Saturday, May 28, 2005

I'd like to teach the world to sing

Here, a few days ago, I posted something that I wrote in reponse to a contributer to Dr. Eric's daily column. As I stated, Eric was kind enough to post my reply.

This reply came in from someone else the next day on Eric's site:

Name: Jay Sherman-Godfrey
Hometown: Astoria, NY
Eric, I write in response to Stephen Anderson's addendum to Barry Ritholz's music biz piece. As a musician who has had a few brief opportunities to record in so-called "world-class" studios, I also mourn their downfall. And while I empathize with Mr. Anderson, I think his conclusions are wrong. I think he is particularly wrong in his assessment that the trend away from large, high-end studios to project and home studios is "the Wal-Martization of the recording business." It is in fact closer to the opposite. For instead of a business dominated by a New York/LA cartel of established rooms with exorbitant day-rates fed by bloated record company budgets, you have a flowering of small flexible independent studios available to musicians of little means and, more and more, the preferred choice of those with ample means who have grown up with the new paradigm or simply want the time to create without the overhead. Mr. Anderson states that this has led to an erosion of quality, the acceptance of a "lesser product." By some measures I would agree, but the fact is that you no longer need seven-figure capital to make great sounding records.

At first, with some notable exceptions, only the record companies could afford to build and maintain commercial recording studios, at which their artists were contractually obligated to record. Even with the rise of the independent studios in the early 70s, the cost of entry into the recording business was still high. Tape machines, recording consoles, and related equipment were expensive, costly to maintain, and often rare. Many of the first independents had to custom design and assemble their own equipment. Up until the 1980s, it was still a relatively exclusive business. The advent of affordable recording equipment and the revolution in home recording that ensued was for Mr. Anderson and the like-minded no doubt the beginning of the end. You heard it decried with the same vitriol as sampling and file swapping, and still do. Cassette four-tracks and the early cheap digital recorders did sound bad, but with the barriers down people started recording like mad and a whole new generation of passionate sound recordists was born. And the gear got better, and the recordists more skilled. He is right about the string session. You still need a large well-designed space, a bunch of great mics, and engineer who knows what he or she is doing. And there will certainly always be a market for big-league purpose-built recording, mixing, and mastering rooms. Although, just as certainly, many more major studios will close as this market gets tighter. It is a shame, but I wholeheartedly disagree with Mr. Anderson's implication that it's bad for music.

Interesting, good history, but wait! Here's my reply I sent to Eric, which, unfortunately, he chose not to post:

Hi Eric,

In response to Jay Sherman-Godfrey, dude, you missed my point almost in its entirety.

Far from being an elite vs. populist issue, it was largely an economic issue. Yes, studio budgets were bloated, especially in the cocaine fueled excesses of the late '70s. But that was never the studio's fault. When the artist says they need a wheel of Brie, a case of Moet, and an ounce of blow at downbeat every day, the studio will oblige. When the artist/record company says they need to record on the new (in the early '90s) Sony 48 track digital recorder, the studio will oblige. When the composer and director of the film says they need to synchronize audio and video elements recorded using every sample rate and video system known to man, the studio will oblige. Add that technology and personal expertise to the price of LA or Manhattan real estate, and it gets expensive. I know of only 2 studio owners who have gotten wealthy off their studios, and one of those was when he finally sold the property to developers who built a strip mall.

But when the record company says they want all that hardware and expertise, and more, but are only willing to pay for what a small, lovely mom 'n' pop studio can charge, then that's a problem.

Look, I adore recording in any environment. I built a state of the art recording truck for Stevie Wonder many years ago so he could hop on a plane, and record on the Arctic tundra if his muse took him there. I have listened to many of Rudy VanGelder's wonderful jazz records being re-mastered, and they were recorded in his house in New Jersey. The home studio isn't my point. It's rather the devaluation of expertise.

Every time a new cheaper technology enters the recording field, it is embraced by those on a budget, who think that this will enable them to sound just like the big guys. And often some wonderful new art happens. We have seen several iterations of this, most recently exemplified by the rise in popularity of computer recording, especially using the ProTools system. But it is still expensive, and requires expertise. My good friend Al Schmitt, with 8 well deserved Grammys, can record Diana Krall using an old car 8 track and it will sound heavenly. The kid in his bedroom with a new ProTools LE rig, well, not so much, at least, not right away. Maybe not ever, if he has no talent.

So I'm not defending a studio oligarchy here, I'm bitching about record company execs who want more and are willing to pay for less, including what they pay to the artists. Read my post on my blog, which Eric kindly linked to a week or so ago, about this topic. I mention that Eddie Kramer had to hire me to supervise the tape to ProTools synchronization for an album he was working on, because the studio had no full time technical guy. Because they can't afford to pay one a fair wage, and still keep the doors open.

