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L.A. Studios Resurgent in 2001

Many Los Angeles studios experienced a severe business downturn during 2000, leading to speculation that, perhaps, finally, the long-anticipated fear

Many Los Angeles studios experienced a severe business downturn during 2000, leading to speculation that, perhaps, finally, the long-anticipated fear that home studios would render commercial studios obsolete had become reality. However, not long into 2001, facilities both large and small were reporting that they were on their way to a banner year of bookings, with musicians, producers and engineers apparently deciding that both home and commercial recording environments have their pros and cons, and their time and place. Both options, for the moment at least, are enjoying a seemingly healthy co-existence, a situation that makes for thriving studios of every kind, as well as for a flourishing market in both equipment rentals and sales.

The continuous advance of technology, though, constantly changes the variables, and there seems to be an overwhelming awareness in the industry that what is true today may not be so tomorrow. A sense of foreboding shadowed some of the responses of those questioned for this article, along with the pervasive knowledge that tomorrow’s invention could affect the industry either positively or negatively. Still, industry vets know that the damage caused by yesterday’s concerns — the advent of synthesizers, drum machines and digital workstations, for example — has not been realized to the extent that the original fears warranted. And they seem bent on enjoying these good times despite ambivalence toward the future.

David Angress, executive VP of Guitar Center, notes that L.A. is a unique recording market, packed with individual musician/composers creating at home, as well as high-, middle- and low-end commercial venues and a huge film and post industry. Retail outlets cater to all of these, and according to Angress, 2001 is looking like a stellar year for sales. While Guitar Center has long been selling Portastudios, ADATs and the like, the last few years have, of course, seen a huge upswing in computer-based recording. Now, technology permits much more affordable gear, and customers are better able to get more value for their money.

“Specifically in the last year, higher-resolution audio has gotten less expensive,” Angress says, “so we have more vendors, and, in turn, more customers buying products who are recording 24/96. A lot more of the recording equipment we’re selling has moved out of the hardware rack and into the computer. We’re Digidesign’s largest Pro Tools dealer, and we’ve also been very successful with their Pro Control and their upgrades over the last year. At the same time, the lower end of the market has been expanding. The lower-end recording system that Digidesign introduced last year is doing very well, as is Steinberg’s. Customers are getting a better value, and we’re selling a lot more systems — so many more systems that even with lower price points, our business is up in dollars and in systems and units.”

There’s no doubt that while Guitar Center’s clients run the gamut, their primary customer is the individual musician and project studio. “If I had to focus on one thing, I’d have to say that there’s a remarkable amount of Pro Tools product being purchased in the L.A. market,” Angress continues. “But we also sell a lot of microphones. Many of the studios being put together now are designed for electronic music, so miking of acoustic instruments is less and less important. But, at the same time, those studios are putting in the one or two good mics that they’ll need when they’re recording an acoustic instrument or a vocal. So there tends to be more attention paid to getting those one or two mics to be really good ones. We sell a lot of the Neumann high-end and also B.L.U.E., and we do particularly well with a line we import from Russia called Oktava — a studio microphone patterned after the Neumanns. The physical construction isn’t as pretty, but they’re amazing-sounding microphones and very inexpensive. Of course, we sell lots of Shure, Audio-Technica and AKG.

“High-end mic preamps are very popular for the very same reason — you’ve got to get a good signal into these hard disk recorders somehow. Some of the popular ones are Avalon and Focusrite, both in terms of their hardware products and their software plug-ins. We also sell a lot of the integrated multitrack recording, mixing and effects systems: Roland, Akai and Korg are very strong in that area, as is Tascam’s new offering, the 788. Alesis continues to be a strong performer, and the Mackie D8B digital mixer has been a huge hit for the past couple of years. Five years ago, you would have had to spend $100,000 to get equipment that does what it does for about $8,000, so it’s become the heart of many of today’s project studios. The other area doing tremendously well is the high-end keyboard workstations. These kinds of products tend to blur the line between keyboards and recording products. Trinity and Triton from Korg, in particular, have really revolutionized the way composers operate. They have also just started shipping a product they introduced at the January NAMM show called Karma, and we’re already finding that we can’t keep them in the store.”

