Rock-music lore is rife with stories of bands sealing themselves up in an expensive commercial recording studio for days, weeks, or months, refusing to reenter civilian life until armed with a masterpiece destined to be heard for generations.
Today, that scenario sounds more like an ancient fable. Major recording centers such as London; Los Angeles; New York; and Nashville, Tenn., are losing the studios that made them famous due to shrinking budgets at the big labels and the growing sophistication of home- recording technology. Now musicians can plug directly into their laptops and record digitally with greater ease than ever.
Software such as Avid Technology’s Pro Tools, Steinberg Media Technologies’ Cubase, and Apple’s GarageBand and Logic provide multitrack recording and editing, pitch correction, and access to a library of virtual instrument samples. They’re tailor-made for cash-strapped musicians and record labels seeking quick and affordable alternatives to the studio model that flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, when lavish recording complexes were built to suit demand. Back then, massive record sales helped keep private studios solvent. But following the downturn in music sales this decade, many studios are struggling or simply have closed their doors.
The list of shuttered studios includes landmarks to music history. In New York City, the industry lost the Hit Factory – home to prominent albums “Born in the U.S.A.” from Bruce Springsteen and “Graceland” from Paul Simon – and Sony Music Studios, where Nirvana recorded “MTV Unplugged in New York.” Several historic London studios closed recently, including the Olympic, where The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton recorded some of their most famous work. Half of the studios in Los Angeles have reportedly closed as well. Meanwhile, recording sessions are shifting into the home, where veteran engineers can produce clients at more affordable rates due to lower overhead, or where musicians are trying their hand at self- recording, using not much more than a mouse, a USB cable, and a piano keyboard.
“Year by year, it becomes more accessible to anyone,” says Roger Robindoré, director of technical services of Apogee Electronics, a digital audio company in Santa Monica, Calif. This fall, Apogee Electronics launched GiO, a new hardware interface that enables guitarists to plug directly into their Apple computer. Using a series of foot pedals, guitarists can access hundreds of virtual amplifiers via GarageBand without ever touching a mouse, a dynamic meant to further simulate the traditional experience.
Mr. Robindoré says GiO is designed for both hobby guitarists and professionals who don’t have the time, storage space, or bank account to haul “a truckload of equipment” that might be needed to achieve a specific sound.
The device “gives a somewhat complete picture of that experience,” he says. “GarageBand has the capability of a studio 20 years ago. It used to be artists had to have some sort of financial backing, there was no way they could do something by themselves that was anywhere near what they could do at a real studio.”
While music sales are on a steep decline, sales of music hardware like GiO are booming, according to the National Association of Music Merchants, a trade association representing music retailers and manufacturers. Revenue grew to almost $500 million in 2008, from just $140 million in 1999.
Even for musicians who grew up in the analog era, digital audio can play a role in creating music.
Acclaimed Brooklyn-based songwriter Freedy Johnston says that while the spirit of his music is in the singer-songwriter era of the 1970s, he uses GarageBand to record demos and recently purchased Logic to do the same. “As a songwriting tool, it all seems pretty nifty to have all those software instruments clearly labeled,” he says. “It’s like a Fisher Price setup in a way.”
Mr. Johnston says he still prefers to make his albums in traditional studios because he can hear the difference between an instrument plugged into a mixing console and one connected to a computer. But, he says, “for kids with not much money but a whole lot of time and talent to make music,” laptop recording “is only good.”
“It doesn’t mean it’s going to dilute music or make it seem trivial,” he says. “If you give that to anyone with a few cheap Chinese mics, you can still make a masterpiece.”
Social media are grooming the trend. Applications that allow budding musicians to upload new tracks in seconds are not just deconstructing how music is being distributed to the public, they are eliminating the traditional wait time between recording the music and its manufacturing, distribution, and promotion months or even years later.
“There seems to be an emphasis on getting things out quickly via MySpace or Facebook,” says Dan Dietrich, owner of Wall To Wall Recording, a studio in downtown Chicago that specializes in vintage gear, which audiophiles say provides a richer sound. “Seven or eight years ago a band would get money together and go in and make a record [at a studio].… That doesn’t happen as often as much.”
Mr. Dietrich says that while digital music software “is fine as a hobby,” musicians are fooling themselves if they think its sound quality is superior to what you can get in a room with live musicians.
“It might be similar but it’s not the same,” he says. “So I think some of that stuff is useful and a lot of fun [but] some of it’s a racket. You can claim to re-create a vintage compressor but I don’t know anyone who is really convinced.”
For longtime veterans, such as pop songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, who recorded his first album in 1982, laptop studios infect music with an ultimately “plastic sounding” experience. He has never used GarageBand and prefers to make his album in the studio, which he says is “a magical place” because it blocks out distractions and allows for creative clarity.
Mr. Crenshaw argues that the recording industry’s bottom line encouraged the growth of digital music software, but ended up creating the very reason why record sales have declined every year. Consumers, he says, devalue music because the new standards have made it sound so disposable.
“That’s why [the industry] is crashing and burning,” he says. “It’s really a craft. I have a lot of respect for a good recording engineer who can really paint that sonic picture. That person really does a service to humanity, in my opinion. I love to listen to a beautiful sounding recording. That people don’t strive for that anymore ... is a really bad sign for where we’re at as a culture."