Friday, July 27, 2007

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 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.

Still more important is the edge big studios always will have over home setups — more space, which is essential for large jazz combos as well as film-score projects that require string and horn sections, not to mention better natural acoustics; state-of-the-art recording gear, especially microphones that can cost up to $10,000; and hands-on professional expertise.

“We get people from all over the country,” Ms. Dawson says, adding that clients frequently bring to the studio basic tracks recorded at home to take advantage of Bias’ spiffier sonic capabilities.

Mr. Rose mentions, too, the preference for analogue tape among audiophiles. (In early 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal, a scarcity of reel-to-reel audio tape — the result of diminishing demand — sent purists such as Wilco into a minipanic.)

“They still have to come to us for analogue; the tape sound is warmer,” he explains. “It has a depth to it that digital doesn’t have. Digital is stark.”

In addition to these built-in advantages, John Jennings, the veteran Washington-area producer-musician who helped craft several Mary Chapin Carpenter albums, says the music industry may come to miss studios for another reason — namely, their function as informal technical schools.

“I’m sorry to see the larger studios close down,” he says. “It was kind of an apprentice system. People would learn the ropes at the hands of people who knew what they were doing.”

Now, he fears, anyone “with a Mac and garage band is a producer or engineer.”

Mr. Jennings is no Luddite; he himself keeps a studio at his Charlottesville home. “Technology shows up, and people use it. I have no problem with that,” he says. “Does digital sound different? Yeah. But, in a way, all recording is a lie.”

What’s missing from home studios is human mentorship, behind the boards as well as on the instruments. All too often, he says, software such as Pro Tools can paper over dodgy musicianship in a way that ultimately ill serves a band.

“If you go to Bias, in three of four hours of being there, you can learn something that would have taken you a lifetime,” Mr. Jennings says.

Then there are the chance collaborations that can occur when great musicians are working down the hall from one another.

Stevie Wonder recalled for Rolling Stone magazine’s Hit Factory obit how Herbie Hancock ended up playing on the “Songs in the Key of Life” track: He “just happened to be around … Those are the great things that happen when you are working in a studio situation.”

Generally, Mr. Jennings sees a link between the rising popularity of home recording and a consumer preference for the inferior MP3 audio format. “I think the bar is a lot lower,” he says.

It’s quite the 21st-century bargain: Home studios crank out substandard recordings, and most listeners don’t know, or don’t care to know, the difference.

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