I’ve never been a fan of the term “project studio,” and I’m the perfect demographic. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, when New England Digital had passed its zenith, Fairlight was transitioning into a DAW company, and Silicon Valley upstart Opcode ruled the roost with only a hint of Digidesign to come, I was a young assistant editor at Mix. We were in the Bay Area, and despite the long tail of large-format consoles and soffit-mounted mains, even then we could see the coming merger of the audio and computer industries. The transformation was under way.
Artists, engineers and producers could record 24-track digital at home for pennies, maintaining quality, at their leisure with time to be creative. But in a project studio?
It just seemed so derogatory, as if work done in a project studio was for practice, not really professional. It wasn’t the case, of course, though most agree in hindsight that the technical quality coming out of early memory- and processing-starved project studios was often lacking. Not necessarily artistically, but technically. And the popular image, unfair or not, was of a slapped-together spare bedroom or garage with near-field monitors and an ADAT. “Music and recording has been democratized through technology! Anybody can be a star!” It didn’t work out that way, of course.
Twenty years later, it dawns on me: What was missing from the early “project studio” was the room! The physical space. The acoustically accurate, trusted recording/mixing environment. New digital technologies and a creative mind can take an artist or an engineer a long way, but without a proper room…?
Today we are witnessing the resurrection of the project studio, albeit under a more professional guise, with more advanced digital technologies and much, much better rooms. The boom in acoustic treatments and DSP-corrected, high-end monitoring is testament to the demand out of new rooms, professional rooms, whether in a producer’s home or an engineer’s leased facility. Studio designers are building modular treatments for personal clients and striking collaborative deals with manufacturers/distributors; DAW manufacturers are designing features and workflows around the single-operator/engineer approach; and speakers now come with automated room-correction algorithms. The high-end professional, with a private space, is the new demographic.
I often banter back and forth with longtime industry vet Tom Menrath, telling him, “We need a new name! These rooms going in at Keb Mo’s house, at Rick Rubin’s Hollywood home, on Pharrell’s bus, are not project studios!” The best we’ve come up with so far is Personal Professional Studio. But that doesn’t sound right. It feels stilted. And we can’t go back to project studio, no matter how easily it rolls off the tongue. So what should we call it? This private space, with quality analog and digital gear, accurate monitoring and a true acoustic environment? What do we call it?
Meanwhile, the recording studio is not dead, nor is it moving solely into private producer homes. The business-savvy and artistically unique studio owners prevail, and the newcomers open their doors. In our annual “Class of…” feature, we profile 18 of the past year’s hottest new studios, big and small, and we found great geographic and genre diversity, proving again that the recording industry is alive and well. Sometimes it’s commercial, sometimes it’s private. But it’s always vital.