In his West Los Angeles living room, Joseph Armillas presses on the black and white keys of his synthesizer and the machine sings like a violin. With a flip of a switch, the same keyboard will produce the low, brassy sound of a trombone. Press another button and out comes a steady percussion beat.
Single-handedly, Armillas builds his orchestra, layer by layer, using a handful of sophisticated machines capable of perfectly imitating any musical instrument. When he's done composing and arranging, he uses a digital recorder and a Macintosh computer to mix the many "instruments" into a two-track stereo recording. Until recently, this feat would have required many musicians playing real instruments in a professional recording studio.
With their high-tech toys and technical know-how, Armillas and thousands of musicians like him are changing the dynamics of the recording industry. With an investment of $5,000 or less, they are building home studios that strike a blow to professional recording facilities and to the musicians who make their living playing for everything from film scores to commercial jingles. At the same time, the new technology makes it much easier for new musical groups to cut an album and break into the business.
"It's really changed the industry quite a bit," said Armillas, who also runs a recording studio for the local chapter of the Musicians' Union in Hollywood.
In years past, a Coca-Cola commercial might employ up to 40 musicians in a professional recording studio. But today, "it's cheaper for someone to hire one good composer-arranger and play things on a synthesizer than to hire a whole orchestra," Armillas said. "A lot of people that were enjoying a good salary found that two-thirds of their salary was gone overnight."
The dual trends of falling prices and rising quality in the world of consumer electronics has made it possible to purchase all the elements of a respectable recording studio--multitrack recorder, mixing deck to convert a recording into two-track stereo, speakers and a few incidentals--for $5,000 or less.
"Home studios have now become the big rage," said Kevin Clark, a studio musician and mixer who has set up a modest studio in his La Canada home. "If you've got a brain in your head, you can make a fine-sounding recording in your living room."
Even musicians who plan to use a professional studio can use home studios to choose their arrangements, select a drum beat and complete other pre-production work at little cost.
"It's mainstream," said Ron Wallace, president of the Creative Musicians Coalition, an organization founded nine years ago to help musicians learn to take advantage of technology.
"Big guys are using it and small people are using it. Dreams are coming true because of this."
Dreams of cutting a record on a shoestring, for example. Jimmy Thrill Quill and Danny Harvey of the country rock band Big Rig Jacknife spent $600--"That's a lunch at Warner Bros.," Quill quips--to make a record that has already sold 2,000 copies.
"Record companies will not sign a band anymore unless they have an independent deal or have done their own record, and [it used to be that] the only way you would have your own record is if you have a trust fund," Quill said.
Not anymore. Thrill and Harvey set up a studio for just $3,000 in a spare bedroom in Harvey's Canyon Country home.
The ability to make an inexpensive recording is critical for upstart bands, said Roger Maycock, a marketing representative for Tascam, a Montebello company that sells recording equipment for professional and home studios.
"For the music industry, this has become invaluable," he said.
Techno-music makers have hired all kinds of musicians to play a few notes into a digital recorder for $500 a session. Other musical sounds can be mail-ordered and delivered on computer disks or downloaded from the Internet.
Since the notes are recorded digitally, they sound exactly like the original instruments and the quality of the sounds barely degrades over time. The sounds can be programmed into an electronic keyboard or sequencer, then replayed by simply tapping the keys.
"I just mixed a movie-of-the-week. The entire score was gorgeous, but there wasn't a live player in it," Clark said.
Big-budget movies still spring for full orchestras, but gigs in professional recording studios are becoming increasingly rare. That new reality has not escaped the attention of the 100 or so recording studios along the Burbank-Hollywood-Los Angeles corridor that together take in about $40 million to $50 million a year. Studio managers say the growth of home studios has put some smaller competitors out of business.