January 1999
Speaking Out on Upgrades
Notes From StudioPro98

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

Last month in this column I started yet another discussion on the myriad dangers facing studio owners from the constant pressure to upgrade gear, both hardware and software. This problem has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it was the topic of an entertaining and enlightening panel (which I had the pleasure of moderating) at Mix's StudioPro98 conference in New York City, held last June. This month I'm going to focus on what the folks on the panel had to say.

The session could easily have been a gripe-fest for studio owners and engineers, but I wanted other sides to get their licks in as well. Manufacturers, if they want to stay in business, are taking this issue pretty seriously. They're caught in a similar sort of bind as studio owners: On the one hand, if their products have a reputation for becoming obsolete in short order, they will lose sales; but on the other hand, it's impossible, no matter how much upgradeability they try to build into a product, to keep it on the leading edge forever. On yet another hand (hey, I'm a writer--I can do things like create people with three hands!), if they make their products too upgradeable, they'll saturate their markets, and sales of new products will fall off.

Like computer software manufacturers, a lot of audio companies are finding themselves in the "subscription" business as well as (or even instead of) the "black box" business. The ratio between the amount of support that sort of enterprise demands and its revenues can be quite a shock to a company that previously only had to worry about how many hardware units got out the door each month. So I invited several manufacturers to sit on the panel and present their cases.

Retailers, too, are part of the upgrade equation and can help customers with loan, rental, leasing or trade-in programs that can soften the blow should an expensive piece of gear prove obsolete, inappropriate or simply unfashionable. Dealers can also, if they are taking their job seriously, do a lot to facilitate communication between manufacturers and end-users.

Dan Caccavo
Zoe Thrall
Tim Leitner
Blue Wilding
Laura Tyson
Bob Reardon

Robert Miller

The panelists from the manufacturing side were Bob Reardon, director of product development for desktop products at Lexicon, a longtime studio owner himself, as well as an experienced post-production engineer and friend over the years; Laura Tyson, regional sales manager for Roland; and Robert Miller, Northeast regional post-production specialist for Digidesign. The retail segment was represented by Blue Wilding from Dale Pro Audio in New York. To represent working studios, I was pleased to get Zoe Thrall, president of Avatar (formerly Power Station), from the record side; Tim Leitner, chief engineer at a New York boutique house McHale Barone, from the advertising side; and Danny Caccavo, staff engineer at Sync Sound, who also owned his own shop for a long time and is an old friend, from the high-end post side.

Leitner, like most of us who pay the bills, sees the major problem as being able to strike a balance between being current and staying solvent. "We are dedicated to keeping our three main studios on the cutting edge," he said, "from 24-bit digital recording to using LCD screens rather than CRTs, and even 5.1 mixing in one room. Fortunately, even though these advancements come at a cost, what we are capable of accomplishing today greatly exceeds what we could do just a few years ago, and at a much lower cost. But since we have such a large investment in hardware, and because our business has been growing so quickly, we have chosen to keep our older systems in use and relegate them to less important rooms, where they are still functioning, if a little less efficiently than the newer systems."

Caccavo spoke about the pressures on a facility to upgrade: "I have found that, especially in the DAW community, many users are driven to upgrade merely because of 'fast and cool' factors. When presented with the 'latest and greatest,' many of us fall prey to our own gear-lust rather than using more appropriate factors to make a decision.

"The first thing you need to ask yourself when presented with an upgrade decision is: Will this upgrade ultimately make me more money?" he continued. "If I buy this upgrade, which will allow me to finish the job faster, can I raise my studio rates? Because if I can't, then I could end up making less revenue on each job. You really have to walk the line on this one. You don't want to be perceived as a taxi driver who overcharges by taking someone to LaGuardia by way of Kennedy, but you also don't want to work so quickly that you cut down too much on your billable hours--unless you increase your rates. And in the current cut-rate climate, this may not be easy."

Thrall talked about her struggles with adopting new formats: "At Avatar, I was dragged kicking and screaming into adding ADATs and DA-88s. I used to argue that these were not professional products, and they have no place in a state-of-the-art facility, but almost every day I have a client who is using one of those formats, and almost every major engineer and producer who's worked at Avatar has at some point had to rent one of them. I can't ignore numbers like that.

