Making money with a home studio

Making money with a home studio

Craig Levy is a musician, studio owner and producer based in Brooklyn New York.  I first met Craig when we were in the A&R department at Atlantic records together in the late 1990s.  Craig has run a profitable studio from his home for the last five years and has recorded well over three hundred artists in that time.  I thought Craig would make an interesting interview because he has carved himself an interesting niche working almost exclusively with aspiring artists on tight budgets.

Music Consultant:

Craig, thanks for taking the time to speak to me today.  How did you put this business together?

CL:

About ten years ago I was a bedroom singer/songwriter guy and I finally got the courage to get on stage. Of course, nobody came to the shows, so I thought, “Let me get some songs recorded and put them up online, and maybe people can see I’m not so bad.”  So a friend of mine gave me some software, and I started recording basic acoustic guitar and vocal versions to a click track. I sent them to a friend of mine who was a little more advanced to flesh them out.  For about six months I had to keep prodding him to finish even one song.  Nothing was getting done so I took matters into my own hands.  I was at some horrible temp job at the time and basically read the recording software manual instead of working.

In the evenings I was reacquainting myself with the little bit of piano I knew and was having a drummer friend of mine talk me through drum beats.  I would play him what I had over the phone and he would explain, “Ok, put the kick on this beat and the snare on that beat.”  I learned to program drums that way.  Basically, I ended up learning how to do it all myself and I fell in love with taking a simple acoustic song and making it three-dimensional.  I also fell in love with being in the studio as opposed to being on stage.

About a year later I set up a simple website with some of my songs and put up an ad on Craigslist offering my services.  I first started out as $100 per song and my first client took 25 hours to finish a song.  I was ready to retire after that experience!  I promptly switched to an hourly rate.  I feel if somebody needs to do a lot of vocal takes or wants us to experiment with sounds I can’t be frustrated with how long things are taking.  Unless you are a punk band and your live show is the same as your recordings, songs take time to come to life in the studio.  It’s always fun to take a song from a seedling to a tree.  Keep in mind I do go as fast as I can, but I don’t want to sacrifice quality.  There are different levels of “done-ness” for everyone.

The funny thing is that before I recorded I had all these acoustic songs, and I kept telling myself, “Oh, these are completely done. These don’t need to be fleshed out. This is exactly the way they should be.” Then when I started adding instruments, I thought, “Okay, this is why people have bands and why people record!”

Music Consultant:

What kind of setup are you running right now?

CL:

A lot of things are virtual these days so my setup is mostly software based.  “In the box” as they say.  I do have a good Universal Audio LA610 preamp and compressor combo and an Apogee Rosetta 200 digital audio converter.  I’m running Cubase, not Pro Tools.  That’s simply what I started with and I love it. 

Music Consultant:

What were the things you learned through trial and error and working with musicians that most improved your sound? How did you really learn to capture songs so they sounded like what you heard in your head?

CL:

I guess it was just all the different styles and different personalities that were thrown at me that helped me get my feet wet fast.  One of the first artists I worked with was a five piece vocal group.  We wrote and recorded over 40 songs from hard rock to country to pop, all with R&B flavored vocals.  Super interesting. And in terms of translating what I hear in my head, while we are getting the simple scratch version down it starts to reveal itself to me what could be interesting to add.  It’s hard to explain any other way.

Music Consultant:

What advice would you give someone just starting out in recording and engineering?

CL:

I got so lucky I had a quiet brownstone I was living in already that I was able to make a little noise and neighbors weren’t making too much noise.  I have Auralex foam on the walls for sound absorption and also for sound shaping.  It makes for a better mixing environment.  I just want to get a dry vocal signal and I can add effects later.  There’s also a thing called a Reflexion Filter that goes behind the microphone and helps with the reflections bouncing around the room.  It helps if you have both.  Unless you’re set moneywise it takes time to accumulate quality gear.  First I started out with a $200 microphone, now it’s a $1,000 microphone. I started out with a small preamp and moved my way up to an LA610. I was able to make a living doing this pretty early on and I’ve put every dime back into it.

Sure, If you have GarageBand and a microphone and if your songs are great- these days lo-fi is cool  so who knows what could happen.  In terms of getting a professional and clean sound though, I’ve had to dedicate my life to working at it.  I’m still working on it.  I’ve always considered this my recording school.

Music Consultant:

You run a high volume business and get a great deal of work through Craigslist – that must provide some challenges. You must be fleshing out songs around half-baked ideas quite often. Tell me about that process for you?

