Business: Pause, rewind, record
Business: Pause, rewind, record
Phil Ward examines the recording sector’s viral windfall
Home recording was well established decades before this fateful year put the world into lockdown. In professional circles, it had become known as “project” recording, giving it a slightly speculative and, let’s face it, inferior status. But it almost wiped out the studio industry altogether, until a surprising resurgence that suggested what by now everyone knows perfectly well: being stuck at home is not necessarily the most creative option.
The economics were inarguable. For a fraction of the cost, an amazingly pro-sounding recording platform could be built almost anywhere, away from the abandoned halls of fame that charged by the hour. And that was the other thing: away from such meter-running crucibles, all the time in the world could be devoted to pressure-free production like you were the Beatles and could waltz in and out like you owned the place. Because you did.
Safe and sound
Where studios have revived, it’s partly because the savings on relatively inexpensive equipment can be redirected towards premises, which range enormously and reflect the individual personalities of the owners more than ever before. They are, it’s true, inspired by an urge to mingle, not self-isolate but, even under lockdown, a recording studio is not a particularly dangerous place to be and can be easily adapted to the fragmented nature of modern production.
Studios 301 in Sydney, the oldest studio enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere, is now a registered “Covidsafe” business, open for bookings while putting into practice a set of guidelines and the Australian Government’s Covid-19 Safety Plan. The cavernous Studio One has become a natural choice for streaming events, from gigs to conferences, as for socially distanced recording. Its online mixing and mastering services have only benefitted from the situation, and the combination of reputation and sheer size works in 301’s favour, regardless of the pandemic.
It’s a similar story at Beijing’s three-year-old 55TEC, an Asian jewel in the crown of the renowned Walters-Storyk Design Group. The spacious facility includes a 46m2 live room, specified for China’s emerging pop music market by owner and recording engineer Li You and business partners Wu Yongheng – a record producer and also known as top session drummer Bei Bei – and pro audio executive Lizzy Zhou. The pandemic seems hardly to have broken the enterprise’s bold stride.
“As most of the commercial recording studios go back to work, musicians are returning to them for serious sessions,” says Mills Xu, director of strategic alliance and marketing at Budee Group in Beijing. “55TEC is the perfect example: they reopened on 15 April and had their third anniversary celebrations in May. Most of the artists who have recorded there came along and helped to promote the occasion.”
But even if studios are making operational adjustments for Covid-19, is there enough business to justify upgrading the facilities? “Globally, there is a big difference between commercial studios and the home recording market,” says Adam Audio CEO, Christian Hellinger. “In parallel with the boost of entry-level and mid-segment studio monitors, we could also be seeing a decline in high-end products – even if they’re already slightly recovering over the last two months. This is a global situation and we can’t see significant differences between countries or regions. As long as studios remain closed, I’m sure they’re holding back investment until there is more clarity about reopening. In general, and the long term, I’m not worried and quite convinced that this market will fully recover.”
API Audio’s director of sales, Dan Zimbelman, also believes investment in bigger facilities is only temporarily paused. “Large-format consoles for major projects are on hold because of the hiatus in construction,” he says. “On the other hand, sales of smaller consoles are consistent, while our processing modules have seen excellent turnover.” In particular, API’s 500 Series 565 Filter Bank has seen a 500% increase in sales, which Zimbelman attributes to a rise in recording environments with insufficient isolation from extraneous noise, such as air conditioning and traffic.
Chris Allen at PMC is seeing visible spending across the board. “We have experienced a rise in customers interested in upgrading their monitoring during the pandemic,” he says, “not only nearfields for home production but also larger facilities using this time to refurbish their main monitoring. Our best sellers right now are a mixture of active nearfields – Result6 and the TwoTwo range – as well as the larger IB2S XBD-A and MB3 XBD-A active main monitors.”
DiGiGrid’s campaign to promote its compact audio interfaces basks under the confident headline: “Supplying the Home Front”. As users bunker down in the face of the invisible invasion, DiGiGrid – a collaboration between DiGiCo and Waves – promises a line of defense optimised for home recording like sonic sandbags: the D and M interfaces, Q headphone amplifier and S PoE-capable SoundGrid switches turn a modest software-based recording desktop into a workable mini-studio. As DiGiGrid’s brand manager Dan Page puts it: “While we all miss the human interactions of a busy office or the excitement of a live gig, the wonders of technology keep us connected.”
To some extent, lockdown caught the supply chain off guard. “At the beginning of lockdown, we had no idea how the situation would develop,” said Adam Audio’s Hellinger. “Looking back, it seems logical that when people are encouraged to stay at home, they try to make the best of it – and many of them bought musical instruments or home recording equipment like our monitors or audio interfaces. One other consequence of the lockdown is the increased demand for podcast equipment.”
