Large Prestige Commercial Studios
This is the one you see in the movies and on television. If a record
producer or a rock star is ever interviewed, the television crew usually hires a large commercial studio and shoots the subject
sitting at the massive mixing desk. This is the studio that all would-be pop stars aspire to record in. These studios may
vary in size, shape and ambition, but they all have three things in common: a concert-size grand piano, lots of recording
space and, above all, that big mixing desk with thousands of knobs to twiddle and buttons to press.
You may be planning to convert the garage or just put some kit together in the spare bedroom,
but this is the studio most of us would build if money were no object.
These studios may be lovely to behold, but very often, their economics are anything but lovely.
Most large studios are located in city centres where rates and rents are high and have to fight off competition from smaller
studios who will cut their prices just to keep the business afloat or to get a key customer thorough their doors. The monthly
overheads of a large city centre studio can be in excess of $100,000 - enough to buy all the equipment needed for a small
Where the large studio comes into its own is in the recording of large orchestras for such projects
as feature films. Here the budgets are high and as one film composer and arranger put it, "Whether the studio costs two thousand
or three thousand a day is pretty irrelevant when you have an orchestra costing one-hundred-thousand Pounds each and every
Unfortunately, there just are not that many films being made with huge budgets that allow for
large orchestras. These projects are few and far between and the large studios have to fill the rest of the calendar with
recordings with far tighter budgets and these budgets are getting tighter and tighter.
But for any act, being able to put the words "Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London." or "Recorded
at The Hit Factory, New York." is a status symbol and is often seen as being the kind of handle that may help to swing a deal.
It is what economists sometimes call ‘the snob effect' and means that if an item or service carries a high price tag,
then people assume that it is of higher quality and carries more prestige.
(You will hear a great deal about the snob effect, particularly when dealing with pro-audio
equipment and larger recording studios, though to be honest, it is not always called that.)
These studios cannot afford to compromise on quality. If they buy a new mixing desk, it has
to be the biggest and the best available. If they get themselves a new recording machine, it has to have as many tracks and
inputs as is technically possible - and if it is digital, it has to have the very highest sample rates and have the very latest
upgrade available. It matters little if that upgrade makes sense or not, they just have to have it. Having the very best equipment
is the name of the game they play!
(Because of the ever growing number of different platforms on which to record, most prestige
studios concentrate their efforts on one or two main platforms and hire in other systems should the customer require it.)
If the customer is paying several thousands of Pounds or Dollars for one day’s recording,
then everything about the studio has to be perfect. The acoustics, the monitoring, the grand piano and the service staff all
have to be impeccable.
But there is more to the calculations behind the top-of-the-market studio. If it is in a large
city, it may need secure underground parking, so that high-profile customers are safe from fans or the press. It will need
to be close to subway and train stations and within easy distance from an airport. It cannot afford to be in an area of high
crime and the building has to be so well insulated that passing trucks cannot be heard in the studios and the very highest
monitoring levels from the wildest rock bands cannot be heard by the neighbours.
The studio will also need a fast Internet or direct connection to allow for video conferences
at broadcast quality. It must have additional production facilities so that major projects can have their own in-house office
space. It will also need a green room and a canteen, so that musicians and other bodies that are not needed have somewhere
to go, drink tea, coffee or beer, watch television or chat.
If it is an out-of-town studio, there must be grounds around the building so that stressed out
musicians can go for walks and producers have somewhere to tear their hair out! A rural studio may have such recreational
facilities as riding, sailing or even a swimming pool. It will probably also have some kind of hotel with a full kitchen or
chalet buildings attached, so that a visiting crew can just fall out of bed and start work. And at the end of the day, they
can fall back into bed again.
Location is important for any studio and for a large commercial studio even more so as there is so much more
at stake. The rule of thumb for a big city with a thriving media and music industry like London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris
or Berlin used to be one large facility for every one million inhabitants. The severe downturn in the studio market has lead
to figure being more like two or three million. Of course large industrial cities with little music industry will have fewer
if any and smaller cities like Nashville that are mad about music, will have more.
