The Constrictions of Project Studios

Not so much now, because big studios have become almost extinct, like dinosaurs, but about a decade ago, it was fashionable to bemoan the music being produced in small, project studios and home studios.  Many of the arguments made, back then, were pretty valid and we haven’t found a way of answering all the criticisms of producing music in a small space.

Here are some of the constraints and restrictions of small studios:

  • You can’t be loud – When you record in a home studio, or a small project room that is adjacent to other rooms and other properties, as soon as you turn it up, there will be complaints. There isn’t a way of soundproofing the room well enough to make this problem go away and if you do succeed in achieving a modicum of sound absorption, it’s like working in an airlock and all your recordings sound dull and lifeless.  When the room sounds dull, you play dull.  You ideally want your sound to reverberate nicely, in the recording space, but not to transmit beyond that.  Achieving that is expensive, if possible at all.  You’ll never stop the bass notes.  Physics won’t let you.
  • You can be overheard – Knowing that others are listening to your newest creation can really make you feel like everybody is listening. Not only can this cramp your style, but you begin to worry about your creation finding its way into the wild, before it’s finished and ready.  You also tend to self censor, when you know other people are hearing you, as you make the recording.  That visceral, guttural, pained cry of anguish that you want to put into your vocal performance won’t come out of your mouth.  It will get caught somewhere in your throat and make you sound like Kermit the frog.
  • You’ll feel self conscious – There are few more intimidating moments in life than performing before an audience that you cannot see or interact with at all. I think this is why even when bands stream their music live, they have a local audience to play to.  If your studio is acoustically transparent to all passers-by, it will definitely cramp your playing and singing.  You won’t want to sound terrible or disturb anybody.  Who wants to broadcast their mistakes, fluffed notes and badly sung lines to the outside world, while trying to create?
  • Your neighbours will hate you – Your neighbours will mostly experience your music production as an endless, repetitive series of muffled bass and kick drum thumps, at all hours, including antisocial hours and on weekends, with people slamming doors and coming and going at unusual times of the day. They will hate you.
  • You can’t hear what you made in enough clarity – Partly because the space is small and partly because the walls have ears, you won’t monitor with big monitors, at character-building levels. You’ll tend to work with the volume way down.  While that can give you a good guide to actual, consumer listening conditions and save your hearing, it will also mean you miss many of the subtle little aspects of your sound, which will consequently escape your quality control.  Not being able to occasionally hear these things with good clarity means you won’t hear them at all.  The first people that will are consumers of your music with really good speakers.
  • The room sounds small when recorded – Recording acoustic instruments, drum kits, amplifiers and vocals in a small room tends to make the recording sound exactly like you were hostages, tied up in the boot of a car. The ear is very sensitive to the acoustic environment captured on a live recording, so the ambience will be that of a cupboard, not a concert hall.  Adding artificial reverb can mask some of this, but the telltale characteristics of the early echoes will remain.
  • You play smaller in smaller rooms – As a player, you will tend to back off and play in a much more conservative way, in a small room. It’s psychological.  You don’t want to break anything, by playing loud and you probably can’t stand to be in a small room with a loud amplifier anyway.  In a larger room, where you would have played with projection and expansiveness, your music will sound like it is being delivered to the audience.  In a small room, where none of that applies, you music will sound as if you are holding it back from the audience.  If you try to compensate by turning it up, the small room will saturate with reverberation, no matter how well acoustically treated and the wincing and pain you experience while tolerating your own overly loud playing will also be evident in your performance.
