Recording Studios: The Million Dollar Myth

What I’m about to talk about is going to upset some listeners, and that includes many of my dear music producer friends in the audio mixing and engineering industry, although most of them know all it. 

There’s no nice way to put any of this. We’ve all been taken for a recording industry joy ride for too long and I’m going to set the record straight, and no doubt, get a solid kicking for it.

The Myth

There is a long-standing mythology in the music industry that almost stands head and shoulders above everything else. Yet, there are people out there pushing this myth in the hope they can sell their services or products to the gullible and uninitiated. 

It’s blindingly obvious, but here it is:  In 2018, you don’t need a professional recording studio. You don’t need an audio engineer and you certainly don’t need a music producer.  It’s a myth. Yes, the world has actually evolved beyond the 1970’s, and thanks to technology, the power is now all in your hands. 

You don’t need a $4,000 Telefunken microphone and a $10,000 Neve preamp. My apologies to all of those enthusiasts out there. However, for the young ingenious musician, the old model is just a load of crap.

Did you ever wonder why there are only a small handful of top class multi-million dollar recording studios left operating in the world in 2018? Fifteen years ago there were dozens.

Strangely enough, we will always need those kind of high-end pro studios. I’ll explain why later in the episode. Today, switched on kids are making world beating music on their laptops and iPads.  That’s a fact and I think it’s great. Check out my release your music series.

Small is the new big

The small to mid-sized studios you often hear about, like mine, are there to service their owners, friends and occasional financially strapped indie act. I will admit, though, it’s really nice owning all that classic vintage gear.  It just looks great! I appreciate a good vintage mic and a Neve preamp as much as anyone. 

No serious money can be made in this segment of the market anymore.  There is some money to be made perhaps, but not serious money. Once you could expect to earn good money, even with a small studio, but now you can’t. There will always be someone that wants to knock out a few quick demos, but nobody is going to pay big bucks for something they can now do on their laptop in their bedroom. 

If you read any high-end pro-audio article, blog or forum, such as Gearsluts, you’ll find mostly obsessed individuals gushing over API, SSL and Neve consoles, Neumann U47’s and Telefunken U48 mics, Urei and Teletronix limiters, Pultec and GML EQ’s, as if god himself created them. So if you spend too much time reading this nonsense, you’ll begin to believe it’s true.

Yeah, all that classic is great, but you don’t need them anymore. Technology has stolen their thunder but there are some people who just can’t let it go.

I first stared working in recording studios in the late 1980’s. I have been in more recording studios and mastering suites across this country than I can remember, including my own. I reckon I have a pretty good handle on what’s been going down over the last thirty years. Most of those studios have now closed their doors, and disappeared altogether.

It’s just evolution. The recording industry had to have a haircut just like other segments in the business. The progress in audio recording technology is tremendous news and I might add, you’re the beneficiary of these incredible revolutionary changes. We all are, actually.

Firing squad

It was only last week I was speaking to an old school audio tech about some MCI channel strips he had for sale that might suit my studio. You see, I’m still a pro audio victim myself! He was in over his head with blind enthusiasm for all the classic recording kit. 

He was pumped up and looked down his nose at me, like I was a computer recording infidel that needed to be marched out to the firing squad to be dealt with. 

I’m as guilty as anyone of buying into this myth. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars on high-end studio gear over the last fifteen years. But, as much as I love the colourful lights, interesting knurled knobs, and the fantastic sounds this gear can impart – provided you know what you’re doing, it’s just not worth it. 

Really … not worth it.

The percentage game.

I call this the percentage game. Lets just imagine for a moment that to attain your perfect idea of a recording, you’ll be tracking through a classic 80’s series Neve console. You’ll be using vintage Neumann U47 and U87 mics. 

Maybe even going to two-inch tape just for fun. The perfect chain, lets call that 100%. Nothing better. pristine class A equipment. Ripper.

So, would you be happy achieving 85 to 95% of that that desired quality? Let’s not forget that nearly everyone is listening to music online via the compressed MP3 format. That, in itself, is reducing quality somewhat.

If you could use a couple of industry standard Shure SM57 mics and a Focusrite, M Audio, or Tascam two-in interface and get 85% of the way there, would you be satisfied? Because you can. The difference between 85% and 100% of your goal is starting at about $25,000 or more! 

