As black as the nearby parking lot asphalt, the skull doormat is a good sign you’re standing in front of a recording studio.
Osceola Studios sits inside a rust-colored brick building, bound by railroad tracks and a concrete plant at the end of a strip mall on a service road near downtown Raleigh. Even with directions, it is not easy to find.
“We don’t have a sign,” offers co-owner Dick Hodgin, opening the door. “We don’t want everybody to know we’re here.”
Dick is a compact and energetic man. For the past four decades, Hodgin has engineered and produced records for the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Flat Duo Jets and Corrosion of Conformity. He speaks his mind without qualification or pause, a quality that makes him a valuable studio asset and has earned him the nickname “The Dream Assassin.”
If middle age has tempered him, it’s made him no less direct. That’s why I know that, when I ask him how business is going, I’ll get the truth.
“Excellent,” he responds, drawing out his answer, as though enjoying a ripe peach.
There is a difference, of course, between the record industry and the recording industry. The record industry, long the domain of record labels and distributors, has changed irrevocably since the turn of the millennium. CD sales have flatlined, and royalty rates for music streaming offer a fraction of traditional revenues. Despite all the touring and ad placements and corporate sponsors, musicians are still struggling to find ways to make music a livelihood as their industry continues to wobble.
Nevertheless, most any survey of area recording studios reveals a landscape that’s been altered but improved. The digital ageand the resulting ability to make high quality recordings relatively cheaplyhas led to a new era of smaller, leaner and very versatile recording studios. From Nightsound in Carrboro, now celebrating its 15th year, and the long-running Overdub Lane in Durham to the aptly named Seriously Adequate and Hodgin’s Osceola, local rooms have survived because the people behind them have learned to evolve with their industry, whether by becoming parts of their community or experimenting with novel funding methods.
None of them acts as if making music is a diminished or dead prospect.
Dick Hodgin leads me around Osceola.
The live roomor where the bands actually playis wood-paneled and modest. There’s an isolation booth for vocals, and a kitchenette. It’s a typical mid-size professional recording studio, fairly unchanged for years and, in some cases, decades. There’s a refrigerator-size, reel-to-reel tape machine in the back of the control room, beloved by old timers and unrecognized by the kids.
It’s hard to understand, initially, how a place like this stays busy. Digital recording technology is more affordable and user-friendly than ever before. But Hodgin records the occasional album, voice-over work and three or four hip-hop sessions a week.
“People ask me, ‘Hey man, aren’t you bummed because people can buy ProTools and go make their own records?’” Hodgin says, referring to the popular digital recording platform. “I tell ’em I’ll see them in a year, because they’re about to find out that engineering is hard.’”
There may be no better reason for the persistence of the recording industry. It takes time to learn how to engineer, to understand the frequency response of different microphones or the acoustic properties of a drum kit. Different rooms have different personalities, which can be an asset to the experienced or a liability to the unfamiliar. To make sense of it all, a good sound engineer remains invaluable.
“When you do it long enough, and you know your equipment, you can see it,” Brian Haran tells me. “You see where to put the mic.”
Haran is a thoughtful man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He lives with his family in a little gray house on a tree-lined Durham street. He leads me around back to The Pinebox, the “small, completely utilitarian” recording space he maintains in a shed.
Haran grew up on the south shore of Long Island and started recording friends in high school. By the mid-’90s, he was interning in a Manhattan studio. He worked his way up to engineer, mostly recording New York hardcore.
“This was the tail-end of studios as we knew them, in the sense of being a kid and getting a job and working your way upmaking a living,” he says.
By the late ’90s, the era of centralized analog recording studios was waning. Big studio gear was disassembled, and tape machines gave way to computer rigs. As the decade ended, about a half-dozen major labelsthe traditional revenue source for recording studiosremained.
Haran moved to Greensboro around that time. The first Pinebox Studio was just an attic in Greensboro, finished with pine. He slowly started to build his cottage industry, moving it over the years from attics to bedrooms to the other half of a guitar-repair shop he owned in Graham. Haran has recently started to turn down work.
“I’d rather do projects that appeal to me rather than taking whatever comes through the door,” he says. “My process is very committal. You’re not allowed to write a song in the studio. You’re allowed to let it come to life.”
