Monthly Archives: August 2012

Local Tunes: Recording in the City

Originally appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2, 2012

Photos by Steven King

Music stores, production companies and recording studios are the adjuncts to the music scene—third-party offshoots that evolve to seize upon the marketable talent of, and/or provide the tools for, the artists who work in the given area. At one time, American bands sought out the major label hubs, originally New York and Chicago, and then Los Angeles, where they could record in fully outfitted studios complete with acoustically tuned rooms, large plate reverbs, isolated control rooms, German-made large diaphragm microphones, and horn-rimmed engineers operating bulky, state-of- the-art mixing consoles. Of course, even then, independent studios existed, making critical contributions to recording arts, and capturing regional sounds that might have gone overlooked by the major labels. The centralization problem was, though, the considerable financial outlay required to design and build appropriate spaces and equip them with the necessary gear.

Of course, technology has, as with many other fields, made the gear ever more available to the consumer, bringing the essential studio outfitting budget from the millions to the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. Today, for as little as about $200, an enthusiast can purchase a digital recorder with built-in condenser mics, and software that allows for multi-track recording, and even digital effects, on which she can make her own “Sgt. Pepper’s” album. In fact, there’s an app for that: you can multi-track today on your iPhone!

However, while consumer technology is often advertized as the panacea, the promethean provider of the power of the gods (or at least Rick Rubin or George Martin, in this case), the studios – both major league and minor league – remain open, and even seem to be multiplying in certain vibrant musical markets.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Worcester doesn’t have any high profile, major label- aligned studios. In fact, it has few prominent, full-time studios, unlike Boston. The reasons are many. Not only is the scene significantly smaller, but artists can easily record nearby in Boston, Providence, or even New York. This opportunity is fueled, too, by a perception that big-city studios will offer better results. Studio owners also point to changes in the recording arts industry that have led to considerably downsized budgets for recording and band development, even among national and international acts.

There’s no record-shaped building, or neon-lit recording studio in downtown Worcester. Like most everything else today, especially in this town, you’ve got to use your nose and snoop around a bit. Even then, it can be a bit difficult to find decent recording space.

At the top of the local scene there are essentially two studios: Tremolo Lounge, in West Boylston where for close to two decades Roger Lavallee has manned the helm, engineering and producing the lion’s share of local recordings (or, at least, more than anybody else); and Fontanez Recording and Rehearsal Studio, which opened in downtown Worcester last year, where Alejandro Fontanez has grown an impressive resume of urban artists, including a mixing session for Wyclef Jean.

Beneath them, the drop is steep down to part-time studios and project studios, where bands or artists record themselves and their friends. The phone book lists perhaps a half dozen operations in Worcester and surrounding towns, though even this scant listing is optimistic and a bit deceiving. Many of the listed numbers are nothing more than home numbers to a kitchen phone whose owner has learned not to anticipate any calls from customers.

The market for good studios in Worcester is thin.

The less suspected reason for the scant listings is the nature of recording studios, which, with the exception of the aforementioned major-label variety, can be – for lack of a better term – sort of mom-and-pop outfits, run by—who else?— musicians, who, according to their nature, eschew slick, established business norms and often operate by word of mouth.

Ask Lavallee for a business card and he’ll write his number on your hand. In fact, you can’t even find Tremolo Lounge without guided instructions. There’s no convenient Main Street address, no neon sign to signal your arrival. The studio is a pastoral, converted suburban house annex. And though you have no doubt driven (and perhaps even walked) lower Pleasant Street dozens of times, you probably have never noticed that Fontanez Recording Studio exists there.

The decision for Sam Margolis and Andrew Kramer of Riverview Studios, in Waltham, to go pro, came naturally. Margolis says of their approach, “It’s all been organic, so we haven’t put a focused effort on trying to build a business. The approach has been more networking and community-based and doing projects that we’re truly interested in and have fun doing.”

The need for instruments beyond the range of the band members while recording their own CDs brought them into contact with a number of area musicians, who then inquired about renting the space for their own projects.

Their studio, too, is tough to spot, hidden within a nondescript suburban home along the Charles River.

To find these studios you must actively seek them, and ingratiate yourself to the local scene, unlike Boston and Providence, where a host of trade magazines devoted to the music scene carry ads for highly competitive studios vying for clients.

Some musicians/engineers prefer it this way.

Luke Bass, an area engineer and bassist with a host of local groups, including The Farmers Union Players and Kalifa and Koliba, has what he refers to as “a project studio on steroids” near College Square, where, he says, he “can get the quality of a bigger studio.” He has released a fulllength recording by Kalifa and Koliba; is presently working on a follow-up; and has plans for a Farmers Union Players full length this year. Bass, however, has little interest in being a business owner.

