by Christopher Walsh.
“Predicting where things are going right now is very difficult, primarily because until we can figure out a way to monetize recorded music again, the budgets are going to continue to diminish.” So says Pat McMakin, director of studio operations at Ocean Way Nashville, expressing a common lament as the music industry morphs from its major-label-dominated past to a vast universe of recordists, studios, equipment, labels, genres, formats and media.
These multitudes span the extremes from professional to amateur and sublime to un-listenable. Music has been devalued; physical formats, as a delivery system for music, continue to decline. Twenty-first Century production budgets are smaller; innumerable projects are self-financed. “More and more amateurs are recording music,” says McMakin, “and recording quality, in a broad sense, is suffering because of it. It’s a bit of a spiral in terms of quality and professionalism.”
Still, in this sprawling world in which the tools of production are widely available and basic operation simple, there are still professionals, and professional studios, surviving and even thriving. Many have taken to “in-the-box” production, with a major assist from the ancillary tools that have developed to improve computer-based production.
And yet, “it seems like a fair amount of engineers are not doing well,” says Ellis Sorkin of Los Angeles-based Studio Referral Service. “There tends to be a trend of people thinking they don’t need engineers: ‘I’ve got a Pro Tools rig, I’m an engineer.’ People think that if they can buy it, they can operate it and also know how to record, which is a dangerous, terrible thing.”
“What I see happening,” says McMakin, “is engineers increasingly struggling to make a career out of engineering. Relatively speaking, there are very few people making a full, great career of being recording engineers. Some of them, in order to stay in business, have had to build a studio in their home or wherever, and rent out the studio and themselves for about what they were getting to show up and do a session, eight years ago.”
Despite these inhospitable conditions, many professionals maintain that creative solutions abound. Investing in an in-the-box rig is one path to continued viability, though opinion is divided on the sonic merits of such a system.
“Music recording, from what I can see, is 96 percent digital and of that, probably 75 percent Pro Tools, which is a good thing when people do it right,” says producer/engineer Elliot Mazer, who recently built a Digidesign ProControl-equipped film/music mix room at the Magic Shop in New York, in partnership with Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal (June 2008 Pro Sound News
). “A lot of people do it wrong, and don’t use good converters or good clocks, so they get crappy sound. But digital recording is much like analog recording–people that know how to do it get good results.”
A fan of Universal Audio, Mazer is excited about the recently introduced UAD-2 powered plug-ins, as well as the Euphonix MC Control. “That looked like a really good answer to what I do,” he observes.”A lot of studios are trying to find ways to supplement, to be creative and not necessarily just count on doing rock sessions, or pop or hip-hop sessions,” notes producer Butch Vig, who produced the Subways’ recently released All or Nothing
at Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood. “There are a lot of sessions you can book related to television, film and advertising, which is still booming right along. To think that you can survive as a ‘rock room,’ I think, is folly. I still own Smart Studios [in Madison, WI], and we’ll book anything there. Mike Zirkel, the studio manager, is constantly looking for new clients, and any type of music: We have schools, choirs come in. I think you just have to do that; you can’t count on the old tried-and-true sessions we used to do pretty constantly.“A lot of TV shows have cutting-edge music,” Vig adds. “A lot of it is electronic. Cool programming, or they go out in the field and record interesting sounds, come in and do sound design and come up with interesting, fresh soundscapes.”Just as the explosion of recording has fed demand for qualified mix engineers–many of whom, quietly, lament the often poorly recorded tracks they are tasked with salvaging–it has also kept demand for professional mastering high. “With the exponentially growing number of people making music,” says Los Angeles-based engineer Gavin Lurssen, “mastering engineers are working longer hours and making a little less than before, but the business is very healthy. People will always make music; they did before technology, and now technology is changing and actually helping people make music. It is an advancement, if gone about the right way. What I mean by that is, when you visualize a project, it is better to look at what you need to accomplish and gather the tools that will be useful, not to gather needless amounts of tools and get lost trying to find your song within that.”Fortunately, there are still success stories. The Clubhouse, in Rhinebeck, NY, is presently enjoying the busiest of its eight years, reports owner Paul Antonell, with repeat clients such as Rusted Root and Natalie Merchant, as well as new clients, keeping the Neve 8058-equipped studio humming throughout 2008. Nonetheless, Antonell is moving to attract music-for-film projects, expanding on his 2007 foray into voiceover work via Digidesign’s Source-Connect plug-in. “A lot of directors live in Rhinebeck,” says Antonell, “and original music for film seems to be a big need. I’m going to a meeting this week of the Hudson Valley Film Board, with about 30 directors. Our primary work is still music for records, but I’m trying to get my foot in the door with that.”Orchestral recording, Antonell says, will require another studio, which he may create in the near future. “I feel that the market is going to be here,” he predicts. “It’s been a bad year overall for most people,” says Sorkin, “however, it seems like it’s turned around, at least [in Los Angeles], in the last month or two. The studios that are still around are doing OK, in general. The big fallout that happened over the last few years has left the pack thin enough that, now, whoever’s left can make a living.””Making music is a human expression that goes back to the beginning of humanity,” Lurssen concludes. “The technology that exists now has made it the easiest it has ever been to capture those visions, and we’re just getting started. If you’re in my position with your eyes wide open to the possibilities, the services we can offer people with creative output is only beginning to take shape in the dawn of the information and communications age.”