The Pinebox is small. There is one room for tracking and mixing. The walls are lined with guitar cases and microphone stands. The mixing deskan actual desk on which his computer, not a multi-track board, sitsis at the far end of the room. Even if he were back in a big studio, Haran says, he would set up his control rig in the live room again.
“It allows me to go over and grab a knob on somebody’s pedal board while they’re playing a part,” he explains. “It allows me to go over to a drummer and be the mute on the toms for the breakdown.”
Sometimes his approach involves simply cutting the songs live, as with the young fingerstyle guitarist Daniel Bachman or acoustic folk legend Alice Gerrard. Other times, artists come to Pinebox to make something from scratch. The Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins recently teamed up with Gary Louris from The Jayhawks to form Au Pair. They came to Haran with finished songs but little else.
He recorded them singing and playing guitars on the same microphone, something an old-school engineer would never consider, given the inherent lack of sonic control. Haran knew they were good enough to blend themselves. The trio built the album by creating sounds in service of each song.
“Sometimes you want to go to a spaceship to record, and sometimes you’d rather play in a giant four-track in someone’s backyard,” Haskins says. “Pinebox provided the latter experience for us.”
Haran’s ratesbetween $40 and $60 an hourare reasonable by any standard, especially considering his craftsman approach. Still, a record label almost never pays the invoice.
“The thing that’s going to take another 10 years for the public to realize is that, because you’ve heard of a band, that doesn’t mean they make a living doing it,” he says. “People assume that when I make a record with somebody, the label is giving them five grand to come hang out with me. It’s usually people paying for the record, and they show up to the label with a record in their hand.”
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers don’t have a record deal, at least not yet. But they paid top dollar to record their debut at Manifold Recording, just outside of Pittsboro. Chief engineer and producer Ian Schreier brings the faders up on Manifold’s massive 64-channel board so we can listen.
The sounds are glorious: Local country balladeer John Howie Jr.’s playing drums again, conjuring what Shook terms the “ghost of punk” at the heart of the record. Eric Peterson’s guitar has the right amount of snotty distortion. Shook’s vocal is terse but vulnerable. Schreier reached out to Shook in late 2013 about recording at Manifold.
“He reiterated that you get what you pay for,” she says, “and if I wanted a first-class album it would cost me, but it would be worth every penny in the long run.”
The value bar is set pretty high here; the day rate at Manifold for an album like this is $1,500. Shook thinks it is money well spent.
“It’s a shame that the ability to record has become as instantly accessible as listening to any motherfucker’s music on Spotify, iTunes or YouTube,” she says.”But recording in a studio that is designed and prepared for and has every bit of the equipment to do the music and song itself justiceand the years of experience and attentiveness and ears and hands of the engineerwill deliver exactly what you’re looking for.There is no settling.”
You could fit at least two Pineboxes in Manifold’s control room. As Ian and I listen to the Disarmers’ tracks, owner Michael Tiemann fusses with a lighting rig in the Music Room, a 1,380-square-foot space with a 24-foot ceiling. He is lighting a Pleyel piano. According to a brass plaque on its walnut frame, Chopin once played the instrument himself.
Manifold is Tiemann’s baby. In the late ’80s, Tiemann was a pioneer of open-source software technology that paved the way for the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. He later became an executive at Red Hat, an open-source provider. This gave him the means to commission and build a facility that competes with a vanishing breed of recording studio: places like EMI in London and Columbia in Manhattan, houses capable of capturing a fully live performance, even if it’s of a three-dozen piece orchestra.
Tiemann saw the big recording houses closing their doors, so he assumed the more ancient role of music patron by building Manifold. Despite the extraordinary start-up costs, the studio is close to breaking even after only a few years of operation. In the last two months, Schreier has recorded and mixed four records.
“The reason why people will always need this place, no matter what happens in the recording business, is because if you make any kind of music that requires an acoustically beautiful spacea jazz trio or any form of classical or chamber music, anything that requires real spacethat’s the purpose of [Manifold],” Schreier says. “Those are the records I want to make.”
Schreier, like Hodgin and Haran, is as much producer as engineer, meaning he helps acts to make tough choices about songs, structures and directions even as he documents them. Hodgin charges an additional fee for producing, but he often finds himself being paid an engineer’s rate while doing a producer’s job.
