Music industry experts have predicted the demise of the traditional recording studio for nearly two decades.
The price of recording software and technology has fallen. The process of recording music has democratized. Anyone with expertise or ambition uses programs such as Pro Tools and Logic to record at home.
But independent, professional recording studios are actually thriving, even in Bloomington-Normal.
Tommy O’Donnell is one of the two guitarists in the now re-formed Something Brothers band that rocked central Illinois in the 80s and 90s. He’s also in the popular jazz-rock quartet Inktrail. O’Donnell and many Twin City musicians tell GLT: Home recording studios are everywhere.
On a Sunday afternoon in early September, O'Donnell is recording song ideas in his basement studio.
“If it’s making you be creative and you’re feeling good about making music in whatever capacity at your home studio … that’s what it’s all about,” said O’Donnell.
He said home setups range from near professional grade to more primitive setups like his.
“Most musicians in Bloomington who either have been in bands or are in a band or just want to play all the time ... especially people who write their own tunes, the logical move is to have something in another room or the basement of their house where they can record,” said O’Donnell.
To be fair, his “primitive setup” is much more advanced than, say, the 4-track cassette recorder on which Bruce Springsteen recorded his landmark "Nebraska" album in 1982. O’Donnell’s studio includes a microphone directed at a guitar amp in the downstairs bathroom around the corner of the room he uses as the control room. In the studio, among other toys, is a pre-amp, a four-channel analog to digital converter and an Apple computer. He actually recorded a large chunk of his 2004 solo album in this studio.
Most listeners probably can’t tell the 2017 EP “No Retreat” by the Normal based folk-rock sextet Sherwood Forest was recorded in the basement of the home shared by band members Mitchel Owens and Matt Powers. Owens said recording at home gave the 20-somethings "more freedom with what we can do."
"It kind of gave a sense of control, and it was also … free,” laughed Owens.
Owens understands home recordings won’t have the “pop” professional engineers bring to music. But when the choice is spending thousands of dollars you don’t have to record in a professional studio, or recording at home for free, Owens said there is no choice.
“We were kind of sucking it up, not really making much money from shows at the time, so it would have taken us a real long time to raise money to record it properly, or we just would have had to put it on hold,” said Owens.
These home studio experiences is exactly what worried Erik Nelson at Eclipse Studios in Normal at the dawn of the home-recording revolution.
“Especially in the early 2000s, I’m thinking, 'Well, how long is this going to work? I’m busy now, but (the cost) is getting cheaper and cheaper all the time …’ and you can buy all this stuff for your computer,” said Nelson.
So how did that play out?
“Actually I’m busier than I ever was,” said Nelson. “And I’m charging more than I was. So yeah, I’m doing well.”
Nelson feels part of the reason his business is booming is because of home recordings. As more artists record at home, many produce what he characterizes as “decent quality home recordings.” This has raised the “quality bar” for both home and professional studios. But he said artists want to sound better than a “decent home recording.”
“A lot of these people find it’s just not that easy. You can get recording pretty quickly, but to get really good results is very difficult. So a lot of people end up doing that, then they end up calling me at some point because they need a professional to do it for them,” said Nelson.
Defining the difference between a professional recording studio and a home recording studio can be tricky. Legendary producer Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios attached to his Malibu home in Southern California certainly also meets the definition of a professional studio.
Artist Fernando Gros maintains a home studio is simply a place in your home, to record. A commercial recording studio handles a variety of projects and workflows, and allows for many sonic signatures. An independent, professional recording studio, also known as a project studio, is one that CAN be in the home, but is more likely not. It’s designed for a single artist, band, or producer at a time.
There are four project studios in Bloomington-Normal. Two are part-time. The other two, including Erik Nelson’s Eclipse Studios, are full-time.
On a late July Saturday morning, Nelson is engineering a session with central Illinois red dirt/Americana band Blacktop Audio. His studio is in a small, inconspicuous building near the Constitution Trail. A few guitars hang on a wall. So does commemorative gold and platinum records. One of his three Grammy nominations hangs on another wall.
Nelson said smaller, independent studios like his are now the professional norm, and that large, legacy commercial studios such as The Hit Factory in New York City and other iconic ones shuttered with the advance of recording technology.
“And it’s really sad, but you don’t really need those giant mixing boards that fill up an entire room and cost you a thousand dollars a month in electricity,” said Nelson. “And most of the big hit records are being done in small production studios similar to this.”
Nelson’s first professional studio was called Sinewaves. He ran it in the mid to late 1990s out of a 130-year-old building that still stands on west Market Street in Bloomington. That’s when he did use one of those large mixing boards to engineer, mix, and master the debut EP for Peoria band Mudvayne. That metal group went to major label success.
“Eventually my partner and I went our separate ways, that’s another long story. But I freelanced out of a studio in downtown Bloomington for a couple years called Shiney On Top Studios."
Nelson went on to open Eclipse Studios in 2000. Shiny On Top, owned by Edwin Pierce, was a transition for Nelson.
“But also: Tony SanFilippo was the head engineer there,” said Nelson.
