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Studio Sense: Quality Vs. Speed

I’ve been so busily absorbed trying to stay modern, to adapt to a changed marketplace and musical landscape, that I’ve failed to notice that my whole “raison d’être,” my studio’s reason for being has morphed under my very nose.

For all but a lucky few of you, I suspect this to be true as well … the name of our game has gone from quality to speed.

The pursuit of quality has always been the driving force behind my studio, dominating my daily practices, long-term decisions and future goals, even though the attainment of world-class quality has always been far out of reach financially. I started at the bottom of the analog world, with 4-track cassette and reel decks that were inherently flawed. From a humble mic collection and its placement, from primitive processors and skeletal mixers we could coax something out that was just entertaining and high fidelity enough to stay in business. How did the age-old question of “good, fast and cheap — you may pick two” apply here? The sound wasn’t that good, nor did it come quickly — at least it was cheap.

Even as the nascent beginnings of the digital age entered my workflow and business plan, my new modular multitracks and DATs were still flawed enough to keep that elusive top-quality bar just out of reach. Me, and legions of project-studio revolutionaries, made decent recordings on affordable gear, but clear divisions still remained between the project and truly professional world. The sound was pretty good, it came only a little faster — at least we were still cheap.

It wasn’t until the project-studio revolution blossomed into the DAW revolution that the game really began the reversal in priorities. It took a while, but it does not require premium analog gear anymore to make topshelf recordings; a pro-level DAW with high sample rates and modern conversion can do it. More importantly, a consumer-level DAW can make recordings that are sonically competitive: that is, they can be considered to sound normal and acceptable in the marketplace, if not necessarily stellar.

The modern client knows all about our tools, and they expect to create competitive recordings without sufficient resources or training. Today, commonly talented, good-looking folk become stars because of this “DAW-power.” Such power has completely changed what it means to be a performer. Don’t think that Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is a revolution; it may be an exaggerated case, but it’s just a routine sign of the times. Good-sounding rooms, musicians, drum kits, instruments, amps and singers have largely been replaced by convolution, modeling, triggering, virtualizations, quantization, editing and auto-tuning. These rather effective modern tools have raised client expectations, while concurrently driving rates downward in a violent fashion.

It’s much less expensive to maintain a killer computer rig than a whole recording facility, so today’s client is able to self-record or find a provider at whatever price point they desire, of course with various degrees of success. Proper studios and laptop cowboys are now effectively all vying for the same, lower-paying work. The only real question remaining is of service; today, that revolves around speed of delivery, rather than traditional provisions. Today’s client rightfully assumes the product is good, demands that it be cheap and also expects it fast — really fast, like, “right now” fast.

I can no longer pursue top quality for most of my work, as no one ever really focuses on that at my mid-level market position. I instead rely on my DAW-power to quickly fulfill expectations, and it typically does. I rely on this speed and effectiveness to keep budgets down to ridiculous levels. Only through a clever combination of all the digital communication tools at my disposal can I meet demanding client needs.

A typical day might go something like this: A client from nearby or overseas (it doesn’t really matter) contacts me via social networking, I import stems that outline the musical idea, put together some ideas and e-mail a rough MP3, client approves the work and then uses WeTransfer (a free file-transfer service) to send a compressed zip folder full of his additional tracks, I complete arrangement/overdubs/mixing, apply some quick “mastering” and create both a high-res master that I’ll FTP back as well as a master MP3. No physical product, one week of “old school” work, delivery and proofing accomplished in one day via DAWpower, and it sounds pretty darn good.

I’m no hero; surely, you do this all week, too. It’s just that we do it crazily fast, for too low of a price and often they still ask if next time we could do it a little faster or a little cheaper, or both!

I see some light on issues of quality shining at the end of the tunnel, but let’s look at that next month. You see, I’m in a big hurry right now …

Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, NC.