You'd be kidding yourself if you said the recording industry didn't look a lot different in 2007 from the way it did in 1977. The music output from the five boroughs remains huge, but there are gaping holes on the streets where major studios used to stand, and a gaping hole in the skyline that unquestionably had as big an impact on the studio business as it did on everything else in New York City.
Alan Schwartzberg (left) and business partner Bob Mann
“Recording has changed, but it's changed more in New York than in any other big recording city in the country,” Elliot Scheiner says by phone from — where else? — L.A. “I think a lot of it has to do with 9/11. When that happened, I had an enormous amount of work booked and it all cancelled. People didn't want to be in New York City. It really hurt the city, and coupled with pirating and illegal downloading, people just couldn't afford to pay the prices of the studios.”
Scheiner estimates that there were roughly 40 to 50 “mainstream” studios in New York City in 1977, but he notes that that number is down to less than 10 today. “Now Sony has closed, the Hit Factory is gone, A&R is gone,” he says. “Today, it's hard to find a lot of individually owned production facilities. The ones that are still there include Clinton Recording, Right Track [now part of Legacy Studios], Avatar Studios, which used to be Power Station, Manhattan Center Productions, Quad Studios and Sear Sound.”
Thirty years ago, Allan Schwartzberg was a hard-working session drummer, playing with everyone from Rod Stewart to Peter Gabriel, Kiss and Barbra Streisand, and even performing what's widely regarded as the first disco beat on Gloria Gaynor's “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Today, he owns the room he usually records in; he's one of the current crop of facility proprietors who have found more ways to get things done affordably in a relatively small space. “The joke from the '70s, ‘I could phone that in,’ is applicable today because you literally can,” he observes from his Times Square studio, Deep Diner.
According to Schwartzberg, it was one specific piece of gear — Linn Electronics' famous LinnDrum — that spelled the beginning of the end for many of New York City's large rooms. “It went from needing the ambience in the room that you built with your guts, blood, sweat and tears to, ‘Oh, we have it here in this box,’” he recalls. “It records great, it sounds great and the effect is you don't need that big room; you don't need the whole joint. I think the studios pretty much didn't know what hit them. Howard Schwartz [of Howard Schwartz Recording] is a modern-thinking man who kept it going, and Ed Rak at Clinton also did that. I think overall people couldn't afford to reinvent themselves.”
Jimmy Douglass, whose huge body of work spans from Aretha Franklin to Missy Elliot, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and far beyond, looks back at each 10-year milestone within the 30-year stretch as its own particular place in time for New York City recording. “In 1977, I was at Atlantic Studios, ensconced in the middle of that rock renaissance working with acts like Foreigner,” he says, relaxing in Manhattan Center Productions' Studio 4. “Like Woodstock, you just enjoyed it because it was there. Nineteen eighty-seven was when digital started to show up. I was watching the end of an era at that time and no one understood what was going on, but it was the beginning of the end of the big studios. Suddenly, the engineer didn't have to be an engineer — a guy who could work a sampler became the new God in town. When I think 1997, there's a buzz in the air: Hip hop is just beginning to get live, and I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it. There were a lot of great engineers, and we were having a good time enjoying it.
“[This year] is a very, very different picture. Something happened that saddens me a little. Now, A&R guys can play with things at home, and they have opinions about things that have nothing to do with selling records. In the '70s and '80s, they would wait for you to be done with your project because they wanted to work with you. Now they want you to do what you do, but they want you to do it their way — they don't understand that those two things don't go together.”
While his own sector may also be feeling embattled, mastering engineer Greg Calbi — whose illustrious career started with the likes of John Lennon's Mind Games, David Bowie's Young Americans and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run — sees a lot of reasons why mastering in New York City remains much the same as it was in 1977. He also sees why it's a lot better, with no love lost over mastering for cassettes or vinyl. “The thing that's the same,” Calbi says from Studio M3 at Sterling Sound, “is that the mastering guy is a partner to the creative team who comes in at the end. You basically judge the work in terms of sonics, and you're relied upon to give your opinion of the sound quality of what the client is doing.
“Today, because of the tools that we have, the computer has made it so you can really tear apart a mix and reconstitute it in mastering. In 1977, you cut the master in real time, making a cue sheet of what you'd be doing inside the mixes, and I'd have to do it six or eight times for the different plants. It was also a live side and you had to do it in one shot, so I'd spend days and nights doing the same thing again and again without making a mistake. So when people say to me, ‘Do you miss cutting vinyl?’ I say, ‘No way!’”
After his own long journey from sideman to “main man” in the studio, Schwartzberg has a firm handle on the comparisons and contrasts between New York City's successful facilities of today and yesteryear. “The big difference today is the efficiency of the studio and how fast you get [the project] out the door,” he says. “Now you have a guy moving numbers — zeros and ones — but people were more patient then because you had to cut a piece of tape. Life was definitely easier in those days. Now you have to be a musician, producer and studio owner. Then, I just had to bring a stick bag and make sure I played in time.
“Definitely, the sound has always got to be good,” he continues. “The importance of the vibe and the way it sounds will not change — ever. Studios in the year 3000 will have to feel and sound good, and the end product is, ‘Wow, it sounds better than live. I like looking at this place and the way it feels here. I like the people that run it.’”
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