The Changing Face of Record Production
May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Maureen Droney
Where Does the Commercial Studio Fit In?
By definition, a music producer is responsible for getting the job done. Ensuring that happens is a process that can encompass anything from creating a proper vibe to complete track construction and everything in between: managing the budget, choosing songs and musicians, creating musical arrangements, providing psychotherapy and general handholding — you name it. Every project is different, and every producer has a different set of skills. But for many years, for any project, at least one thing was pretty much taken for granted: The record was going to be made in a commercial recording studio. For a whole generation of producers and engineers who grew up nurtured by the old-school recording studio culture, that was a simple fact of life.
These days, of course, things are different. Driven by technology and changes in the business climate, the recording landscape has been cracked wide open. The excesses of the '80s and '90s are long gone, and studios can no longer afford the endless cycle of “bigger, better and more.” Home studios compete with the big boys and all kinds of people are looking for new careers. Meanwhile, producers determined to stay in the game are adapting and getting creative about how and where they record.
Producers are redefining how the job gets done and carving out a living doing what they love and are good at. Here, Mix checks in with a few stalwarts for some insights into the challenges of making records now.
PRIVATE AND SELF-CONTAINED
A number of people recording today avow that a commercial studio is completely unnecessary. Producer/mixer Scott Humphrey, known for his work with Rob Zombie, Monster Magnet and Ozzy Osbourne, among others, is one of them.
“The business is definitely changing,” he says, speaking on the phone from the elaborate studio that he's constructed in a house in the Hollywood Hills, “but I changed my style of working long ago. I moved into my own space permanently about eight years ago, because I wanted the convenience of always having things set up the way I want them.”
Humphrey's studio takes up the whole 7,200-square-foot house. The control room, equipped with a 64-input SSL G Plus, is larger than you'll find in many commercial studios. Nearby, dedicated drum and guitar recording spaces are outfitted with everything a rocker needs to sound huge.
Humphrey owns the building that houses the studio, but he chooses to live 45 minutes away. “It's too hard to unwind at the end of the day if you're living in the same place you're working,” he comments. “Sometimes, though, it can be an advantage to stay there. I've gone through periods where I slept at the studio and mixed in the middle of the night. That can work out great, because 90 percent of the time, when you're mixing, you don't really need anyone else around.”
After starting out as a musician, Humphrey progressed to production and then added engineering to his skill set. He notes that, these days, the line between who's doing what technical job tends to blur depending on the session: The producer is, at any given moment, the engineer and perhaps the Pro Tools operator. “I don't necessarily want to do all of the jobs, but I'm usually doing two of the three. Engineering came with producing. You can't really know how to do one without the other. But there's more expected of you now. You have to be able to wear as many hats as possible. Pro Tools used to be a specialized area. Now, it's just a requisite skill to get to the next level. Sometimes you can't afford to have a guitar tech, a drum tech, an assistant engineer and an engineer. You may have to take on some of those roles yourself. Even if you don't, you have to know how to do them.”
Staying in one place for a whole project works well for Humphrey, because, stylistically, he tends to dispense with separate pre-production. Instead, he prefers that bands learn the songs to be recorded while in the studio, moving immediately to recording while everything is fresh.
The social aspects often touted as a plus to recording at a commercial studio complex also find no favor with Humphrey, who cites the benefits of a private facility where he doesn't have to deal with “people constantly coming in to visit.” He admits, however, that building and maintaining the kind of high-end studio he owns isn't easy, noting, “It's a long-term commitment to add to your collection of equipment as you can afford to, until you reach the point where you're really happy and you have everything you need.”
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING STUDIO
Composer/producer Pete Scaturro also says that he has no need to use a commercial studio. Currently, he's even downsizing the physical space of his own Venice, Calif., live/work studio compound. Scaturro began his career as a musician and producer of alternative rock bands in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although he long ago transitioned into sound-for-picture — that's his theme music you hear on ABC's The Practice — until recently, he kept his hand in producing records for the likes of virtuoso guitarist Buckethead. Lately, he's making changes in direction.
“Big-album budgets, except for really major artists, have gone away,” he states. “And the mid-level record has all but vanished. Since my experiences with labels in the past were often negative, I don't think it's all that much of a loss. I really believe that with the importance of visuals growing, it doesn't make much sense to work on anything that doesn't include them.”
As far as working style, Scaturro continues, “My studio has definitely shrunk and my job description has changed. In the past, I didn't have to do so much engineering; I'd leave that job to someone else. Now, I do everything from making backups to labeling tapes — it's become a one-man show. With budgets reduced, it's much more profitable if I don't have to hire other people.”
Scaturro's studio used to include a big live room and client amenities, but, because he's using fewer musicians and taking advantage of FTP uploading for project review and approval, those things are no longer necessary. “I have fewer and fewer people coming down to the studio,” he asserts. “I used to have a big live room and a pretty big control room. Now, I'm going to basically just occupy half of the building. In constructing my new studio, I'm not really thinking about the clients, who were my first concern in the past!”