Rural studios have an even tougher choice as they have to ask the question, ‘Just how rural do we want
to be?’ A South Sea island may sound like a great place to work, but who is prepared to fly a five piece band, two engineers,
a producer and all their instruments out there?
Just outside of a big city has been the favourite location, but in most parts of the World,
house prices have rocketed for good properties with grounds near big cities. Also, big rock stars have been buying large houses
in the country and building their own studios in the coach house or in the river boat at the bottom of the garden. And some
of them have been hiring out their studios, either because they would like to have the extra income, or because they would
like to keep their fingers on the musical pulse and even produce other new bands. And some of these studios owned by stars
are able to pull custom simply on the name of the star.
The rural studio has to be within driving distance of an airport or no more than one hour’s
drive from a big city. It needs land, space and wonderful scenery. There is little point flying to a studio in the Rocky Mountains
if it is located next to a glue factory! (There once was a studio in Germany that was unwittingly built down-wind of an animal
rendering plant that provided bone meal for glue manufacturing. Needles to say, the studio did not last long!)
So we begin to see that the large commercial facility has to have more than just first class
equipment and be a nice place to work.
It has to have something more - it has to have character. It has to give the customer the feeling
of being somewhere special. If it is rural, it has to be beautifully rural and if it is a city centre studio, it has to be
the most happening place in town.
One of the best ways for a studio to get that something special is to have a fantastic building
with a live recording space that is large enough for the big, prestige projects; about 200 square meters is about right and
150 is seen as minimum for a top studio. Old barns, farmhouses and converted churches have housed some of the World’s
most popular studios. Air-Lindhurst in London is perhaps the most famous conversion, being built into an old Pentecostal church
with magnificent vaulted ceilings and even the old church organ still in place (though it does not play any more).
Having got the location and the building right, the large studio has to get everything else
right as well. For many, that has proven the hardest part of all. It is all too easy to slip up on a minor detail that is
however a vital aspect of the studio and by doing so, make a dog’s breakfast out of a Million Pound project.
The hardest thing to get right is the acoustics. Imagine a recording room with a nasty echo, or a control
room that sounds ‘boxey.’ Word would spread that any work done there is bound to sound awful. But there are plenty
of other pitfalls for the large studio. Poorly constructed wiring may lead to mains hum getting into the signal. Traffic rumble
may be audible on all quieter recordings if the city centre studio does not have a perfectly constructed live room. And many
a studio large and small, has failed because of a lack of parking.
There is so much to take into account for a top-line studio that very few (if any) get everything
But the main components of a top studio have to be 100% correct. That does not just mean the
big analogue mixing desk and more tracks on the recorder than you can shake a stick at. It also means that the piano has to
be a full concert grand from Steinway, Fazioli or Bösendorfer. A piano made in the Far East or Eastern Europe would just not
be acceptable: they are just not the best money can buy. The reverb unit has to be the very best money can buy and at the
moment of writing, that means the Lexicon 960L. This could be augmented by some vintage plate reverbs.
I can almost hear some readers bristling with indignation and wanting to point out that other
pianos and reverbs are just as good and some would claim, even better. But the prestige studio often chooses its equipment
for (our old friend) its snob effect. A prestige studio has to have prestige equipment. I once commented on the high price
of the latest SSL desk a German studio owner had just bought and he said "For me the equipment cannot be too expensive!"
(His business went belly-up after he bought the latest, even more wildly expensive digital desk
that no one wanted to use, but more of that later.)
The cupboard where the mics are kept has to have many boxes with the word Neumann printed on
them and it helps to have a good collection of vintage mics as well. Some of the boxes may have Brauner, Schoeps or AKG stamped
on them, but again, nothing far-eastern. A good analogue 24-track reel-to-reel and another analogue mastering machine (both
preferably from Studer) are often regarded as vital and a good collection of keyboards and other instruments is usually seen
as being important. The studio will also have to have some vintage pre-amps and of course a vintage Hammond organ.
This kind of studio is usually capital intensive, that is to say, the capital costs are greater
than the operating costs. What surprises the industry outsider is how little the equipment costs when compared to any other
capital intensive industry.