Even with all the equipment currently available to outfit the project studio, Dusty Wakeman, owner of the three-room Mad Dogg Studios in Burbank, confirms the positive climate in L.A.’s commercial studios, stating that the last quarter of 2000 was Mad Dogg’s best period ever. This was also the year that the facility invested in a major makeover, replacing the “mid-era” Neve previously housed in Studio A with what Wakeman calls the “queen mother vintage Neve console” — an 8088 fitted with Flying Faders.

“One of the things that people really need to go to a commercial studio for is tracking,” he comments. “This Neve is the ultimate tracking console, so that’s increased our business in that room. Then, we’ve set up Studio B as an all-digital room for surround mixing, which is starting to take off. It’s fitted with a Sony DMX-R100 console, DA-88s and DA-78s. We also have a couple of regular producer clients, like Sylvia Massy and David Bianco, who like working in the open-studio environment of our third room, The Stage, which is a studio without walls. That seems to be a trend right now. It’s band-friendly — the ultimate garage studio. So we’re very diversified. Having something for everybody is working for us.”

At Mad Dogg, where recent clients have included such artists as Heather Miles, Keb’ Mo, From Zero, Insolence, The Virgos and The Damned, three Pro Tools systems are available for client rental. Wakeman notes that, while equipment options have made home studios a viable working environment for many projects, some composers feel overwhelmed by the multitude of rapidly changing choices offered on the market.

“I think people have learned that just having a Pro Tools rig doesn’t mean you have a studio,” he says. “If you want to record a band, you need a lot of infrastructure — stands, cables, a headphone system and a good acoustic environment. Plus, Pro Tools rigs are computers and they crash, so you need people around who can get you back online. I think the realization of these things has actually brought a lot of work back to the studios.”

Larrabee Studios owner Kevin Mills echoes Wakeman’s sentiments. “Just because you have a kitchen at home doesn’t mean you’re never going to go out for dinner,” he remarks. Larrabee Studios, which now encompasses seven high-end rooms in three facilities, also has its own pro audio equipment arm, dubbed Gear Works, which services Larrabee’s rooms, as well as outside commercial and home studios.

“The way it is now,” Mills explains, “one day a project can be on analog, the next day it can be 3348 HR, the next it can be DA-88 and the day after it can be Pro Tools. We’ve found that with seven rooms, the best way to be able to effectively handle the changeovers that are going on during any given day is with Gear Works. It has five dedicated employees who just handle the gear. We have five Pro Tools systems, HR machines and, because I’ve been collecting it for years, what is probably L.A.’s largest inventory of outboard gear.”

Like many observers, Mills sees that trends are moving away from tape “toward things like RADAR, Pro Tools, the R-1 from Euphonix or DA-88s — a bigger variety of storage media that come from home studios.”

I don’t think the taste for analog is going to go away completely. I don’t think people hear in bits and bytes; I think they hear analog.
— Ellis Sorkin

All around the city, plenty of equipment is still being rented, as is studio time. Ellis Sorkin of Studio Referral Service concurs that business is up in 2001, and conjectures that the end of last year was a slow period for the studios due to a number of factors, including the Napster situation, the class-action lawsuit on price fixing that was brought against major labels and, of course, the large number of Pro Tools systems purchased. “I think people bought them and thought, ‘I’m going to be doing everything at home now,’” he muses. “But once they got into them, they realized it wasn’t that simple.”

Sorkin says that while Pro Tools is practically ubiquitous at this point, he believes there are still plenty of people working who love the sound of tape. “I don’t think the taste for analog is going to go away completely. I don’t think people hear in bits and bytes; I think they hear analog.”

As far as the preferences that he sees among his clients, Sorkin states that the SSL 9000 is the top choice for mixing consoles. “There are still those who want to be on vintage equipment and will go to the large-frame vintage Neve consoles, but it seems that more are pushing the 9000 edge. As far as the SSL vs. Neve situation, the people who are in each camp tend to stay where they’re at.

