EQ: Big studios . . .
Al Houghton: Well, a “Big” studio is a funny terminology. Anything too big to adapt to a shifting business environment is liable to have problems surviving and . . .
EQ: Well, the claim is that if it’s bigger than a bedroom, it’s too big and if it’s too big, well, it’s struggling to survive today as well, yes? And so again, why a professional studio at all?
AH: Look, due to shrinking recording budgets and the business lost to home studios, all studios must face up to a smaller pie from which to draw revenue. So, yeah, the massive capital outlays and overheads associated with “big” studios are increasingly untenable.
I mean an old-school studio accustomed to giant recording budgets from record labels will not be happy when the record labels themselves are reigning in spending.
That all being said, there’s still a market for professional studios big enough to record entire bands live. . . .
EQ: Well is there? Where? Who? And with what money? I guess the issue is, can you guys crank it down to be cost competitive with the home studio alternatives given that there are so many variables beyond your control (tape costs and availability and so on)?
AH: Some artists still use rooms big enough to hold the myriad pieces of gear required for such a session and the buildout for soundproof rooms that sound good, and are big enough to accommodate the extra personnel involved in a “big” session (talent, musicians, producers, managers, hangers-on). . . .
EQ: None of which are germane to the real task of making music. A chill spot is one thing but why would I care about space that the drummer’s girlfriend is going to like if I’m in a band that can’t afford to be there for more than a day? Not to be totally antagonistic but purely in the name of devil’s advocacy: If the audience doesn’t care, and the MP3 is proof positive of that, and the labels only care about what the audience cares about, and the artists can’t afford it, isn’t there something about this model that has to change?
Steven Alvarado: I have to jump in here. I totally disagree with this. MP3 is not proof positive that the audience doesn’t care about the quality of a recording. If that were true, why do teenagers across America spend thousands of dollars on big sound systems for their cars? They want good sound and they are used to good sound. What about the millions of audiophiles out there who have elaborate sound systems in their homes so they can listen to a classical recording of a single violin? The fact is, most music you hear is recorded in a pro studio. You have to start with a quality recording in order for an MP3 to sound as good as they sound. A poor quality recording sounds like crap in MP3 format. The only thing MP3 proves is that people demand a format that is easily delivered and that is portable. That’s why cassettes were so popular. But as soon as CDs came along, everyone changed because of the quality. iTunes, the most successful seller of MP3s doesn’t even sell MP3s, they sell MP4s, which are very high quality.
Listen, you can record an album in your bedroom and everybody knows it. Most artists don’t do that because of the limitations. The ones you hear about that do like Moby, have “home studios” that hardly fall into that home studio category. Moby can afford microphones that cost $10,000 and his studio is filled with some of the most expensive gear you can get. The idea that everyone is now recording their albums in their bedrooms is a myth. What we are seeing is that everyone is recording the demos for their album and maybe some ancillary parts and then bringing the main portion of the album into the studio. There is also the engineer factor. There are pro engineers for a reason. I’m sorry but a pro engineer knows how to record you better than the bass player in your band does.
So, OK, the days of the really big houses are definitely over. They’re just too much to manage and the overhead is enormous. It’s extremely difficult to make any money that way. It was sad for all of us to see the Hit Factory close because there was a lot of history there. That studio certainly had that “wow” affect, but the times have changed. People don’t like to work like that anymore. The smaller, intimate environment is more appealing to most people these days. It’s a more human level and people feel comfortable in that setting. These days it’s better to be a smaller studio with big clients. That’s how you make money. We are somewhat small and we have a client list that can afford to go anywhere, but they love it here because they’re comfortable and we treat them really well.
EQ: But is there enough of that type of recording going on for you all to stay in business?
SA: All, no. Smaller studios that run lean and offer quality in every way, yes. The ones that don’t are dropping like flies. The ones that do are busier than ever, like us. We do it right and people know it.
AH: And home studios are valuable for musicians at all levels of the industry, from Bruce Springsteen’s 4-track to the hobbyist’s GarageBand. And not just for fleshing out song ideas — with a few pieces of decent gear and some know-how, one can get quality production tracks at home. And the same technology that allows professional studios to run quicker and more optimally works in the home recordist’s laptop.
Home studios will keep getting better and more versatile, and more people will be teaching themselves how to use them. And if they can afford some extra expertise in mixing or drum tracking, for example, they’ll opt to do that at a professional space. This combination gives an artist the best product and the most autonomy.
SA: Well, I’ve done the home recording thing and I think it’s a drag. It can be fun sometimes, especially to work out ideas but there is still nothing like the magic of going into a real studio to record. You create your own world when you go into the studio and it becomes all about the music.
EQ: So you’re trying to sell the studio space on the grounds that you’re nice guys and you have enough magical space to record a ska band? That’s it?
AH: Like I said, some recording can’t be done in your bedroom. Can you turn your guitar amp up to 11? Can the drummer play at 7 pm? Can he fit? Do you have enough mics and processing to get the drum sound you want? And God forbid that a rhythm section wants to track together. . . . They’ll get arrested for disturbing the peace. Not that these issues are impassable. Sure, your resources may force you to track players individually, or to use a digital amp simulator, which may be fine, but it is not the same as playing through your amp, live with your band.
Let me add, by the way, that the original Dubway Studio was a very funky affair — a quarter-inch 4-track reel-to-reel, a 10-channel PA mixer, a tape loop echo, a lousy drum kit, and some amps. It was not a “pro” studio by any stretch. In fact, it was more of a “home studio” in terms of recording gear. But people booked it because they needed a place to record their band.
So, in other words, space and a sound-friendly environment are what a pro studio has to offer. Not everyone needs them, but plenty of people do. In addition, these features are not necessarily expensive for an artist to rent for an evening or a week. They are expensive to build and maintain long term. And, frankly, you can’t underestimate their value in making music. Just because you can record your band in a phone booth with a bunch of digital gadgets doesn’t mean that people aren’t willing to pay for the real estate and sonic space that a studio offers.
All this ignores the recording gear itself. Studios have better gear. And even more important, they have staff that earn their living by knowing how to use it. And that staff are typically musicians who love what they do, so they’re the type whom a musician would want as their comrade/guide in recording.
As far as gear: Plug-ins are versatile and recallable and cheap and convenient. An Mbox A/D converter is OK. MP3s don’t sound so good, but they certainly get a song across. Your laptop and that gear will all enable you to get a certain sound. If the sound you’re after is like the Beatles’ Revolver, or Led Zeppelin’s IV, or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, or Beck’s Mutations, then you’re out of luck. Even when it’s distilled down to an MP3. At this point, good mics, discrete class A mic pre’s, tube compressors, plate reverbs, and so on all sound better than their digital equivalents.
But, the home studio is a great device, always has been, always will be. Especially for exploration and creation of musical ideas. You don’t want to be paying by the hour during that seminal process. At the risk of going too philosophical: Music is music, recording is recording. Your choice of gear and environment will reflect the extent that the sound of your music matters to you, as well as the process of recording. There are occasions for pro studio recording, just as there is a place for home recording.