Evolution of the album: WNC recording professionals discuss industry trends and what’s to come

A GROWING GRAY AREA: Musicians and sound engineers have colorful opinions when it comes to weighing commercial recording studios versus home setups. Budgets and audio-quality debates aside, though, there may be a widening spectrum of recording strategies that fall between the two. Photo of Landslide Studio by Seth Tice-Lewis

What happens to the music industry in an era when it’s more profitable to turn buildings into condos than high-end recording studios?

For more than a few local audio engineers, operating a full-fledged studio from a modified basement or outbuilding has become a viable way to minimize overhead. And even more musicians are cherry-picking their way through the recording process: utilizing multiple studios for specific tasks, employing session musicians remotely and completing significant legwork with their own increasingly affordable recording equipment.

Is the widening gray area between professional and do-it-yourself album creation the new normal?

Bringing work home

“I know some great home-based studios in town that are basically commercial studios, but they’re in a home,” says Steven Heller, owner of Upstream Productions. He adds that there are “way more studios now” than when he began engineering decades ago.

But the phrase “home studio” doesn’t mean much on its own, as Sound Temple Studios owner Robert George points out. “A hobbyist who has two microphones and a laptop in his or her bedroom can call it a home studio,” he says, “and an experienced engineer who has a professionally designed, world-class studio also has what can be called a home-based studio.

“The most important thing,” he continues, “is not a residential or commercial location, but the experience and capabilities of the engineer running the studio, the professional acoustical design and treatment and the quality of the equipment.”

Continuing to legitimize the notion that top-notch albums can arise from residential settings is critical to home-based engineers if their model is indeed the way forward. Perceptions of quality, after all, directly affect business owners’ ability to maintain the price points that make it financially feasible to master engineers’ own supporting artistry — rather than scrape by with a basic skill set.

Whitewater Recording owner Adam Greenberg says home-recorded music’s variance, while sometimes due to poor acoustics, is largely driven by human input. “It’s the talent of the people working on a project that makes it happen, not the room, gear, computer, etc.,” he says. “A professional will never be replaced.”

But varying ranks of home-based studios are nothing new in Asheville, according to Landslide Studios owner Andrew Schatzberg, who says he’s observed the blurry line between personal and professional studios for years. Iconic commercial studios, however, are sadly becoming a thing of the past, he says.

Jessica Tomasin, studio manager at Echo Mountain Recording Studio, is confident that the continued existence of audiophiles will sustain some commercial spaces, but “studios need to be able to charge a rate that not all musicians can afford,” she says. “I’m sure we will see studios struggle to stay open, especially as people become even more used to listening to MP3s on a pair of cheap headphones and [musicians continue to make] records in their houses.”

With creatives in no short supply of content, new options are replacing the traditional, romanticized notion of gathering in one space — house or otherwise — to sculpt an album.

Here, there, anywhere

“Trying to generalize about trends is hard since every recording project can be done in many ways,” says Jeff Knorr, co-owner of CollapseAble Studios. “If there is one thing that is born out of the digital recording revolution, it’s the ease of moving from any one studio situation to another completely different one with little difficulty.”

Many artists do this by tracking (recording individual instruments, vocals, etc.) select parts at home and overdubbing additional tracks in a paid setting (or vice versa: overdubbing later at home). Still others complete all tracking at a home studio, typically leaving the mixing (adjusting volumes and effects relative to one another) and/or mastering (optimizing the recordings for playback on multiple devices) to professional ears.

Both Heller and Hollow Reed Arts owner Chris Rosser say it’s increasingly common for artists to obtain tracks recorded by session musicians at home studios across the globe. The use of Dropbox and other collaboration and networking websites makes this possible. Why trek to that Nashville slide guitar guru or Chicago soul singer when their talents can be recorded remotely and transferred freely with a few clicks?

Although this trend could work for or against Western North Carolina’s session musicians, it at least opens additional possibilities for supplemental income outside of music hubs like New York, Nashville, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Rosser suspects it’s bringing extra work to locals based on his own boost in virtual collaboration requests, but proximity, Heller points out, remains “a huge positive in regards to establishing friendships — and thus opportunities — within the industry.”

Industry improvisations

Over time, Asheville studios have adapted to the evolving recording landscape in a variety of ways.

“Instead of focusing on downsizing, we are focusing on building relationships to help grow our business,” Tomasin says of Echo Mountain’s strategy. “Diversifying our work and partnering with [Montreat College’s music business program] is a new venture and revenue stream. We’ve also started working with publishers to record audio books.”

In addition, Echo Mountain rents rooms in its downtown space to organizations like IamAVL, Mason Jar Media, Ben Lovett and New Song Music Group. CollapseAble Studios similarly bolsters its revenue by offering rehearsal rooms and renting gear to local venues, and Whitewater Recording does post-production for commercials as well as working on television and web content.

For Greenberg, home recording’s initial growth stage from 2000 to 2010 actually brought additional work, as novices sent content into his Arden-based business for mixing and mastering — services he and many other studios continue to offer on projects tracked fully or partially at home.

“When you live in a small town, you have to be able to do a lot of things,” Heller says. “You can’t concentrate on one.”

What’s next for the recording community?

“I’m surprised that there isn’t someone with a mobile recording truck,” says Knorr, adding that he expects to see even more of the hybrid home-professional studios in coming years. Although Seth Kauffman’s Tropical Disease Mobile setup has been used in multiple locations over the years, Kauffman says it’s not completely portable.

Citing North Carolina’s lack of tax incentives for filmmakers as a likely cause, George notes the lack of film-related audio projects in Asheville, including scores, sound effects, dialogue rerecording, editing and mixing.

“I think the musicians of the future are going to have to be much more comfortable with technology than they’ve needed to be in the past,” Rosser says. “It’s become almost the norm for most studio musicians to have a small recording setup at their house so that they can overdub themselves on songs that people send them over the Internet.”

Heller expects that these collaborations across space and time will eventually transcend the latter, allowing musicians in far-flung studios to complete live recordings — when all artists are playing and reacting to one another’s parts simultaneously — together, despite the geographic disparity.

“That would be awesome,” he says, hopeful that the magic that dwells in live-takes could return to popularity in the digital age. “You don’t know what’s going to happen when everyone starts playing together. It’s a unique sound that’s never the same.”

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About Kat McReynolds
Kat studied entrepreneurship and music business at the University of Miami and earned her MBA at Appalachian State University. Follow me @katmAVL

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