Oxide Lounge Recording
It’s a sunny late August afternoon, and Tony SanFilippo is now the owner, operator, producer and chief engineer of Oxide Lounge Recording in Bloomington.
“And head janitor,” quips SanFilippo of the other full-time independent recording studio in the Twin Cities.
San Filippo opened the studio in 2003 after he bought a downtown building he says was already being used as a studio. He remembers it being called The Purple Door.
The 1940s building once housed Bloomington Gas Company. A variety of guitars adorn one wall; dollar-bin LPs are thumbtacked to another, an original 1960s peace sign American flag hangs on the opposite wall. A drum set sits on a large rug that covers a wood floor in the middle of the main studio space. A homemade 4-by-8 wood framed cushion hangs 10 feet above the tall room. SanFilippo calls it a “cloud” that helps focus bright sounds, like cymbals, without deadening the room.
“The great thing about it is the 14-foot vaulted ceiling. So there’s still a lot of mass of air, so you can create a lot of sound and not have it choke itself. And because of the sheer volume of the room, you can get pretty loud in here, and it doesn’t fold and it doesn’t get all boxy sounding,” said SanFilippo.
“From the first time hearing John, I heard John Till’s voice being recorded in that room at Oxide Lounge in Bloomington,” said Bloomington musician Edward David Anderson, who produced Till’s most recent album “Work Away The Day” at Oxide Lounge.
“It’s not a huge room, but it has big tall ceilings. You can hear the depth; you can hear the sound of the room. I wanted it to be kind of an old-school country blues sound. I really feel like we achieved that,” said Anderson.
That’s just one reason SanFilippo believes professional recording studios will remain viable. He said unique spaces like his still matter. He also believes decades of experience engineering and producing hundreds of bands of all genres gives him a perspective most home studio recorders are still years from learning.
But technology has altered his business model in a couple ways. One is that full album sessions like John Till’s are on the decline. SanFilippo recalls Oxide Lounge’s early years as a time when he always engineered a project that was at least six songs. Now, streaming services including iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora encourage music consumption in smaller bites. That has him recording one or two songs in 60 percent of his sessions, a marked increase from a decade ago.
“And a single isn’t even what it was when you and I were young, when it was an ‘A’ side and a ‘B’ side. That’s because it’s being released on the internet. It is one song. It’s a true ‘single,’” said SanFilippo.
This means musicians need less studio time and SanFilippo makes less money. Erik Nelson has seen that trend at Eclipse Studios. He said even major label artists are releasing singles seemingly at random.
Professional studios also now frequently blend their services with home studios. SanFilippo said it’s common for him to record drum, bass, and guitar and other instrument parts by the artist in his studio, then mix the entire project at Oxide Lounge with the artist’s home recorded vocals and solo parts.
“So I’m working in tandem with the home studio, not in opposition, as if ‘oh a home studio is bad.’ No, home studios are great. People save a lot of money that way,” said SanFilippo.
That’s how Brandon Beck approaches his recordings.
“I wouldn’t be the artist I am today if it wasn’t for the home studio my father put in the house when I was 10,” said the Atlanta, Georgia, hip-hop artist with roots in Bloomington.
Beck is a prolific songwriter who performs and records under the name Brandon Daz. He said he just released four EPs in one month to celebrate his 30th birthday. Beck said he first makes beats with a producer or musician in an outside studio, than lays down vocals in his home studio before bouncing the work back to a producer and engineer in another studio for the final mix.
“Probably to another home studio even,” said Beck. “Because even with the big studios, it might be where Lil Wayne recorded it. But who engineered it could be entirely from his camp. That was just the space he was using.”
Beck said by recording parts in his own studio and hiring someone else to mix his songs, he can create a lot of music “without the hassle of having to make as much money back.”
Bombsight Recording Studio
Bombsight Recording Studio is the third and newest independent, professional studio in the Twin Cities. Owner David Rossi opened his west Bloomington shop in 2015.
“I think everyone can record at home,” said Rossi.
He too occasionally blends home recordings into sessions, and embraces home recorders.
“But at some point in time you’re going to start hearing and understanding the deficiencies in your home-recording process,” said Rossi. “And you’re going to understand you need somebody with more experience, and unfortunately, better gear to get the sound you need to get to make a record you actually want to put out.”
When Rossi opens the door to Bombsight, your eyes take in what it must feel like to stumble into the Batcave.
“That was kind of the goal of it,” said the proud Rossi. “The way it’s lit, the artwork that’s in here. Just the vibe of this space I want people to feel comfortable and also feel excited about being in the studio.”
Rossi played drums for the suburban Chicago punk band Allister for a few years. That's when the recording bug bit him. He started with a home-based “project studio” before opening his own studio in Des Moines during college at Drake University.
As inferred earlier, Bombsight isn’t a full-time gig for Rossi. That’s because he’s busy as a McLean County assistant state's attorney.
“I always struggle striking the proper balance, and I think my wife can attest to that as well,” laughed Rossi, who said he came to understand he needs both music and law in his life. The two disciplines exercise different parts of his brain. And as a part-time engineer/producer, he said he can be picky, and is picky, about whom he decides to record.
