Somehow, studios crescendo
Even with their business models in peril, recording studios keep popping up
A $5,000 microphone rests in the rehearsal room at Uprise Sound in Old Sacramento, the kind pop stars like Sam Smith would probably use to record a Top 40 hit. The hardware simplifies everything; just record straight into the mic and onto Logic Pro, Uprise owner Michael Cox’s choice of recording software. Cox demoed a Maroon 5 cover with every beat and vocal recorded and mixed from scratch. The song sounded radio-ready.
Things weren’t this effortless three years ago, when Cox picked up music production on the cheap. He remembers waiting to record until 1 a.m. for a guarantee of zero car traffic outside of his grandparents’ house in Elk Grove. He’d prop up mattresses to muffle unwanted noises, like excessive bathtub reverb and nasty echoes.
All of the effort was for Cox’s original dream: superstardom on his own terms. He still muses about being on the radio, playing a show with Beyoncé, even selling the studio after nabbing a $10 million record contract from Universal Music Group.
“Honestly, this is just my bread-and-butter job for now,” Cox said. “I’d really like to be a performing and touring artist … to be in Bangkok one night, Tokyo another night. … But, this is a great way to be immersed in what I really love while still maintaining my usefulness as somebody in the music industry.”
But didn’t the music industry change at some point? In the last 15 years, mass piracy and online services like Spotify have hollowed out the coffers of the big record labels, and cheap recording tools now empower musicians to make their own studio-quality sound from their bedrooms, without having to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars in recording fees.
Uprise just opened in April, and Cox admitted that unseen challenges could lie ahead for his new business. Will Cox have to sell the studio before he sees a record contract?
The answers depend on whom you ask in town. Some sound engineers think that there isn’t enough money to solely record music in 2017, and they’re finding new ways to support themselves. Others studios, like Uprise, are steadfast on recording music, and only music.The old way is dead
Inside Papa Roach’s old studio on D Street, Coday and Laura Marie Anthony recently set up shop along with their arts operation, Post & Beam Studios. It’s also the original location of the local Velvet Tone Studios, helmed by Pat Olguin, who’s known for recording Cake and Tesla.
Diversity of income is Post & Beam’s mantra. The Anthonys time-share the space with two freelance sound engineers who record for commercials and film, and the building also houses Laura’s nonprofit Artists of Sacramento and Post & Beam’s photography arm. They want to host live shows and record them, as well as rent out their parking-lot-slash-patio for parties.
And, of course, it’s also home to the record label under the same name. Post & Beam’s first project will be recording the next record for Drop Dead Red, which Coday drums for. The dream was always for Post & Beam to be a multifaceted mom-and-pop shop, Coday said. They also want to make rent and build a profitable company. Throughout Coday’s 25 years as a music producer, performer and teacher, recording tools and facilities have cheapened, and there’s less cash in engineering music.
“We can’t just be here to make rock ’n’ roll,” Coday said.
Taking that model a step further, what if recording studios were likened to a FedEx office center, primed for serving musicians’ every need, not just recording? Enter the Rink Studios, or as its representative Jo Ann Miller calls it, Sacramento’s starbound music “mothership.”
Peek inside the Del Paso Boulevard complex, slated to open in August: a 600-capacity performance hall will eventually hold a stage and a 20-foot-by-10-foot video wall, with ceiling-mounted cameras for livestreaming performances. Around the building: A bar, a VIP boardroom for industry representatives, 15 rehearsal and recording spaces, and a deep hallway that Miller says will fit at least 28 platinum records from unearthed artists.
“I can even use the ceiling [to fit more], just saying,” Miller said.
The Rink’s owner, Greg Kennedy, wants to build a digital bridge between rising talent and the larger labels, which right now are apprehensive to discover and invest in new artists. While the studio will make most of its money initially renting out to sound engineers and bands, Miller envisions livestreams serving as the industry’s duct tape. Record label representatives will be able to shop for new artists through an online catalog of recorded shows.
“Now, the music industry has an actual spot to look [for talent],” Miller said. “And they don’t have to fly here. Because, I’m sorry, no one’s flying to Wichita, Kansas, or [Sacramento] to come look at bands.”Long live the old way
Still, there’s a slew of Sacramento sound engineers who solely record music, selling themselves on the promise of a great record crafted by sound masters with big, expensive rigs.
Take Dock Studio, housed inside the historic General Produce Co. building off of 16th Street. For 15 years, owners Lance Jackman, Ben Conger and Anthony Sarti were students of the local recording legend John Baccigaluppi, who owned the Hangar Studios before it closed down in 2013 and moved under a new name to Stinson Beach.
The Dock records everything from metal to singer-songwriter projects, including Screature, Prism Tats and Thee Oh Sees. They use racks of analog and digital machinery that look overwhelming, but as these engineers in-the-know would know, part of the magic’s in the acoustics of their timeworn building.
“We don’t want that static, straight sound,” Sarti said. “It’s nice to find an environment where it can breathe.”
Despite their chops, the studios admit that the value of quality recordings has lessened. Lesa Johnston and Joe Wolf have run Pus Cavern for more than 25 years, recording early Deftones demos and now local greats like ZuhG and The Nickel Slots. Over the years, they’ve had to permanently reduce their rates, especially during the recession.
At Earth Tone Studios next-door to Post & Beam, Patrick Hills is adapting to a market of local talent who live paycheck to paycheck. Most studios charge an hourly or day rate: $65 an hour at Uprise and $60 an hour at Post & Beam, as low as $250 a day at the Dock, and as much as $400 to $550 a day at Pus Cavern. But Hills, who records a bulk of Sacramento’s doom metal and punk bands, charges around $150 a song. Even at that rock-bottom price, Hills said he still gets bands that claim he charges too much, and getting paid is sometimes a challenge.
“That’s the only part that I hate about recording,” Hills said. “I didn’t get into it to bounty hunt.”
Wolf said that his first recording tool, an eight-track tape machine, cost him $2,000. Take a trip to a local Skip’s Music today, and it can cost as little as $100 to get started with a microphone, a small digital recording interface and free recording software.
Most musicians are aware of this. Rapper Hobo Johnson said he recorded from home at his start, and R&B singer James Cavern, who records for free at a church studio in Sacramento, uses the less expensive stuff for songwriting.
“What it really boils down it is a great song, whether it’s done in a full-blown studio or in a garage,” Cavern said. “If you have access [to a studio], that’s great, but it’s a bonus.”
But Sacramento’s sound engineers aren’t complaining. They believe producing a perfect sound is still an essential art. Since they’re often musicians themselves, half the joy is having the armory to propel their own art.
“I’ve been really lucky, and I keep saying that,” Cox said. “I have this [studio] all at my disposal every day. I can work on whatever I want. This is every recording artist’s dream.”