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Sunday, December 27, 2009

12 Major Changes To Recording In The 2000's

I got to thinking about the many changes that came about in the recording business during the 2000's the other day - some of it good, some of it bad, most of it significant. Here are what I consider to be the 12 major changes to recording in the 2000's, in no particular order.

1) Pro Tools Standardization - As the decade started, Pro Tools was was already creeping into the major studios, but every year since it has become more and more entrenched as the standard audio capture format for any professional application. Sure, there are a lot of other great DAWs, but none of them have the traction of Pro Tools. In any professional situation, from music to radio to film and television post, this is the DAW that you're going to have to use as we move into 2010 - until something better comes along (no, I don't have a clue).

2) The Downfall of Commercial Studios - When I moved to Los Angeles in 1980, there were more than 250 "24 track" commercial studios in town. Many of them were multi-room facilities and they all were teaming with business. As we move into 2010, there are fewer commercial studios than ever before thanks to cuts in recording budgets, the ease of setting up a home studio, and the fact that studio rates have remained about the same since the 80's while overhead has risen dramatically.

One of the sad byproducts of this is the fact that the apprentice system that existed and taught so many great engineers has pretty much fallen by the wayside. With only a few commercial studios left, it's only the lucky few that get to sit behind a great engineer and learn something new every day. That's good for me since more people buy my books, but it's not a great thing for the industry at large.

3) The Rise of Software and Fall of Hardware - Once upon a time, every studio needed a pretty good amount of outboard gear to be able to record and, especially, mix a record. It would be nothing for a studio to spend in excess of $100k for outboard EQ's, compressors, effects devices and reverbs that they absolutely needed to have in order to attract independent engineers and producers and make a competitive record. During the 2000's we saw a shift away from outboard hardware boxes to software plug-ins that do the same thing, only cheaper and easier. At the beginning of the decade, most pro engineers complained about "the sound" of plug-ins that emulated their favorite outboard device, and for the most part, they were right. It didn't quite measure up. Now that major computer horsepower is so inexpensive and programmers are better at what they do, the difference in sound quality between the plug-in and the real thing is no longer an issue even with the old-schoolers.

One of the big reasons why software plugs have caught on is price. Why buy a rack of Neve 1073's at $2500 a piece when you can buy a UAD card that can give you a hundred of them for half the price of just one? Sure, you don't get the mic preamp and and you can't track with them, but if you don't record more than a couple channels at a time anyway, it's hardly a problem.

Even in live sound there's been a shift as the industry changes to a digital signal path. There'll always be a market for outboard gear, especially for tracking, but the days of large expenditures for hardware are over.

4) The Fall Of Rental Companies - It used to be that renting gear was one of the secret cash-cows of the business. Every town had at least one major rental company (New York, LA and Nashville had 4 or 5) and many engineers and producers made extra dough on their projects by renting their pricier gear back as an extra. Thanks to the rise in software plug-ins, the need for that expensive hardware has dropped drastically. And even when it is rented, the length of the sessions has decreased to such a degree that what used to be a three or four week rental might now take only three or four days. As a result, a lot of the major rental companies have either gone under or cut back drastically, the minor ones don't exist anymore, and it's rare that an engineer will even think about renting the gear back to a project as he's just thankful for the job.

5) Mixing In The Box (Who Needs A Recording Console?) - As the 2000's came around the corner, you would never even consider doing a project without a recording console, and for sure, you'd never open a studio unless you had a Neve, SSL, API or the like. Today, vintage recording consoles that regularly went for $250k plus and didn't depreciate much can now be had for $50k or less with the seller feeling extremely pleased that he even found a buyer. With so little tracking with live musicians being done these days (see Loop-based Music) and the increased power of the DAW, why buy a recording console at all?

DAW's offer so many features these days that a competent engineer can make a great sounding record in a way that couldn't be done in 2000. The sound is good, the plug-ins are great and plentiful, the automation and recall are better than on any console, you're no longer limited to a certain size control room by the size of a desk, and inexpensive controllers are plentiful. It's no wonder that even the old-schoolers have finally acquiesced to "mixing in the box."

