Six years on from the economic crash of 2008, audio post production facilities appear to be as busy as ever. But while the business model has changed—budgets are down, turnarounds are short—quality is as prized as ever.
According to Howard Bowler, owner and president, HOBO Audio in New York City, “We’ve been very lucky over the last year-and-a- half that our business has been growing. We survived a couple of very tough years. Around October of 2012, we began to gain some traction and it’s been growing pretty much quarterly ever since. We’re having a great year so far.” Business is split between ad work, independent films and TV work, he says.
There has been downward pressure on pricing, he admits, “But it hasn’t been terrible. We’re still maintaining levels that I think are not eating away at the quality.”
“I think the future is generally looking brighter, although not in the ways that I would have expected,” Michael Davis, president and founder, Digital Audio Post in Nashville. The facility has long had a focus on music concert projects, but also handles long-form efforts, commercials and TV- and film-related work such as ADR.
“We seem to be really, really busy, doing more projects than we ever have, but for less budget. But that’s OK; I think that’s part of the model,” says Davis.
Clients are booking at shorter notice, he reports, and there are many more, shorter projects, often for the web, with quick turnarounds. “If you think it through from a business standpoint, it means that our product is no longer audio quality or creativity; they assume that they’ll get that” from a company that has been in business for 20 years. “So the product becomes speed, efficiency and predictability.”
A perennial question is whether 5.1 has gained any traction yet—outside of films, obviously, or episodic television programming. According to Jaime Zapata, chief sound engineer at Tono Studios in Santa Monica, CA, which specializes in Spanish-language commercials for the top agencies and clients, “The Hispanic market is not into 5.1 yet, although when we opened six, seven years ago, we were 5.1 ready. For the Hispanic market, we’ve only done a couple of projects, for advertising.”
Clients typically don’t have the budget for 5.1, and many are still unfamiliar with the format. Even so, an overriding factor is the relative paucity of Hispanic outlets in the U.S. “Telemundo is broadcasting in 5.1. Right now in the Hispanic market, there are three main air broadcast stations, then half a dozen on cable. Only a couple of them are 5.1-ready. They don’t push for it; they all ask for stereo mixes,” says Zapata.
“There’s not a tremendous demand for surround,” agrees Bowler. Two of HOBO’s three rooms are outfitted for 5.1. “But some channels insist on it, like National Geographic,” he says. In fact, the network places a premium on high-quality picture and sound, he reports.
The Internet and easy accessibility to broadband has had a significant impact on the audio post business, both as a content outlet and as a delivery and review conduit. “We’re seeing projects with a web-only destination,” reports Davis. “I think audio quality is becoming important to the [web] content creators in a way that it wasn’t when you could just shrug it off as being ‘just the Internet.’”
Sessions are rarely attended these days. “We just finished a network show for NBC, completely done via file transfer; never saw the clients,” says Davis. “We have clients sometimes who will call us on Skype and look in on things. They’ll say, ‘Send it; I’ll marry it to picture, then I’ll get back with you.’”
“Less people are coming to sessions,” confirms Bowler. “And not just with audio—with graphics, editorial, too.”
Tono accommodates clients who are unable or unwilling to attend sessions, says Zapata. “It’s a bummer, because we have a pretty nice place and we set it up for them to come. We try to make them part of the whole session by connecting to Skype. We have a set of cameras and they can see multiple views of the studio and the work.”
There has been a recent proliferation of content platforms, says Bowler, from the web—Hulu, Netflix, YouTube—to broadcast and cable television, viewed in the home and on mobile devices. “These are all various ways that people consume media, and all of it has sound. I think we’re going to emerge into higher levels of audio quality, because at the end of the day, people really want to enjoy what they’re listening to. I think these are happy times for audio post.”
One downside of the explosion in the number of outlets, says Davis, is that advertising dollars are being spread more thinly. “The way that translates is less money per show, and that will roll downhill to the post audio guys.”