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Music from a closet
Seldom noted in the spate of music-industry obituaries these days is the imperiled fate of big recording studios. In June, Sony Music Studios joined its Manhattan neighbor the Hit Factory, Cello Studios in Los Angeles and the Alabama soul sanctuary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios on a growing list of legendary recording spaces that have shuttered in the past two years.
Soaring urban property costs are a big factor, but another culprit is increasingly sophisticated home-recording technology: Why cough up thousands of dollars to rent studio space when you can set up shop in your basement?
Just as digital downloads have transformed music retail — eviscerating it, in some cases — digital audio software such as Pro Tools and Nuendo has transformed the very manufacture of sound recordings.
Vanishing are the days of several pairs of hands simultaneously manipulating volume faders on a giant recording console; now, the process of multitrack recording and sound mixing can be managed, sweat-free, with keystrokes and mouse clicks.
The recording technology trade magazine Mix claims a majority of albums today are made in personal, rather than professional, studios — in garages, spare bedrooms and “closets-turned-control-rooms.”
“Welcome to a world of empowered garage bands,” declared the music blog GarageSpin.com in 2005, on hearing news of the Hit Factory’s closure.
Dusty Rose, who manages Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church, points to the guerrilla record-making methods popularized in the 1980s by rap and hip-hop producers — especially their reliance on samples and computer-generated percussion — as a catalyst for non-studio recording.
“A majority of that stuff can be done at home,” Mr. Rose says.
In rock, there’s the punk-era ethos that low-fidelity recordings are a badge of integrity — and, conversely, that professional studio polish is a sign of pandering to the masses.
So, even artists who could afford studio time often prefer the convenience and independence of stay-at-home recording — a creative luxury that has been sought since long before the arrival of personal computers.
Jimi Hendrix went so far as to convert a Greenwich Village club into his own major recording studio (Electric Lady Studios, still open for business), and today, the rock band Wilco maintains a full-size studio in Chicago’s Irving Park that it lovingly refers to as “the Loft.”
Locally, midsized suburban studios such as Cue and Bias Studios of Springfield — both of which boast client rosters that include major-label recording stars — are in no danger of closing. But neither are they unscathed.
“We do feel the impact of it financially,” says Gloria Dawson, who runs Bias with husband Bob Dawson, a fixture on the Washington music scene since he recorded the then-blossoming guitarist Nils Lofgren in — wait for it — his mother’s basement. “We have downsized our staff somewhat.”
Says Mr. Rose: “Yes, it’s affected us.”
Seemingly in reaction to the popularity of home recording, Cue tries to create a cozy, homelike vibe in its signature Red Room studio — bedecked as it is with Persian rugs, lava lamps and plush couches. The studio also brews Starbucks coffee and offers a recording package that guarantees clients 24 hours of exclusive access to one of its five rooms.
By John R. Bolton
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