“All retailers I talk to have seen spikes in online sales,” adds Allen, “especially for small products intended for private home use, such as interfaces and mics, as well as hardware and software processors. Like us, a lot of brands are working hard to keep up with demand – and this is a challenge for the factories where social distancing is still crucial.”
In every region, a new relationship between home and commercial studios is emerging. “The home studio market is steadily developing, as well as the online connectivity market, and product upgrades in recording studios are constantly being made,” confirms Jin Kim, assistant manager, executive department of Seoul-based reseller BLS. “However, it has actually decreased compared to the situation before Covid-19. In addition, if you take a look at these markets regardless of Covid-19, the influx of entry-level users is constantly growing, along with individual music studios and livestreaming spaces. The demand for mid-level products is stagnant or declining: entry-level products are highly preferred. However, there is no impact on purchases of high-end products, where there is a reliable budget.”
What BLS means by entry-level is Tascam, alongside M-Audio’s array of peripherals, while the company’s high-end brands include Manley, Tube-Tech, Grace Design, Neve and Prism Sound. “Studios are operating in accordance with the government’s quarantine guidelines,” adds Chang Shik Shin, BLS’ assistant manager, Channel Business Dept. “But artist demand is steady because live performance has been discouraged.”
“Everybody is getting involved,” agrees Hussain Shaikh, senior manager, content and digital marketing at reseller Bajaao Music in Mumbai, “whether professional or amateur, musician or podcaster. All you need is a good microphone, an audio interface and a quiet room. For monitoring, we’re selling a lot of KRK, PreSonus and Yamaha.”
The more remote the studio, meanwhile, the safer it is – as confirmed by Setiadi Chandra, owner of music and audio shop ChandraCom in Jakarta. “I have several customers in Bali, a very good place for creative production,” he reveals. “And they are mostly European – not Indonesian. One studio, Swarapadi Villa, is a luxury hotel in itself.”
Interfaces by Steinberg, Native Instruments, SSL, Antelope and Arturia are all selling well in Indonesia. “It’s a sign of a lot of newcomers to the market,” Chandra points out, “because the most sales are of entry-level models. But life’s real meaning is becoming important to people and, if this is what they’ve always wanted to do, now is the time.”
“Since our monitors have the ability to adapt to their acoustic environment, this new remote working culture is one that they tend to flourish in,” points out Ken Kimura, Genelec’s business development director for Asia Pacific. “Also, with more time at home, we’ve seen a surge in interest from private individuals across the region looking to upgrade their entertainment and hi-fi systems for recreational listening as more audio enthusiasts are realising the benefits of active loudspeaker technology and in-room calibration.”
The hobby lobby
“As Covid-19 hit Australia, we noticed an immediate uptake in our Audient and EVO by Audient interface sales,” comments Paul Newcomb, business development manager at distributor, Studio Connections. “It became clear that people saw the lockdown of our cities as an opportunity to explore podcasting and livestreaming and they embraced this opportunity in big numbers. Musicians, no longer able to go into recording studios, purchased an Audient interface to enable them to continue tracking the album they were working on, at home.”
Artist, producer and founder of Music Production for Women, Xylo Aria, has been using her Audient iD14 audio interface with a MacBook Pro and three mics during lockdown in Melbourne for her weekly MPW podcast, featuring conversations with industry professionals about music production or equipment. “Often, when we’re busy, we feel that we need more time to create music but, in this situation, time is in abundance,” she says. “However, your mind is under different pressure to work out how to sustain and adapt to this new world.”
Yet adapt we must. Ravisankar Nadiyam is Waves Audio’s regional sales manager for Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South Korea. “The engineers from most studios have had to set up something at home, and they have gone for pro gear, he says. “But the real boom, if you can call it that, is at semi-pro and project level. Firstly, hobbyists with nine-to-five jobs suddenly found the time to do what they love – plugging in that guitar they hadn’t touched in ages and finding that the amp or microphone didn’t work properly. So, they started buying.
“Secondly, many of those forced to stay at home have decided to take their hobby a lot more seriously – either changing career or finding an alternative income. Online collaboration platforms have become the focus of attention, and reducing latency is the main issue. At Waves, we have around 250 plug-ins that work on all platforms from GarageBand to Pro Tools, and we’re supporting the uptake with discounts and special bundles like the Content Creator Audio Toolkit.”
We could, in a few years’ time, see the fruits of all this labour in a new spike: that of individual and independent new music distributed online, giving rise to what headline writers might well call “Flu Wave”. Let’s face it, Daniel Bedingfield recorded his first hit in his bedroom with a PC and a microphone, using Reason music software – and called it Gotta Get Thru This. Nicely put, Daniel.