Trends in Studio Equipment and Workflow
The May meeting for the AES-LA featured a conversation on the state of music creation – where we stand today, where we’re headed tomorrow (and why), as well as the tools that help to drive it all forward. The AES-LA convened a panel of three studio veterans: Brian Overton, Senior Technical Sales at GC Pro, Green Hill Recording founder Jim McGorman, and Jeff Ehrenberg, West Coast Sales Manager for Vintage King Audio. Each of the three panelists brought to the table years of experience garnered from a variety of perspectives in the recording world, from working as a recording artist to doing system design and performing project management. AES-LA’s own Greg Riggs took on moderating duties for the evening.
Opening comments addressed the question of how small home studios differ from larger project spaces or even larger record label facilities. Generally all agreed that the lines have blurred somewhat between these segments. Many recently furnished home studios tout equipment that could be considered world class. Jeff attributed this shift to the decline seen on the retail side of the music industry over the last few years, and the shrunken recording budgets that trend has rendered. Still, he noted a growing interest in establishing professional spaces to write and record, especially in the case of larger projects overseen by big names such as Skrillex wherein many artists are working together. Some prefer the separation of studio life from home life, a sentiment reflected in a recent spurt of studio installations in commercial areas. Jim commented that for some clients aesthetic concerns – more knobs and glass please – can trump financial considerations.
Taking note of the growth in home studios packing a professional punch, Greg asked just where a typical big hit record is being made these days. Again acknowledging the influence of the bottom line, Jim said that the days of an artist taking a year or more to record an album in a large studio have passed. The road is where the money is, and to an extent where recording now must occur. In practice, a hybrid approach is emerging. The blockbuster records still pass through the label studios, but many of the parts come from takes captured on tour. As an illustrative example, Jim referenced a favorite John Mayer solo that he knew from personal conversation had been laid down in a hotel room. Brian pointed out that speed requirements also motivate a workflow that bypasses major recording studios. Particularly in commercial and TV work, or even independent film scoring, the turnaround rate demanded of composers often necessitates a no frills approach.
Speaking to the specifics of the gear that makes it out onto the road and into these mobile sessions, Jeff highlighted the case of Lady Gaga’s last album. Faced with the overlapping obligations of both a year and a half long tour schedule and deadline for delivery of a new album, her team sought out the best compact setup to do what they could with the time between performances. Ultimately they homed in on an Avid HD Native rig paired with an API Lunchbox – a combination that would constitute the front end of the recording process behind Gaga’s vocal work for the album. As a player, she also had the ability to sketch additional instrumental parts with a small MIDI controller, for later realization via either sound replacement or performance by session musicians. Running with these thoughts on session musicians, Jim pointed out that touring, rather than recording, now accounts for their primary income source as well. Given the widespread implementation and adoption of general techniques such as quantization and the relative musical simplicity of the majority of pop music, a bit of talent can now go farther than it ever has before. Why phone in a pro when you can get it close enough yourself?
Moving on from tools that enable faster or more convenient modes of music creation to those which help achieve a bigger or more accurate sound, Brian cited 500 series hardware as essential to artists and engineers working across the spectrum of musical genres. The 500 format was born from a slot left open in API consoles as a place holder for their many EQ modules. During the 1980’s, companies such as Aphex began designing 500 compatible EQ’s as well, and over the last 10 years Shadow Hills and other manufacturers have expanded the 500 format to include compressors, delays and other types of audio processing. While the last several years have been something of a boon for the format, quality power regulation can still be a sticking point. Whereas rack mount modules each have a discrete supply of their own, the 500 modules must share power across all channels, and care must be taken to select a reliable chassis to house and power them all. Many companies design their 500 modules without consideration of how they might operate in an overall system, so that while optimized in isolation, they can cause problems in tandem with other modules. Primarily the issue manifests itself in headroom loss, on a mic pre for example, as well as reduction in clarity in some EQ’s. For many, however, the flexibility, portability, affordability (in comparison to fully fledged rack gear), and ultimately efficacy of these modules more than outweighs these drawbacks.
Returning briefly to studio elements that can help cut down on the time spent in successfully completing a project, Jeff mentioned good monitoring as a key point. Good speakers and acoustic treatment can mean that whether the recording environment is a bedroom, garage, or studio, it can be trusted. Brian agreed, noting the recent popularity of SPL boxes. Soft synths are another common time saver, however it is not uncommon for artists looking for a unique sound to actually go back and re mic or otherwise run through outboard gear, thus somewhat counteracting that convenience.
Finally, asked about general main workflow points to keep in mind or to grant particular attention, the consensus was that acoustics, mics and speakers are paramount. Jim emphasized the need to create a comfortable, inspiring workplace, while Jeff mentioned that before artists book time in his studio he makes sure they come through to ensure the environment is right for them. Brian also stressed that on a couple of fronts, user familiarity with equipment is important. As expensive tools enter the retail and consumer space, they do not come with the full time technical staff that a major studio would have offered. Many end users now expect retailers to cover maintenance and unexpected problems, a less than optimal arrangement to say the least. In the case where the gear is working properly, user error, or simple lack of understanding can hamper projects. Fitting the tool to its purpose - knowing when to use what - will always be essential.
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