House call

Tom McCauley is at the mixing board of a home recording studio as Corey Allen plays piano. Some experts estimate that half of the L.A. area's commercial studios have closed or been sold to artists for private use. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / October 5, 2009)

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Tom McCauley didn't plan on making house calls when he started in the music business.

As a recording engineer, McCauley made a good living working out of the many commercial studios that had grown up throughout the Los Angeles area to serve the music, film and television industries.

But with the advent of software that allows high-end recording from a personal computer, the 53-year-old Sherman Oaks resident has traded the quasi-industrial atmosphere of the commercial studio for his customers' garages or living rooms.

On a recent Monday afternoon McCauley opened a wooden gate to the backyard of a Valley Village house, walked past a pool and into a studio converted from a guest house. He sat in front of dual computer monitors, opened up Pro Tools recording software and tested microphones.

"The old days were big budgets, top-of-the-line equipment and 'How do you want your espresso and can I get it for you?' " he said. "I do miss that a bit. And at the time, even just 10 years ago, it didn't seem like that could ever end, ever go away."

Although nobody officially tracks the number of recording studios, the consensus among industry experts is that the big commercial facilities have taken a major hit. They estimate that as many as half of the L.A. area's commercial studios have closed or been sold to artists for private use.

A key reason is that recording software emulates what old studio consoles and tape recorders used to do -- at a fraction of the price. Among the most widely used programs are Avid Technology Inc.'s Pro Tools, Steinberg Media Technologies' Cubase and Apple Inc.'s GarageBand.

"You used to patch everything into a big console. Now you can plug everything into a computer," he said. "And editing music using tape wasn't easy. Now you just click and drag a mouse across the screen."

While sales of recorded music have dropped in recent years, putting even more pressure on recording studios to cut costs, the market for software and other computer-related music equipment has gone way up. The total computer music market went from just under $140 million in sales in 1999 to almost a half-billion dollars in 2008, according to NAMM, the trade group for music retailers and manufacturers.

"In some ways we've come full circle," said Maureen Droney, senior director of the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing. "We've gone back to being small and entrepreneurial. People still look to commercial studios when they have something to offer that they can't do at home. But, as it is, the recording studio business started with people starting small, funky studios, oftentimes in bedrooms and garages."

And with more artists recording themselves and leaving the commercial studios behind, engineers and other professionals are finding fewer places to work, Droney said.

Some have downsized and built their own home studios. Others, like McCauley, work the circuit of small facilities in bedrooms and garages. Some have left the industry altogether.

"It's sort of sad that a lot of artists feel they have to record their own records when there are people who love the technical side of recording who are being left out," Droney said.

At Clear Lake Audio in North Hollywood, business isn't what it used to be, and owner Brian Levi said part of the reason is the ease of digital recording. When artists do come into the studio, they don't stay as long, he said.

"Going from the analog age to the digital age, going from one song to another on tape used to take 30 minutes, but with Pro Tools software it takes about a minute," Levi said. "So we just lost 28, 29 minutes of time we could bill a client. So you add that up over a year and tell me how much it is."

Ellis Sorkin runs Studio Referral Service of Calabasas, connecting artists to studios that are his clients. In recent years, he said, his list has been getting shorter.

Many of the older, larger studios have been sold to big producers or artists, who use them exclusively for their own projects, he said.

Part of the reason that the free-standing studios are struggling, he said, is their owners incurred high costs building them and installing high-priced equipment. Home studios -- whether owned by artists themselves or by recording engineers working on the cheap -- don't have that kind of overhead.

"Any place that was built as a studio, there's a lot of money that's spent, a couple million dollars maybe," Sorkin said. "People are spending $20,000 to $100,000 on home studios. There's a big difference in cost."

Still, there are drawbacks to home recording that have kept many professional studios in business. One is quality.

"When I walk into a home studio to work, I never really know what I'm walking into," said McCauley, the recording engineer. "It's sort of a crapshoot. The consistency in terms of quality of equipment or tuning or acoustics that the old commercial studios offered just isn't there in home studios."

About one to three hours per project can be spent on just setting up microphones, testing recording software and testing speaker quality, he said.

McCauley has also found work as a consultant on how to set up home studios, and lately he has increased his time spent as a session musician.

Gabriel Dorsey, owner of Affordable Demos studio in Altadena, said his studio is struggling. He averaged five clients a week five years ago, but now he gets just two or three.

With the number of artists seeking studio time down, Dorsey said he's considering opening up his facility as a rehearsal space. He has also started taking on work that in the past he would have turned down. "People bring in stuff they've recorded at home -- I'll mix it for them, make it sound good," he said. "And I get a lot of people calling me asking me how to set up Pro Tools and how to set up Cubase -- I'll go do it."

nathan.olivarezgiles

@latimes.com