Finding a Niche in the Music Recording Business 

Some local commercial studios are thriving in the Digital Age — despite the revolution in home recording.

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John Vanderslice opened the analog studio Tiny Telephone Recording (TinyTelephone.com) in San Francisco in the late 1990s — on the cusp of what's now considered a revolution in digital recording technology. Ever since, home-recording gear has gotten smaller, cheaper, and better — a fact that Vanderslice imagined might spell doom for spacious commercial studios like his, with their trained professionals, costly gear, and high overhead. And yet, Vanderslice found the opposite to be true: business boomed. So Tiny Telephone expanded; Vanderslice added Studio B, assuming that the new studio would meet demand. Again, he was pleased to be wrong.

A couple of years ago, two high-profile indie groups, Of Montreal and Islands, requested thirty days of studio time each at Tiny Telephone. Vanderslice was forced to turn them down, which underscored the need for Studio C, now under construction in North Oakland. Gauged through Kickstarter contributions, the response so far appears to be overwhelming. Vanderslice has nearly tripled his original $39,000 goal, largely due to folks pledging $200 to secure a day of studio time. So far, Studio C is effectively booked for at least 250 days.

Recently, the wiry 48-year-old guided me through Studio C's digs in the Golden Gate neighborhood of North Oakland. He frequently invoked "working-class," both as a category of aspirant musicians with limited means and as a studio vibe. It will be inviting and warm, geared less toward austere work or plush comfort and more toward working comfortably, with acoustically conducive and aesthetically charming reclaimed wood. Arup, a global engineering company, gave him a friendly rate on acoustic design, while his restored 1976 Neve mixing console is the sort of vintage crown jewel that engineers regard as priceless.

Crucially, Tiny Telephone opts for recording on magnetic tape, something that many studios offer at additional costs but Vanderslice provides free. Along with a reputation for finessing career-making records by bands such as Spoon, Tiny Telephone's faith in analog is key to the studio's appeal. To Vanderslice, avoiding computers is as important sonically as it is psychologically.

"Computers drive even the most anarchic performer to become more paranoid and tentative," he said. Musicians often arrive at Tiny Telephone after two years of fruitlessly toiling over digital recordings, he said, only to turn and commit the whole project to tape in a week at Tiny Telephone. "Working on a computer is like a ghastly mirror," Vanderslice continued. "It's like cholera or the plague — it infects a part of the population and just devastates them."

Vanderslice honed his model and technical allegiances early on, when he detected a void between filthy, uncomfortable budget joints and the prohibitively expensive complexes bankrolled by bored rich people in search of celebrity friends. Vanderslice, who majored in economics before pursuing music full-time, has identified a sizable niche in the Digital Age: musicians who relish the inimitable sound of analog recording, but not the premium that's typically attached to the vintage technique. The only way to insist on tracking to tape without alienating working-class musicians, Vanderslice realized, was to stockpile reels and bundle that cost into his upfront pricing.

Still, although Vanderslice's enterprise is proven and remains in high demand, it's not the only way.

"I grew up an avid home recordist," Vanderslice acknowledged, reminiscing about four-track recording in his bedroom. In fact, he continued, "I've dissuaded many bands from going into the studio."

In recent years, local artists such as Kelley Stoltz have championed old eight-track tape machines, appreciating the ease with which rock groups could commit core tracks live to tape in just a small rehearsal space. Modern classics were made that way. Jessica Pratt, the celebrated local songwriter, recorded her debut through a similar process at home. Toro Y Moi's What For? was a bedroom endeavor. Holly Herndon, meanwhile, exalts the laptop as an instrument and a recording interface. As aspirant emcees are thrilled to discover, rap requires little more than beat-making software and a condenser microphone.

Itinerant Home Recordings — run by engineer and musician Geoff Saba, who performs solo as Forest Floor — exists in between homespun and commercial approaches. It's run out of his house in Oakland, where Saba has tracked vivid records. A cornerstone of Saba's business involves mixing and mastering technically crude recordings for release. Working full-time, he typically charges $20 to $25 an hour.

Saba handled post-production on Gossimer's Across that White Plain, a suite of forlorn, understated songs bound by fingerpicked guitar and samples swathed in white noise. "Not to use a polarizing word," Saba said of the record, which local writer Jennifer Williams released last year, "but to sterilize that didn't sound right to me." He continued, "I like working with limited recordings, because it speaks to the context in which it was recorded." Saba thinks of his role more in terms of enhancing limitations, something that takes place on the technical level of mixing, compression, equalization — the dark arts of sound that remain shadowy even to professional players.

Which is why people do end up in studios, Saba reckoned. It's not exceedingly complicated to record or mix, he explained, "but it's a mystifying process and musicians would much rather focus on crafting their music." For example, he continued, "Most musicians aren't interested in delegating signal flow — that's an art form itself."

The Classical's Diptych, which the Express dubbed one of last year's finest local releases, was digitally recorded at home. Gear included a $100 mixer, a $200 microphone, some loaned mics, an old drum set and a laptop, since most of the instrumentation is MIDI. Then, vocalist Juliet Gordon explained, The Classical spent $500 on mastering and $1750 on mixing through Jay Pellicci (formerly of Tiny Telephone) at New, Improved Recording (5765 Lowell St., Emeryville, NewImprovedRecording.com).

The final result sounds impeccable. Gordon said that the group could've saved on post-production by investing in frontend recording gear, though it's difficult to say how much. Still, she wouldn't do it that way again. It took years to create, she said, estimating that professional help would've yielded the same results, if not better, in a quarter of the time.

"On the next one, I'm looking forward to the string orchestra, the master sound engineer, and ... other extravagant shit," she said. "I'll just be eating grapes from a gold chalice on a black leather couch."

That's not very working-class, but maybe Vanderslice can accommodate.

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