default_mobilelogo

Lo-Fi vs Hi-Fi:

“A Symphony In The Potting Shed!?”

 

By Pip Williams

London College of Music, Thames Valley University

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Abstract

 

“Lo-Fi vs Hi-Fi” The future of the Studio and The Producer. I have been a successful record producer since 1972. When I started, there were sacrosanct procedures. The producer was teamed with a particular artist. Budgets were prepared, songs chosen. With solo artists, musicians were discussed, a particular studio was chosen, based on criteria such as musical genre, budget, equipment, acoustics and so on. In

 

the case of a band, other factors came into play- available mics, size of the recording room, instrument separation, accommodation etc. We had many studios to choose from. We knew the hire of these would be within a certain price range and chose accordingly. The birth of software programmes such as Pro Tools and Logic now means that the requirement of that studio environment is under threat. One could feasibly use software to record anywhere there is a suitable recording space!

 

However, are we missing the point somewhere? Surely, studios such as Abbey Road, Olympic and Nassau’s Compass Point attracted clients wishing to utilise their unique qualities? More seriously, are we destined to a future where engineers are missing out on the value of learning their craft in such

 

revered surroundings? I have recently discovered first hand, the benefits of working with a veteran, highly trained engineer using a modern software package. The knowledge of signal path, mic technique, frequency masking is priceless. Are we destined to a world where the genius of Geoff Emerick and George Massenburg is forgotten? This paper discusses whether or not we must protect at all costs, the traditions and skills that have gone before, and how we can ensure that modern techniques can preserve these to the benefit of our industry.

 

1 Introduction

 

The title of my paper was the result of a flippant comment made by a talented engineer I work with. Whenever there was a need for some general housekeeping, track cleaning or tidying up, he would say “Oh I can do that in my spare time, in the potting shed”. Thus, a title was born, because indeed, these days records can be made anywhere there is space and power for a computer and a few other bits, and either a little soundproofing or some very understanding neighbours! If it is dry and warm and has a comfy chair, these too are obvious bonuses! This is an occasionally light-hearted study of the history and consequences of the downsizing of the studio industry. Firstly, I’d like to analyse the growth of something which has variously been described as: “That which killed the pro studio industry” and: “That which has contributed the most to creativity within the music business”.

 

2 The Project Studio

 

This is actually far from being a relatively new thing. Since Les Paul first developed multi-track recording, a few pioneers actually made huge selling records from the most basic of home set-ups; pioneers like Joe Meek:-

 

 

Picture © John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

 

Audio example included: The Tornados ‘Telstar’ (1962) Decca Records

 

 

Joe Meek had cut his teeth working in London at early independent studios IBC and Lansdowne, before opening his own facility situated in his flat in the Holloway Road, North London. Joe’s records were made on a conglomeration of equipment, which he had either built or modified. He was among the

 

first to experiment with varispeed, backward tapes, delays and other effects. Although Telstar was his most well know hit internationally, Joe created many notable records at what was frankly a shambles of a studio!

 

2.1 The Revox:

 

Many of us will remember Studer’s brilliant Revox Stereo 1/4” reel-to-reel machine. As well as enabling neophytes like myself to play the tapes we brought home from the studio, we could also make reasonable demos, utilising the machine’s facility to bounce between the two tracks and overdub at the same time. If the machine was well maintained, was run at its highest available speed and good quality tape was used, some pretty fair results could be achieved!

 

 

Audio example included: Springwater ‘I Will Return’

 

 

In 1971, producer/musician/writer Phil Cordell created the haunting instrumental ‘I Will Return’, allegedly recorded on a Revox!

 

3 The Demo Studio

 

The forerunner of the modern project studio. In the sixties, hundreds of funky little setups existed in

 

every major city in the world. Some, like Regent Sound even turned out hits, but most were quite happy to be known as great demo facilities: a place where new, unsigned acts could record. The owners of these simple studios recognised a lucrative market. Struggling artists and would-be producers had neither the money nor the space for similar set-ups, so one could pick up Melody Maker and other music journals, and find dozens of advertisements for such places. Acoustics were often poor, but many had great character, or “vibe”. In fact, with freedom from the pressure of expensive studio deadlines, many artists turned out tracks with fantastic feel to them!

