The More Things Change

The other day I got a call from a writer for a trade publication who was polling several “famous name” studio designers about industry trends.

As is often the case, the writer was looking for “the changes at the cutting edge”, hoping to lock onto the “real pulse of our business.” (An unfortunate mix of metaphors, I thought, but you get the idea.) One of the questions posed to me seems to be a familiar one these days: “How are you responding to the new and increasingly divergent needs of the studio business?”

I had trouble making my response fit the question, because I was thinking, “That’s funny, in studio design it looks to me like a lot of things are becoming more the same, not more different.” And from where I sit, it seems the objectives that are foremost in our clients’ minds really aren’t anything new.

It’s popular right now to compartmentalize different aspects of our business, something I’ve even seen in this column on occasion. Everyone wants to pit one camp against another: project studios against more traditional facilities, big against little, specialization against full-service.

Now, don’t get me wrong: different studios have different needs. Every project is unique, and you should be wary of anyone who seems to have a “cookie cutter” approach to design, or implies that they know exactly what you need before you’ve even shown them around the place.

But change and diversity notwithstanding, I’m hearing a lot of common concerns from clients. All up and down the scale, they’re expressing the same needs when it comes to studio design: they need to know that the finished product will meet their goals, both in performance and budget, and they need assurances that what they’re doing will be appropriate for their unique operation. In short, they want predictable results. Advancing audio technology has raised expectations for product quality in all markets and at all levels of sophistication and in all types of studios. Regardless of the program or the audience, you need to be able to make accurate aural judgments, or someone out there will make them for you. It may be hard anymore to tell whether something you hear came from a big studio or a little one, but it sure is easier to tell whether that studio sounds very good.

Today, studio clients all want the same thing: predictable results. An increasing use of sampling, a return to acoustic instruments, a trend toward pre-production of “pieces parts” that will carry through an entire project — there are a lot of reasons to get it right the first time, and to be able to recognize it when it happens. Years ago when everybody had the same “brown” sound, more or less, the difference between a good room and a bad one was less noticeable. Now, in a digital world, you can’t hide.

The last decade or so has seen some real progress in our understanding of acoustics, particularly in monitoring environments, and the best studio designers have been able to take advantage of new ideas. At the same time, we’re seeing some old acoustical myths slowly fade away. (“You’ll want that door to be a layer of plywood, then soundboard, then machine rubber… no, wait, I’ve got it, it’s plywood, then sheet lead, then the soundboard, then…”) These days, serious studios are less willing to rely on someone who only knows that it worked in the last (and only) place he or she designed. Economically, in an industry where competition hits you from new angles all the time, it’s becoming essential to maximize performance within a limited budget. No matter what the size of the project or the money available, everyone needs more bang for the buck to make a go of it. Whether it’s a garage studio or some mega-mothership, it’s no longer good enough to say, “Let’s just start building this thing. We’ll figure out what we need as we go along.” At the high end of the scale, dollar-wise, fewer and fewer operations can afford a “cost is no object” attitude. Big studios are learning that it’s easy to throw money at a problem, but much more difficult if you want the solution to make good business sense. For facilities with a smaller capital outlay, it’s harder these days to remain competitive if you have a second-rate room, and a lot harder to recover if your one shot at a facility design falls short of the mark. If you’re unprepared for the process, you may wind up with a very unpleasant surprise.

So what can you do when you’re faced with building a new facility or bringing your existing one up to date?

  • Start early. There’s precious little anyone can do to help you a month before your lease is up.
  • Bring your budget, functional requirements, and schedule into focus simultaneously. Avoid the “buy the equipment, buy the building, then decide what kind of studio you want” syndrome.
  • Recognize the importance of good site selection. If you make a poor choice, you can spend all your money, time, and effort just dealing with the shortcomings of a building or location.
  • Hire someone who can fit a facility to your unique needs. Personally, I don’t think this should be someone who wants to sell you equipment based on their current stock, or someone whose profit margin is increased whenever they can cut corners in the construction. A good designer will save you money, because they will put each dollar to work where it will do the most good. The best and most expensive construction techniques may be wasted if some minor flaw is not recognized and corrected, and a good designer will pay attention to those thousand little details that must be coordinated.
  • Talk to others who have gone through the process of designing a ground-up facility, or renovating a room, or relocating. Membership in SPARS can allow you access to people all across the country who’ve been there. You’re likely to find someone who’s had a surprisingly similar experience, and they’re likely to have some very specific ideas about what they’d do and not do if they went through it again.

In general, SPARS members have a pretty good knowledge of who’s out there, and can steer you toward a reputable design firm, one that makes a living at helping people get appropriate facilities. Professional organizations like the National Council of Acoustical Consultants (NCAC) can also help identify a firm that’s right for you.

Of course, I can think of one in particular, but really there are a number of design firms with excellent capabilities. Losing a project to another design professional is never pleasant for us, but it’s always better than seeing a client fail because they tried to do it themselves, or because they hired someone with no credentials and no understanding of the process. That kind of job casts a poor light on all of us in the studio design business, and creates just one more mediocre facility.

Most of all, don’t forget why you’re doing this. Why do your clients seek your services? Because you’re a professional who offers them confidence that their needs will be met and their goals realized. Our clients, from the smallest home MIDI room to the largest multi-studio complex, all seem to want the same thing in studio design: predictable performance from a custom-tailored facility that’s fun to work in.

OK, so maybe this industry does have some “new and increasingly divergent needs.” But it also has some ageless ones. Studios that want to succeed will adapt to the new challenges by recognizing the ones we’ve all seen before.