6) Less Money Going Around - CD sales are way down and as a result, so are recording budgets. Where once a $100k budget was considered bottom of the barrel when budgets for even non-superstar acts were beyond $500k, we now live in a world of $40 and 50k budgets. No money - no big studio, no rentals, no hardware purchases. It's all tied together. Superstar acts still get a blank check, but there are fewer and fewer of these acts. The future of the recording budget is here - get used to $40k or even less.

7) Sample and Loop-based Music - Once upon a time, all music started with real musicians tracked live. That all changed in the 2000's. Programs like Acid and Ableton Live made it easy to make some great music without ever seeing a real musician. Loop libraries gave you access to just about every kind of sound and mood that you could think of, and samples of every type of instrument became more realistic. Suddenly, you didn't need a studio, you didn't need a tracking room, you didn't need a player - all you needed was a laptop, some software and a set of headphones. Television and film composers no longer needed an orchestra, keyboard players could record great guitar and bass parts without the players, and no one needed a drummer if you had BFD or a similar program. It changed the music world, although not so much for the better, I'm afraid.

8) The Rise of Alternative Markets - Some markets thrived during the 2000's. The church market became a saviour for many audio gear companies as churches installed bigger and better sound systems, recorded their services and even broadcast them on television or the web. The sound system install market flourished as commercial building projects popped up everywhere. While this was truly a bright spot for many companies in recent years, the recession has brought these markets to a resounding halt. The worse may be yet to come, unfortunately.

9) The Rise of the Home Studio - It's now possible to have a studio on your laptop that's much more powerful than anything The Beatle's ever had to work with for less than a thousand dollars. Home recording is within reach of anyone that wants to do it, and everybody does. This has been both good and bad. It's brought about Music 3.0, where an artist is no longer bound by the marketing, distribution and sales system of the record labels, but the filter that the label provided and the help of the many professionals along the way had it's advantages too. Just because you have your own studio doesn't mean you know how to use it. As a result, we have fewer real professionals than ever before who are making less money than ever before - and more and more people making their own music at home. It hasn't resulted in better music so far.

10) The Influx of Chinese Gear - Audio and music gear is better than ever before on average. It's really difficult to find what would be considered a "bad" piece of gear these days (I remember the old Kent guitars with the bowed necks when I was growing up - those were bad), and it's cheaper than ever as well, all thanks to those hard-working Chinese near slave-laborers. Just about every gear company does the same thing these days - design the piece here, manufacture it in China, and sell it as cheaply as possible against a dozen other manufacturers with the same product and idea. The problem is that while all the gear is good, not much of it is really great. That's why we have more boutique gear manufacturers than ever. I wonder how they all survive?

11) The Failure of the Hi-Res Formats - In the beginning of the 2000's, the great hope for the industry and audio pros alike was the hi-res SACD and DVD-A formats. The trouble was, the public looked at these formats and yawned. It's difficult to hear hi-quality audio when your sound system is worse than what you could find in the typical college dorm room in 1970. Bad presentation, bad marketing, and no consumer interest all equal format death.

12) Change in Consumer Buying Habits - We all know this one. CD sales down, digital sales up, piracy still high. It's the reason for most of the items on this list. We'll cover this point more later in the week on my Music 3.0 blog.

2 comments:

Ilter said...

Excellent article, excellent points!

I used to work in a studio at the beginning of 90s and we used to work with a 16-track analog tape.
Using DAW was a revelation, no matter how bad things sounded.

Usability and ease wins anytime, and I think softwares coupled with more powerful computers each day was the key for a complete revolution.

And yes, you are right (again)... now we have millions of newbie "record producers", "engineers" and "artists".
But one can't beat time... I'm adjusting and trying to find new was for myself as well, as someone who would like the follow a path similar to yours.

Thank you for the article!

Bobby Owsinski said...

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed!

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