“If you’re recording in my studio, we probably know each other. We probably like each other a lot. And I probably also really like your band,” said Rossi.
“Oh man, David’s great,” said Austin Smith of the Peoria rock band Cole Hollow. Smith said he’s been producing EDM, hip-hop, rock and roll and metal music for other artists in his Pekin basement home studio for seven years. Yet, when it was time for Cole Hollow to record its debut album, members opted to work elsewhere to get an outside voice.
“The most important part of our record is that we could bounce those ideas off David. He has a great mind and ear,” said Smith. “We don’t mind working with David and paying for a great quality product we know is going to last.”
Back in the Eclipse Studios, Blacktop Audio is putting the recording finishes on their new album. Band member Tanq Hendricks said the group knows its live sound is tight from decades of playing together. But the studio is a different animal.
“He brought up things for absolutely everybody. There have been vocal things that he’s critiqued and made better. Because we’re so close to it and have been playing together for so long, there are things we don’t pick up on. We’re leaving here a better band … thanks to him,” said Hendricks of Erik Nelson.
Across town, Tony SanFilippo said he brings those same intangibles to his studio.
“Whenever anyone is in my studio, to me I’m joining the band at that time,” said SanFilippo.
Singer-songwriter Sara Quah wholeheartedly agrees. She recorded her 2017 full-length album “Taking Me Back” at SanFilippo’s Oxide Lounge, where he also acted as a full producer.
“I don’t think the album would be what it is if it was just my vision,” said Quah. “It was my writing, but really, that’s where the solo part ended and it became this collaboration between the two of us. Tony has an amazing imagination.”
EMG Audio Labs
The fourth independent professional studio in the Twin Cities is also a part-time endeavor, and the only one in a home. Micah Hattaway’s east side Bloomington basement houses EMG Audio Labs, where he also acts as producer and audio engineer. Hattaway has been at it for roughly eight years.
“I can even track it back to when I got my first 4-track back in 1993 with Ed Pierce at Midwest Exchange,” said Hattaway.
He said he really began to ramp up EMG Labs after a workshop a few years ago with legendary producer Alan Parsons at a prominent Chicago recording studio.
“Hearing all these behind-the-scenes stories and ways to get great sounds from somebody you knew had been assistant engineer on the last two Beatles albums. This guy knew his history,” he said.
On a warm, humid Sunday afternoon in early September, Hattaway is plotting song approaches with Joey Shull and Ike Lindsey of the Bloomington metal band Event of Collapse. It’s one of several sessions the ISU grad and longtime computer programmer is working on this summer between “day jobs,” with State Farm his most recent gig. But as you catch an initial glimpse halfway down the stairs to the basement housing his gorgeous and plush studio, it’s obvious EMG Labs is no “second job.”
“We’ve talked about the couple bands I’ve been in and I still play live music, but I’m significantly more passionate about recording, and helping bands make their recordings,” said Hattaway.
The trend he’s seeing is the desire from bands for a “retro” sound. Despite advanced software and plug-ins offering access to sounds unimaginable even a few years ago, Hattaway says “modern” isn’t the sound bands clamor for.
“They want to sound like mid to late 80s Metallica. They want to sound like 70s classic rock. They want to sound like a 50s/60s bluegrass band. You know, we’re in central Illinois and I just think that this is where this kind of music lives,” said Hattaway.
So what hurdles will independent studios face in the future?
One legendary commercial recording studio has already adapted to home and smaller studios with an online component. Abbey Road Studios in London is where the Beatles cut their albums with producer George Martin. For a per-song fee, individual songs can be uploaded to the Abbey Road website to be mastered by Abbey Road engineers. You can even upload individual instrumental and vocal tracks where those same engineers will mix them.
There are also a number of online companies that can sync individual tracks across the web, which allows musicians to work together from different spaces. Another company has designed an interactive online platform that allows home musicians to collaborate online with world-class session musicians, singers and engineers.
David Rossi at Bombsight has been keeping an eye on Landr, an online, cloud-based, automated mastering service. In a non-technical nutshell, mastering is the icing on the cake. It’s the final step that hopefully makes the final mix of any song “pop.” Rossi says with Landr, you just upload final song mixes to their website, then an algorithm automatically masters the track.
“And that is a perfect example of a company trying to disrupt the industry,” he said.
Rossi also speculated on new technology that would hit closer to home, and his pocketbook: Websites designed for uploading individual bass, drum, guitar and vocal tracks.
“And based off of machine and computer learning, a computer program would attempt to mix an entire record for you based off of individual uploaded tracks. I can 100 percent see that in the future," Rossi said.
Back in musician Tommy O’Donnell’s basement home studio in Normal, the guitarist says he remains confident that independent professional studios have withered the disruption of home recording studios.
“I think the fact that you don’t see the bigger studios around here closing, where the home studio thing just took over, gives you a clue that if that was going to happen, it would have already happened,” said O’Donnell.
When automated computer mixing becomes omnipresent, it will be interesting to watch how today's independent studios adapts again. All four independent studio engineers in the Twin Cities believe musicians will still need outside ears and feedback from human engineers and producers into the foreseeable future.
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