By Sarah Jones

Sponsored by Studium33




Recording studios do an incredible job of catering to artists’ needs, from providing creative and technical expertise to extending every creature comfort. But, what about the business side of the transaction: the label, the manager, the person paying the bills?

Studios, at their core, are service providers. But as their workflows evolve with a changing music business, they’re saddled with more administration work and fewer resources to do it.

Even the world’s leading facilities deal with these challenges on a daily basis. So in the early 2000s, when the partners at legendary mastering studio Sterling Sound grew frustrated with the dearth of purpose-designed studio-management tools, they developed their own platform from the ground up. For Sterling, this was a way to bring efficiency to routine tasks like scheduling and invoicing and to turn the business aspect of operations into a competitive advantage.

In 2017, Sterling partner and president Murat Aktar and developer Brian Lambert, the architect of Sterling’s solution, saw an opportunity to re-develop and expand the platform to recording and mix studios. They created Studium33, a software company. In the fall of 2019 they launched Studio Manager, a tiered studio-management platform that integrates studio operations, file transfer, archival, and client-facing features in a seamless application. It’s a robust hybrid architecture with server, database, and web functions hosted in the Microsoft Azure cloud environment, a Windows 10 application for “all day” users, and an iOS mobile app for people on the go.

This may sound like a one-percenter’s studio solution, but administrative tasks can especially overwhelm small, independent studios, making it impossible to get past the paperwork and take a proactive approach to growing business.

Gearspace sat down with Aktar to learn how, when studios can differentiate themselves with better management, everyone wins.


How has workflow at Sterling evolved since you came in in the '90s, and what led you to develop a proprietary studio-management platform?

It came out of two industry shifts in the early 2000s: the transition to digital distribution and the move from albums to singles. Together, these dramatically increased the velocity of music production. In the '70s and '80s the lifecycle of a project often spanned months, from initial booking to final shipment of masters. In a digital singles world, the project lifecycle is compressed to days, in some cases hours.

To help studios adapt, there was a rush of high-powered software development, but it was focused on signal processing, editing platforms, and plug-ins. There was no innovation on how you manage this new world. For Sterling, the administrative workload was overwhelming. Consider that administratively, each single is a project. It needs to be scheduled, the files need to be uploaded, approvals have to be managed, masters have to be delivered, invoices generated, money collected and files archives. The workload didn't double, it grew twenty-fold.

Do recording and mix studios face the same challenges?

Yes, these are universal challenges. Every step I mentioned above applies equally to recording and mixing projects.

How do most studios manage their operations?

Without an integrated application, most studios are forced to string together general-purpose applications, for example, Google Calendar for scheduling, Outlook for email, Trello for task management, WeTransfer for file transport and QuickBooks for accounting. The problem is there is no integration or common language between them so they create silos of information. As a manager, you spend your day digging information out of one application and copying it to another. Your information is like shrapnel; it's all over the place.

When you don't have access to information, what are the implications?

It falls out in a few different ways. You're far more susceptible to mistakes, especially if you're running a lean staff. Also, you're just not as crisp with your clients. Clients need information when they need it, and if they don’t get it, they are blocked from moving forward with their process.

That's true whether you're a major facility or an individual.

Absolutely, the transaction is the same regardless of size; you have a client and you want to impress them. There are three elements to your service; creative, technical, and administrative. The goal should be a single standard of excellence. Think about interactions with service businesses in your personal life. If you stay in a hotel and the room is beautiful, but checkout takes an hour and your bill is wrong, are you impressed?

Tell me how Studio Manager is structured.

Studio Manager is organized around projects. Projects have sessions, a session being everything that happens within a single day boundary. Sessions have work orders which are the individual tasks that make up a session. Work orders include everything from lock-out rates to engineer set-up and tear-down time, and are assignable to staff members. Invoicing is organized by session and is very tightly crafted to fit the requirements of record companies, which ultimately means getting paid faster. Additionally, there are all the other modules you would expect: the artists’ module, clients, contacts, payments. There are a number of features designed specifically for the music production business, for example, rate groups. Rate groups allow studios to have multiple rates for the same resource depending on your business practices. Studio A can have a major label rate group, a producer rate, and the “oldest friend” rate group, and these can be auto-assigned by client. These types of automation are huge time savers.


Project Summary on the Studio Manager mobile app

How does Studio Manager handle scheduling?

Calendar controls like Outlook are a digital representation of an analog (paper) calendar. Their design center is an hour-by-hour linear layout of a day. Events are added to the calendar according to start and end time.

In the studio world there are two very different scheduling requirements: resources and people. For resources, a calendar control works pretty well; Studio A is booked on Tuesday from 10AM to 8PM. Studio Manager offers a highly customized calendar control which allows for viewing multiple studios side by side, and different states for hold vs. confirmed and multiple holds.

For scheduling people in creative endeavors, calendar controls don’t work. If I’m scheduling a mixer’s day, how do I express that on a calendar: 9AM, mix one track; 11:15, do a recall mix: 12:30, mix another track? That’s ridiculous. The creative process takes however long it takes. A better way to organize a mixer’s day is by priority: “these are the five things you have today and this is the priority to approach them in.” We developed a custom Task Manager for studio personnel with integrated capacity calculations. Each task has an estimated duration; those are then summed and compared to the total hours in the person’s work day. This provides a great visual for how much or little capacity is available in a day. Tasks can be dragged and dropped within the day or into the future to rebalance the workload. Each task has a detail view with all the project information. Task Manage is also very effective for managing studio assistants and technicians.


Studio Manager schedule view

The system takes the form of the main Studio Manager system and two add-ons. Explain how that breaks down.

Originally we planned to release Certified Transfers/Archives as standalone systems. The problem is that there is a huge duplication of effort. Certified Transfers requires authentication, contact manager, auto generated emails and roles-based access control. All of these systems exist in Studio Manager so it made sense to use a single back end. Also, both systems are so much more powerful when used together. They integrate workflow with administration. That means all of the project metadata can be associated with the audio files and vice versa. Both Certified Transfers and Certified Archives are add-on options for Studio Manager clients.

There are industry efforts to standardize file delivery and archival. How do you see your tools aligning with that?

These are serious issues that in my view aren’t taken seriously. When it comes to metadata capture, a lot of industry efforts are focused on abstract standards, while ignoring what it takes to implement those standards. Metadata capture takes real effort which means it has a cost. If no one is prepared to pay, it ends up just kind of perennially not happening. Imagine a different world where labels or streaming services say this information is vital, it’s a requirement of every studio to provide it, and we will pay a per-session fee. Under those terms, studios will be delighted to implement the standards; problem solved. Software would greatly streamline this process, but it’s not something that we are anxious to jump into without these bigger questions being answered.

In the meantime, we have a solution for studio’s project archiving requirement that’s so simple and elegant. It takes almost no effort.

How is the software licensed?

It’s a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, with a monthly fee. There are pricing tiers based on studio size, from a small, boutique-y kind of one-person operation to a large, multi-room, multi-discipline commercial facility.

What are some ways the platform benefits studio clients?

Our goal is to elevate management to a core skill for studios. This starts with the basics, like responsiveness to client requests. Response times to requests for estimates, invoice copies, download logs etc., should be measured in seconds. Past that, we look for ways to make clients’ lives easier with automation. Take a COD session. Instead of chasing the client for payment, why not upload the files with a grayed-out Download button and send them a payment link? When the invoice is paid, the download button lights up and the client gets the files. There are so many other opportunities for automation. I was speaking with a studio owner in Nashville last week and he brought up Time Cards for union sessions. That sounds interesting.

Internally you can expect to reduce the time you spend on administration by 25 to 30 percent, and have far greater accuracy. Then there are reporting metrics. The most basic metrics for any service practice are utilization and rate realization. If you have X number of hours to sell, how many did you sell? How close did you get to the target rate for the day, for the month, for the quarter? Those are the kinds of things that give owners a lot more insight into their business. Add in the costs structure and you have a business model.

That could be powerful information for independents who want to diversify their business or plan the most profitable use of their time.

Exactly. Our tagline is, you built a studio, we'll help you build a business.

The advantages for small studios are becoming clearer.

In a way, the small studio market is the most interesting. They have all the same challenges with less support, they need efficiency. Why can't we help them create a standard of service that belies their size?

This system really feels like benefiting from your business insights, in the form of the tools and the software.

Listen, we’re not saying we know everything about everybody's business, because we don't. And that's the exciting part for us. It's really fun to be able to modify the functionality slightly to make it work exactly how a particular studio needs it.

We want to delight people. We want them to say, wow, this made such a big difference. We've really put a lot of thought into it. We've worked hard to build something that we think will fill some of these structural deficits in the studio business, and we're excited to roll it out.

To learn more about Studio Manager, visit www.studium33.com.