(PHOTO: Zack Slik plays banjo during a recording session at the studio of Luke Bass. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

“I only work with people I like, and I don’t have to make money on it, so I don’t call it professional,” he says. “I keep my day job, and the day job pays for everything, so I only record people I enjoy. But the quality I’m getting is through the roof.”

Guitarist David Stadig, of Northbridge, who runs David Stadig Studios and King Kat Productions, feels the same way about the business end of recording. “If you’re doing that commercial venture,” he says, “then you’ve got to kind of put up with that stuff.” His motives for building the studio, like many musicians, are personal. “I publish my own stuff. My whole purpose was really just as an adjunct to being a lifelong musician.”

Modern technology has made it possible for the modern musician, like Stadig and Bass, to forego the professional studio and do it themselves. Innumerable others have, too.

Ubiquitous local bluesman, Jon Short, has done lots of his own recording. Of his numerous CDs since 2005, his 2006 recording “Barrelhouse Ramblers,” with Paul Chase (bass) and Josh Teter (drums), “was recorded live here in Worcester with Jonathan (JD) Leary at [Leary’s] home studio”; 2007’s “Three Different Ways,” with Keith Carter (harmonica), “was recorded live at my home studio on Pro Tools”; 2009’s “Live from the Shack at Vincent’s” “was recorded live with one ambient large diaphragm condenser mic on the porch of the shack, using a Zoom 4 and was mixed/mastered by Bill Ryan”; 2010’s “Big Shorty” “was recorded live at my home studio”; 2012’s “Live from the Shack at Vincent’s 2011” and “34 Special (Limited release)” “were recorded live with one ambient large diaphragm condenser mic on the porch of the shack, using a Zoom 4”; and his band Big Eyed Rabbit, with Duncan Arsenault (drums) and Jeff Burch (bass), “just recorded live this past Monday night with Paul Dagnello using a bunch of incredible equipment” at Erick Godin’s Lucky Dog Music Hall.

So, it can be done. And Short’s recordings are hi-fi and clean and professional sounding. Short, however, specializes in a genre of music that values the live over the recorded, the primitive over the complex, vintage over modern, and so, single takes without overdubs, limited effects and editing, and ambience are preferred.

Kramer and Margolis home record, too, except that their home is a studio. They met at the formation of their current band, Comanchero, nearly a decade ago, and, after self-recording the band’s first two CDs, the pair got serious and attended Boston University’s CDIA (Center for Digital Imaging Arts) degree program, applying their newly acquired knowledge to the band’s most recent CD, 2011’s “The Undeserved.”

“I think that recording was just such a natural part of all of our musicianship,” Kramer says. “Sam and I each had our own setup at home.”

Their results, though, testify to the potential quality of “home” recordings. Margolis says that, even with the first two CDs, “a couple of the tracks got some play on the radio.”

“We got great gigs out of it,” he continues.

Fontanez says that the experience of home recording, in addition to being an economic and/or creative necessity, and sometimes a little funky, can be fun. “When I started, I was recording in my friend’s kitchen, on Home Street,” he recalls. “The control room was the kitchen and the vocal booth was the laundry room. We had this joke that the cockroaches were the background vocals. It was a great time!”

“It was still pretty good recording. We had Pro Tools [multi-track software], MBox [digital interface], and a decent microphone, and a nice preamp. It was mostly for practicing. We had a band going. It was more for us, just to see how it sounded.”

(PHOTO: Alejandro Fontanez in his recording and rehearsal studio. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

Fontanez opened his studio after over a decade of travelling as a performer. “I got married, and I started doing a lot of mixing at my house. It got busier and busier, and I decided to open a studio right here in Worcester.”

Lavallee says that brilliant recordings are being made locally, both in the city’s professional studios and in “people’s closets.”

“I’m biased, but I’ll say this: Legendary records have been made [at Tremolo Lounge], whether I’ve worked on them or not,” he says. “There are records that I think that I could play for anybody that have been done here over the last 20 years that would blow your mind. So, yeah, I know that it’s possible.”

Lavallee also agrees that the magic could happen on a home project studio. “I’ve heard stuff that people have done—on their own, in the Worcester area—that is awesome, incredible. People come with demos to me sometimes and they think of it as a scratch demo, and they don’t even realize how great it sounds. I think it happens sometimes by skill and sometimes by trial and error and sometimes by dumb luck, especially if you are writing and creating something that is sort of unique sonically. It’s definitely possible and it has happened where people have made amazing stuff – in Worcester and in their closets, or on their laptop or on their iPod.”

Fontanez agrees with Lavallee, with stipulations. “I think that the technology is such that you can get a good recording sound [at home]. You’ve just got to learn; you’ve got to know what you’re doing recording-wise.”