 

4 The Later-to-be-called “Project Studio”

 

The early concept was of a place where producers with a little money to spare could experiment with 4 and 8 track reel-to-reel machines, such as the early examples from Tascam/ TEAC, then later maybe a Fostex E16. Imagine, 16 tracks on 1/2 inch tape! Actually, at the time, most of us producers were more interested in making good demos and not necessarily masters, because we realised the bonuses of songwriting as well as producing. We were now able to make presentable representations of our efforts in this field. But let us also remember, a lot of valuable studio time could be saved, because we were also able to experiment with song arrangements and sonic ideas, long before we set foot in expensive studios. Pre-production in fact!

 

4.1 Reaching The Masses:

 

The first Tascam cassette based Portastudio came along in 1979, finally making limited multi-track recording seriously available to the masses. The way had been paved for enthusiastic amateurs to record

 

music at home. This was no longer a privilege restricted to the professionals!

 

5 A Change Was Gonna Come!

 

No one could have foreseen how drastically the modus operandi was to change. Prior to the technological surge in the mid to late seventies, a well-oiled procedure was in operation. The artist was signed. If a record company was involved, the A&R person teamed that act with an appropriate producer. Discussions regarding songs took place, a budget was prepared, a time scale agreed upon and depending on the type of act, be it band or solo artist, studios and other factors, such as choice of musicians and possibly arrangers came into play. The deal was done and the records were made in pro

 

studios. Even when an independent record producer with his own studio had signed the act, there were still similarities in the way the process operated. You see, most studios had their own staff, including

 

engineers, assistants and- sheer luxury, a maintenance man!

 

6 The Beginning of The End?

 

Several factors collided to bring about the demise of our beloved big studios. The rapidly rising Project Studio and domestic Music Tech culture doesn’t deserve to shoulder all of the blame!

 

6.1 Studio Rates vs. Running Costs:

 

In the UK around 1975-76, the top studios charged in the region of £700.00 per day. Yet today, those large facilities as are still open will be lucky to get £500 per day, while the cost of a high end mixing desk and the best microphones will now cost many times more than in 1976. Large orchestral facilities are scarce, so fortunately these at least tend to hold their price.

 

6.2 Samplers and that Linn Drum!

 

Well, now something else had entered the equation. Total disaster was to follow for huge numbers of orchestral players and other session musicians. As the sampled sounds improved and drum machines became astonishingly accurate, the studios that featured large live rooms and drum booths began to experience a drop off in demand. This was gradual at first, but enough to cause some concern among many studio owners.

 

6.3 Undercutting:

 

This was a particularly thorny subject in the eighties. Most of the commercially successful big studios had thrived on their own unique qualities, sonic or otherwise. The explosion in the number of rooms being equipped with SSL consoles was largely caused by that desk’s brilliance as a mixing tool. SSL had become a buzzword among record company A&R men. However, a few foolish SSL studio owners shot themselves in the foot with the absurd practice of hire rate undercutting, which once started, was impossible to halt and indeed spread to most studios, not just SSL facilities. We were soon in a situation where running costs were barely being met and in many cases, the proprietors could not even meet the costs of leasing their high-end equipment.

 

6.4 Music was no longer the only thing in life:

 

So many other luxuries were now vying for the young person’s disposable income, Computer games were expensive. For a young man on a date, a designer wardrobe, a decent car and trendy clubs and restaurants were equally as important as the music he bought. This was starting to impact on record sales. Of course, there would always be the exceptional artists who would win through regardless, but with the development of the CD format, the re-mastering of back catalogue provided huge income to the record companies and this meant a lessening in the amount of new recording being commissioned. There was much more selectivity when signing new talent, where previously there had been a tendency to flood the market and hope that something stuck! A much closer eye was kept on recording budgets.

 

So we now have a decline in the use of big studios, particularly as professional records could now be made in the potting shed!

 

The result.............?

 

7 Panic!

 

One of the first things to go was the full time maintenance man. The result, apart from many technically unreliable studios, was a precious clique of freelance technicians, who would each service several facilities, making a very nice living in the bargain! Since many producers tended to work with a preferred freelance engineer, a lot of studios retained no staff engineers anymore. Those that did were cutting corners here as well. Some owners started to do deals on rates that were even more financially suicidal than before. Some were forced to move their operations to cheaper premises. For others, this was no option, since their raison d’etre was the SOUND of that particular place. Ironically, the early demand for specially designed independent studios had contributed to the decline in Record Companies having their own facilities. Now, where once there were hundreds of thriving studios, we witnessed an alarming rate of closure, with Joe Meek’s old haven Lansdowne finally gone, and Philip Love, of the wonderful Eden Studios in London stating: “We can no longer afford to be a charity for the record business!”

 

7.1 Meanwhile:

 

The development and quality of new technology and music recording software was advancing untethered. Equally important, cost was no longer totally prohibitive! Neither was size! The world had opened up to a whole new generation of music technology practitioners!

 

8 Effects of the Cycle of Change:

 

As well as these vast technological advances, an entirely new business model, plus a shift in popular music genres, combined to produce a dramatic effect. The growth in popularity of musical styles where samples and MIDI provided much of a song’s structure, helped to sound the death knell for a lot of great studios.

 

8.1 Where can we set up the mic?!

 

 

Picture © Rob Verhorst/Redfern

 

Audio example included: Kylie Minogue ‘I Should Be So

 

Lucky’ (1987) Geffen Records.

 

 

8.2 Who needs a studio?

 

Where a good live recording environment became redundant, new producers embraced the opportunity to work at home, or in workshop complexes. Some shrewd studio owners converted their facilities into smaller rooms and rented out space, where the new breed could set up programming suites, with perhaps a tiny overdub room, or with just about space for a microphone on a stand! This is still a viable economic solution for many. It is no longer necessary to have a big console sitting in an expensive piece of real estate! In fact, the majority of popular record releases are now made in small facilities, affectionately known as “Project Studios”.

 

9 Obvious benefits of the Project Studio:

 

The intimacy of a small project studio makes for a fantastic environment for experimentation with sonic tricks and song arrangement. A place where useful pre-production can take place. A facility with the luxury of a good live recording space can provide a relaxed and atmospheric place to make tracks, free from the pressure of deadlines. An artist with reasonable savvy can make good demos or

 

even masters. The benefit to the professional songwriter is patently obvious. There is no longer a need to book a studio and musicians to make acceptable demos of your songs. The days of the piano and voice demo are long gone. The modern A&R man expects to hear something that bears a close resemblance to the finished article and can now get it on a plate. The employment of a little imagination on their part is no longer necessary! By default, the Project Studio owner hopefully learns a bit about the craft, by subscribing to Music Technology journals, reading texts and gleaning information from these. It is actually useful to understand incidentals like distortion and clipping! Let’s face it, even to an enthusiastic amateur, it can be a whole lot of fun! And anything that encourages involvement in music is culturally and socially a good thing. It could even be argued that, without the opportunity to compose and record music, many youngsters might have drifted into an unsavoury lifestyle!

 

10 A New Business Model:

 

These days, there is a much faster turnaround of acts that don’t strike gold soon after signing. In other words, they get dumped quicker! I can’t imagine many situations where an artist is nurtured over two or three albums, as was the case with A&M Records and the great Joan Armatrading in the seventies. Where new acts are concerned, huge recording budgets are a thing of the past. Only those with substantial sales behind them will even afford to record in places like Abbey Road. Record companies are now inclined to go to bespoke production teams, who have their own small studio set-up, will write a song, produce it and provide a finished master. It’s not unusual for the record company to never see studio bills, because the tendency is for the producers to charge an all-in fee per track, which covers the use of their facilities. This could be dangerous, because there may be an incentive here to cut corners with the recording, so as to increase one’s profit margin. Or conversely, the more dedicated may

 

actually end up losing money! These days, it is a fact that most Pop and Dance records are probably made by small independent production teams, in intimate, private project studios. In fact, the old record industry in which I grew up, is as far removed from today’s model as the Ice Age! The Internet has aided the discovery and promotion of new talent. Many enterprising independent producers are actually doing the donkey work, by nurturing artists and promoting them at grass roots level. They issue recordings, utilizing the internet and small manufacturing runs of CD’s, with the result that the artist may later be snapped up by a major company, when a sniff of success is perceived. Some record companies are justifiably fearing for their existence, at least by comparison with their previous dominance Even Status Quo have released their new album on their own label, needing just a distribution deal to get the product in the shops, notwithstanding that a large volume of sales will be by internet download in any case.

 

11 The World’s Yer Oyster!

 

With Pro Tools, Logic and all of the other advanced music software packages, the world is indeed your oyster for the modern Project Studio owner. There is no need for a wall full of expensive off board studio hardware- modern plug-ins can do the job very well. Editing is a dream: sliced fingers are a thing of the past! Very affordable and impressive microphones are now available. It certainly isn’t a case of “The small project studio equals Lo-Fi”! But maybe something has been lost along the way.

 

There are some things that cannot be created entirely in the Potting Shed with a laptop!

 

 

Pictures © Mikko Karmilla

 

Audio example included: Nightwish: Excerpt from ‘The

 

Poet and The Pendulum’ on Dark Passion Play (2007)

 

Nuclear Blast Records.

 

 

This is an example from a recent project. For their latest album, Finnish heavy metal rock band Nightwish featured a huge orchestra and choir, which were recorded at the wonderful Abbey Road Studio 1.

 

12 Some sobering thoughts:

 

Great team work has always been at the heart of the best music. From George Martin and The Beatles to the present day, this has been true. Latterly, the traditional designated roles are fast becoming integrated. The project studio owner/artist is now Producer, Engineer, Maintenance Man, and even his own tea boy! I hear many fine, creative producers that are delivering well recorded product, yet are writing what can only be described as poor songs, because that is how the business model has developed. The new teams are covering every aspect of a recording. In other words, we have a lot of “Jack of all trades” and may I say, very few masters of all the ingredients! What is wrong with the concept of great team work, where everyone has a clearly defined role? Trevor Horn recognises the value of working with a great engineer. Kate Bush is innovative at the highest level, yet always surrounds herself with a fine team. Has this desire to do it all resulted in lower standards? Would it not be more prudent to enlist the services of proven, quality songwriters, rather than to simply try and grab another slice of the cake? I consider myself a more than capable engineer, yet when I produce, that is the job I want to concentrate on, and always work with a great engineer by my side.

 

13 Traditional Training:

 

The old studio career path is fast disappearing. The long trail of tape op/tea boy- assistant engineer- junior engineer thrown in at the deep end and then working his way up, is only to be found in a few studios. Places like Abbey Road expect a high level of qualification and a good understanding of technical matters, before employing someone at ground level. The Music Technology courses, such as those at Thames Valley University London, where I currently teach, do a fantastic job in teaching students a wide range of associated and necessary industry skills, as well as the pure basics of recording music. A hip-hop producer who understands the dilemma of frequency masking will always be a more efficient mixer than he with no technical knowledge whatsoever!

 

14 Recordings with character!

 

I often listen to modern pop recordings and am impressed. Impressed at how samey and lacking in character many of them are! I remember a conversation I had with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads, at the famous Compass Point Studio in Nassau. This place always had technical problems, caused by generators and island life in general. I happened to mention these constant problems, but was met with the reply: “Yes, but what about the sound!” And this is the point: A guitarist understands the sonic and artistic differences between say a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Similarly, I sincerely hope that the unique qualities of legendary studios like Motown, Abbey Road, Olympic, The Record Plant and so many others, are not consigned to the

 

memories of a few. Because I maintain that those visionaries who have embraced the astonishing capabilities of modern technology, and yet have incorporated the considerable benefits of traditional studio acoustics and recording techniques will truly fly! I have recently recorded an album using an engineer with some thirty plus years of experience in traditional studios. We used Logic 6. Not even the newest software version. Yet his vast knowledge of signal path and mic technique enabled us to produce a truly organic album where the technology became an indispensable ingredient!

 

 

Audio example included: Status Quo ‘Beginning of The End’ on In Search of the Fourth Chord (2007) Fourth Chord Records.

 

 

15 A need to preserve traditional methods:

 

I’m constantly amazed at the brilliance of the latest software orchestral samples, but of course real orchestras will always be around. Groups will always need a studio to rock in. Film scores will always need the organic ingredient of live musicians. Ironically, these days, this is an area where the talented trainee may discover the best opportunity to find employment and learn a wonderful craft! As long as the facilities to train them still exist! Let us hope that manufacturers like Neve and SSL will continue to build their impressive consoles. I suspect this will become a situation of special order only, with these manufacturers generating their income by making dedicated hardware control surfaces for software

 

programmes. It surely cannot be economically viable for them to sell only one of these big desks every few years! Yet most of us still prefer to use a fader rather than a mouse and I don’t know many engineers that would be without a large console, if they had to record a ninety piece orchestra! Plug-ins will develop, with more control surfaces being used, but let us also hope that companies like Avalon, EAR and others will continue to make great hardware units too. At least until the plug-ins actually do sound like their hardware counterparts! And we can find a reverb with the wonderful warmth of an old EMT Plate! In short, embrace the new, but draw on and learn from the genius of the old!

 

 

Picture © The Official Community of Buddy Holly

 

Audio example included: Buddy Holly ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ (1959) Coral Records.

 

 

A recording made nearly fifty years ago, which even today, is still a benchmark of technical and production excellence!

 

16 In conclusion:

 

The Project Studio is here to stay and long may it continue to shape the making of great music in an exciting way! It will undoubtedly get better, cheaper and provide everybody with a platform to be creative. Professionals, Pro/Ams, Composers and Hopefuls will all benefit! Yet do we not owe it to these future generations of music practitioners, to preserve the genius and techniques of people who created masterpieces such as Pet Sounds and Sergeant Pepper? Let’s continue to turn out and revere master craftsmen like Geoff Emerick, Roy Hallee and George Massenburgh. We must ensure that essential microphone techniques, including the classics, such as Coincident pair, Mid-Side, Decca Trees et al, are kept alive in our minds, along with our understanding of what different mics can do! Let us not always conclude that an equalizer is the cure all! And a personal wish- don’t let analogue be forgotten! This is still a fantastic medium in the appropriate circumstances. And try, just for once, not using automation- A mix can be a performance too! Even in photography, cameras have changed and digital is the word, yet our archived knowledge and techniques in that field are preserved. Things have a habit of being cyclic, so who knows: One day we may yet see another studio boom! Let’s keep an open, receptive mind. THANK YOU!

 

Discography

 

The Tornados. 1962. ‘Telstar’ Decca Records. Produced by Joe Meek

 

Springwater. 1971. ‘I Will Return’ Polydor Records. Produced by Phil Cordell

 

Kylie Minogue. 1987. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ Geffen Records. Produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman

 

Nightwish. 2007. Excerpt from ‘The Poet and The Pendulum’ on Dark Passion Play. Nuclear Blast Records.

 

Status Quo. 2007. ‘Beginning of The End’ on In Search of the Fourth Chord. Fourth Chord Records. Produced by Pip Williams

 

Buddy Holly. 1959. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ Coral Records. Produced by Norman Petty