Henry Ford was once asked what the secret of success in business
was. “Find out what the customers want and then give it to them.” he replied. That advice may sound
simple enough to follow, but there is a clear indication that for many studios of all types, something is going wrong and
has been going wrong for some time. In this chapter, I try to answer the question, ‘What equipment or other technical
or even general features is the customer looking for in a studio?’
I preparation for an article in the magazine
Audio Media, we asked 100 people who book studios and 100 studios about their attitudes to types of equipment. The results
showed us that those studios that were failing usually have little grasp of what it is that their own customers are looking
Most studio people I know, talk of studios in terms of their recording equipment. How often have you heard
expressions like “It’s a Neve room.” and any further discussion goes into the quality and value of the gear.
Well that may rock the boat of the gear-geeks, but according to many of the people who book studios, the quality and sticker
price of the boxes are a great deal less important that you might think.
The problem for us studio ‘insiders’
is that we tend to judge studios by their equipment. Come on, be honest, when you think of a specific studio, do you
envisage the desk and think of the price tag? Do you react differently to a studio that basks in the warm glow of a
massive desk that cost £300,000 compared to a studio that has a more modest centrepiece that ‘only’ cost £30,000?
Do you look down at the demo room that works with a desk that cost £3,000? Rather than judging all three on their
service to the customer, are you judging them on the snob value of their equipment?
If the honest answer is yes, then
it might come as a surprise to hear that the chances are that you are thinking differently to most of your own customers.
Yes, studio owners and managers do pay lip-service to having good acoustics, good engineers, excellent technical back-up
and first-class instruments, but we asked them what they paid for these items and the reality was that it was a small fraction
of the cost of the recording equipment. This tendency was especially true for smaller studios and even more so for those
studios that reported static or falling revenues.
One would expect
producers to take greater notice of the quality of the equipment and as a group, they did pay more attention to equipment
than musicians, but again, it was not the overriding issue.
“I keep going back to this one place.” said
one producer. “They’ve got a great room and a fantastic concert grand, a fair collection of vintage keys, Rhodes,
Hammond and stuff like that and some great back-line.” He went on to describe how he has to bring his own
monitors and even has to bring his own recording system. “I don’t really even like their desk, come
to think of it,” he continued. “though God knows, it cost enough. But as we mix in the box and only
use it for monitoring, I suppose I could be using just about anything.”
And this man was typical for a large
number of people that we spoke to. He was booking this room, despite of the equipment and not because of it. As
far as he was concerned, the large sums this studio had spent on gear was more or less wasted. He did not like their
desk, their recording system or even their monitors, but he came back several times a year to use a piano that had cost a
small fraction of the cost of the desk and some vintage bits and pieces that the owner had picked up for peanuts on eBay!
tendency by the customer to be less than deeply interested in the gear offered, but deeply interested in other, non-technical
things like the acoustics or even the night life on offer, was reflected to a greater or lesser extent right across the board.
Producers and rock-and-roll producers in particular, were more ‘gear-aware.’ “I look
for Neve on tracking and SSL for mixing.” said one, but many of those who book studios for film music would disagree
with him. “We look for simple things that help to get the job done. A large room with good acoustics, off-street
parking, technical support and good food!” said another.
“The equipment is not the big issue.” said
one guy. “We do look for a reasonable basic standard, but beyond that, I am looking for a good-sounding room,
good monitors, technical support and a relaxed atmosphere.”
Although producers tended to be more picky about
who they worked with and which studio they used, agents and labels seemed to just want to get the job done.
I send a band in to a studio for a day to demo a tune, I expect a CD at the end of the day. For many smaller studios,
doing something as simple as that seems to be a major problem.” complained another potential customer.
simple instructions seems to be difficult.” complained an agent. “All too often, if I ask for WAV files,
I get sent a project folder. If I ask for a project folder, I get WAV files and in one instance, we were doing some
heavy metal and I asked for a quick mix, heavily compressed and I got a DVD of WAV files, some uncompressed stem mixes and
they told me that they were still working on the mix. In other words, I got everything except the one thing I
Composer Matt Robertson raised eyebrows by recording the music
to the film ‘The Forest’ at Abbey because he claimed it was cheaper than Prague. “The combination
of a good room and good players in London is hard to beat anywhere else. It is undoubtedly more expensive per hour in London,
but the savings made by going elsewhere soon vanish, once all the extra time travelling, extra editing, extra mixing time
has been added on.”
Despite having trained as an engineer, Robertson says he is far from obsessed with having
the very best equipment, “I don't really care too much if its a Neve, an SSL, an Audient or an Amek. I have
yet to be totally convinced by the argument of analogue summing sounding far better than the HD mix bus. I have AB'd,
and the improvement of the analogue sum over HD, if at all, is very small. I do, however, simply enjoy mixing
on a board much more than I do in Pro Tools.”
Interestingly, when musicians were asked what they look for in
a good studio, almost no brand names were mentioned.
“We do orchestras at Abbey Road. We pretend
to be the Rolling Stones at Air and go to Strongroom for a great mix. Everything else is done at home.” said one.
customers who recorded at home and in the studio, complained bitterly about studios not being able to import projects from
different platforms and the refusal by some equipment manufacturers to agree on a single interchangeable standard.