The days of Universal Audio or Capitol designing new state of the art equipment while recording Sinatra in one room and the Beach Boys in another are over. It's a world of disposable media, disposable electronics, and disposable expertise. And that the WalMartization of the recording business to which I was referring.



That day, Eric did post this contribution from a reader:

Name: Pete Weiss
Hometown: Plainview, NY
Don't know how long you want to keep the music/recording string going, but as a veteran of the "good old days" - or bad old days, depending on your experience - and the father of two working musicians, I felt I had to add my two cents. I agree with Jay Sherman-Godfrey that the broader availability of home and "project" recording gear, and especially PC-based "virtual" consoles, is a good thing, but like any set of tools, the results are dependent on the skills, judgment, and in this case the ears, of the user. I have heard some great work (in technical quality) come out of project studios and some really crummy-sounding stuff come out of "world-class" rooms.

Even though most of my work was as a studio (and sometimes location) recording engineer, with a smattering of producing gigs, I always believed, and still do, that technical quality of a popular music recording is not nearly as important as selection of material and performance (classical and jazz are different, in that the intent of the recording is to capture with great accuracy every aspect of a performance, including the contributions of the acoustical environment). An engineer has to work really hard to hurt a good performance of a decent piece of music to an extent that would make it inaccessible or distasteful to an audience. Think back to the late 50s/early 60s and Gary "U.S." Bonds' early hits. There's no way that anyone can tell me that the technical quality of those recordings was on a par with, say, that of a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett recording of the same era. But they became hits anyway. Certainly, other factors - familiarity of the audience with the artist's work, promotion and PR efforts, etc. - influenced the degree of commercial success a "record" enjoyed back then and to a great extent that's true today. But as long as the technical quality does not get between the audience and the performance, it can be pretty shaky and still not matter.

There are bad "punch-outs" and "punch-ins" on Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer;" there's partially-erased 1000-Hz calibration tone throughout one of the drum breaks in the middle of Blood Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel." As I know I did when I heard boo-boos on things I recorded and mixed, I'm sure the engineers who worked on those recordings cringe every time they hear one go by. But I'm willing to bet that not too many of the record-buying public ever noticed them.

My credentials: In the business from '65 to '80, worked with acts as diverse as Leslie Gore, Hugh Masakela, Barbra Streisand, Country Joe & the Fish, Junior Wells, Edgar and Johnny Winter, Weather Report, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans Blue Oyster Cult, Johnny Cash, Chicago and Looking Glass (the group responsible for "Brandy, You're a Fine Girl," which I recorded and mixed). Also taught music recording technology at the New School/Parsons from '76 to '84. P.S. - There's a very talented young man up in Boston who has the same name as me and does engineering, production and plays guitar, but we are not related.

Again, interesting, and while I largely agree, it still missed my point! I love funky recordings! I love distortion! I love accidental art. What I hate is the devaluation of skills, expertise, and investment by recording studios to further the art of recording.

I guess I take it personally because the between-the-lines message seems to be that those in my profession, who build and operate professional recording studios, are somehow now expendable due to economics and technology. The economic issue I understand, yet, as I pointed out peviously, the heads of the major labels aren't sweating their next 7 figure paycheck, just those of us lower down the food chain.

But re: the technological issue? Who is going to teach you HOW to record guitar, drums, vocals, etc? And don't tell me that you need to discover how to do it on your own because of your artistic vision. Bullshit! There are exactly ZERO new recording techniques today, since The Beatles, Sinatra, Buddy Holly, whoever you want to mention. Believe me, it has ALL been done before.

I used to get really frustrated when I was teaching guitar lessons while I went to college. When I insisted that students learn to read music, they would say "But Clapton said in his Guitar Player Magazine interview that reading music would stifle his creativity." My reply would be that, while he was a brilliant musician and guitarist, imagine how much better he would be with more tools at his disposal. In case anyone has forgotten in another artistic area, Picasso was a thorough master of traditional art skills before he ever dabbled in cubist art. He learned all the rules, so he would know how to break them.

The record labels have cheapened technology "All they need is a Mac with GarageBand to make an album." The public feels every artist owes them their art via free downloads. Musicians who are desperate to communicate with their audience are frustrated, yet stalwart in their determination to be heard. And studios, and studio people like me, just want to give the artists a venue to do the best work they can, without distraction, impediment, or complication.

Believe me, if I wanted to get rich, I would have been a corrupt Texas politician, not a studio technical engineer (and former guitarist.)

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