Stadig further stipulates, “If you’re very meticulous about what you do, you could have a recording that sounds just as good as something that is done in a professional studio with a poor engineer. It still comes down to, even if you’ve got all this great equipment, you’ve got to have someone with great ears, and someone who knows how to use the gear to its optimal effect. I’ve heard a lot of lousy recordings come out of what should be good sounding recordings.”

For their first disc, 2010’s “Live at the Emporium, Greatest Hits, Vol. III,” J. Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty and his band, The Roadkill Orchestra, chose to record on their own at a makeshift studio set up at Gonzo’s Unusual Condiments storefront, because, as Esty says, “It was important for us to record it where we had written and practiced the songs.” So, Esty continues, “Bill Nelson, who had a studio for years above Union Music, was gracious enough to come down and set up a live recording. With the technology we have today, we could go straight to hard drive.”

This approach wasn’t foreign to Esty. “I’ve been recording since the ’70s, beginning in my bedroom with reel-to-reel recorders and razors, Tascam 4-tracks, all of it.” And the experience of working professionally wasn’t always appealing, he notes. “When I was in Europe I recorded in Nuremburg, and every time you’d go in, you’d see that tape, and when that light would come on there was money going down the drain and you had to either shit or get off the pot. And so it was always nerve-wracking to lay it down that way.”

Self-recording, though, wasn’t without its own inherent problems. “We had some separation problems we had to deal with,” Esty says, but the situation brought out an old-school musical toughness that he liked. “You had to bring your A game. It was a Ramones-style thing. We laid down 16 tracks in six hours. Fourteen were keepers and 12 made it onto the disc.”

(PHOTO: Luke Bass in his recording studio near College Square in Worcester. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

Bass’s experience with the pros was similar, and he says that the compulsion to self-record “started…because we went to the other studios and I didn’t like the sounds we were getting. When we couldn’t get it, we decided – me and my partner at the time – we needed to build the studio ourselves. That’s when I started buying equipment.”

“Best thing I’ve ever done in music, except [to] start playing music,” he says.

According to Bass, the problem with commercial studios is that most artists don’t get to work with producers. “They work with an engineer and they pay by the hour. And the engineer’s job is simply to get a recording, and I think it’s kind of a cookie-cutter recording. You’re paying by the hour, and you don’t have $10,000 to put into an album, so everybody’s always watching the clock and everybody’s trying to get as many songs in as they can. It doesn’t work, to me, to be a quality album.”

Working in your own studio, he says, is entirely different. “If I don’t like a track, I’ll record it 10 times; I don’t care!”

“Going out and hiring a [commercial] studio,” says Stadig, “would run you anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars an hour, and if you needed players, you’d have to hire guys or try to get people to do things. If you’re pretty prolific at what you do, those kinds of moneys can add up pretty quickly.”

And like his fellow musicians, desperation became, once again, that mother of invention. “At that point I started researching how I could set up a small project thing for myself and that’s how that took place,” he says.

By all accounts, it is cheaper to record at home, and this is probably the top reason cited for doing so. This presents a lethal business arrangement, when the primary market is poorly paid musicians, who no longer enjoy the unbridled patronage of an earlier time. And as noted, an old Tascam four-track can be purchased for next to nothing (in fact, they’re probably being given away today), and you need as little as an iPod with the right app or a basic portable digital recorder.

“Good gear is still expensive. Period,” says Stadig. “But you can do a lot more with the advent of digital equipment and signal processing and all the trappings than you could 10 years ago. I mean, 20 years ago? Forget it!”

“The climate has changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years,” says Lavallee. “Everybody’s got their own home recording systems, whether it’s Pro Tools or Logic or Garage Band, and they’re able to do really cool stuff.”

So, things have gotten less expensive and more user friendly. Why not just do it all at home? Well, you could also paint your house, repair your own car, service your own computer, home school your children, and transplant your own vital organs (this last one might not be legal). Why hire anyone?

Well, as Lavallee points out, “It’s not immediately apparent to everybody what a large studio—what a producer—can bring to the table. They [home-studio owners] know how to record the stuff, but they don’t know how to mix it; they, perhaps, don’t have the space or the mics or the interface to do a full drum kit, or a full tracking of the backing band.”

The modern compromise, then, says Lavallee, is a mixed effort, whereby artists on a tight budget might track the parts that they feel equipped to handle at home, and hire out the studio for multi-microphone applications, or critical pieces like mixing and mastering, fullband recording, and vocal recording, that require trained, acute ears.

