Talkbox: Do We Really Need Big Studios?

With more and more hits—and even movie soundtracks— being recorded in home and project studios, and commercial studios going through some hard times the last several years, some have assumed that big studios are now obsolete and will pretty much go the way of the dinosaur. But is a trend forever destined to keep going in the same direction? Not necessarily. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve hit the bottom of the cycle, and larger, commercial studios will make somewhat of a comeback.
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Commercial studios used to be essential because only the wealthy could afford the cost of setting up studio facilities in a home. However, with today’s gear—whose quality is on a par with some of the finest studios of yesteryear— this isn’t really an issue.

But gear isn’t the only reason to use a studio. Some musicians use commercial studios for practical reasons: They need a high-quality, large, live room to set up full drum sets, amps, and the like. This is particularly relevant now, as many groups are emphasizing the performance element of music by cutting “live in the studio.” Or, they simply may not have the room for a grand piano. Recording a 10-piece band? Difficult to do in a garage. And of course, the louder the music, the more likely that neighbor issues will come into play; and using a home studio for commercial projects can lead to zoning conflicts.

Yet none of those reasons may be the most important factor in deciding to work in a commercial studio. As Matt Boudreau (of San Francisco’s Broken Radio studios, formerly Coast Recorders) noted when I visited their facilities: “Technology has gotten to the point where a lot of musicians spend more time figuring out why something isn’t working than playing. In our studio, there are maintenance people to handle that, and engineers to run the gear. Musicians play better when they can concentrate on playing.”

One of the reasons for the decline of big studios was expense, because they had to charge a lot to amortize all that expensive gear. But the same price reductions that have benefited home studios have benefited larger ones as well. The brutal price-cutting phase should be pretty much behind us, making the use of commercial studios more affordable to up-and-coming bands. Furthermore, the transportability of digital recordings means that a band can track in a commercial studio, mix at home at their leisure, then employ the services of a professional mastering engineer— all while fitting within a reasonable budget.

The days of the “recording palace” are probably behind us, but don’t count out commercial studios just yet—they remain an important element of many recording projects.