Articles | Studios
The art of recording has changed dramatically. Mammoth recording spaces, giant glass walls, and mile long consoles have given way to smaller, more specialized rooms. As the decadent recording budgets of the last century dry up, small studios are cropping up even faster than the old behemoths fall silent. What can these spaces offer, how do you choose one, and what does this all mean to an artist, a label, or anyone looking for music content in this quickly changing landscape?
Paired with the right production team, small studios have always played a roll in recording. From Rudy VanGelder's legendary jazz space which housed the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis to the infamous Sun Studio where Sam Phillips produced the early Elvis recordings, small studios have been instrumental in shaping our very conception of music.
Small studios offer a tailored approach to recording. Sometimes dubbed “one-seater” studios, this nomenclature can be misleading in that small professional project facilities are often equipped to record groups upward of eight to ten musicians. The term is used because it describes a space where an individual, usually a musician, producer and/or composer, has created an environment perfectly suited to their needs and work style. Here the producer freely practices their craft, adding the necessary ingredients, the spark, and the pinch of magic that makes a song shine. This face to face setting has given birth to many of the most compelling and innovative moments in recorded music.
It is hard to discount the importance of a producer or an engineer in the recording process, but it is precisely here that many large studios leave their clients in the dark. Not all studios are attached to a singular composer or producer and most pull from a pool of engineers. This often leaves the client in a quandary as to how to hire an outsider to oversee the recording process in an environment that is familiar neither to the composer, nor the producer nor the client. A producer also provides a crucial role in the planning and development of a project. Without a producer, budget decisions and timetables become an unknown; artists become entrenched in a quagmire of unedited ideas and vague plans in need of direction. The end of a project often becomes lost and the overall tone indistinct.
One-seaters provide a homelike atmosphere and the support of someone who can see a project to fruition without sacrificing the professional capabilities of a big studio. They allow musicians to work in a relaxed and creative manner, free of the pre-fabricated recording techniques and clock-watching anxiety that goes hand in hand with a traditional facility. Additionally, they take full advantage of the familiarity that comes with someone who is accustomed to recording and mixing in a quality environment, day after day. The one-seater caters to the mindset that it is people who make recordings—not spaces or equipment.
Whether an artist seeking help recording a project, a songwriter fine-tuning a composition, or film, TV, or game companies contracting music that fits their content like a glove, most people benefit from the kind of face to face attention that can only be found in this environment.
How can a “one-seater” compete with a large production facility? An understanding of music, quality instruments, and good technique paired with the latest digital recording equipment has made the one seater a triple-threat. Small studios are actually more adaptable to the needs of their users. They are lighter on their feet than their massive counterparts. Rare, expensive instruments, equipment, and large physical recording spaces used to be the mainstay of the conventional recording studio. But from a technical standpoint the gap that used to separate the small studios from the big ones has narrowed dramatically. At the forefront of this technology are tools such as Digidesign's Protools HD system, running at sample rates up to 192 kHz, as well as acoustic modeling technology which allows an engineer to capture an acoustic “fingerprint” of an actual space and apply it with incredible realism to a sound recording.
In many cases, the only thing that sets the capability of a smaller studio apart from others is the capability and musical sensibility of its operator as well as the instruments that the studio provides. For example, many studios have an excellent selection of equipment, but few have a world class piano.
So how do you choose? Actually, it's easy. Begin with the people. Whether choosing a composer, a band-mate, or an engineer, your choice should be dictated by your trust, confidence, and comfort with a person. Find someone who understands what it is you are trying to do. Make sure it is you they are working for and that they are not just putting their own stamp across your project. Ask yourself a few questions. Are they experienced? Do they have the skills necessary to understand and talk about music? Do they bring with them a wealth of styles, a developed musical and technical vocabulary, and most importantly good taste? Can they inject these things into your project as needed? Keep in mind, not all producers are musicians, and certainly not all musicians are producers.
This is the mantra of the seasoned recordist: “Start with the source.” Good instruments, good songs, and good musicians record themselves. Ask yourself this: If you require a piano, is it a joy to play? Do the drums sound amazing? Are they flexible and adaptable enough to suit more than one kind of sound? If you need someone that can compose, arrange, and/or play and program parts, do they have the chops to pull it off and then some?
Consider the recording and mixing environment as one of the instruments. Not only will it contribute to the sound of the recording, it will provide comfort, inspiration, and confidence to you and any of the other the players. It is likely that you will be there for a while. Is it comfortable? Are there good sight lines between the musicians, producer, and engineer, or are you staring at the back of the producers head as they make decisions that are going to affect your material? Will the space accommodate and be adaptable to your needs? Ask about the ways in which the studio has accommodated large or unconventional recording sessions in order to better appreciate the potential of the studio and the resourcefulness of its operator.
Probably the main pitfall of modern recording is that it is ubiquitous. Although gear has gotten better, cheaper and easier to use, it seems that everybody these days is a producer. This isn't a bad thing per-se. It has never been easier to explore the art of recording and production. The Rudy Vangelders and George Martins of the world were also born out of change and innovation. The floodgates of creative potential have opened but they have also created an over-confident army of imposters—self proclaimed superstars, armed to the hilt with an impressive array of equipment, ego, and very little music or production skills to back it up. In some ways, finding a producer with an understanding of music, instruments, and people has never been harder. But the landscape of recording has changed, and mostly for the better. Follow your gut, your heart, your ears. . . whatever, but start with the people. You will be hard pressed to go wrong.top