CL:

To be honest it really doesn’t matter what they bring.  It’s my job to make sense of it. I help give what is perhaps cloudy a clear focus.  Everyone is different. I have artists that come with songs fully written on acoustic or piano and vocals and I have others who don’t play any instruments at all.  I have an artist that comes to me with short vocal melodies and we make full songs out of them.  I also have people that play most of the instruments themselves.  Except for the occasional solo trumpet or violin I can cover the rest by playing guitar or bass or programming virtual instruments. They’ve come out with some mind blowing software and virtual instruments over the past ten years.  When I was starting out it always bothered me when someone would ask for a sound or instrument I didn’t have, so over the years I’ve made sure to never get stumped.  Whether it’s suggesting a chord change, adding a bridge, cutting a section completely, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell someone exactly how I think the song could be improved.  Basically I’ll get as involved with the songs as the artist wants me to be.  At first I felt bad criticizing people’s babies, but I soon realized that’s exactly why they were coming to me.  Very few people in your life will tell you the truth about your music.

Music Consultant:

How does the recording process start for you or what kind of communication goes on during your first meetings with prospective clients?

People e-mail me after seeing my ad or get my info from a client of mine that has recommended me. We talk on the phone and I set up a meeting.  During our hour or so chat I try to get to know them and ask them what kind of music they like, what kind of music they want to make, what do they have song-wise already, do they play instruments or just sing?  Are they a rapper are they going to bring tracks?  Everyone has different needs.  I ask them to explain as much as they can about their vision for the first song we’ll be recording.  If necessary I ask them to send some YouTube links or mp3s a couple days before the session of other artists that can help me know where we’re going to go with the song.  They might say, “I like the drums in this song,” or “I like the piano in this song,” “I like the overall feeling of this song,” just to get me in the vibe.  I need to do my detective work. This is also in case I need to do research on how to get a specific sound.  I feel like my job is to extract what my artists have in their head, whether they can describe it clearly or not.

My clients are here for the entire recording process.  Everything through the mixing stage is a collaborative effort.  I’m here to please them, not a record executive.  I encourage my artists to make music that excites them, not what other people think they should do.  I feel like it is the one place in artists’ lives where they can be 100% selfish.   On average a song can get finished in 6-8 hrs, it’s just really how deep the artist wants to get. People come and go as they please, and there are no contracts. A negative vibe can ruin everything so I try to make it as comfortable in here as possible.

Music Consultant:

Do you find that the recording process improves people as musicians? In other words, is the process more fluid when people come back to you for a second time, and do their songs get better?

CL:

Absolutely.  Sometimes it is as simple as them having a little more of a spring in their step because in some way their dreams are coming true.  Dreams are not necessarily getting to the top of the charts. Dreams to most of my clients are just bringing their ideas to life.  I started the same way as most of my clients – I just wanted to get my songs recorded.  There are a lot of interesting stories that bring people my way from other producers that didn’t care what they had to say.  I’m malleable and really they are running the show, but I do know after all these years what may work best or the workflow that works best with what they’re trying to do. They get better as musicians and writers and get excited because they know how much more is possible for their songs than they originally thought.

Music Consultant:

You’ve marketed your business primarily through word of mouth, relationships and Craigslist?

CL: Yes.

Music Consultant:

Why did that work?

CL:

I don’t know. All I can say is that the first thing I did was put up a website so people could hear my work. I see a lot of people on Craigslist who are trying to find bands without having music up.  Producers without websites containing examples of their work are probably weeding out about 90% of the people who could be interested. Without any music up, you’re not going to find the best possible clients for your production or the best band members. You’ll get super lucky if anything happens from that.  I’m really proud of the music I’ve made, but the only thing that matters in this case is that people who want to work with me like what I do. From the get-go, I had a website up, and I had my songs up, because they were all I had. Then, within three or four months I was able to put up songs from some of my artists. And over the years, I’ve put up hopefully better-sounding music. And then I got more business from that.

98% of the time I’m working with a solo artist. The other 2 percent are bands that maybe recorded the drums in a proper studio and we’re doing the rest of the instruments at my place and I’ll mix and master.  My goal is to sound legit with any genre I’m trying to pull off.  Whether I’ve succeeded is up to the potential client.  I’ve tried to be as well rounded as I can.  I’m aware there are producers who have tons more experience than me so I’m humble and in constant learning mode.  I’m not trying to make demos for a bigger producer to do-over, I’m trying to make records.

—–

Learn More about Craig Levy and Little Pioneer.