In fact, it’s not only local bands and artists that operate this way. Lavallee says the whole industry does, and that the days of unlimited budgets – even for big-label artists – are long over. Nowadays, he says, signed artists are likely to have a budget of, say $50,000—a paltry sum compared to the heydays of the 1970s, when major bands would wile away a year or more in a studio developing a project. Today, even bands like Wilco and Los Lobos, for instance, develop ideas and track in their own rehearsal studios, before heading to big studios for mixing, overdubs, and mastering.

Still, Kramer points out, “even there, they have engineers on hand to work the equipment and set up all the microphones,” which frees the band up to do what they ostensibly do best: write and/or perform.

And, as with the bands mentioned above, a mixed approach of personal and professional settings suited Roadkill Orchestra’s needs on their first, self-recorded effort. “We did the mixdown at a studio down in Whitinsville,” says Esty.

Moreover, not all exiled recordists are able or willing to invest the considerable time, money and energy required to do it right at home, as Bass has.

“About two years ago I found myself a nice isolated room where I could record anytime I wanted, but it was really small. I moved down the hall and got a much bigger room and was able to put in the extra rooms. I had the gear to do it. I didn’t have what a professional studio would have in the isolation rooms and the windows, so people could actually see each other while they play even though they’re in separate rooms. That was basically the next logical step to getting a better recording: having finely tuned rooms and a real recording environment instead of a band room.”

Another crucial element that doesn’t come – either included or optional – with the purchase of recording equipment, is a producer’s ears, and years of experience.

“To work with a great producer and put real money and real time into an album? I would absolutely love to do that,” admits Bass. “Recording can be a daunting process. It’s a lot of hours of mixing, a lot of hours in the studio. I would love to just be able to walk in somebody else’s studio, lay my tracks, and walk out, and get a great recording. But without having either great people producing it or a lot of money backing it, that doesn’t usually happen.”

“Bands come here just because they don’t want to deal with any of the setup and the tweaking or the troubleshooting, or anything,” Kramer explains. “By the time you’re done getting the sound you like and checking for phase coherency and getting the levels all right, sometimes it’s tough then to go be creative, when your mind is all focused on the technical aspects.”

One additional bit of useful wisdom that Margolis and Kramer acquired during those formative recordings was that “it’s pretty easy to fuck up a recording.”

Fontanez agrees with this wisdom. “When it comes to the engineering part – to mixing – that’s when you need the help,” he says.

Ultimately, musicians must face this truth. “I am a composer and a performer. I am not an engineer,” says Esty, whose second album “was designed to be the next level up, a studio one. We were fortunate enough to get into Tremolo Lounge.” The benefit, he says, was in the engineer. Lavallee’s abilities, he says, are “phenomenal. He hears every fucking note! His musical knowledge is so vast. You say, ‘I’m trying to get this sort of a vibe, this sort of a feel, in this kind of a color, and the sound of the ocean,’ and he knows exactly what you’re talking about. He’s been around long enough so that he can get any kind of a sound. And, plus, with the gear that he’s got there….”

Ah! To have a professional, who has been through all the trials and errors, and has spent years developing an ear for recorded music.

“You just go in there and play and that, for me, is the essence of making music, says Esty. “If I had unlimited resources, I would ensconce the band in the recording studio and never fucking leave!”

Studios stay alive because some artists are simply baffled and overwhelmed with the prospect of outfitting a studio, mastering a litany of highly technical devices, and devoting years to developing the subtle hearing skills required of good recordings. And all agree that Worcester has studios that offer this professional experience.

“There are very good studios in Worcester,” asserts Bass. “You definitely do not have to go elsewhere. No matter what your style is, there’s someone out there that has a decent enough studio that can record you at a much better price than you can get in Boston.”

Kramer at Riverview Studios says that they’re doing very well west of Boston, and that business is increasing. “We’ll have maybe five ongoing different projects, where we’re mixing one project, we’re recording another, we’re coproducing another. It’s basically two to three nights a week we’re working on other people’s stuff and one night a week we’re focusing on our stuff.”

Still, Margolis says, it’s not enough to go full-time. “That’s where the day job comes in,” he says. “I think we could [make a living on the studio], but we’d have to work our freaking asses off, networking the hell out of bands around here.”

(PHOTO: Leighton Kennedy plays the saxophoe during a recording session at Fontanez Studio. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

Fontanez says of area studios, “We are cheaper than other cities. We get great quality here. There are people who have been to Boston who now know about this studio and who now come out here.” His optimism is buoyed by the movement of Boston’s Bristol Studios, which opened a voice studio with him and are now training singers here.

This trend makes him hopeful for the future. “Hopefully in five years – 10 years – we’re going to need more studios to open up to handle the business. Right now, it’s not a big music scene in Worcester,” he says. “There are a lot of great artists, but Worcester is that type of city where you have to push people to get them involved.”

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