Is it worth that much money to get a further 25% of quality when the end result will be compressed a compromised MP3’s through substandard speakers? Sure, you could go to one of the few exisiting high-end studios and pay $1200 a day without an engineer. But why would you?

It’s up to you to develop some easily attained skills to make it happen. You’ll have to learn a little about mic placement and phasing, but you can totally do this, and get an amazing result without robbing the bank. 

Legendary mixer American Al Schmidt says the greatest EQ in your arsenal is mic placement. Waving a mic around in front of an instrument is like sweeping a parametric EQ. You don’t even need a $5000 Pultec! But the loony purists will tell yas ya need to!

Microphone comparison.

Lets quickly check out some mics. I want you to try and figure out which one is worth $127 and which one is worth $4000. I want to know if you think the extra $3873 is worth it for another 15 to 20% gain in quality on your recording.

Listen here.

What about preamps. I want you to try and figure out which one is worth $230 and which one is worth $6000. I want to know if you think the extra $5770 is worth it for another 15 to 20% gain in quality on your recording.

Listen here.

Why do we need the big studio?

Here is a little secret for you. The only guarantee of a record label working their arse off for a new artist, is when they offer a massive un-recoupable ‘advance’ –  a music industry term for a personal loan. The bigger the advance the label offers, the harder the label has to work to get their loan paid back, and this elevates your chances of success. Simple!

Well, you might ask, who gets the money? Certainly, it’s not the band.  They’re the innocent victims put up for collateral, forced into a deal they don’t usually comprehend, and they can never pay back. 

Their loan is spent on the big studios – the engineers, overpaid producers, mixers, and mastering dudes who get the lion’s share.  That’s why those fat cats keep on keeping on. A good proportion of the funds are also distributed to marketing, publicity, and promotion. Who gets paid first when the albums starts to sell?  The record label, of course!

The manager wants top money to get that almost iron clad guarantee of commitment from the label. The band gets shafted financially, and they have to play live continually to pay the bills.  And everyone else gets wealthy. 

But now, the labels are doing the 360 deal, which really means the full circle of income from you, the band. They now take a cut from everything you earn, including your most lucrative income – live revenue. And this was possibly the only way you could have made some coin. This was the only stream of good money that you could earn through your hard work. 

It’s an unsustainable model that almost looks like a pyramid scheme on paper.  It would surely breach any government regulator rules if it came under scrutiny. Such schemes are so deleterious they eventually destroy bands and musicians lives. Sounds like fun?

There is an upside

To be fair, there are a number of things that only a high-end pro-recording studio can offer you. There are elements like the particular studio ambience and the effect that can have on an artist. Or the in-house recording engineer, which can be a person you click with, or not. If you do, they can bring another level of unexpected magic to your session.

But, the greatest thing a pro-recording studio can give you is commitment. When you’re paying huge amounts of money per hour/day and watching the clock, you just have to commit. By that I mean, commit to takes and performances that otherwise, you’d not accept. In doing so, there’s an urgency that always forces band members to bring their A game to the table.

You undoubtedly get performances that would otherwise not be possible.  Maybe that’s why, on some occasions, magic happens. It can happen under these kinds of big studio pressures. If you are able to replicate this in your own studio space, you’ll have all bases covered.

It’s Up To You

For what it’s worth, my advice is, spend your money on good quality musical equipment, and focus on getting better at refining your craft! Believe me, there’s not a $10,000 mic in the world that will make you sound like Jimmy Page or Taylor Hawkins.  Only your skills will. And your basic home recording gear can get you 85% of the way there.

There’s no doubt many of us love classy vintage studio gear just as much as we love an L series Strat or a gold top Les Paul. Music engineers and producers have their place in the game for sure, particularly as FOH engineers. But we’re in a new world now, where you hold all the cards and can be the captain of your destiny. So get out there, have fun and make some great music!

How many times have you been tricked into buying expensive gear, or hiring top end studios and producers? I’d love to hear your stories.  Go to indieconfidential.com and leave your comments and any questions. You can also follow me on Instagram @indieconfidential.

The next episode of Indie Confidential i’ll be talking with music industry heavyweight David Vodicka. Owner of Rubber Records and Media Arts Lawyers, David was key to the launching of bands such as Jet, Cordriazine, Even, Underground Lovers and the Casanovas.

I’ll catch you soon.

Please follow and like indieconfidential
error

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *