From the October 2006 issue of
Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
(Photos by the author)
Ann Arbor's Recording
Studios are Alive and Well
Making Music in Tree TownBy Mike Gould
The digital revolution has touched every business in the state, and nowhere is this more evident than in Ann Arbor's recording community. While not as well known a music capital as Nashville, L.A., or New York, Ann Arbor has long been a good place to make recordings. Since the days of vinyl, through the cassette era, and continuing into the current online epoch of downloads and MP3s, Ann Arbor has sustained a small but bustling group of businesses serving the music industry.
I used to be a small part of it; I ran an 8-track recording studio (Cloud 10 Recording) out of my basement for fifteen years or so, producing tapes for local artists such as Madcat, The Urbations, and George Bedard, whose first single I recorded. But I couldn't sustain the business end of it, and went on to explore other career paths. But others have had better business skills, more talent, and plain luck, and their studios have survived and prospered. Here are the stories of two established studios, and one up-and-coming operation: what it takes to make a business out of recording music.
Solid Sound is the area's oldest and most acoustically perfect studio, and possibly the most beautiful sound facility in the state, if not the country. Located across from the Matthai Botanical Gardens on Dixboro Road, the studio is up an unmarked driveway and nestled in woods and flowers. Designed by the famous acoustician George Augspurger, the studio is a masterpiece of warm wooden walls, soft lighting and rural serenity. Entering through a big glass door, you could mistake the place for a slightly more businesslike version of a summer cottage; sky lights, natural stonework and a fine wood floor, all lit with windows looking out into greenery.
From the gracious reception area you proceed to the high-tech control room or into the warmth of the paneled recording room, which features a grand piano, drum enclosure, and isolation booth. Their studio's web site (URL below) has pictures of all this, along with close-ups of microphones and other equipment.
Rob Martens has been the owner for 30 years, and runs the place with a single employee, engineer Eric Wojahn. In addition to the studio, Solid Sound also owns World Class Tapes, a CD and DVD duplicating facility on Airport Blvd. Rob founded the studio with Will Spence, known to bluegrass fans as the banjo player for the RFD Boys. Will has since left the state and Rob is now the sole operator.
Solid Sound boasts a capitalization of over a million dollars, tied up in the building itself, its assortment of top-of-the-line digital recording equipment, and its extensive collection of vintage and tube microphones. One of the ironies of the recording industry is that you want to have the latest digital electronics in your computers and mixing consoles, but the technology you want for your microphones and their pre-amplifiers is based on tubes. Remember tubes? Glowing, vacuum-filled glass thingies with wires in them? That's the ticket for the warmest sound, and warm sounds, flawlessly recorded onto hard drives, and then burned onto CDs - this is the work flow that makes up the recording end of the music industry.
But the industry is constantly changing, with more and more recording capabilities being included with computers. Every iMac purchased today includes a copy of software called "Garage Band", which is a digital multi-track recording program. Any band in the land can go out and buy a Mac, a good microphone, and some additional, optional software and start recording their own songs onto MP3s for Internet distribution. How does a recording studio compete with that?
The answer, according to Rob, is by offering a controlled acoustic space, superior microphones, and a sensitive yet incredibly tech-savvy engineer to make the ones and zeroes translate into the artist's vision. Not surprisingly, one of the secrets to Solid Sound's success is filling a niche: they specialize in recording acoustic music, mostly jazz and classical. The sound of their grand piano in their wood-lined studio is so good that a Japanese pianist regularly flies in from Tokyo to record there.
In past decades, Rob and company recorded endless TV and radio ads for hundreds of business clients (an impressive list is on their web site). But as those markets dried up due to more and more companies establishing their own recording facilities, made possible by cheaper and cheaper equipment, Solid Sound refined their client base down to top musicians demanding the very best in sound, amenities, and attention to detail.
I asked Rob, "How's biz?"