“On the lower end of things, there are certainly a lot of people going into that Sony DMX-R100, which is a digital 5.1-capable, very multifunctional console that is not terribly expensive.”

Sorkin, who has a daily pulse on the finger of the recording community by virtue of booking studios for producers and artists, notes, “A successful studio is a mixture of knowing what to do and when, knowing how to present what you’re doing and giving the proper service.”

Larrabee’s Kevin Mills agrees that presentation is the name of the game that sets the commercial studio apart from home digs. And to prove his point, Larrabee, which has recently completed a number of client comfort-oriented renovations, has been booked almost solid this year, so far. Over a quarter of a million dollars was spent developing an additional 4,000 square feet of lounge space at the three-room Larrabee North. “Studios aren’t just equipment anymore,” he states. “They’re a space where clients can come and know they will be provided with services: runners to get their food, a variety of lounges and places to hang out, as well as assistants to help with their equipment needs, full-time, around-the-clock technical maintenance, desk people to handle the phones, gated security and clean bathrooms. This is stuff that can’t fully be gotten at home. I think home studios will continue to proliferate, but there will always be room for the high-end commercial facility.

“But unlike 10 or 20 years ago, it is definitely becoming about value-added. When you take a look at one of our rooms and realize that it costs perhaps $400,000 just to build the room acoustically, including floating, isolating and wiring it, adding dedicated electrical and AC and then installing the big double-woofer monitors, you just can’t do that at home.”

Whether it’s the trickle-down effect, or because it offers its own particular niche of amenities, even Sonora Recorders, a much smaller (two rooms — one large and one small), funkier environment (Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin described it as his favorite “nondesigned” room) is enjoying a steady stream of clients. Not long ago, Sonora even managed to nab the Backstreet Boys for some sessions. Conjecturing on the state of the business, Sonora co-owner (with engineer/producer Jeff Peters) Richard Barron remarks, “With all the home studios, I’m not sure why commercial studios are doing well right now. But maybe it’s because people might try to do a whole band in their living room and bathroom one time, but the second time, the wife is going to say, ‘No way!’”

Barron adds that the Backstreet Boys ended up at his facility after trying to record at the home studio belonging to their engineer, Tony Shepperd. “But there were so many people involved and so many security guards that it was just too much.”

About his studio’s draw, Barron notes that, as well as being a great-sounding facility with a main recording space that is particularly popular with drummers, Sonora is known for its vintage equipment, including an API console that once belonged to Laura Nyro and a Stephens analog 24-track recorder. The convenient location is also a plus, as is the fact that Sonora is a “free-standing building and there aren’t other bands around.” As for amenities, Sonora boasts a somewhat notorious snack table stocked with Twinkies, Ding-Dongs and other classic trash foods that musicians love to eat. “I try to go with vintage junk food, just like the rest of the vibe in the studio,” Barron laughs.

Vintage lovers, though they may be, Sonora’s owners have also heavily invested in Pro Tools so that their clients may go back and forth between their home setups and the studios. “A lot of times, people will track their drums and bass on the 2-inch machine, then we’ll do a transfer for them to Pro Tools so they can take it away to do vocals, guitars, synths — whatever they can at home. Then they’ll come back here to mix. And a lot of times when they mix, we move it back to the 2-inch, because it really does sound better. Pro Tools allows us to talk to all the home studios really accurately.”

As a successful small studio owner, Barron comments, “I look at some of these places that own SSL J boards and I think there’s no way I could make the arithmetic work. That board is a half a million dollars. My board is gorgeous and draws people in, but it only costs a fraction of that. Yes, those studios maybe get twice or three times what I get in a day, but still, the arithmetic doesn’t make sense to me.”

As Barron notes, the investment is major for a studio that wishes to compete for commercial business. It can take years to get a payback on the amount of financial output necessary to buy all of the latest toys to lure the customer. Hence, the attraction of the personal home studio. In that realm, however, the composer must not only be the creative force, but the engineer and producer. Delegating the responsibility to others can become something worth buying.

As Guitar Center’s Angress says, “The studio that adds value, that has a tremendous acoustic space, really creative engineers and a nice environment, is always going to prosper.”

Robyn Flans is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.