Tony Brooke: On the Future of Recording Studios and Radio

The unstoppable march of technological progress, dispelling the "classic gear" myth, and how to survive in the industry

by Tony Brooke

I've been in and out of recording studios and radio stations for years, and there is a common vibe in these windowless "Magic Factories." I always sense an undercurrent of either blind ambition or trepidation. Those that are new to the game have blinders on and stars in their eyes, ignoring the realities of a very low-paying, very competitive business. Those that have been around long enough to survive a few shakeouts are constantly on the edge, looking over their shoulders for the axe. But both groups forge onward, and it results in a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" that leaves only the thick-skinned.

Even the most ambitious people who have real talent and potential for becoming excellent recording engineers or DJs have little chance of real success unless they make serious sacrifices. Success means surviving, "getting by" perhaps, but not a comfortable living. And it takes more than aptitude. It takes a conscious decision to make less money in order to make music. Sometimes it also takes less-admirable traits such as self-promotion and competitiveness. A great bumper sticker says "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs." Much like the choice to be a musician, the art of technology requires sacrifice too.

The same trends that caused the recording studio boom of the 90's are now affecting the radio industry. With the advent of webcasting, every garage now has a transmitter. The same pattern of competition from below that caused drastic shifts in the recording studio business is starting to radically pluralize the radio industry. But the same constraints hold. The tug-of-war between plummeting budgets and less expensive equipment costs will continue to erode the old model. Conflict arises because these two trends hit with unsynchronized rates of change.

Recording studios and radio stations can't afford to spend time complaining about changes instead of capitalizing on them. Sure, I agree that the classic recording techniques are being lost, and today's radio outlets will eventually be replaced by the net, wireless and satellite. Manufacturers are only out to make a buck and that screws the little guy. This is OLD news! What other industries spend so much time yearning for the old days? You don't hear Microsoft bitching that no one buys Windows 95 anymore. They made Windows 98 and forced everyone to buy it. (OK, bad analogy. You get the point.)

You've got to ROLL WITH THE CHANGES. This attitude is why the most vibrant, interesting businesses have young mavericks who are willing to deal with the changes and push the boundaries. Personally, I'm pretty excited about these new developments, despite the fact that all of these new tools and competition are the very reason it's so hard to make a living.

Of course, I am on the old-school side of the argument when it comes to fidelity. I have worked with the world's finest equipment. Now that I have learned the difference that quality gear can make, I have much higher standards. There is no going back. But with the cheaper options of home recording studios and direct streaming stations, the simple fact is that today's smaller budgets can't afford the very top-notch equipment and often don't need it anyway. As with all things technologically linked, budgets will only get smaller as competition from below increases.

In the last few years, manufacturing advances have dispelled the mythical status attributed to classic electronics. In the past, certain "classic" rare equipment was considered the holy grail, under the belief that new technology had not yet recreated these masterpieces. In some cases, this was true. Many microphones and certain other pieces of gear were made so well 50+ years ago that they were still the best you could use. Their rarity made them prohibitively expensive for most, and that only increased their mystique. Many people who had never used these or listened to them were 100% sure that they sounded great and were worth the price.

But the price of these items was often ignored when comparing their fidelity to the "new imitators." Personally, I find it insulting to read a review of a microphone in which it is compared to another microphone which costs four times as much, without stating so. Despite the inherently subjective nature of comparing the sound of two mics, comparison numbers are possible if the writer is a tiny bit creative.

Personally, I like percentages. How about saying that one mic sounds 20-30% better than the other? Or, the reviewer could leave themselves a wider margin for subjectivity, and say that it sounds 15-35% better in one situation, and 25-50% better in another application. This is much more useful to the reader than relying solely on tired, vague (yet still moderately useful) subjective terms like "warmer," "fatter," "detailed," "punchy" etc.

The price of the reviewed equipment is often buried near the end of a review (or sometimes completely missing!) when it should be right under the headline. With "quality percentages" and the price as comparison points, the reader can make an informed decision about whether it is worth paying 75% more for 20% better sound. Comparing apples to apples is much easier than comparing apples to oranges (or Apples to PCs.)

In the late-90's and early 00's, some knockoffs caught up to the originals in terms of their price/quality ratio. Now, many have even surpassed the originals, particularly when you consider reliability, usability and ergonomic features. I often tell rental clients that certain microphones are "75% as good at 50% of the price." That gap is widening every day.

The inevitable result is that the market will eventually drive down the cost of even the most esoteric equipment. The unstoppable march of technology will recreate even the rarest one-of-a-kind microphones from the 40's. This means that the business will see even more competition, and even more fragmentation, mirroring that of music distribution in the late 1990s.

So I find myself in a position that I wish was more common: I've worked with everything from the top-of-the-line gear to the bargain-basement boxes. Having heard how great it CAN sound with the best gear, it pushes me to get better results out of ANY gear, and in particular, the gear of lower budgets. I have something to strive toward. But knowing is not always having, and this higher standard can also cause frustration. But this is indicative of the new economy, where one-trick ponies are a dying breed. These days, flexibility and diversification are the rules of survival.

I advise new recording engineers NOT to limit themselves to music-only projects or spend all their entry-level time in one studio; Work with as many different studios as possible. Audio-for-video (post production for video and games) and commercial studios pay much better than music-only studios. This applies in broadcasting, too. Strike a good balance of work that pays your bills, and work that is creatively fulfilling. Spend time online reading other's comments to get a feel for the true story behind the smiling promotional photos and manufacturers' product placements. The enthusiasm of new recruits often causes them to overlook the competitive nature of the business. But, that enthusiasm is also the reason that the pros succeed.

When the current changes, it's important to read it and ride the wave or get swamped. New developments are new opportunities, unless you are not paying attention. This does NOT mean that you have to go out and buy into every new technological development. It means that you need to keep your knowledge up to date, stay independently flexible, and be willing to toss out your preconceptions.

(What about the record companies? For more on that see my article "On the Future of the Music Industry"...)