Although many of those complaining, did actually own DAWs that were capable of exporting time-stamped WAV files that seem
now to be universal to the industry, they pointed out that very often, they just did not know how to.
needed technical support from the studio, in order to make my home recordings compatible with their equipment and the first
studio I tried could not give it to me, so I went elsewhere.” said one home recording guitarist.
said “I am a musician, not an engineer. I expect there to be a single menu function that allows me to export
the whole thing to a DVD, so that all tracks can be opened. The attitude of most studios is to say ‘Well
there’s nothing we can do about it then.’ and that is just not very helpful.”
That statement may
not be particularly fair on studios, who can do little to change the way musicians use their recording systems, but it is
symptomatic of the disregard most musicians have for the specifics of the technology involved. The attitude of most
musicians to studio recording was summed up best in the statement “I really don’t care what equipment they
use, it’s how the music sounds in the end that counts.” and that was echoed to a greater or lesser extent
throughout the customer groups, from musicians to producers to agents and A&R.
Great Desk or
in our survey, we gave the musicians a choice of different things of similar value to look
for in a studio, a Steinway D or a vintage re-capped Neve desk, the musicians overwhelmingly opted for the piano. Similarly,
the choice between a Hammond, some vintage back-line and fancy outboard had all the guitarists opting for the back-line and
every one of the keyboard players opting for the Hammond.
The studio owners were completely different, with about 80%
of all project and mid-sized studio owners opting for a big desk, rather than a piano and yearning for prestige outboard,
rather than a Hammond or some vintage guitar cabs.
Interestingly, the more successful the studio claimed to be, the more likely they were to be one of the
few that opted for the musical instrument instead of the equipment.
Money people, such as managers, agents and A&R,
said that they primarily looked for efficiency and functionality over price. “I’d rather pay twice as much
for a studio that gets the job done quickly, than waste time somewhere cheap.” was a typical reply.
accuse us of pushing them on price,” said one agent. “but that just is not true. The cost of a studio
pales into insignificance, when you are recording an orchestra for a film. But how many studios do you know that can
do just that quickly and easily?”
Composers, producers and arrangers however are looking for more. Robertson,
“Its mainly about the room. Not necessarily just the acoustics, but the whole feeling of the place.
I have to like being there and working there. Call it the vibe, for want of a better word.”
way to get that key piece of kit, whether it is a grand piano or a desk, is to talk to somebody like Paul Robson at Media
Lease. But if you do and you want to borrow money against the value of all that fancy new computer kit you still own,
be prepared for a shock.
“The problem with ProTools is that it is worth 50% of what you paid, the day
after you bought it.” states Robson. “A bank needs to see physical assets, but right now many types of recording
equipment are not holding their value at all well. Racks are poor, consols are poor, DAWs are really poor.”
constant stream of updates makes transfer of ownership for ProTools very difficult” says wholesaler Andrew Stirling.
“and this has an impact on resale value.”
But Paul Robson voices caution. “When you
are buying something, think about the resale value. That big, digital controller may look fantastic, but people have
to know it and it has to have a market presence if you are going to resell or finance it.”
Richard Boote, famous
for adding Air Studios to his Strongroom portfolio, also runs an equipment hire company, so it comes as no surprise when he
points out that it is often cheaper to hire in equipment. “If you are not using a piece of equipment that often,
particularly something like a large ProTools rig, the purchase cost and the cost of keeping the rig up to date can be far
in excess of the hire fee. And if you hire a DAW, you get a guaranteed working piece of kit, full technical back-up
and an immediate replacement if something goes wrong.”
Robson, “Given the extremely poor used value of
some types of computer-based equipment, rental agreement that includes maintenance and updating, can end up costing
less than just going out and buying a system.”
Andrew Stirling points out “Don’t be too blue-eyed
about owning gear. Lease arrangements can give you considerable tax advantages in the right circumstances.”
Schools and colleges are definitely out there and buying various systems, but predominantly ProTools
Lite for the students, usually augmented by an HD system or two for the lecturer. But according to those we spoke to,
private home studios are the largest overall group, with the average investment in recording equipment at about a half the
value of the instruments. 80% of musicians claimed to have some recording equipment, with almost one quarter spending
more on equipment, than on musical instruments.
Post production for TV and film are still buying kit, but here
the tendency seems to be falling. Robson, “The number of repossessions and studios closing in the
post production business seems to be rising with the growing number of music editors and composers working from home or renting
a ‘white-room’ space somewhere.”
is agreed that there is lots of business out there. Everyone is agreed that there might just be more music being recorded
than at any time previously. It’s just that for many studio owners is that it just does not seem to be happening
in their facilities. In the past, owning the right kind of equipment was the gateway to getting customers to take a
studio seriously. Today, the customer is less likely to be ‘blinded by the light’ of the prettiest
toys and is looking for service, speed, efficiency and above all, the quality of the final product.
Emerson once famously wrote “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than
his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the World will make a beaten path to his door.”
a better mousetrap is a better studio, then what goes to make a better mouse trap has changed dramatically.