February 1996

Taking the personal to the public:
When a project studio is no longer for projects

by Paul D. Lehrman

Imagine a violinist who, every time he needs to tighten his bow, has to get a special assistant to run in from the wings and do it. Imagine a timpanist who, when the score calls for changing the low drum from G to F, must call on someone else to move the pedal. Imagine a guitarist who, when he goes from rhythm to lead, has to have someone offstage throw the switch that controls his sound. Now imagine a composer who, every time he wants to record some music, must hire a technician he doesn't know, to run equipment he doesn't understand, and pay for it by the minute out of his own pocket.

Up until just a few years ago, that last example was pretty much the way things had to be. Making music and recording it were two very separate disciplines, each with its own rules, unions, and priesthoods. But music and recording have always been dependent on each other, and so it's not surprising that in recent years the arts and sciences of each have merged. Recording technology is now a part of many musicians' craft, and most recording engineers have a musical background. For the first time since the age of recording began 118 years ago, today's musical artists have a choice: they can collaborate with engineers in commercial studios, or they can go it alone.

Having my own studio was my dream from the very first moment I realized I could record music on tape. As a kid, I visited established recording studios, even got to play in some once in a while, but I was always put off by the idea of paying someone else to record me, worrying about the time, and mindful that the next client, just like at the doctor's office, sat outside in the waiting room. With so much pressure, I thought to myself, how could I ever get anything done? I read how the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane were spending hundreds of hours in the studio working on wonderful new kinds of music, and that validated both my feelings and my fears. I revelled in the recognition of the recording studio as a creative tool, but despaired about ever achieving the status that would convince someone with deep pockets, like a record company, to give me that kind of freedom.

At the age of 15 I tried to solve this dilemma by building a studio for myself. Since it was in my parents' living room, centered around their grand piano, I knew I wasn't going to be making rock and roll records. Instead I concentrated on something else that fascinated me: electronic music. My "project" studio consisted of, besides the piano (which I filled with paper clips, bits of cellophane, and other Cage-ian appurtenances), two Lafayette Radio microphones, a Sony three-head (!) tape deck with sound-on-sound (!!), a Hagstrom electric guitar, and a Theremin I built from the pages of a magazine, only half of which worked (the pitch control, not the volume). I recorded one track of weird noises, went back and overdubbed another one, and kept doing that, adding tape echo through a speaker as I went along, until the hiss threatened to overwhelm everything. After a few days I had several pieces of…well…electronic music. They might not be much to listen to today, but they impressed the heck out of a couple of college admissions officers, and it sure was fun.

Despite having worked quite happily in plenty of commercial studios since then, I always feel better in my own space, with no one watching and only my ability to stay awake limiting the amount of time I can spend getting something right. The studio I have at home today, with its samplers, hard-disk recorders, effects units, drum and wind controllers, and sync boxes, is capable of doing just about anything I want. It isn't much prettier than that maze of wires and boxes around my parents' Steinway, but on the other hand it didn't cost much more than the Steinway would today.

Obviously, I'm not alone, as is evidenced by the theme of this issue, and the fact that entire publications, companies, and distribution outlets have grown up around the idea of the personal studio (how it became "project studio" is a story we'll have to leave to the marketeers). But there's a recent trend in the personal-studio world that troubles me greatly.

If you've got your own studio, you've invested a certain amount of money into it, and unless you're living off a trust fund you'd like to get some of that money back. Obviously you need to find people who will buy the stuff you create in your studio, whether it's records, commercials, soundtracks, multimedia, or whatever inspires you. But if you're just getting started it may be a while before you can recoup your investment, and even once you're established, that workflow can be uneven. The equipment is just sitting there, and you know how to run it, so why not make some money just with that: open your doors to the hordes of wannabee stars out there, and offer your services as an engineer/producer/programmer?

Well, there are lots of reasons why not. Some of them are pretty obvious: the horrors of dealing with neighbors, zoning laws and building codes, parking, security (for both your client's stuff and yours), noise (coming in and going out), collecting money from the musicians (do I smell an oxymoron?), and explaining to your family why all these scruffy people with questionable hygiene are poring through your kids' books in the living room.

Then there's all the stuff a commercial studio has to do that you expressly built your studio to avoid: reconfiguring the place every few hours for each new client, resetting the console and all the effects, and even just cleaning up after yourself. Having your own studio is like having an eternal lockout session – people pay a premium for lockouts, and there's a reason. If the studio has to be cleared and normalled every time a client comes in, with the coffee cups and other substance-related paraphernalia put away, the floor swept, the gum wads removed from the chairs, the mic stands folded, and the track sheets filed, then the next time you get the urge and sit down to do your own thing, it's going to take a while to get the place back to where you want it – and I guarantee large parts of your creative momentum will be lost. How many interviews have you read with rock stars who said, "Yeah, well, after we built my dream studio in the carriage house, we started booking it out, just to pay for the new desk, you know, and now I can't get in it but once a month, so we're back recording in London"?

And of course there's going to be competition, which is going to be quite different from the sort you're used to. If your personal studio doesn't have the latest sounds on hand, you can usually buy a synth or effects module or two and move back to the front of the line, as far as your clients are concerned. But once you go commercial, you're going to have to play catch-up with every kid in town who's got the bucks for a digital 8-track. There's a huge amount of "flavor-of-the-month" nonsense in marketing a studio; if you think advertising or multimedia types make demands that are far beyond their ability to know what they're talking about, wait 'til you deal with local bands. "You mean, your multitrack deck doesn't have superfast SMPTE lockup?" they'll ask. "That's not cool. We have to have that!" while you protest in vain that the fact that they're cutting grunge rock live to tape makes SMPTE lockup time utterly irrelevant. Maybe you know the gain staging of your mixer like the back of your hand, but that won't help you with that large number of potential clients who won't come near you if you're not using the brand that they've seen in all the magazines.

There's always going to be someone else in town who's got newer and ostensibly hipper gear. The continuing improvement in the quality of low-priced gear unfortunately works against anyone who's already made an investment – the new guy down the block with the same budget you had five years ago can offer a more attractive package simply because he can get more bang for his buck today than you could. You can't charge less, because that would make you unprofitable (and it would look like you're admitting you're not as good as he is), but you can't afford to replace all your hardware overnight either.

Finally, the whole mindset required to run a studio for others is very different from selling your own finished product. It seems to me that the motivation for putting together a studio for your own use in the first place is utterly antagonistic to the attitude that makes it possible to run a successful business in which you're constantly dealing with the public. The former is to have the freedom to work at your own pace, on projects that are important to you. The latter is to get as many people through as quickly as possible, doing stuff that means little or nothing to you. They just don't mesh. The only exception I can think of is someone whose motivation on both counts is to make lots of money – in which case, you're probably in the wrong field, anyway.

Now I'll be the first to admit that some people can make this work. Some folks really can control their artistic temperament and split themselves into two beings, one devoted to art and the other to commerce, who don't constantly squabble among themselves. There are also a number of musicians who build studios for themselves, and then find out they're better at running the studio than making music, and happily change goals. But for most who think they can recoup the megabucks spent on a personal pleasure dome by selling time in it to others, I offer this advice: don't count on others to help you make back your investment. Spend only what you can afford to support with your own work, or what you're willing to sacrifice. And before you commit to spending more money than you can justify, learn to use what you've got to its best potential – you may be surprised how much better it can be. In a project studio, you want to be true to your own selfish muse; don't give away the store just to pay for the display cases.

Paul D. Lehrman is designing his next personal studio to be virtual: no tape, no console, no keyboards. He figures the hard part will be finding virtual clients.

These materials copyright ©1996 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing