It’s no secret that the music industry is tightening its belt nowadays. Spare a thought, however, for the recording studio. The highly unstable industry has been fundamentally changed by the emergence of music colleges, cheap digital equipment and home studios in the past decade. Investigations into recording studios have also found some studio owners having to dramatically drop their rates to stay competitive, work exhausting hours and in some cases take advantage of the increased amount of people looking for experience in the industry.
Over the past weeks State has talked to four audio engineers at various levels to get their thoughts about their experiences of getting where they are now, how the industry has changed over the years and how they manage to run their studio nowadays.
Kevin Roche, independent home recording studio
“You can’t compete at all in a market that has enough people with just a computer and a mic.”
Kevin started his home recording studio with his brother Enda, a student in audio engineering. In the beginning, he says, the studio simply emerged from the gradual build up of equipment in their rehearsal space, the large shed behind their house. “After a few years of playing you realise you can actually just record yourselves for rehearsal purposes” he says. “And then when you get a bit better at doing that you start thinking ‘well there’s plenty of people out there that don’t have the space that we have’ and you kind of think ‘we could be recording other people.’” The decision to create their home recording studio, he says, introduced him to an entirely new creative area. “I think it’s a great thing for a musician to learn what a studio is and what the sound process is. It’s a discipline. If you ever want to be on the route of being recorded, which is what most people do, understanding the recording process is really important. So I guess that’s kind of by default you get into it by just having the equipment and start messing around yourself with it, that’s about it.”
While much of the equipment had already been brought in, Kevin and Enda still nonetheless found other ways of growing their studio, using Myspace and word of mouth (and even business cards) to build up their reputation. To minimise costs they used extra recording set ups people brought in, salvaged old computers and skirted around licensing fees for recording software. “The only reason why I didn’t go [a] stage past that initially, even though we wanted to, was because it was very expensive” says Kevin. “The licences, that’s your biggest cost there and that’s still big for anyone running a studio. At one stage I was even contemplating going out and trying to find cheap recording equipment that’s being thrown out of other places that are going digital and thinking maybe analogue [was] the cheapest way to go. But the appeal of digital was way too big for anyone, even to today. Enda was the one who put in the first proper computer there, so it was just save up, buy a computer, go Pro Tools, go legit with it, save up [the] money and do it.”
Nonetheless, Kevin and Enda had more practical challenges. Living in the suburbs meant trying to insulate the sound of the band they were recording as well as maintaining some level of quality. “You have a little room and you try to deaden it as much and you’ve probably got a flat sound because you’re trying to soundproof it because you’ve got neighbours close by and all of this business. So you end up going one way and that’s [a] very clean, dead sound and then you put on digital effects afterwards. You just try to come up with low tech solutions like hang a duvet in front of the vocal, you try to make a little dead space for him in the same room. Personally I kind of like the challenge of having too much happening.”
After recording a variety of bands Kevin and Enda decided to put the studio’s activities on hiatus. “[Enda] is a sound engineer, he’s been studying that for years. He was like ‘No, I’m going to study this properly’ instead of just kind of learning ad hoc as you go along. Part of that is just to get further education, I think another part is that even a few years ago…you didn’t really stand out by having a few mics and a computer. And in a nutshell that’s all I can see in us. The only difference you can make to it is how good you are and working with a musician and working with the sound and really really having the edge up on anyone else by being able to make something sound that extra bit sweeter.”
Shay Leon, Shay’s Studio
“The pressure is completely off. Once you’re not dependent on it [to] make a living you don’t care if somebody will come or not come.”
For Shay Leon of Shay’s Studio, his similar origins have lead to his current custom-fitted studio in Galway. “I had a basic recording set up so I started with it a long time ago. At the time you couldn’t really record for cheap, I started recording for like €100 using a very basic setup but actually I was fully booked then, much more than I am now. I was booked two months in advance at the time.” Originally from Israel, Shay moved to Ireland to work in the IT industry. When redundancies hit his company, Shay changed his profession to artist to remain in Ireland and looked to develop his studio as a means of income. “To actually make it as a business it was circumstance really.”
Shay took to bringing in acoustic expert Max Hodges to redesign his property, installing insulation acoustics and removing the ceiling in the live room to help create a more professional sound. This helped Shay to establish himself as someone who could provide quality recordings at a lower price than professional studios, though also lead to him being placed in a narrower price bracket. “I’m a bit in the middle of the road because I’m not at the home level so I cannot charge peanuts but at the same time if someone has loads of money they will probably go to some fancy, posh studio that will cost them €600 a day.”
This eventually forced Shay to go beyond the studio in order to earn more. “For ten years I did it as a full time job, but then it wasn’t enough to pay the bills so I had to find another income source… so I worked at the studio on weekends but then occasionally people would want to use the studio on weekdays and I was not there or I was busy with other stuff so I got another two people that are sort of [started] filling in. For a long time I offered a lot and I would do loops in the air and anything I can but at the end of the day it stopped paying the bills. And maybe it’s a sign of the times, maybe it’s my lack of marketing skills, maybe it’s a lot of things. But luckily I was able to get something else as the main source of income so I don’t have to chase people anymore and I still have returning clients who are regulars and I really enjoy this, I love this job. But I don’t have to go crazy and reinvent myself every second day which is really a big relief.”
Ultimately sharing the running of the studio, Shay says, has helped him enjoy his work more by alleviating some of the financial pressure. “I’m really doing it for fun and I enjoy it much more than I did before. It’s almost like…you don’t have to do it every day, it’s like ‘wow, yeah I have someone come to record today, it’s great!’”