How Recording Studios Have Fared During the Prolonged Pandemic

Photo courtesy of Marcella Araica.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down live music across the world in early March, the same stay-at-home orders that arose to protect musicians and showgoers put the recording studio industry at a standstill too.

Studio owners and clients canceled weeks of sessions, then months, and as the lockdowns continued, studios continued to lose in-person work and income in equal measure.

Sterling Winfield. Read our 2016 interview with him about recording Pantera.

Sterling Winfield, whose clients have included Pantera, Erykah Badu, and many others, remembers when his studio shut its doors. "The last session I had at my little home studio, Boot Hill—with a client present—was on March 8. I was producing a song with a very talented young man named Christian Kane," Winfield tells Reverb. "It's funny, because we were sitting there and talking about how we both felt that this whole thing was a huge overreaction by everyone."

Of course, it was soon clear that the country at large was underreacting; in the following months, more than 3 million Americans would be infected and over 131,000 would die. Now, even as lockdowns have eased for the summer, coronavirus cases are rising again in the US, with tens of thousands of new, confirmed infections each day.

In line with the Recording Academy's "Considerations for Recording Studios as They Reopen," many studios are cautiously holding sessions again. But the landscape of the industry—which has faced plenty of challenges before the global health crisis—may be irrevocably changed.

How are engineers and producers faring amid the prolonged pandemic? What will the future look like? We surveyed a diverse group of producers and engineers, and one of country music’s top songwriters, to gather a spectrum of opinions and predictions, and to learn what they’ve been doing to stay busy in lean times.

When the Studios Went Silent

Marcella "Ms. Lago" Araica—who has mixed over 100 chart-topping tracks for artists including Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Madonna, Usher, Missy Elliot, and Nelly Furtado—recalls how the shutdown went from a vague idea to a stark reality. She runs Dream Asylum Studios, a world-class complex in Miami, Florida.

Araica at her Dream Asylum Studios. Photo courtesy Araica.

"I started experiencing immediate cancelations right around March 13. I remember because I was out of town that whole week. I felt like everything went from a slow idea of possibly canceling future session dates a few days prior—and then, abruptly, it all was canceled."

That dawning realization hit virtually everyone the same week. Scott Smith, who operates Baltimore's The Wood and Stone Room with his wife Jennifer, says that by mid-March, he and his clients had mutually decided to cancel all sessions for the foreseeable future.

From small commercial spaces to sprawling rooms catering to stars, nearly every studio went silent.

In a Pro Sound News Network feature, journalist (and Reverb News contributor) Keith Nelson Jr tells the story of how one of 2020's hottest new rappers, Roddy Ricch, tried to find a working studio after his tour abruptly ended:

"Ricch bounced around a few recording studios in Los Angeles for a bit with his recording engineer, Chris Dennis, but the pair eventually realized the world was moving on COVID Time no matter where they went. '[Recording studios] were having issues getting groceries and other daily necessities,' said Dennis. 'Once the city implemented social distancing, they were only allowed to book out one room at a time and keep it down to six people."

With studio doors closed, what were producers and engineers to do?

Remote Work to the Rescue

If any one type of engineer is used to working alone, it's mixing engineers. So perhaps it's not surprising that they've fared better than others. "From my mix side, I have not stopped. I luckily have been able to continue to work from my home setup," Araica says. "As a mixer, that is how we work anyway, but having files sent to me."

Despite lockdowns, artists still want to release new music, and more than ever are recording themselves at home. With nothing but time on their hands thanks to the complete halt of touring and gigging, musicians are clamoring to get freshly recorded tracks mixed by a professional.

Winfield, whose in-person work stopped March 8, says it only took a few days before mixing jobs came pouring in.

"I didn't have any looming mix projects or client-attended sessions booked at this time anyway. I had plenty of shows [as a FOH and monitor engineer] to fall back on before they canceled. Studio-wise, it was looking pretty bleak," he says. "Then, between March 11 and the first of April, when all of my live shows canceled, my phone starts going crazy for studio mix projects. At this moment I have almost more work than I can handle on a remote-client basis here at home."

But working from a home studio isn't quite the solitary act it used to be, when your whole family is home all day too. "The biggest adjustment so far has been the pull of family being just down the hall in the other part of the house and them being here all the time, instead of being in school or at work during the day. It can be tough to mix when daily life is going on in the room right next to you," Winfield says.

Scott and Jennifer Smith's The Wood and Stone Room is also run out of their house. And in a pandemic, having a family business and a family under one roof is particularly precarious. Outside of the potential distractions of daily life, you don't want to put your loved ones at risk. "My studio is in my home, and it may be some time before I feel comfortable bringing people inside," Scott says. "At this point in time I haven't rescheduled anything, and have put 'people inside my studio' work on hold."

In the meantime, he has taken on more mixing work as well, in addition to trying to do as many tasks remotely as possible.

"I used the plugin Listen To, by Audiomovers, to remotely work on an album mix with a client. I've sent rough mixes for another client to cut vocals on at their home. I also did a Zoom session with a drummer, adding tracks at his place while I watched and gave notes. It definitely isn't an optimal way to work. It feels more like a way to salvage things," Smith says. "Adjusting to the change is difficult for me. I really need to be in the room with folks, hashing out particulars with no latency or freeze-up. I can't imagine how I'd actually start a project from scratch and take it to completion working this way at this point in time."

Brandon Kinney—an in-demand Nashville songwriter whose songs or co-writes have been recorded by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Randy Houser—also immediately pivoted to Zoom. And while there's something to be said for writing face-to-face with an artist or another songwriter, to Kinney, there's no reason to risk lives.

