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Sounding Off: The Home Studio Conundrum

Pete Dowsett By Pete Dowsett
Published August 2016

Sounding Off:

There are two commodities that, if we don’t get in check, will massively affect the quality of recorded music: space and skills.

The music industry is going through a tough time. Dwindling sales, piracy and sub-par streaming payments equate to ever-growing pressure from record labels to be economical. Thankfully, the boom in high-quality, low-cost pro audio hardware and software mean that increasingly large portions of the production process can be done on the cheap. However, there are two commodities that, if we don’t get in check, will massively affect the quality of recorded music: space and skills. We need to be aware of these issues and be proactive in addressing them to safeguard the future of our industry.

Space is now perhaps the premium commodity in a recording studio. The quality and size of the live room and monitoring environments of the big studios are sorely missed. Small environments are not ideal for control rooms or live rooms; substandard acoustics will lead you to make the wrong decisions and work much harder down the line to create usable results. Space not only affects the quality of capture and reproduction but it also affects performance. Due to the limited size of many project studios, fewer artists than ever have the opportunity to record live together, and some of the artistry of a bunch of people interacting with one another is lost. The best way to stifle a great band is to record them one at a time! So, what is the solution? I think the way forward is to build facilities that house many production rooms, each with access to a large shared live room, preamp rack and a diverse microphone selection.

We also face the prospect of a skills shortage at the very top level in years to come. The tea boy/girl-to-producer route is tried and tested. It creates extremely skilled and successful engineers and producers, because it gives them time to grow in a controlled and structured manor. First, you get to know the mechanics of a studio environment (tea boy/girl). Then you master the equipment (assistant engineer). Next, you are expected to know how to achieve a producer or artist’s vision with the equipment (engineer). Finally, when collaborating with the artists, it is your job to aid them in coming up with the vision and guide the project accordingly (producer).

Top-level recording studios are hugely hierarchical and each step must be mastered before advancing. The problem with most home or project studio setups is that the production team is often one person: you.

Your role is the producer, engineer, assistant and tea boy/girl all at once. You are often culpable for the success or failure of the recording long before you are ready to be. You have to quickly get used to this responsibility, which can be particularly difficult for younger individuals. Is such a creative task as handling people’s hopes and dreams suitable for a “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy? So what’s the solution?

Firstly, traditional teaching courses can fill in some of the knowledge gap, but there’s no substitute for studio experience. I believe the first step is to try eradicating any secrecy from our industry. Most pros I meet are more than happy to share knowledge and advice, but we professionals have to be more willing to open our doors to students, especially as the opportunities for them to intern at large facilities are diminishing. All the more so if you are a professional living outside London, LA or New York.

Secondly, the internet will play a huge part in educating prospective audio engineers. YouTube is a great resource, as are many engineering sites that are popping up. However, we need to be wary of the direction of such tutorials. At the moment, online mixing tutorials saturate the market. This is understandable, as this new breed of engineers often find themselves having to get the best out of substandard recordings. The drawback is that it skews what is most important about recording music: spending time getting the sound right at source instead of holding off making decisions.

I hear the phrase “the industry is changing” almost daily and most of the time it is uttered as an obituary to the music business. What if this isn’t the death knell, though, but a changing of the guard — a ‘Music Industry 2.0’? Let’s use this state of flux as an opportunity to shape the industry in a way that reshuffles the cards to our advantage.

About The Author

Pete Dowsett is a producer/engineer and has worked with Pharrell and Michael Kiwanuka. He’s also a FOH engineer and author of Audio Production Tips: Getting The Sound Right At The Source.