Rob Martens (RM): "We're cruisin' right along...it goes up and down, but not cyclical like the calendar, or the University or anybody else. Most of our clients are return clients and we get some word of mouth stuff. We're subject to the whims of the economy just like everybody else, but we're happy to be in business, doing what we want to do".
BizMO: "And you're not dependent on the auto industry at all..."
RM: "We don't do any ad work at all. We did a lot of that in the 80s and 90's, but we do all album stuff now."
I asked him about the impact of home recording, and he said "You can't compete with free", but then stressed the advantages of Solid Sound's equipment, sonic environment and amenities.
RM: "Everybody knows somebody with a ProTools [sound recording software] rig who will record for free or $10 an hour, so those kind of clients are gone ... if you're recording electric, you don't need a studio."
Rob emphasized the importance of finding niches and diversifying:
RM: "We have a small record label that does ballet class music. It's called "Behind Barres" - we've got eleven CDs out and six instructional DVDs. We do some mastering [preparing recorded music for production] and we have the duplicating facility over at World Class Tapes. We also do audio installs; I was doing a sound system for a church just before this interview."
I asked about marketing, but Rob said that they rely solely on word of mouth and repeat business. Their web site also brings in some attention. After 30 years, they certainly have their act together.
Big Sky Recording
But Solid Sound's niches are not the only ones in the local music business. For another approach, check out Big Sky recording. Big Sky country is found on South Industrial Highway, amidst other small businesses. small businesses. Owner Geoff Michael and partner Gregg Leonard, assisted by engineer Chris DuRoss , have been cranking out the tunes for around ten years at the South Industrial address. Before that, Geoff was partners with Rob Martens at Al's Audio Diner (located inside World Class Tapes) for about 6 years. (And way before that he played guitar in my band, but that's another story...)
Where Rob and company concentrate on acoustic classical and jazz music, the typical client of Big Sky is, well, anybody. They do rock, hip hop, rap, bands, singer-songwriters, and are starting to branch into movie soundtracks and music licensing for film and television. I asked the "How's biz?" question of Geoff:
Geoff Michael (GM): "We have been extremely lucky. It's been pretty much solidly booked, or as booked as we can be for the last 3 or 4 years. It has been a little slow in the last month [August], but next week is solidly booked and it looks like things are picking back up... And actually it was cool that it was slow because I could take a small vacation."
BizMO: "Well, if you can afford a vacation in this business, you must be doing pretty well".
At Big Sky, the engineers all bring in business:
GM: "We've been lucky to draw on a wide area. Gregg has produced bands from as far away as Australia in addition to the Ann Arbor and Detroit area. And Chris knows a lot of newer bands. A business like this is mostly word of mouth.
BizMO: "Is your web site working for you?"
GM: "A little tiny bit, maybe less than 5% of our clients. It's rare that we get a new client from the web; it's about even with our listing in the Yellow Pages...we're listed but we don't have an ad".
GM: Most of Big Sky's clients are experienced pros who've recorded many times at many studios, and know a good deal when the see it. Our typical clients are like Madcat or producer Zak Shipps (of "The Electric Six"), who brings Detroit bands he's producing out to Big Sky to record rhythm tracks. The band this weekend is starting on their 3rd album, (their first was recorded in Detroit) with a small label footing the bill. They'll probably book around 100 hours through the fall.
The equipment is not all the latest and greatest, but the tried and true. They have tube mics, a lot of classic sound processing gear, a large Neotec mixing console, a big collection of great guitars and amps, and the ubiquitous ProTools on their Mac doing the actual recording. They have been voted "Best Local Studio" in Current magazine for several years.
GM: "Big Sky avoids the "bleeding edge" of computer systems to avoid the expense (in dollars and time) and lack of reliability, preferring to invest in the best vintage gear. For example, the Telefunken V76 and Neve 1073 are hands down the best and most expensive mic preamps in existence. The Neumann U47 is the standard of the industry for vocal mics, and ours is one of the nicest ones in the Detroit area (mic guru Tracy Korby said it's one of the nicest he's heard) , and it's a $7500 mic. The Ampex 1200 24 track tape machine - which I'll be using all weekend - is respected as one of the finest sounding analogue machines every made. Having a $50,000 arsenal of the best vintage guitars, amps and pedals is much more important to a guitarist than which version of software they're recording on."
