News From The Woods - August, 1993


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published August, 1993

"Two Steps Forward - One Step Back"

Although I love living "back in the woods" here in Mountain Home, there are a few drawbacks. One is trying to stay in touch with the music industry, and keeping up with the business. I have managed to do it by subscribing to as many trade magazines as I can find time to read. I get most of the "major" trades like Sound News, Recording Engineer/Producer, db Magazine, Pro Sound News, A/V Video, EQ, Videomaker, Video Toaster User, Lightwave Pro, and Mix Magazine. Now that's a lot of stuff to filter through on a monthly basis. Fortunately, I love to read.

As a kid growing up in Arkansas, there wasn't much else to do but read. KYTV Channel 3 in Springfield was about all the TV you could pick up in this remote area. This was before cable TV. This was before video games, or even videotape for that matter. We listened to WLS radio in Chicago at night. Local radio was pretty bad. Mostly Porter Wagoner and company. Mom and Dad weren't into C&W, so I wasn't exposed that much to the genre except for what little radio I heard in the stores and shops around the square on Saturday morning. To amuse myself I looked at the pictures in my parents Look and Life magazines. Later I graduated to comic books. I read and saved hundreds of them. Eventually Mom persuaded me to get rid of them … something I almost never forgave her for. I had all the first issues of Marvel Superheroes like the Fantastic 4, X-Men, Spiderman, etc. Boy! I could retire now if I had just hung on to them, but who would have guessed? By the time I was in High School I had moved up to sci-fi papterbacks. And after taking a speed reading course in military school, I really learned how to zip through pages of copy and still retain continuity.

I still read quite fast, but slow down a bit when reading technical descriptions. Anyway, my love of reading serves me well and I can still "talk shop" with my contemporaries on the coast, even though I've had no "hands on" experience with a new pice of gear or technology.

In the past 6 months I have been aware of a changing climate and attitude taken by the editorial staff of several of these trades. A lot of attention is being paid to the proliferation of prosumer recording equipment. Back when the first 4-track portastudios entered the scene they were looked upon by the professional industry as cute toys. Since the quality was so poor by comparison to a professional recording studio, no one considered this entry into the market as competition. Record companies certainly wouldn't accept demos produced on this gear as "bonafide."

Now we have affordable digital multitracks; inexpensive signal processing; super drum machines, samplers and sequencers; and entire recording equipment packages for less than $10,000. The scene is changing so rapidly now that gear is obsolete before it's a year old. The recording process has been written about and analyzed so much that anyone with the time to read it all will get the equivalent of a 1970 college degree in music-engineering in their own home, and with the money saved on that college education they can set themselves up with the gear to record to their heart's content.

I've been hearing talk in the industry lately about the number of "big time" recording facilities shutting down one after the other for lack of business. It's becoming less and less profitable to a full-blown recording studio for several reasons, mainly due to the cheaper means to record and the obsolescence factor on high-end expensive recording gear. And now that some of the new groups and artists are getting record contracts based on material recorded in these "cheaper" facilities, shock waves are being felt throughout the far reaches of the music recording industry. If this is affecting the "big time," how will this effect smaller independent recording studios like mine?

Well, as for me, I haven't been perceptively affected. I'm just a little 16-track stuck away here in the woods, but I do get a fair amount of business. It can't be because of my gear, as my bands and artists come from Dallas, Kansas City, Tulsa, Omaha, even LA, and I KNOW they can get much better facilities there and surely at much cheaper rates, not to mention travelling all the way here to record. Since we don't solicit business or do mail-outs, etc., any new clients hear about us pretty much through word-of-mouth. Either a regular client tells them to call me, or they hear some product recorded here and they like it or "want that sound." Well, "that sound" was obtained by over 25 years of recording experience, which leads me to ask: Where are we going to get the sound engineers of the future?

If I were starting out today, using this generation of recording gear to learn from, I might learn all I can about the gear and what it does, but there would be no "mentor" to show me WHY I should put that particular mic WHERE and HOW to achieve that particular sound from an acoustic piano. Your answer might be "Go to a recording school," but I don't think that's the answer either. I've met too many grads of these schools who know all the model numbers and brand names but have no practical experience to draw from. There is a very distinct difference between SCHOOL and LIFE. In a lot of ways I was lucky to NOT have a recording school to attend. There's a lot to be said for sweeping floors in a studio for your first job. It certainly isn't glamorous, but then neither is this business once you get to know it.

In the not-too-distant future, things may radically change. First of all, with less and less full-fledged professional studios manned by qualified and experienced engineers, there will be les room for "wanna-be's" to work their way into the fold. The only way of establishing yourself as an engineer may be by going through a recording school. I interpret this as a possible future full of technically knowledgeable engineers with limited training and no experience to draw from … not a rosy prediction for the industry in general. It could mean that musical creativity might be put on the back burner. There are those industry pros that fear that this is happening already, helped along my MIDI sequencing, sample looping, and musicians-turned-hackers operating on the latest prosumer audio gear out of their bedrooms and garages. If so, there's going to be a lot of sore musicians out there left holding the bag and wondering how they are going to get a decent recording contract without hocking the house.

Maybe people will tire of the limitations posed by small personal studios manned by relatively inexperienced "wanna-be's" and will return to a more down-sized and moderately-priced professional recording facility. Certainly the bigger studios are studying their options even as I write this article, as they can't possibly hope to keep operating at their present level without eventually taking a financial beating.

As for me and Cedar Crest Studio, I'll just keep plunking along and going with the flow. If the audio business starts drying up, at least my gear is paid for. I'm in no hurry to go 24-track just to keep up with the Besides, look what George Martin did with just 4 tracks…*

[*For the uninformed, the producer of the Beatles recorded most of their work, including the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, entirely on a 4-track recorder, Ed.]

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