Recording Studios Face Uncertain Future

The 72-track Neve console at Avatar Studios i i

hide captionEngineer Justin Gerrish stands by the 72-track Neve console at Avatar Studios. You probably can't fit this in your bedroom.

Ned Wharton/NPR
The 72-track Neve console at Avatar Studios

Engineer Justin Gerrish stands by the 72-track Neve console at Avatar Studios. You probably can't fit this in your bedroom.

Ned Wharton/NPR

All this month, NPR is looking at how the music business has changed over the past decade — one that's seen dramatic shifts in the ways we hear and make music.

New York City used to be home to dozens of high-end recording studios, none more famous than the aptly named Hit Factory, located on West 54th Street in Manhattan. In the lobby of the building, you can still see platinum records by Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. But the building is no longer a recording studio; it's a condo building, with units starting at just over $1 million each.

"This whole area of New York City was filled with recording studios that were busy all the time," says Jim Anderson, a longtime recording engineer and NPR alum, who now teaches at New York University.

"I could count off I don't know how many studios in a 10-block area," says Anderson. "Media Recording, Hit Factory, Sony. A&R Recording had two buildings that were wonderful studios."

Anderson says digital technology has gotten a lot better over the past 10 years — to the point where you can make an almost professional-quality recording on your laptop, for a fraction of what you'd spend in professional studios.

"They lost a lot of work that was coming in on demos, on spec," says Anderson. "All that little work drifted away."

All that little work can now be done in a home studio. If that were the only problem, larger studios might have been able to get by. But some of the big work dried up, too, as the major record labels slashed their budgets. Add the soaring price of real estate, and it's easy to see why most of the well-known Manhattan studios closed their doors.

Feeling The Pinch

Around the block from the old Hit Factory sits Avatar Studios, one of the last recording facilities in town big enough to accommodate a full orchestra. General Manager Tino Passante says Avatar offers something you just can't get from a computer in your bedroom.

"You can never replicate the sound of a room, unless you have a room — and you can hear it missing in records that are not done in the studio," Passante laments. "Yeah, you can make a record at home, but that doesn't mean you should."

It's not just big New York studios that are feeling squeezed. Even in Philadelphia, where the rent is a lot cheaper, the past decade has been a struggle for many studios.

Engineer Brian McTear runs Miner Street Recordings. He's been working with indie rock bands in Philadelphia since the 1990s. And business was good — until the credit crunch of 2008.

"All of a sudden, we were stuck. I had nobody that could pay me anymore," says McTear. "And everyone wanted to pay me, everyone wanted to make these records. I just had to go this extra distance of helping them figure out where they would get money from."

Sometimes, that meant showing bands how to appeal directly to their fans online to raise money for the recording. Then, earlier this year, McTear launched the Weathervane Music Organization, a nonprofit that helps artists record one song in his studio for free, while Weathervane documents the project on video. So far Weathervane has recorded four sessions at Miner Street.

The Missing Ingredient

Brian Christinzio, who fronts the Philadelphia band BC Camplight, says it would be cheaper to record at home. But that's not the sound he's going for.

"I refuse to make a record that I know could be better," says Christinzio. "It just doesn't make sense. Why I would do something that I know could be better if I just had the money? So that's where I am now, and probably where I'll be when I'm 70."

Christinzio has made two records, and he's ready to start his third. But he says his label can't afford to pay for it. McTear hopes that he can help musicians in Christinzio's situation through his Weathervane organization — and that Weathervane will attract enough attention to become economically self-sustaining. Weathervane has projects planned next year with 10 artists.

"The real value for most bands isn't the equipment," says McTear. "A guy at Guitar Center or Sam Ash would like you to think it is. They'd like you to think if you just spent 3 grand, you're on your way to making your record because you bought the equipment. The sort of unseen, disappearing player in all the records being made today is collaboration — between artists, engineers and producers and studio musicians — all those people."

People who probably won't fit in your bedroom, anyway.

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