Future plans include doing more movie work. Geoff and Gregg have composed the music and produced the soundtracks for two mid-budget horror films, "Feed" and "Man-Thing" (from Marvel Comics). They also have some contacts in Hollywood that are starting to bring in business and have produced and licensed several songs for major films and television shows such as Imaginary Heroes", "Las Vegas" and "General Hospital", in addition to branching out into scoring music for advertising and corporate videos. Radio is also being seen to; they record shows for Acoustic Café featuring national acts that pass through town.
The ambience at Big Sky is funky: comfortable chairs, practical wall treatments, not a lot of money spent on drapes. Geoff confides:
GM: "Old pros (T-Bone Burnett, Amy Mann, Billy Bragg, Michael Penn, KT Tunstall, etc.) that come through for Acoustic Cafe comment on how much they like the studio, the vibe. the gear, the instruments; they've been in a million "new" slick studios and they don't dig them."
The home recording phenomenon is also being used to their advantage. Musicians will often record their parts onto their laptops while on the road, and then bring the resulting digital files to Big Sky for mixing and production. Local artist Madcat recorded his latest CD of harmonica and ukulele music this way.
Pretty Suite Recording
Finally, I thought I would talk to someone just starting out in this field. 25-year old Brandon Wiard is a local musician, band leader, and recording engineer. His business, Pretty Suite Recording, is based out of a secret bunker on the North side of town, but finds itself usually in the home or rehearsal space of his clients. His equipment is stored in rack-mount equipment cases that he lugs to gigs, along with a Mac G4 computer loaded with, yes, ProTools.
For having been up and running for less than a year, he's making pretty good progress. He has a record label (Cerberus Records), a band (Brandon Wiard and the Saviors), and an impressive list of local band clients. He produced a compilation of Michigan bands playing songs about Ypsilanti ("Ypsisongs") and is promoting that.
Asking him "how's biz?":
Brandon Wiard (BW): "For the time being, I'm as busy as I wanna be. I'm juggling the regular nine-to-five [working as a messenger for a law firm] in addition to this [recording business] plus the record label. There's many hats on my head right now".
BizMO: 'Do you sell your records on the web, or in local record stores ?"
BW: "It's about 50 - 50; it depends on the release... my releases, I've been doing a lot of national marketing, which is making the web sales spike. The Ypsi compilation is mostly local. One thing that was bizarre was selling to a guy in the Netherlands, because he was into the Ann Arbor - Ypsi music scene."
One specialty of Pretty Suite is the vast collection of antique (greater than 20 years) music makers and modifiers. Brandon has almost every model of Casio keyboard ever made, and a mixmaster's brew of stomp boxes, foot pedals, and a very rare Celeste: a keyboard instrument involving little bells that I last saw an example of at the Hill Auditorium opening. It is somewhat reassuring to see today's young studio geeks hacking around with some of the same gear I used to use back in my day. Just like the mix of digital and tubes, the mix of old and new sounds (or new sounds mashed up through old sound boxes) is a powerful tool in the hands of the recording engineer today. Brandon is always on the look-out for old and unusual musical instruments, haunting garage and yard sales whenever possible. Another aspect of the influence of the web on the music scene: "Ebay and I have a very good relationship".
Brandon is doing a bit more marketing than the other studios here, as befits the new kid on the block. He is advertising Cerberus Records in independent music trade magazines (Amplifier, Magnet, Big Takeover, etc.).
All the people I interviewed for this were passionate about their work. All were musicians, all were in it for the long haul, doing work they love. This is a difficult business, with no great pay-off in sight, other then the satisfaction of contributing to the creation of a work of art. Business people with that kind of attitude are part of what makes Ann Arbor and its music scene great.
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