As studios have had to adapt to new business models, so have the people who design them.
Where do you want to be in 10 years? That classic senior-year question gets asked a lot more often these days, of people who are well past their school days, as entire categories of work wax, wane or disappear completely. One of those categories, that of the studio facility designer, has undergone serious renovation, mainly in the form of a substantially broadened portfolio. Twenty-five years ago, what was a relatively small group of designers competed for then-plentiful large, multi-room facility projects, which by that time had a global presence. The ‘90s saw a spate of large multi-room studios pop up, such as Miami’s Crescent Moon, Nashville’s The Tracking Room, South Africa’s BOP Studios, and Manhattan’s vastly expanded Chung King, to name just a few, as the record industry reaped record profits (pun intended) from the CD and the explosive popularity of genres like grunge and country. When all of that changed about 15 years ago, so did the need for large multi-room studios, and with that the role of the studio designer.
Twenty-five years ago, while pondering the fall of the Berlin Wall, I remember thinking, well, that’s it for Tom Clancy, author of The Hunt For Red October and other Cold War action tomes. The central villains of his universe were now scrambling to open oil and gas companies. How wrong I was: Clancy went on to find even scarier bogeymen in the form of terrorists (Irish, Arab and otherwise), in the process building both a literary legacy and a factory that continues to churn out best-sellers even after he died in 2013. So it’s also been for a sizable number of designers — whose own ranks have grown in that time as well — who have found viability in a wider range of applications of their talents, in residential studios, houses of worship, retail environments, concert spaces and corporate environments, all of which have discovered the benefits of better sound. In the larger economic picture, except for a fortunate few, the dollars that once were in studio design have turned into dimes, relatively speaking, but there are a lot more dimes now than there used to be dollars.
Carl Tatz went into design after he sold the studio he owned in Nashville, Recording Arts, to Sheryl Crow in 2003. At the time, elaborate home theatres were hot, and Tatz, who in a much earlier incarnation was a maître-d’ at the city’s then-only three-star restaurant, felt an affinity for that kind of affluent clientele. It didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped in the long run, as the high-end home-theatre market never went much beyond a small, gilded niche. But it helped Tatz pivot into private studio design: in 2006, he designed both a home theatre and home studio for Jay Demarcus, bassist for country-pop band Rascal Flatts. Those and other projects led into other verticals, including a club in Arizona owned by a home-studio client in Washington, and retail, including pro-audio sections of some Vintage King and Guitar Center stores. Finally, his Phantom Focus precision-monitoring system and a nascent loudspeaker product are putting him into the manufacturing business.
John Storyk is a well-known brand in studio design, with a portfolio that includes Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, which celebrated its 45th anniversary this year. But while his sweet spot was the large, multi-room facility for much of his career, his own inflection point came about 25 years ago, when he noticed that the shift to digital was diminishing the importance of battleship audio consoles.
“That’s when I realised that they would need other things by which to differentiate themselves, and that would be acoustics and aesthetics,” he says. And it didn’t hurt that what wasn’t being spent on six-figure consoles could now be allocated to acoustics and design. That led to not only more private studio projects, but also designs for live-music venues, like Le Poisson Rouge in New York, restaurants, and even retail properties. “We were ready to be more flexible,” he says. “We had to be.”
Fran Manzella had his turning point in 2008, and as anyone with a mortgage or a 401K retirement account knows, that wasn’t an especially good year. It was the first time that a disease impacting the larger economy infected the physical plant of music production. “I’d seen the studio business take hits from technological changes, like what ripping and iTunes did to CDs,” says the designer of large, upscale studios like the one at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas, “but I never saw it affected by the same things that were taming the stock market before.”
The upshot for him was a virtual 180–degree change in his revenue model. “We went from having two big studios a year bring in most of the income, with smaller projects as fill-ins, to those projects being the everyday bread and butter and the few big projects as the gravy.”
The individual epiphanies of studio designers tell us something about how the nature of the recording studio has changed. But when you consider all of the hundreds of thousands of spaces that music production takes place in today, the vast majority are not ‘designed’ at all, at least not in the conventional sense. They are some variation of an LCD screen flanked by a pair of loudspeakers overlooking a keypad and a mouse, perhaps with some prêt-a-porter acoustic treatment applied intuitively, if not necessarily scientifically. And they largely work fine for their intended missions. Contrast that to an era when every recording studio had to be designed to some substantial extent — blueprinted, floated, mitre-cut and fabric-covered — then worshipped as acoustically magical or derided as sonically debauched by the subjective ears of the then-small community of people who used them regularly. The group of those who can sketch out a complex studio may be larger than it ever was (for the same reasons we have more recording engineers and music producers today, too), but even that expanded cohort is today just a drop — albeit an important one — in an ocean of early reflections.