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Sound decision: Why studios still matter in the age of smart phones

Robert Boulle wears headphones and holds a notebook with handwritten lyrics while standing behind a microphone at Fat Sound Records in downtown Toledo.

The Toledo hip-hop artist, also known as Sixx Digit, is recording a new song inside the studio. Behind the glass in a separate room sits Kevin Elliott, audio engineer and owner of Fat Sound Records. He’s handling the controls using software from his desktop computer.

He stops Sixx Digit midtake because he’s not satisfied with the vocals.

“He’s pushing too much; his voice is off,” Elliott, 36, mutters. He turns back to his computer and tells Sixx Digit to do a second take.

“You’re stretching your voice too much. Just relax a little bit,” he says. Sixx Digit nods, and Elliott hits the record button again.

The question floating not only in the room but throughout the music industry is “what purpose do recording studios serve in 2018, an era when anyone with a smart phone can record everything themselves from the comfort of their home?”

Music stores and online sites offer a plethora of recording software and equipment, and those in the market will find a broad collection of YouTube tutorials explaining step-by-step directions of how to use these recording tools.

Yet the owners of recording studios in Toledo smile and shake their heads when the question is posed: Who is your market?

“The question asked is perfect. What is my relevance? Almost everyone of my artists has this stuff,” said Wade Paul, 46, owner of Guerilla Studios in Toledo, pointing to the sound board and microphones. “But I could give you all the tools to build a house. Good luck. Everyone sees the tools and that’s part of it, but you still have to know what you’re doing to build a foundation, and put the walls in, and the windows. There’s so much stuff that goes into production.”

There’s no denying that a lot of new musicians are starving artists for most of their careers. Recording studios usually charge by the hour, which could be a factor for musicians deciding to avoid booking studio time and instead spend money on equipment and software to record their own material.

Some recording studios in the Toledo area charge as little as $20 per hour, while others cost as much as $80 per hour.

Sixx Digit, who began his career as a hip-hop artist in 1997, said he prefers to pay for studio time.

“I’m real hands off. I just want to make my music, and I don’t want to have to do any of this stuff,” the artist says, motioning to the recording equipment inside Fat Sound Records. “It’s nice to be able to trust [Elliott] to do whatever. I don’t have to worry about anything but writing songs. That’s all I have to do is write some songs, record them, and he takes care of all the rest.”

Travis Geiman, owner and audio engineer at Bigfoot Studios in Maumee, said he prefers to keep his studio pricing low to help new artists. He said the demand among artists to book studio time is high, and he occasionally will work with as many as four bands in a single week.

“Everyone is working with a budget, and it’s very important to them that they don’t go past that amount,” Geiman said. “Everyone deserves to record their music.”

While he supports musicians who decide to purchase their own gear and attempt to finish the product themselves, he said he has developed certain techniques as an audio engineer to professionally meet the musicians’ expectations of the end result.

“Anyone can go out to Guitar Center and pick up an audio interface and set it up with a digital audio work station and press record, but there is a lot more to my technique,” Geiman said. “Knowing what mic to use, what amp. There’s a lot of knowledge involved in recording engineers and what they do and what they use to improve the sound.”

“You get what you pay for,” Sixx Digit says back at Fat Sound Records shortly after another vocal take.

The artist says that he enjoys the sense of direction from the producer during the recording process.

“If I have a bad idea he’s not afraid to let me know it’s a bad idea, or what I can do to improve on it,” he says. “I’ve been doing this since 1997, been to a million studios, some of them closets and basements, some of them big fancy extravagant-like movie-scene type studios. You don’t need all of that. You can do something in the basement just as simple. What matters the most is who is running it. Even in just this small space I’m completely happy with the product I get here, and I would pay for it 100 times over.”

For other musicians, having an extra set of ears is invaluable.

Guitarist Hugh Collins has recorded at Audiomatrix Recording Studio in Toledo since 1992. He admits he has the recording software GarageBand on his Mac computer, but he says he hardly knows how to use it.

“This is a much more sophisticated setup than most people can reproduce at home,” says Collins while playing his electric guitar at the downtown Toledo studio. “Yeah, you can do it yourself. What if it could sound better and you don’t know it? What if there’s something you can do that could enhance the sound to get more of what you want? You need someone to direct the whole process.”

Christina Eck, manager of Audiomatrix Recording Studios, said being an audio engineer enables her to manipulate and master the music so it sounds better.

Most studios also record voiceovers, radio commercials, and podcasts, as well. Candy Gremler does voice scripts for audiobooks in a Perrysburg basement studio with her sound engineer Walt Guy, who has been doing sound recording and mixing since the late 1990s.

Guerilla Studios’ Wade Paul said an audio engineer must know how to push the artist he’s recording as much as possible, while also knowing where to draw the line.

“I put up guardrails. I keep them from going over the edge,” Paul says. “I’m not trying to control them into, ‘OK, this is going to be a Linkin Park track.’ There is a time for that, but for the most part you let the song and the artist develop naturally and put up fences.”

Toledo School for the Arts also has a recording studio as a teaching tool for its students.

Dave Gierke, the school’s development director, said the skills students learn in the studio could help them after graduation to either pursue their own work or possibly get a job in the music industry.

“It's important to know that artists are entrepreneurs, and the more tools they have in their tool box makes them more employable and more successful,” Gierke says.

Given the demands on digital technology today, Kevin Elliott of Fat Sound Records said creating a successful studio is more than just recording music. He said an engineer must know software coding, mixing and mastering, and video to forge a sustainable recording studio business in 2018.

“This is an intimate atmosphere for people who are serious about what they’re doing. Not only are you going to get the highest level of equipment and sound, you’re going to get an experience,” Elliott says. “It’s about diversification. Even though the studio experience in itself is traditional, we try to help and not just say, ‘Hey, what do you got?’ then press record. Every single song that comes out of there represents who I am, so I want to make it the best it can possibly be.”

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