Sunday, 7 August 2016

The four quid studio. There's a price to pay.

1996 - £4,000 (if you're lucky)
2006 - £400
2016 - £4

I'm a geek. I love kit and new tech. I love how cheap it's all become, how easy it is to get hold of, and what it lets you do, especially in radio production. 

I also love talent. I adore the work being done by local musicians. I idealistically try to spread the word about fabulous new talent by blogging right here. Of course my blog software, like any online tool, is hosted on massive server farms which are ecological nightmares. Ir's not a win-win. 

My radio stuff goes up to Mixcloud – another free to use (at least to start with) service. By the time you get to the thousand hours and more of current (Brum Radio) output, it costs a bit, but not much. So we're back to server farms. And that keeps the wheels of the monstrous engine turning over. 

We all keep the wheels turning. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, email. Even Pokemon Go loonies who seriously need to get a life. I worry about the downsides; we all should. But the upsides are breathtaking. 

Live recording on a single figure budget

We've been let loose in a store of brilliant tech goodies. But this shiny largesse comes with drawbacks. New kit comes our way cheaply through ruthless globalised competition. The new toys are made by companies halfway round the world who often impose awful working conditions. The new competitiveness means less jobs in the UK. 

And yet, and yet.

Last week, I recorded a gig: Mahalia at the Glee Club. It's my sixteenth recording sortie this year. I rolled up with my portable recording kit. I've got a couple of cheap recorders, a cables and connectors to use with different mixers, clips, batteries, SD cards, USB sticks, batteries, power leads, bits and pieces. The recording firepower this represents would have blown the mind of any engineer twenty years ago. The cost then would have run into the tens of thousands, and you certainly could not have packed it all in a small bag. Now? Pretty much what a low to medium budget smartphone would run you.

You still need a bit of luck

When I record a live gig, I don't try to do all the work myself; I'm simply not that experienced at music recording. I grab a feed from the mixer. I rely not only on the band's performance, but also on the audio chain and the mix quality. I also try to capture the crowd separately, to get that live gig feel. 

At the Glee, who run a very nice gig, I took a feed off a Behringer digital mixer desk, manned by the excellent Jon Nash. If you go to the likes of Mostly Jazz or Moseley Folk, he'll be one of the guys working the PA. Chatting with Jon before sound check, he explained that this desk has revolutionised things in his line of work, blowing much more expensive competition out of the water. Hugely flexible, very clean sound, easy to configure. Turns out it's a popular machine. Behrinhger never had a reputation for top-drawer kit, but they've clearly raised their game.

XLR leads? Nah, got a usb?

I was about to suggest where I could place my recorder. I was looking for a spare power socket; I checked the back of the desk for outputs. I like to set the kit up discreetly, and then get completely out of the way. I'm relying on a whole chain of other people's skills – they're the ones doing me a favour. 

Then, Jon asked me if I could produce a usb stick. I could – a bog standard stick with 8gigs of memory. It plugged straight into the desk; he set a few levels, and sent a customised copy of the the desk output directly onto the stick. The desk did all the work and squirted digital output straight into my usb stick. 

So my kit for the night cost a mighty four pounds. 
Not four thousand quid for a hired van and kit; 
Not four hundred of kit in a shoulder bag. 
Four quid. 

And the recording was immaculate too. A lively intimate performance, a warm crowd filling the room nicely, and some great songs. You can hear it on Brum Radio this coming week. 

The upside makes you ignore the downside

That's where the upside is. I could not have possibly conceived of capturing a clean, accurate and beautifully balanced live performance onto a cheapo usb stick even a couple of years ago. This effectively strips my kit requirements down – depending on the desk and the engineer - to something I can stick in my back pocket. The business end of that recording chain is handled by something that cost a quarter of what used to be seen as state of the art only a few years ago. 

So you can see why I love all this. When I put a radio programme together, I edit using free software (it used to cost a few hundred quid, but now it's free), working on a cheap laptop, monitoring on headphones or decent but cheap speakers. If I need to put in a bit of continuity chat, that's a breeze to do. Audio storage costs are negligible, unlike with reel to reel tape. Two decades back, I'd have been looking at thousands upon thousands of pounds. 

I would not go back. I intend to use every new tool that comes my way, if it seriously will help in doing the audio work I love to do. 

But I know that our digital brave new world extracts a massive hidden, or not so hidden, price. Just as a band can control how they record their work, they then find they have to scrap to get noticed. And just as the web will supposedly help with publicity, the price paid is little or no reward, while YouTube and Spotify make billions off their freely supplied content. 

As I said earlier, we, and the work we do, are all product to service a global IT machine. We get the tools for free or very little. And our work goes out to the online world, where it earns money for people other than us. The trouble is, I can't see how that model is ever going to change - now. 

And the end results? 

Here's how it sounded once I'd mixed in a bit more crowd applause. I didn't touch Mahalia's performances - didn't need to. 

More music business and music tech posts on Radio To Go


Tue 9th, 4pm: Big Wheels: Gavin Monaghan of Magic Garden Studios 

Wed 10th 11pm: Live and Local: Mahalia at the Glee Club (repeated Sat 13th at 11am)

Fri 12th, 3 pm: Muso Takeover: Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff 

After airing, these can be found on Brum Radio's Mixcloud page.

All Radio To Go shows are listed here


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