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Studio Design Shifts with the Times

By Steve Harvey. Studio designers are finding less work at commercial music recording studios, and an increasing emphasis on the education market, audio post-production houses, podcast studios and home-based production rooms.

There is no denying that the halcyon days of the commercial music recording studio are behind us. But as studio designers and acousticians report, their business has simply shifted—to the education market, audio post-production houses and podcast studios, as well as home-based production rooms, and even the occasional commercial facility—and they remain as busy as ever.

Record sales peaked in the United States in 1999 and, while revenues have been on the rise since the nadir of 2014, it seems unlikely that the business will ever be the same again. Francis Manzella of Francis Manzella Design in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley reports, “Our work over the past few years has moved away from music recording and more into post-production and education.”

Not that Manzella doesn’t still design music rooms, but they tend to be boutique facilities and are rarely commercial, for-hire studios—that business model is behind us, he says. “I’m honored I was part of this business in the ’80s and ’90s when it was swinging,” says Manzella, who once worked at Skyline, renamed Reservoir Studios in its latest incarnation, in Manhattan.

Gavin Haverstick of Haverstick Designs in Carmel, IN, still works on music facilities—his design for Hi-Five in Milwaukee was nominated for a TEC Award—but they are evolving, he says. Hi-Five has a huge live room, which goes against the current trend: “It’s a differentiator.” More typically, Haverstick says, he works on spaces that leverage variable acoustics to attract a variety of projects.

Indeed, Haverstick co-founded a separate company, Acoustical Fulfillment, to produce the patented Flex-48 adaptive system, which offers passive absorption, barrel-type diffusion and low-frequency control in one product. “It’s pretty dramatic; it’s not a subtle change,” he says.

While new studios vary greatly, they all still need acoustic treatment. “We deal with so many different situations and types of spaces that people want to do things in, and it’s constantly changing,” says Robb Wenner, Nashville-based marketing manager and artist relations for Auralex. However, he says, “We have definitely seen an uptick in podcasting and people being able to use a space that they have inside their offices or retail environment or pretty much anywhere. We have several different products that we’ve brought to market in the past couple of years to address that, too,” most notably the manufacturer’s MAX Kits.

“They’re freestanding and portable acoustic treatment. We sell these to people who don’t want to, or can’t, install treatment on the walls of their apartments. It can be configured quickly and inexpensively and can be moved around or put away easily. And it creates an environment where you don’t get the room sound that people complain about in podcasts,” says Wenner.

Primacoustic points podcasters in the direction of the company’s Broadway panels, which are intended to “eliminate primary reflections and flutter echo, and subdue the reverberant field.” Broadcasters have been treating their studios for decades, but podcasters are now proliferating, enabled by a growing catalog of inexpensive audio tools. For podcasters who want to take their rooms to the next level, Primacoustic recommends also adding its Cumulus tri-corner traps high on the walls to tame the lower midrange typically accentuated in smaller rooms.

Related: Stitcher’s Flexible New Facility, by Steve Harvey, April 19, 2019

Where podcasters’ budgets and intentions have fewer constraints, a professional custom solution is the way to go, such as WSDG Walters-Storyk Design Group’s work for Stitcher detailed elsewhere in this issue. Manzella is also seeing business in that market. “We’re getting calls from people who would never call an acoustic design firm,” he reports, including an advertising agency. He asked one client, an insurance company, why they were doing podcasts, and was told that “the owner likes to talk with high-end clients and sit in a studio environment that is quiet, sounds good and looks good if they want to shoot video. ‘It’s a great way to promote our services,’ they said,” Manzella reports.

A certain segment of the music recording market is building larger rooms incorporating classic design elements of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, often in tandem with vintage analog equipment. Brad Graham, vice president of sales for ProCo Sound in Jackson, MO, has seen the effect of the analog-to-digital transition. “The whole shift to digital created a submarket of analog gear that people can pick up for a song. Our 48-channel splitter snakes declined, and our 300-foot shielded Cat cables increased because of Dante networking,” he says.

But analog certainly didn’t go away, says Graham. “We deal with everything from music stores to vintage guitar shops, and some of those old [instrument] pedals are $500!”

Despite the bump in analog studios, Wenner says audio professionals are more typically bringing facilities into their homes. For companies like Auralex and Primacoustic, room conversions are their bread-and-butter business. Wenner had his own audio post room on Nashville’s Music Row, and in Los Angeles for over a decade before that, but he now has a home studio and knows of several others just in his subdivision near Nashville. “Everyone, from A-list musicians to songwriters, producers and mixing engineers, has a home-based studio. Some have simple studios; others have extreme rebuilds or complete ground-up builds.”

Related: The Ultimate Home Studio? Upper Deck Hits It Out of the Park, by Steve Harvey, Nov. 29, 2018

A home-based facility makes sense for musicians who may not want to spend time at a commercial studio after having just spent months and months on tour, says Haverstick. He adds, “Record labels and artists are looking at the costs of renting out studios versus building one in someone’s home.” There’s no difference in the final product; for one client for whom he built a room, he says, “Their most recent album went straight to Number One and was recorded completely in their basement.”

Larger design firms attract work from a variety of markets, not just music production, of course. Haverstick has a significant roster of house of worship and commercial clients, for instance, and includes Butler and Ball State universities on his client list. Manzella is currently in the middle of projects for various educational institutions. “I’m working with Berklee on the Power Station renovations, and we’re building the NYU Clive Davis facilities on Jay Street in Brooklyn, which is over 20,000 square feet. A year or two ago we designed a 20,000-square-foot multi-studio facility for the African Music Institute in Gabon,” he says.

As for audio post, says Manzella, “Dolby Atmos is driving everything. We’re moving clients from 7.1 to Atmos rooms. And I’d say 100 percent of the post-production suites that we build are Atmos-ready if they’re not Atmos-installed. That keeps us busy with television networks and privately-owned post-production houses. That’s always been a steady work stream, but it’s even more reliable these days.”

Francis Manzella Design •

Haverstick Designs •

Acoustical Fulfillment •

Auralex Acoustics •

Primacoustic •

WSDG Walters-Storyk Design Group •

ProCo Sound •

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