The Chicken Versus the Egg

Did production move to private spaces because technology made it possible, or did budgetary pressure drive the migration?
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The 25 PAR Excellence Award winners for 2010 are worthy products all, and we are delighted to give them recognition (which happens beginning on page 20). While 25 is a substantial number, there were a remarkable number of excellent products released in the last year, and there are plenty more in the industry’s R&D labs incubating for the coming year. The true value available to today’s pro audio buyer is outstanding.

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It wasn’t all that long ago that an audio professional might personally own (if anything) but a few favored pieces of gear. Today’s dominant production model is not a brick-and-mortar facility with a million-plus-dollar infrastructure, but rather a personal production space, owned by an engineer or producer, with an infrastructure costing less than a tenth of that price.

For all but the elite artists, today’s production budgets are too small to support the commercial facility model of a few short years ago. Did production move to private spaces because technology made it possible, or did budgetary pressure drive the migration? That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question.

For example, even before CD sales peaked in 2000, record label production budgets were on the decline. At the studio where I worked in the mid ’90s, one producer routinely using our recording space was also a record label exec and owned a reasonable rack of mic pres and other processing. Even as a label head, he couldn’t fight the downward budget trends. The technology of the day wouldn’t allow him to set up his own tracking or mixing space without an major investment, but what he could do was set up an overdub space without compromise and move the middle stage of production to that personal space.

The key technology that made this possible at the time was the Alesis ADAT. With careful clocking, digital I/O and high-quality external converters, it’s arguable that the signal chain was of better quality than that of the $150,000 digital reel-to-reels our studio employed. His space was not practical for tracking or for mixing, but worked well for his overdubs. Though he charged his label the same daily rate for this low overhead space as we charged for ours (maintaining his own income even if he took a cut in his own producer rate out of the lowered budget), he also discovered was that he saved money in other ways. If the singer couldn’t sing one day, they didn’t have to pay a studio lockout rate for cancellation. If they needed to work an extra day off budget, no one was really harmed. They began to like the idea of controlling their own space.

So, there’s the technological chicken, the budgetary egg and a third ephemeral element encompassing convenience, comfort and workflow. Regardless of which came first, they are ingredients in the recipe that eventually became the omelet du jour.