"The most important thing in making these purchasing decisions is to know who your clients are and to be aware of how your facility fits into the audio industry within your city," she continued. "A studio's business is driven by its clientele. Listen to them. Ask them questions about their needs, and evaluate them. If you find yourself continually renting a piece of equipment, it may be time to purchase it. On the other hand, renting new technology lets you see if radical changes are going to take place that will render it obsolete, and if that happens, you don't lose a large investment. Also, if you can establish a relationship with one or two local retailers, sometimes they will let you try something out for a week to see if your staff and the clients like it.

Caccavo formulated a few useful questions that studios can ask themselves before committing to an upgrade: "Will it attract new clientele?" he asked. "Will your current clients even notice it if you don't tell them about it? Will they just think I'm showing off if Ido tell them about it? Most of my clients are lukewarm on the idea of new stuff in the room. Their first reaction is usually, 'Does it crash a lot?' So I stopped telling them about it. When I went to a DAW-based system, for me it was really cool to eliminate the console, but most clients actually felt more nervous about the lack of tactile controls.

"Are you upgrading because of real competition," he asked, "or just because you want yours to be bigger than theirs? It is easy to be seduced by the latest MacWarehouse catalog or the latest postcard upgrade offer. After all, companies offer you upgrades because they want you to upgrade, not out of the kindness of their hearts.

"Whom are you really trying to please with this upgrade? The client, or yourself? If it's you, it doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't do it. You might draw a parallel between your getting an upgrade and a guitar player getting a new amplifier that produces a tone that's more pleasing to him. Just as a better sound may inspire a better performance from that guitar player, a faster and cooler DAW may inspire a better 'performance' from you, the engineer.

"Of course," he added, "this may be complete bullshit, but hey, it's a great rationalization, isn't it?"

Thrall had some further words for manufacturers: "One thing they all tell us is that, 'If you purchase my product, your rate can increase by x.' That's usually a bunch of nonsense. When a manufacturer is talking to a studio, they should ask us about the sessions that take place there. If they know more about our business, it will be easier to sell us something--even to sell us something we hadn't considered. Doing your homework can pay off."

Leitner also spoke to the manufacturers: "From my experience, the companies that I have been dealing with have done a fairly good job of providing reasonable upgrade paths. My biggest complaint with manufacturers is really a matter of timing. Sometimes the desire to announce a new product with the latest and greatest features precedes actual shipping product by several months, if not longer. I don't want to buy and install buggy hardware or software, but neither do I want to make purchasing plans based on vaporware. I think that manufacturers need to act a bit more responsibly in this area."

From the hardware-makers' point of view, Lexicon's Reardon had this to say about his company's philosophy on making its products upgradeable: "Longevity and upgradeability are of concern during the design phase of all our products, and they're part of our 'value equation.' But that typically makes the products cost more initially. Achieving the correct balance between user expectations and technological and financial realities is a challenge. Our industry has plenty of examples of artistic and technological successes that were business failures--anyone remember ARP?"

Reardon thinks that issues of upgradeability are largely determined by forces outside of individual companies: "What is increasingly important is the adoption of standards," he said. "This will help more than anything to keep equipment from becoming obsolete. However, standards are increasingly driven from outside our industry. This makes the collaboration between users, professional organizations and manufacturers--to propose and develop achievable standards in a timely fashion--very important."

Roland's Laura Tyson talked about the difference between "hardware" upgrades and "software" upgrades. "If you buy a hardware-based digital workstation, are you stuck with the product exactly as it is the first day you take it out of the box?" she asked. "No. Many people perceive hardware-based recording systems to be closed-ended, and this is simply not true anymore. And thanks to the Internet, manufacturers now have a fast and easy method to distribute software upgrades to customers. Internet-based user groups help spread the word, so now it's impossible for a manufacturer to keep information about upgrades a secret, even if they wanted to."

Switching gears, she offered a blunt word of warning to her fellow manufacturers: "There used to be something called 'Customer Loyalty,' but now that's an oxymoron. Manufacturers cannot assume a customer will be loyal to a specific brand name. Each and every product a manufacturer builds must be well-designed, and desirable on its own, without relying on customer loyalty to boost sales. Sure, brand-name recognition will get you a long way, but if the product is poorly designed, it won't be successful."

Since the panel went on for an hour-and-a-half, obviously much more was said, but this will give you a taste of how these people see the issues. I'll give Danny Caccavo the last word: "Sometimes I'll listen to something I did ten years ago and be surprised at the quality and creativity I achieved without any DAWs at all. It's a sobering thought." Indeed it is.

Next month, a personal account of a trip to Upgrade Hell...


Paul D. Lehrman, editorial director of Mix Online, is still using his original system software.

These materials copyright ©1999, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing