons that I learned there is what I call The Do It Yourself Dilemma.

Doing it yourself is not always all that it is cracked up to be: sometimes it is just all cracked up. Still, it is a time-honored tradition in Western Culture (maybe in the East, too, but I didn’t grow up there). There are various reasons for going the DIY route: sometimes it is for the adventure, sometimes it is so that we can get EXACTLY what we want, but most often the idea is to save money. If you are doing something yourself for the first time, it is almost guaranteed to be an adventure. There are almost always surprises along the way (some of them unpleasant). Whether you end up getting exactly what you want depends partly on whether you develop enough skill before the project is done, and partly on whether you run out of money before you run out of project (a frequent occurrence). Finally, there is no guarantee that DIY methods will save you money. In fact, it can easily cost more than simply buying a manufactured thing or hiring someone else to do the job. I don’t recall ever having anyone tell me they went DIY to save time, but let me put that idea to rest right now: Doing It Yourself almost always takes longer than the alternative.

All of the above does not mean that I want to discourage you from taking the DIY plunge, but you should understand what you are getting into if you do.

The first thing that you should understand is that gearing up to make your own recordings is not one project, but actually many projects. The one thing that everyone knows they must do is buy equipment. This in itself is a complex task, which is why there are so many magazines out there devoted to showing you what you need to buy. Assuming that you make wise choices in your first buying spree (many do not), you adventure has only begun.

Next, of course, you have to connect the equipment together (you DID budget for all that wire, didn’t you?). Wait a minute... where are you going to put all that stuff? You could just pile it all on a desk or table, but there is a lot more to it than that. The space that you are working in is terribly important, and it has to be set up correctly: this means that you are likely to be getting into construction. Even if you have carpentry skills, studio construction is highly specialized, and involves requirements very different from what you do with your average house. The are whole books devoted to the subject.

Once you have the studio built and wired, there is that small yet significant matter of learning how to use it. There are many schools devoted to teaching this art, and the tuition is not cheap. Even short programs can take months, and many of the more reputable programs run 2 to 4 years. Even then, graduates are not seasoned engineers, and they still need time to hone their chops.

Perhaps the hardest part of all this is staying focused on the music while learning all these other things. There have been a lot of musicians who gave that up in the process of becoming engineers. Sometimes you have to decide where to draw the line in that respect.

Let me tell you a story that is relevant here. Among other things, I have tinkered with computers. My first computer was the processor board from an old Heath H89 that I hooked up to a Hewlett Packard computer terminal. That terminal had a fine printer attached to it. Unfortunately, the computer didn’t know how to “talk” to the printer. None of the driver routines in the BIOS could do the job. On the advice of a computer engineer friend, I “hacked” the assembly code for one of the existing driver routines to make it able to run the printer.

Some years later, I thought that it would be nice if I could write my own software to do stuff with audio. After all, how hard could it be? Everything I need to know can be found in books, can’t it? So I invested about $200 in a good programming package and some books, and started digging. What I learned was that computer programming had become FAR more complex since my last experience with it. I discovered that there were about 3 major skill sets, each of which was dependent on the other 2, which meant that there was no simple starting point for “step by step” learning. I finally realized that the price of learning to write the programs I wanted would be giving up the very art that I wanted the programs for. I gave away the programming stuff, and resolved to use whatever software I could get that other people had written.

Of course, there ARE people who work with music and also write music software. Some of my favorite programs are written by such people. I simply came to realize that I was not one of those multi-gifted folk. So it is in recording music: there are people out there who both create AND record it (Alan Parsons comes to mind), and there are others who choose to practice just one of those arts. My advice, then, is that before you make the DIY recording leap, figure out which of those aforementioned groups includes you.

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