Finding a Niche in the Music Recording Industry | East Bay Express
John Vanderslice opened the analog studio Small phone recording (TinyTelephone.com) in San Francisco in the late 1990s – the dawn of what is now considered a revolution in digital recording technology. Since then, home recording equipment has gotten smaller, cheaper and better – a fact Vanderslice imagined could spell disaster for spacious commercial studios like his, with their trained professionals, expensive equipment and high overhead. . And yet, Vanderslice discovered the opposite: business exploded. So Tiny Telephone has grown; Vanderslice added Studio B, assuming the new studio would meet demand. Again, he was glad to be wrong.
A few years ago, two top indie bands, Of Montreal and Islands, requested thirty days of studio time each from Tiny Telephone. Vanderslice was forced to turn them down, which underscored the need for Studio C, currently under construction in North Oakland. Looking at Kickstarter contributions, the response so far seems overwhelming. Vanderslice nearly tripled its original goal of $39,000, largely thanks to people pledging $200 to secure a studio day. So far, Studio C is actually booked for at least 250 days.
Recently, the nervous 48-year-old walked me through the digs of Studio C in North Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. He frequently invoked the “working class”, both as a category of aspiring musicians of limited means and as a studio vibe. It will be inviting and warm, geared less towards austere work or lavish comfort and more towards comfortable work, with reclaimed wood with acoustics and aesthetic appeal. Arup, a global engineering firm, gave it a friendly note on acoustic design, while its restored 1976 Neve mixing console is the kind of vintage gem engineers consider priceless.
Importantly, Tiny Telephone opts for tape recording, which many studios offer for an additional fee, but Vanderslice offers for free. Along with a reputation for polishing the career records of bands such as Spoon, Tiny Telephone’s faith in analog is key to the studio’s appeal. For Vanderslice, avoiding computers is as important sonically as it is psychologically.
“Computers cause even the most anarchic artists to become more paranoid and hesitant,” he said. Musicians often arrive at Tiny Telephone after two years of unsuccessful efforts on digital recordings, he said, only to shoot and record the entire project to tape in a week at Tiny Telephone. “Working on a computer is like a terrible mirror,” Vanderslice continued. “It’s like cholera or the plague – it infects part of the population and devastates it.”
Vanderslice honed his model and technical allegiances early on, when he detected a gap between dirty, uncomfortable budget joints and prohibitively expensive resorts funded by bored wealthy people looking for famous friends. Vanderslice, who majored in economics before pursuing music full-time, identified an important niche in the digital age: musicians who appreciate the inimitable sound of analog recording, but not the premium that is usually attached in the vintage technique. The only way to insist on tape tracking without alienating working-class musicians, Vanderslice realized, was to stock up on reels and bundle that cost into its original price.
Yet while Vanderslice’s business has proven itself and remains in high demand, it’s not the only way.
“I grew up as an avid home recorder,” Vanderslice admitted, reminiscing about recording four tracks in his bedroom. In fact, he continued, “I’ve talked a lot of bands out of going into the studio.”
In recent years, local artists such as Kelley Stoltz have championed the old eight-track tape recorders, enjoying the ease with which rock bands could record lead tracks live to tape in a small rehearsal space. Modern classics were created this way. Jessica Pratt, the famous local songwriter, recorded her debut through a similar process at home. Toro Y Moi’s Why? was a bedroom effort. Holly Herndon, on the other hand, exalts the laptop as an instrument and recording interface. As aspiring animators are delighted to discover, rapping requires little more than beat-making software and a condenser microphone.
Traveling home recordings – led by engineer and musician Geoff Saba, who performs solo as Forest Floor – exists between artisanal and commercial approaches. He stepped out of his home in Oakland, where Saba tracked startling records. A cornerstone of Saba’s business is mixing and mastering technically raw recordings for release. Working full time, he generally charges between $20 and $25 per hour.
Saba handled post-production on Gosimer’s Across this white plain, a suite of sad, understated songs tied together by finger-picked guitar and samples wrapped in white noise. “Not to use a polarizing word,” Saba said of the record, which local writer Jennifer Williams released last year, “but for sterilize it didn’t seem fair to me. He continued, “I like working with limited recordings because it reflects the context in which it was recorded.” Saba thinks more of its role in terms of boundary-enhancing, something that happens at the technical level of mixing, compression, EQ – the dark arts of sound that remain obscure even to professional gamers.
That’s why people end up in studios, Saba believed. It’s not hugely complicated to record or mix, he explained, “but it’s a confusing process and musicians much prefer to focus on crafting their music.” For example, he continued, “Most musicians aren’t interested in delegating signal flow—it’s an art form in itself.”
The classics Diptych, which one to Express dubbed one of the best local releases of the last year, was recorded digitally at home. The equipment included a $100 mixer, a $200 microphone, loaner mics, old drums, and a laptop, as most of the instrumentation is MIDI. Then singer Juliet Gordon explained that The Classical spent $500 on mastering and $1750 on mixing through Jay Pellicci (formerly of Tiny Telephone) at New improved recording (5765 Lowell Street, Emeryville, NewImprovedRecording.com).
The end result looks flawless. Gordon said the band could have saved on post-production by investing in front-end recording gear, though it’s hard to say how much. Still, she wouldn’t do it again. It took years to create, she said, estimating that professional help would have produced the same, if not better, results 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 bullshit,” she said. “I’m just going to eat grapes from a golden chalice on a black leather couch.”
It’s not very popular, but maybe Vanderslice can adapt.