Another change Scaturro sees is in people's expectations of how projects can change. “In the past, when you cut tracks in a more traditional studio, there was the big recording date,” he says. “Producers would come down to the session, and there was a sense of that day being important and that you weren't going to change things too much after the fact. Psychologically, it was a different way of looking at things. Now, everything is — supposedly — easy to change.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Of course, plenty of people are still recording bands in studios. In musician/producer Dave Fridmann's case, the bands often make the trek to Tarbox Road, the residential upstate New York facility he co-owns with his wife Mary and experimental pop rockers the Flaming Lips.
Fridmann, in addition to his production work with bands such as Café Tacuba, The Delgados and Sparklehorse, has been a longtime collaborator with both the Lips and the legendary Mercury Rev. Tarbox came about, back in 1997, when he wearied of leaving home and family to go to work. “By the early '90s, it had become pretty much up to me to decide where to record most of the projects,” he recalls. “There was no place within 150 miles of here with facilities that were adequate for what I needed, so I'd just find the best, cheapest studio I could and go there. It became obvious that I was bringing those places ‘x’ amount of business per year, and that I could build and make payments on a studio for less. Ultimately, it was a matter of convenience and quality of life. We don't really make money with the studio, but it is self-sufficient.”
Fridmann made a conscious decision to separate home and studio — by 10 miles. “I used to work at a studio where the owner lived across the street,” he says with a laugh. “I'd call him at 3 a.m. when I couldn't find a mic, and he'd come over and help me out. Now I realize how inappropriate that was, but I also know people would do to that to me if I lived across the street!”
Those who use residential studios often tout the camaraderie created during the recording process. Fridmann agrees that the “cloistered environment” can foster creativity. “In a place that doesn't have a 9-to-5 mentality,” he observes, “musicians can be really relaxed. At the same time, they can really concentrate.”
No 9-to-5 can mean 24/7. Fridmann tries to keep to a 12-hour day, and encourages bandmembers to work on their own if they want to go longer. “Most musicians know Pro Tools now. Since it's nondestructive, I'll save what I have, make a backup, set up the mics and let them go ahead. It can be good for them to feel no distance between themselves and the music and to spend all night if they want. A lot of musicians do their best work between 2 and 4 a.m.!”
On the occasions Fridmann leaves his hometown to work, he looks for studios with a lot of gear options and a lot of space. “I want it to be an experience where everybody can spread out and be comfortable, and where the room sounds good. A lot of the great rooms got eliminated. But to me, it's really the only point of going to a big studio anymore.”
When he's not at Tarbox, which is equipped with an Otari Concept desk, Fridmann tends to choose 80 Series Neve consoles for mixing. But, due to the ubiquitousness of quality outboard preamps, he asserts that the actual recording console, at least for tracking, isn't of huge consequence anymore. “You end up bringing in your own modules and creating a hybrid recording setup that couldn't possibly exist. The console itself is just the playback conduit. With Pro Tools, if you have a decent mic and a Neve module, you can record a lot of your material anywhere.
“What I see for the future,” he predicts, “is the artist continuing to gain control of the recording process. With a Pro Tools Mbox or Digi 002, you can do a very good product in your home. You can track drums and mix in a big studio, and overdub at home until you're blue in the face with a good mic and preamp. As a producer, there's a trust issue to having clients do that, but we'll talk about it at length. A lot of times, I'll literally set up the recording chain at my studio, write down all the parameters and send them home with it.
“I guess, to some degree I saw the writing on the wall with the movement toward residential and other alternative studios. Bands typically seem to like coming out here and being away from distractions. At first, the labels had some concern that we were so far away from them, but over time, I've built up enough trust with them; we've quelled their fears.”
MAKING IT WORK
Matt Wallace is another musician/producer who's made quality-of-life changes in his working style. Well-respected for a Platinum track record that includes Faith No More, The Replacements, Blues Traveler and Train, among many others, Wallace is currently riding high with Maroon 5's Songs About Jane, which, on the week we spoke, was Number 7 on the Billboard Hot 200.
Although some years ago he foreswore studio ownership, Wallace has come around again; currently, he maintains a personal studio at the Sound City complex in Van Nuys, Calif.
Wallace has worked with budgets both large and small. A couple of years ago, the decision to sign on for a spate of indie records gave him a leg up on dealing with the challenges that are now prevalent in getting records made. “The saving grace has been putting together my own studio,” he says. “Six years ago, I had one in the Ocean Way complex. I loved the vibe and the creative aspects of having a place set up and ready to go, but I didn't like having to run a facility. Ultimately, I sold off most of the gear and went back to working in commercial studios.”