  • The room sounds small at playback – When mixing a track (or mastering), few things are as unexciting and uninspiring as listening in a small room. Yes, small rooms might sound like a domestic audio environment, but how do you make your record bigger than life?  How do you convince yourself to take sonic risks and chances, if the whole thing is reproduced by a pair of tiny, tinny speakers, operating at barely audible levels?  The Fletcher-Munson loudness curves really apply and mixing at very low levels can make you balance the mid frequencies in the wrong way.  What you will tend to do is mix safely, meaning the music will sound polished, but lacking in enthusiasm.  Selling unenthusiastic sounding records is very difficult.
  • There’s no-one to help – You’re on your own. You have to do everything.  There is no staff to call upon, there are no secretaries and there are no gophers.  If it breaks, you have to fix it yourself or get it fixed.  Nobody can rein you in, when you’re off track or being bombastic or excessive, artistically.  You will have a tendency to flog dead horses, working on rotten songs, long past the point where they should have been shelved.  You have to be your own coach and mentor and when you begin to flag and wilt, nobody will feed you, revive you or send you to bed to get some sleep.  Consequently, you’ll make mistakes, because you’re too tired, too blinkered or too sick and tired of the sound of your own music.  There’s nobody there to get enthusiastic with, so it’s hard to maintain an energetic vibe.
  • There can be only one (person in it) – Typically, your space will be so small, you cannot comfortably accommodate a collaborator anyway. You’ll be poking each other in the ribs with your elbows or dealing death blows to each other’s foreheads and temples, with your guitar headstocks, assuming you don’t first blind them by poking them in the eyeball with an untrimmed guitar string.  Nothing is as claustrophobic and creativity killing as having to work with somebody inside your personal space, the whole time.
  • Your domestic power supply will be rubbish – Domestic supplies have refrigerators attached to them, which turn on and off automatically, placing an audible spike into your audio chain, in the middle of your best take. There is no requirement for your power supply authority to prevent line noise.  Consequently, your power supply will be poorly earthed, wired into the walls of your premises like a giant induction loop, for maximum noise feed through into your gear, fail outright at the worst possible moments and be full of snaps, crackles and pops, which will be recorded faithfully, in highest resolution, by your digital audio workstation.  You will spend a lot of your creative energy solving noise problems, even if you get smart and run your production equipment from an uninterruptible power supply and use isolating DI boxes everywhere.
  • Small rooms eat bass so you’ll put too much into your mix and master – It takes a certain volume of air, with the walls of the space a sufficient distance apart, to support a standing wave at the lowest frequencies you will wish to have present in your music. Pure physics again, I’m afraid.  If the room is smaller than that, then the bass is eaten (you just can’t hear it very well), so you will overcompensate with EQ.  When your music is played back in a decent sized space, then the recording will sound bass heavy, as if you are some rank amateur audio engineer, producing a DJ mix for his latest girlfriend.  Alternatively, being mindful of the possibility, you will keep the bass turned down, just in case, and release music that has no bottom end whatsoever.  Unless you can hear it, it’s difficult to adjust the amount of it you have in your music.
  • You tend to produce mediocre, bland music, with stifled performances, instead of daring, exciting music – The sum total of the disadvantages of small recording spaces mean that the music you produce will not be bad (because that would take special genius), but it won’t be very good, either. It will sound bland and mediocre, devoid of the excitement of artistic chances being taken.  Good luck selling that.

