Recording studios

Black and white photograph of a recording studio dominated by a large mixing desk

Pinball Studio, © Phil Hayes/The Picket

A recording studio is a facility designed for the recording, mixing and production of recorded sound. Most professional studios consist of one or more studio rooms where musical performances take place, and a separate control room, containing a mixing desk and recording equipment where audio channels are recorded and routed, and audio levels are adjusted. Studios are usually designed so as to give differing sections of the space their own acoustic qualities. The scale, size and technical capabilities of studios vary enormously, from small amateur set-ups located in spare domestic space, to well established multi-million pound professional residential studios owned by the major recording companies or large commercial companies.

From the advent of the recording industry the major record companies established and developed their own recording studios. Abbey Road Studios in London, for instance, were opened in 1931 and have been used to record EMI artists ever since.

Often these studios have been large-scale buildings designed to accommodate a variety of uses and full-time recording and administration personnel. Such studios were the dominant way of recording music in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s US record companies such as Victor and Columbia had studios like this in New York. They also had mobile facilities, which were used to make recordings (especially of blues, gospel, and country music) in various out-of-town locations in the southern states and the Mid-West. These companies would set up studios in rented commercial space, replicating the technology of their permanent studios. Russell (2007: 25) notes that 2,076 such recordings were made between 1923 and 1927.

From the early acoustical method to modern digital processing, recording studios have always been connected with developments in technology. Often such developments have changed the social and economic contexts of recording. In the 1940s and 50s tape-based technology made it cheaper to set up a recording facility, and so opened the market to a wider range of small-time entrepreneurs. Many independent labels catering for localised or specialist markets emerged, often based around small recording studios. Chess in Chicago and Sun in Memphis were both run out of small premises which included recording studios, offices and facilities for distribution. The music produced in these studios went on to have a fundamental effect upon the course of popular music

The widespread use of multitrack technology from the 1960s onwards saw artists spending more time in the recording studio. As a result, many high-end residential studios were established, often away from large urban areas, where artists could spend long and concentrated periods of time working on particular projects.

Certain recording studios have come to be highly valued within the industry and have even taken on mythic qualities within the history of popular music. Such studios have often been ones associated with a particular sound, or seen as the centre of a particular scene or industry. Typically their reputations are built on personnel associated with the studio rather than on any particular pieces of equipment or the acoustic qualities of its performance areas. Studios such as that of Sam Phillips in Memphis or Lee Perry's Black Ark in Kingston, Jamaica, have become closely associated with particular producers. Others such as FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Studio One (also in Kingston, Jamaica) became renowned for their resident musicians.

The late 1990s and the 2000s have seen the recording studio sector suffering something of a downturn, due to a combination of changes in the music industry and audio technology, as well as the widespread availability of computer recording set-ups. This has particularly affected the bottom end of the market. Many local areas have seen the closure of small-scale studios typically used by aspiring acts to record demo recordings. A downturn in record sales has also resulted in closures and rationalisation at the top end of the market, with record companies signing fewer acts and making cuts to their overall budgets. For instance, in the early 2000s EMI closed both Thessaly Road in London and The Manor in Oxford, and sold Air in Hampstead to a private company.

As computer technology develops, the role of the traditional studio may well change. The widespread use of the digital system Pro Tools illustrates this well. Pro Tools is at the heart of many differing types of studio from the smallest to the largest. This has the effect of making the recording process mobile - different parts of a project can be undertaken in different locations depending on specific needs. This can mean, for example, that some of the 'tracking' (ie the recording of individual parts) of a project can be done in a large internationally famous studio, while other parts are generated in an artist's spare bedroom. The eventual mixing may be done in another specialist facility.