Wallace's manager, Frank McDonough, persuaded him to try again by emphasizing the benefits: Money spent at outside studios could be reapportioned to the project as a whole, helping to alleviate the time pressure demanded by today's lower budgets. “When I had the studio before, we opened it up to outside clients, leading to a lot more complication,” Wallace explains. “The only time my current studio works is if I'm there or if I let friends use it. I've set up my gear in what was a rehearsal space, so it's sort of like a giant living room. The lack of pressure is the best thing: If a band is having a bad day, they can go home and try again tomorrow. Also, I can try to go home for a couple of hours every night for the kids' bath and bedtime. It means more driving, but too many people in this business only see their kids on Sundays. That doesn't work for me.”
For recent projects, Wallace tracked at other studios, including Sound City and Burbank, Calif.'s Third Stone, citing large live rooms with vintage consoles, iso booths and good headphone systems as the draw.
A recording tactic Wallace now employs, for reasons of both creativity and efficiency, is making sure that at least two people at any given time are working. “I did a project a while back where we always had three Pro Tools rigs set up, so we could be doing vocals, guitars and cleanups all at once,” he comments. “It was great for the budget, and it was also much more exciting. I hate it when the singer's singing and the rest of the band is twiddling their thumbs, watching the producer or engineer in front of the Pro Tools screen. This way, there's a lot more excitement and enthusiasm.
“I rely on Pro Tools, like any other producer,” he continues. “But a lot of the fun has been missing since it took over. These days, I always try to get the vibe of a bunch of musicians in a room doing their thing, playing off of each other and having moments of brilliance. That's what I'm looking for.”
THE BEST OF ALL WORLDS
Nashville-based producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay has, for many years, collaborated with singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler on Knopfler's recording projects. For the latest, they recorded at a number of different places, including the residential Shangri La Studios in Malibu, Calif., BackStage Studios in Nashville (in which Ainlay is a partner) and Knopfler's home setup in England. Final mixing was also scheduled to be done in England, the debut project at Knopfler's elaborate new multiroom facility in London, which, when we spoke, was nearing completion.
With a budget that allows for a wide range of choices, how do you decide where to work? “The sound of the room is always very important to me,” says Ainlay. “For this project in particular, we didn't want to overdub lots of instruments to make it sound full and complete. We wanted the room sound to help fill in the spaces in the music. One of the reasons we chose Shangri La was its sonic space; the sound of the recording room was perfect for what we were doing. We put most of the musicians in the same room and went for leakage, trying to get the ambience recorded on everybody as much as possible.
“Also,” he continues, “although I do carry a lot of equipment with me, the microphones and outboard available at a studio matter a lot to me. Some of the songs we're doing had a '60s and '70s-ish vibe. Shangri La is a vintage kind of place with an old API console, lots of great old outboard and an immaculate collection of classic ribbon and tube mics. I used Shangri La's console for certain things, but in general, rather than relying on a big board, I like to create a signal path for each mic that gives me the particular sound I want. The console is mostly a monitor playback desk.”
Ainlay suggests that the relaxed ambience of the Malibu studio affected the music; the on-site living accommodations were also a plus. “We wanted a place where everybody could have their own space, but also hang out and feel like we were a group,” he comments. “It definitely helped with the energy of the record to be in such a beautiful place. There were a lot of remarks about how it didn't feel like we were working, and I think that's part of the reason we ended up getting so many first takes. The ambience drew out some wonderful performances.”
With basic tracks complete, a stop was made in Nashville to add parts by local musicians. Then it was off to work at Knopfler's London home workspace, which he and Ainlay both admit isn't really a studio, just “a living room and bedroom where we do guitar and vocal overdubs and comps.”
Knopfler's new facility, on the other hand, is indeed state-of-the-art for both new and vintage equipment. The Neve 88R studio, with iso rooms, variable acoustics and a tracking space large enough to house a large orchestra, is also equipped with Beatles-era EMI consoles. “I always wanted a space where a band could play in the room together. All of my favorite recordings are done like that,” says Knopfler.
The B room features an API desk. Both rooms, built with full-range 5.1 monitoring, also have dual Studer A800 analog 16/24-track recorders, and Pro Tools and Nuendo systems. Wait a minute — isn't building a studio like this flying in the face of all the other trends we've been discussing here? “I'm always miles behind everybody else,” Knopfler says with a laugh. “Anybody with any sense is closing their studio, and I'm just building one.”
Well, so much for trend analysis. What's it all mean? These days, one size fits all doesn't. Projects are being tailored to suit the budget, the desired sound for the music and the band's personality. Whatever the budget level, producers want the best they can afford from both old and new technology. Custom setups have, in large part, taken over, with the individual signal path most important in recording. There's a desire for recording environments that feel relaxed, but are, in reality, highly productive.
It's not about the latest and the greatest anymore, it's about what really works and what will deliver the best results for the money. Each project takes more thought to work out what its individual requirements are and where the budget is best spent. There's still a strong need for good-sounding live recording spaces and proper control rooms for mixing, albeit at the right price. And contrary to how it may sometimes seem, there's still a need, perhaps more than ever, for skilled and experienced engineers and producers who know how to maximize a budget and get the job done.
Maureen Droney is Mix's Los Angeles editor.
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