Recording Studios Face Uncertain Future As technology has evolved and become more affordable, bands no longer need to book hours of expensive studio time in a facility with million-dollar consoles. They can approximate a decent sound in the basement. So where does that leave recording engineers and all of that expensive equipment?
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Recording Studios Face Uncertain Future

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Recording Studios Face Uncertain Future

Recording Studios Face Uncertain Future

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This past decade has featured dramatic changes in the ways we listen to and make music. One major transformation is how we record music. Recording technology has become much more affordable. So, bands no longer need to book hours of costly studio time in a facility with millions of dollars of equipment. They can simply record on a laptop. So, where does that leave professional recording studios?

Joel Rose has that story.

JOEL ROSE: New York City used to be home to dozens of high-end recording studios, none more famous than the aptly named Hit Factory.

(Soundbite of song, �Graceland�)

Mr. PAUL SIMON (Musician): (Singing) The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.

(Soundbite of song, �Tunnel of Love�)

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Musician): (Singing) Fat man sitting on a little stool. Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you�

(Soundbite of song, �Bad�)

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): (Singing) Well, they say the sky's the limit. And to me that's really true. But my friend, you have seen nothing, just wait till I get through because I'm bad. I'm bad. Come on.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ROSE: I'm standing outside the Hit Factory on West 54th Street in Manhattan. In the lobby of the building, you can still see platinum records by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson. But the building is no longer a recording studio. It's condos starting at just over $1 million each.

JIM ANDERSON: This whole area in New York City was filled with recording studios that were busy all the time.

ROSE: Jim Anderson is a longtime recording engineer and NPR alum who now teaches at New York University.

ANDERSON: I could start counting off, I don't know how many recording studios that were within a 10-block area. Media Recording, Hit Factory, Sony Studios, A&R Recording.

ROSE: Anderson says digital technology has gotten a lot better over the last 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.

ANDERSON: They lost a lot of work that was coming in maybe on demos or on spec. All of that little work just drifted away.

ROSE: All that little work can now be done in a home studio. If that was 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, but there are still a few in business.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GABRIEL ALEGRIA (Musician): I love it. That (unintelligible) sounds great.

ROSE: Gabriel Alegria with his Afro-Peruvian Sextet are mixing an album around the block from the old Hit Factory at Avatar Studios. It's one of the last recording facilities in town big enough to accommodate a full orchestra. General manager Tino Passante insists Avatar offers something you just can't get from a computer in your bedroom.

Mr. TINO PASSANTE (General Manager, Avatar Studios): 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. I mean, yeah, you can make a record at home, but that doesn't mean you should.

ROSE: 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.

Mr. BRIAN MCTEAR (Recording Engineer, Miner Street Recordings): So, I've been sort of pecking away at this a little bit, just the instrumental track so far.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: 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.

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

ROSE: 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. It's a nonprofit that helps artists record one song in his studio for free while Weathervane documents the project on video.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Hey guys, a little slow. One, two, one, two.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: This is from one of four sessions so far by the Philadelphia band BC Camplight. Front man Brian Christinzio says it would be cheaper to record at home. But that's not the sound he's going for.

Mr. BRIAN CHRISTINZIO (Musician, BC Camplight): I refuse to make a record that I know could be better. I mean, it just doesn't make sense. It's, like, why would I 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: 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. Engineer Brian McTear hopes to help musicians in Christinzio's situation through his Weathervane organization. And that it'll attract enough attention to become economically self-sustaining. It has projects planned next year with 10 artists, including singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens. McTear hopes musicians see the value of studios like his.

Mr. MCTEAR: The real value for most bands isn't the equipment. I mean, a guy at Guitar Center or Sam Ash would like you to think that if you just spend three 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 and all those people.

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

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

SIEGEL: And you can find all of our coverage of music in the past decade at nprmusic.org.

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