Friday, June 27, 2008

Let's Make A Deal

QUESTION: What is the best way to negotiate room rates?
The building where Avatar Studios is situated used to be a television studio before it became The Power Station. Operating under the name LewRon Television, episodes of the game show Let’s Make A Deal with Monty Hall was taped here. This seems very fitting for the topic I want to talk about today – room rates.

Discussing studio room rates has always been a touchy subject. I think it is worth going over some background information concerning this topic for better overall understanding and to set up a good foundation for a productive discussion when you call about rates.

Unlike other items for sale, room rates do not quite follow the supply and demand curve. Prices may drop if demand is low, but the reality is, it is difficult to raise prices when demand is up. This is because people have many options on how and where to record, depending on what they’re trying to do and the level of quality they are looking to achieve.

Historically speaking, at least in our case, studio rates have changed very little over the last decade or so. I've looked at an old copy of card rates from the early '90s used during the Power Station days. The rates have changed very little. In fact, they may have gone down slightly. If the rates were to keep up with the rate of inflation, figuring an average annual inflation rate of 4% over the last 20 years, rates should have doubled. The reality is that it certainly has not. We don’t sell quite the same quantities of analog tape as we used to either. Based on this data, the recording quality you are getting is a great bargain.

Let’s look at room rates from another perspective. In the overall production budget, the studio costs are small compared to all the other costs involved. If you are hiring musicians for your sessions, the percentage of studio costs quickly becomes a minor portion of the session costs. If you are coming in as a band, that percentage may be slightly higher. If you are smart and efficient with your time in the studio, these costs can be managed.

If you want to look at it from the overall project budget, which includes promotion and marketing, studio costs become almost negligible. Yes, with today’s lower budgets, cuts are being made at every level. However, if you are looking to have a decent sounding recording, skimping on the recording process may not necessarily be where you want to make cuts, especially if the difference is not all that much. Even if you are looking for the "lo-fi" thing, listeners should not have to listen to a really bad recording.

There is a saying, “You get what you pay for.” There is a lot of truth in that statement. You have to look at the price versus the value of what you are getting. More importantly, you have to look at the TOTAL cost of recording. We get a good number of clients who come to us after recording in a low cost studio, having to redo what they did because the recordings did not sound good or the equipment was not working properly. These clients were not able to get things done in a timely fashion or could not get it done at all. Looking at room rates at face value may not be a true comparison, especially if it takes you twice as long (or longer) and not get the sound you like, not to mention the frustration you have to endure. (The frustration might show up in the performance). You may end up not saving money at all. This does not even take into account the hidden costs and time of having to “fix” tracks before mixing. You have to ask yourself what value are you getting for the price you are paying.

Here are some suggestions for you to consider when you are ready to discuss rates:

We receive many calls from people who are simply shopping for rates. Don’t just call, ask for rates and then hang up. Let the studio know what you’re trying to do and pick their brains. Find out what additional services are offered or if bundled services will get you a better deal. We can suggest ways to mix and match the services we offer to stay within your budget. Ask about alternative ways the recording might be achieved. Take your time evaluating the value of what you would be getting after receiving a quote.

Negotiate the total cost before the session. We provide booking confirmations with everything spelled out. Make sure you leave some wiggle room for things such as CD copies, back up drives, batteries and other incidental costs.

Know and control your food budget (see my first post).

Make sure your band is prepared and well rehearsed. You don’t have to rush, but you shouldn’t waste time either. Try to get the performance right. Suppress the urge to fix it later.

If you are on a very tight budget and you have some flexibility in scheduling your session, ask about last minute booking possibilities. You may be able to book a room at discounted prices, similar to getting theater tickets at TKTS (this is NYC after all).

Ask around and check the reputation of the studio from multiple sources. Did they have a good experience? If not, why? Did the gear work? Was the staff competent? Were they able to work at a good pace?

We look forward to your call.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Food For Thought

I am starting this blog primarily as a way to pass on some hints on how to have a better recording session at our studio based on our collective experience with countless number of clients. At the same time, I would like to share our thinking on why we operate the way we do and how we think we bring value to the whole recording process. By doing so, I hope to start a dialog with clients, colleagues and people from the industry to ultimately improve what happens in recording sessions. I welcome any comments you might have. If you have any topics you would like us to cover, feel free to drop us a line at Hope to hear from you.


QUESTION: What is the best way to handle meal breaks?
I want to start with a mundane but very essential topic about food as it relates to a recording session. An old Power Station staff member used to say to a new recruit, “Never mess with people’s food.” That is because one hitch with a food order can result in an emotional ordeal that can ruin the best of moods and the most robust of sessions. This is why you want to have a food strategy.

In preparation for a recording session, you have planned out the order of tracks, worked out the instrumentation and written out the charts, hired an engineer and figured out who will make artistic and production related decisions. The last thing you want to worry about is what to have for meals and when to have them. No, you cannot plan out everything in advance, but you may find that you’ll have a better session if the eating part of it goes smoothly.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is important to maintain energy and enthusiasm throughout the session. When your blood sugar starts running low, the performance will start to suffer. You definitely want to eat before that happens. Second, if you can time the lunch breaks just right, you’ll be more efficient with your time and end up being more productive.

Our suggestion is to find out what people want for lunch / dinner before the session starts, give the order list to the receptionist or assistant and have them call in the order 30-45 minutes before when you think a meal break should be taken. If things happen as planned, the musicians will walk into the lounge with their meals waiting for them.

Catering is another painless solution. It can be an inexpensive option as long as you choose your caterer wisely. Better yet, order multiple portions of food directly from the restaurant your band likes. You might be able to get a good deal from the restaurant. They could use the business. Asking assistants at the studio for restaurant suggestions ahead of time will help you make a tastier choice.

I have seen many sessions where people waste a lot of time deciding what to order. When they do, they end up waiting anxiously for their food to show up another 30-45 minutes later. By this time, people are pretty hungry and a little grumpy.

We are certainly not the ones who came up with this idea. Many experienced producers use this strategy. The responsibility of executing this strategy usually fell on coordinators when there was such a thing. After doing a few sessions, it becomes pretty clear that employing this type of approach makes a big difference.

Going back to the blood sugar issue, it might be good to have snacks to munch on in between takes just to keep energy levels up. Organic unsalted almonds might be a good snack for this purpose. Almonds are packed with protein and are a good source of vitamin E, fiber, magnesium and antioxidants. They will help lower "bad" cholesterol levels and help reduce risk of heart disease to boot. A champion chess master by the name of Josh Waitzkin mentions in his book, The Art of Learning, that he eats five almonds every forty-five minutes during a long drawn out chess game, to stay in a steady state of alertness and maintain his energy level.

On occasion, food has been used as a carrot to coax performance out of musicians. This may not necessarily be the best of strategies. It is the quickest way to lose focus with the thought of food permeating in their heads. Depending on the degree of hunger, the drive to take the shortest path to food will take over. You won’t get too many good takes in this kind of situation. It is just human nature.

One last thing – please don’t forget to give the poor engineer / assistant engineer a brief lunch break or even a restroom break. Don’t laugh, it happens. Same thing that can be said about musicians can be said about the production staff. I understand studio time is not cheap and time is money, but they are also part of the productivity equation. They’ll thank you for it with their attentiveness and energy level, which can only help your session.