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Of Mikes And Men: Old Studios Fall Silent

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page N01

No one wanted to see Muscle Shoals go under. Least of all Wolf Stephenson, one of a group of investors who bought that legendary recording studio in Sheffield, Ala., in 1985 and spent years trying to nurse it back to health.

Founded in 1969 by a group of local musicians, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios had birthed a vast number of classics from artists such as the Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, who recorded 1979's "Slow Train Coming" album there.

Lynyrd Skynyrd at Muscle Shoals in 1997. Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones also recorded there. (Times Daily Via AP)

But business had been slow for a while and had recently started to drop off fast. Most of the artists still recording at Muscle Shoals were from Stephenson's R&B and gospel label, Malaco. "It never really got back to its glory days," Stephenson says. He put the studio up for sale on eBay ($650,000 lock, stock and barrel, and no takers) before finally selling it, for a figure estimated to be a lot less, to Cypress Moon, a film production company.

Although the facility, now renamed Cypress Moon Studios at Muscle Shoals Sound, hopes to do audio work eventually, the Muscle Shoals of old is essentially gone for good. "As heartbreaking as it was for me, I had to go along with the decision to let it go," Stephenson says. "For us, it's like part of the family."

Muscle Shoals isn't the only recording studio falling prey to the vagaries of rock-and-roll economics. Vulnerable studios are getting picked off one by one. A recent roll call includes Cello and Royaltone Studios, both in Los Angeles, and New York's famed Hit Factory, and that's just in the past two months.

Illegal downloading, which means less revenue for record companies and less money for recording budgets, is partly to blame. A much bigger factor, though, has been the rise of cheap digital recording equipment: A high-quality home studio system can be had for well under $50,000 -- about what it would cost to spend three weeks in a high-end studio like the Hit Factory.

During its heyday in the 1970s and '80s, the Hit Factory was as busy as any studio in the world. Stevie Wonder recorded "Songs in the Key of Life" there, and Bruce Springsteen recorded some of "Born in the U.S.A." U2 and John Lennon, who recorded "Double Fantasy" there, were also frequent visitors. (Though it's part of Hit Factory myth that Lennon was returning home from there the night he was killed, most reliable reports place him at the nearby Record Plant studio.)

The terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and the death of owner Ed Germano in 2003 both roiled the Hit Factory, where business had already been flagging. "It came in waves for a while, then it hit really hard," recalls Tony "Tippy" Tarochione, a longtime engineer there and one of the few employees willing to speak for attribution. "I'd say the biggest decline was about a year and a half after 9/11. They slashed their rates. They had to."

During Tarochione's seven years at the Hit Factory, "I met everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson, the Stone Temple Pilots to Pavarotti. Everyone was treated the same." While the 100,000-square-foot, six-story facility will reportedly be converted to condominiums, the Hit Factory itself has relocated to Miami, hoping to take advantage of a mini-boom in "destination recording." No one interviewed was optimistic about its chances.

Scott Spock, a member of the production triumvirate the Matrix (which has overseen recordings by Britney Spears and Ricky Martin, among many others), estimates that 99 percent of the trio's success derives from work done in the peaceful confines of a home studio.

Spock recalls working with Avril Lavigne, then a young unknown singer from Ontario, on her breakthrough album, "Let Go." "When Avril came to write with us, we were set up in a big living room of this rented house and it was very comfortable for writing," he says. "She would just go into the other room to sing her vocals, and it wasn't, like, 'Oh, my God, the clock's ticking and I'm in a $2,500-a-day studio and I have to get this right.' . . . She was much more relaxed. We finished the vocal for 'Complicated' in two takes."

Says Paul D'Amour, former bassist with the art metal band Tool, "I like to sit around in my underwear and record a guitar track and not have to worry about how much money it's costing." D'Amour, a veteran of high-ticket studios, now makes records in his guesthouse.

Big studios are fine "if you have money you just want to burn, sure," he says. "But these days there's not a lot of money floating around."

Artists almost always have to pay back whatever money they spend making a record. And the days when labels would pay for acts to spend years in a high-end studio, indulging in noodling, navel contemplation and various other things rock stars did in the '70s, are increasingly drawing to a close, with some notable exceptions. (Guns N' Roses' infamous, unreleased "Chinese Democracy" album has reportedly run up studio bills well into eight figures.) Over the years, Michael Jackson has been equally profligate, and large portions of his recording budget were spent at the venerable Los Angeles studio Ocean Way, owner Allen Sides is happy to report.

Sides says Jackson has been known to record dozens of tracks, with several producers going at once, in several different rooms with multiple musicians. With Ocean Way costing $250,000 a month, over a seven-month stretch you're soon talking real money. "We did the last Stones album. We do a lot of expensive albums, but I don't think I've seen anything quite like that," he says.

The studio owner figures Ocean Way is having its best year in half a decade, thanks in part to a steady flow of film and TV scoring work. "L.A. is the strongest place in the world," he says. "New York just died. It went away."

Sides recently started Ocean Way to Go, setting up home studios for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Aerosmith.

Staffing home studios, or simply providing tutorials in their use, is one way facilities have adapted to the inevitable. If it's in strong financial shape to begin with, a state-of-the-art studio willing to cut its rates can likely survive, especially if it picks up work from its fallen competitors.

These days, the success or failure of a studio may come down to factors as simple as a bad location (Muscle Shoals was doomed in part by its flyover address) or too good a one (located on the now-thriving West Side of midtown Manhattan, the Hit Factory was worth more as real estate than as a recording studio). Facilities with big mortgages or outdated equipment can also be vulnerable.

Though the brutal consolidation period will likely continue for at least the next few years, no one expects big rooms to become extinct.

Latin, classical and jazz recordings, which often rely on horn sections, percussion, pianos and other instruments that need great acoustics and lots of space, will continue to require large studios. And superstar artists will always gravitate toward the pampering and perks of high-end studios (the Hit Factory had a gym and a steam room, and would deliver everything from bales of hay to palm trees to ensure the proper vibe). But whether there's enough A-list clientele to keep big studios in business remains to be seen.

What's becoming increasingly common is for artists to write and record as much of an album as they can in home studios, entering big rooms only when they have to. Even inveterate home recorder Moby went to an outside studio to make part of his upcoming album, "Hotel." "Big studios still serve a purpose, especially for recording drums and live bands, and for using old and expensive equipment that really can make a recording sound much better," he says. "There's no replacement for $15,000 microphones and big, beautiful rooms with great acoustics."

Hip-hop, with its distinct recording requirements (heavy on loops and samples, low on actual musicians), has been integral to the mainstreaming of home recording. Many hip-hop artists and producers own their own studios and regard places like the Hit Factory as charming antiquities, like girdles or Betamax. "The sound quality [of home equipment] isn't totally the same, but the consumer doesn't know the difference," says Rich Harrison, who produced Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," as well as recent tracks for Usher and Jennifer Lopez. "On 'Crazy in Love,' everyone swore those horns were real. It's the nature of hip-hop that we've always done more with less, and not always by choice."

The decline of high-end studios might have been inevitable as far back as 1967, when Bob Dylan and the Band home-recorded "The Basement Tapes."

Thirty years later, James Taylor's "Hourglass," recorded in a home studio on Martha's Vineyard, won Grammys for pop album of the year and, more notably, best engineered album. It was the first time anyone can remember that a home recording was singled out for actually sounding good. "At the time, I thought it was kind of cool," says the album's engineer, Frank Filipetti. "Looking back on it, maybe that was the beginning of the end."

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