“You know why?” he asks, grinning. “Because I can’t keep my mouth shut. If I sat here and just let [bands] do what the fuck, then they’d walk out of my studio with what the fuck.”
Schreier does both jobs because he’s “too much of a control freak to let someone else engineer.” Besides, it would jack up the day rate in an already-pricy situation to have two people working behind the glass.
Kris Hilbert considers himself a producer too, if need be.
“All I wanna do is help bands make records that are cool,” he says as we stand inside his Greensboro studio, Legitimate Business. “I talk to the bands about it: ‘Hey guys, do you want me to be hands on? Do you want me to be the fifth member, or do you want me to just press buttons?’ Sometimes you just record bands because they email you, and that’s what you do to eat.”
Hilbert is a big, friendly guy. He’s got a scraggly, long beard, an open face and a ready smile. He seldom breaks eye contact, and he speaks with the enthusiasm of someone who’s tapped into a rich vein.
“I live really simple,” he says. “I live next door with my girlfriend. I don’t have a nice car. I don’t have nice clothes. I eat and buy vintage guitar amps.”
Built inside a renovated retail space, Legitimate Business stands on a charmingly run-down street in Greensboro, populated by little bungalows and adjacent to a busy car repair shop. Out back, local teenage boys skateboard around a small homemade rink.
Hilbert found Legitimate Business while he was looking for a cheap place to live. He and some friends went in together on rent and started to put on shows. Gradually, it morphed into a practice space and then a recording studio.
Lindsey Sprague just recorded here with her band Daddy Issues. It was their first (and, as it turns out, probably last) “real” recording.
“This is everyone’s first band,” she says. “Even though I’ve been recording songs in my bedroom, none of us had ever recorded in a real studio. We’d been playing mostly house shows, and our tiny practice room had pretty weird acoustics. I honestly don’t even think we really heard what we sounded like until we recorded with Kris.”
The rate at Legitimate Business is a bargain basement $250–$300 per day. With Hilbert, bands can track a whole LP for that amount, cutting the songs live. If an act has a little more money, maybe it will work for two weeks, spending a couple of days to get the sounds just right.
Even in an age of crowdfunding, these bands are almost always paying for it themselves.
“I’m not against Kickstarter, inherently,” Hilbert says. “I’d love it if every band I recorded had 10 grand to make a record. But I talk with clients who’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’ve talked to somebody who told me I needed $10,000 to make a record. They told me I had to do a Kickstarter.’ Come in here with a thousand bucks, and let’s make a fuckin’ record in four days.”
If anything, Hilbert feels that crowdfunding has opened the floodgates.
“I love that bands have money,” he tells me. “I love that studios are getting paid. I love that there’s something there to fill the void left by labels. But there’s not a gatekeeper, which is bad. Make a demo. Do something that’s in your budget and see what happens. The bands that I record that are really good, something happens. They get attention.”
Recording studios have a hermetic quality. They must be shut off from the clamor of the performance venue and rehearsal room so that musicians can work on the one aspect of their craft that will outlive them.
But the masterminds behind all four of these studios share strong opinions about the music business outside of their door, how they fit into it and how they can survive alongside it. Hilbert, for instance, believes in a qualified meritocracy, where smart bands with an identifiable sound stand a chance. Over at Osceola, Hodgin sees a lot of artists putting their session on a credit card. He tries to help them understand they need to have money available to help people hear the music, too.
At Manifold, Schreier says he is consistently meeting outstanding artists who get opportunities that they don’t understandwithout the aegis of the old label or management systemhow to hold or handle. The environment does not foster career trajectories.
“The quality of music being created is better than it ever has been before, period,” he says. “Unfortunately, most of that does not get past its first recording project, because it’s so difficult to turn that into a part of the business plan.”
Pinebox’s Haran considers himself fortunate to have found his niche, knowing that it can be as limited as he wants it to be.
“I don’t know if what I’m doing is reactionary to the outside or if what’s gone on in the world of independent music has just made me who I am,” he says. “I’m finding people who want to make music with me, not ‘I make records for them.’”
Still, they agree there is one reason the recording industry is in such a healthy state, despite the abyss of the record industry: Musicians need good-sounding recordings to make their way in the world, even if those recordings won’t be their primary source of income. No live performance, no matter how incredible, can be subject to repeated listeningunless, well, it’s recorded.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Sound tracking”