The flipside of the argument is all the things that are wrong with making music in large studios (many of which partly explain why they are dying out):

  • Big studios can stifle performance because they’re intimidating – Trying to play into too large a space, especially when you are attempting to make sensitive, intimate, personal musical statements, can be just as intimidating and make you play as self-consciously, as playing something wild and loud in a small space. Right-sizing the performance space to the song under production seems to be critically important.
  • Big studios have too many visitors with huge egos – You have to really love people to work in a big studio. I mean you have to have a serious gregariousness habit.  Every man and his dog seems to breeze through, to check out what’s going on and be seen somewhere painfully cool.  This is a massive distraction from the work you are trying to do, which is to produce some music.  If they open their mouths, it will usually be to “helpfully” critique what you are making or to proclaim how much better and cooler they could have made it.  Locking the doors won’t help either, because you have to eat, eventually and it gets awfully stuffy in there.
  • Big studios cost big money, which forces you to work too long and too fast, missing important details – Watching your money burn away with every delay and tick of the studio clock means you will be tempted to flog yourself to death, during the session, to get more than is realistic done. You’ll work so hard and so fast, that mistakes will be made.  Those are the mistakes you only find when you are listening back to the finished product and it’s far too late to correct them.  As the day extends into the early hours of the next morning, your performances will sound as if they are being played by somebody that should have been in bed, asleep, hours ago.  Not a good sound.
  • Nothing causes a musical block faster than knowing you are running out of money and time – As your funds dwindle (at an alarming rate, in a large studio), your creative ideas will dry up. You’ll be too worried about finishing on time (or not finishing at all), or else going to jail for using studio time you didn’t have the money to buy, to think about doing another take, or to extend the middle eight or add another track of cow bell.  This can seriously inhibit your musical output.  Some studios won’t release your master tapes until you settle the bill.  No wonder.  This is a pretty common problem and it causes crumby music to be made.
  • Big studios have too many opinions, many of which are wrong – Too much help is worse than none at all. If everybody’s artistic taste is brought to bear, some with their own agendas and you are not confident about your musical vision, you can wind up trying all sorts of stupid ideas, at your cost, before you arrive at the sound you were looking for.  Every take costs you money, so some producers will keep you adding takes, with a view to comping from them, even if you played the solo perfectly, the first time.  People that don’t know anything about you as an artist, or about what you are trying to accomplish musically, who may not even like you or your music, will try to add their input to the production process, all the same.  This “input” can be infinite.  As an artist, you have to draw a line under it and proceed.  Keep to your own vision and timeline, unless somebody really can convince you they have a better idea, or can deliver a superior musical performance or musical idea, a different way.  If you listen, be careful to ensure that song writing and performance rights, production credit and publishing ownership is contractually agreed and understood by all.  There is a phrase: “change a word and claim a third”.  Many serious commercial mistakes are made by artists that are simply too accommodating to unwelcome input.  Don’t let this become a black hole.
  • In a big studio, somebody will try to impress you by deafening you – In any given recording session, in a large studio, somebody will push the multiple kilowatts monitoring system to its very limits, producing sound pressure levels that are guaranteed to foreshorten your audio production career. There is always one idiot and studio monitoring systems are capable of hurting you – permanently and irreversibly.  They have to be, so that they can deliver detailed audio reproduction at lower levels.  Pushing the monitors to the point of converting sound to light might seem big and clever, but it’s ultimately stupid and extremely costly to your aural health.  For all I know, you may begin to suffer from blast wave shock.
  • You aren’t going to need a big space all of the time – There are large stretches of time, during the music production process, where you are forensically editing, or programming, where the big space is a sheer waste of money, because it confers no advantage to you. Unfortunately, most recording projects are not sufficiently portable, fast enough, to move to a small, more appropriate space, when you are dealing with the small details, that don’t require a good listening or recording space.  This is why you wind up paying for space that you aren’t using.
  • Big studios are often filled to overkill with gear you’re paying for – A well equipped studio is like being let loose in a candy store. Your eyes are bigger than your belly.  Rapidly, though, you realise that learning to use all of that gear, artistically, takes precious time, or else you try to throw everything but the kitchen sink onto your track and it sounds like an ungodly mess.  All of those blinking lights, which are ready and waiting to go, are being paid for by you, the client.  It’s all included in the price.  They’re all typically bought on credit, so you are, in effect, paying for the interest on the loans that bought all that idle gear, whether you use it or not.  Being tempted to use it, just because it is there, will sabotage the sound you are trying to get, more often than not.  Sometimes, the best recordings are made when there isn’t enough gear, actually.
  • Big studios make the hourly rate, whether or not you’re interrupted, distracted or sandbagged – Keeping your sessions productive is of paramount importance to you, but for studios and staff that charge by the hour, the faster they work, the less they make. This sometimes leads to lethargy and sandbagging, especially among the more jaded and less ethical.  Outside calls, interruptions, distractions and frequent breaks will all be in evidence.   They might be very bored with the process of making your music come to life.  In turn, this can really annoy you.  Conflict arises and that stamps itself all over your music.  You’re annoyed at everything taking so long (sometimes unrealistically, it has to be said), so you play that way.  They want to slow things down, so that takes all the vibe and excitement out of the music making.  When the vibe in the room is bad, the music accurately records this.  Quincy Jones used to take special care to ensure that everybody was having a good time, laughing and joking, before trying to get the music down to tape.  This is why his music productions have life, energy and enjoyment built into every part.
  • Bad music sounds bad in a big studio too – There’s no getting around this. If the song is no good and none of the musicians can play very well, then nobody can change that downstream, irrespective of how much skill and technology they apply to “fix it in the mix”.  A rotten song is a rotten song, no matter how good a studio it was made in.  When this becomes tragic is when making that rotten song costs a fortune.

All I can conclude is that we haven’t yet found a way to make exciting music in a small space reliably, without the drawbacks, or to make big studios viable in the twenty-first century.  It will be interesting to see how things develop.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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