"There are a few songwriters that don’t like to write on Zoom, so those get canceled," Kinney says. "I stopped going into studio sessions because my youngest son has an autoimmune disorder and his health is my first priority. If they need me to sing on a demo, I record them in our bedroom closet."

Audiomovers' ListenTo collaborative mix plugin.

Like mixing engineers, songwriters too are easy loners, well-positioned for social distancing. At least for writers at Kinney's level, the work has continued. "My calendar has remained full with no plans to slow down," he says. "I’m enjoying writing from home without the hour-long commute [to Music Row]. I do miss the in-person interaction with my co-writers, and I’m looking forward to seeing my buddies when this has passed."

But what of the artist and recording engineer relationship? Surely, many have suffered throughout lockdowns, closures, and ongoing safety measures. But some hungry crews already used to working together in close proximity in places like tour busses and hotel rooms, have kept working.

Roddy Ricch and engineer Chris Dennis, who had been trying to find a functioning studio, decided to make one of their own. Keith Nelson Jr writes: "By the end of March, Ricch and Dennis had set up a home studio in the living room of Ricch’s LA home centered around a Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface, Redco Audio Little Red Cue Box, Yamaha HS8 studio monitors, and Sony C800G microphone. In the first two weeks, Dennis estimates, the quarantine-focused MC pumped out more than 45 songs."

Reopening Professional Studios

For many studio owners, producers, and engineers, remote-only sessions and home-studio work cannot continue forever—especially, as is the case for large studios, when thousands of dollars of monthly costs remain, even as revenue has disappeared.

But in the face of a virus that spreads through breath and saliva, the close quarters and shared equipment of a studio present very real dangers. So the balance one must strike between reopening and staying safe is delicate.

Nashville engineer Leslie Richter and David Messier from Austin's Same Sky Studios pushed for the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing to come up with reopening guidelines for studios. The Lodge's Emily Lazar, Blackbird Studios' John McBride, Welcome to 1979's Chris and Yoli Mara, and many other professionals contributed ideas and suggestions.

The guidelines include basics like maintaining social distancing, as well as specific suggestions tailored toward pro studios:

  • "Have vocals or any instruments that cannot be performed with face coverings take place in an isolation room or an otherwise empty studio. No vocals in the control room if there are other people, including engineers and producers, in the control room."
  • "Microphones should be monitored and cleaned before and after all sessions. Consider requesting that musicians and vocalists bring their own personal pop filters and sanitize them themselves. Also consider requesting that clients not move mics and stands."
  • "The facility’s engineers should wear facial coverings at all times and gloves whenever they need to enter a performance space. There may be times when an engineer briefly needs to be within six feet of a performer, so it is imperative that facial coverings are worn by all."
  • "If possible, request that musicians and vocalists bring their own personal headphones with 1/4-inch jacks and sanitize them themselves, and advise that musicians handle only their own equipment."

Mike Watts operates VuDu Studios, a high-end, full-service recording/video facility and residence property in Port Jefferson Village, New York, where artists can reside while recording. Watts has worked with a vast and diverse list of artists, including Covet and their guitarist Yvette Young’s recent piano album.

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While, like other owners, he canceled all sessions from early March onward, he has begun to allow sessions to take place. "We will enforce that everyone is cautious, safe, aware, and practices social distancing and wearing masks as much as possible," he says. With several isolated rooms across a large floor plan, that's a lot easier than the small, relatively cramped spaces many studios operate out of.

Araica, whose Dream Asylum Studios also has a larger-than-most floor plan, with three separate control rooms and multiple live rooms, has begun to resume operations as well. "The rest of 2020 will be a bit slower than usual with in-person sessions, but I am already back in the studio working with clients," she says. "As a matter of fact, I am in the studio now working with Jade, an amazing new artist from Maryland. The studio has been busy with bookings, so yes, I will continue this trajectory. We all practice safety measures to ensure a safe environment."

Future of Studio Work

The trajectory of the commercial recording industry, from the expansive (and excessive) heights of '70s and '80s studios toward today's ever-popular home-recording rigs, has been well documented before. The uncertain present and future of the prolonged pandemic is just the latest in a long series of events that cast a dark cloud.

Certainly, there will be many successful studios of all sizes that continue to evolve and adjust to the changing landscape. Music will always be here, in one form or another, and someone needs to be there to capture it, polish it, and bring it to the public.

"Music is so essential to our everyday part of life. For artists and creatives, it’s how we release, so I believe there will be more remote recordings, sessions done over virtual meetings, but we will survive," Araica says.

But how many studios will survive remains to be seen.

"Maybe some of the greatest music ever created will come out of this pandemic. Maybe it will suffer from the lack of human contact." - Scott Smith

When asked what he thinks are the near- and long-term prospects of the industry, Winfield says, "I've never been one of those guys with the crystal ball that could see the future. But if I had to hazard a guess, I say that it will resemble more of what took place when the internet and DAWs started crashing the brick-and-mortar studios in the early to mid-2000s. Some of the ones around here, in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, that were just barely hanging on before the pandemic might actually close for good."

All those artists creating tracks at home may realize they prefer it. Maybe, as many are doing now, they'll continue to send tracks in for mixing, but otherwise keep their distance from studios.

Scott Smith hopes that's not the case, that the promise of collaboration will bring people together again as soon as it's fully safe.

"Maybe some of the greatest music ever created will come out of this pandemic. Maybe it will suffer from the lack of human contact. There's no way to know, for me at least," he says. "I do know that there's still a lot of good songs to be written and great people to capture them. I think we will adjust, and prevail ultimately, and hopefully before too long we can get back in a room together. There is no substitute for that."

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