Saturday, March 12, 2005

A Place of Creation

Recording studios.
They are something of a mystery to those who are not deeply into music, I would suppose. They may seem like some mysterious underground hideaway where the demi-gods of music go to make what eventually we hear on the radio or CD or MP3. Or people imagine that they are office-like environments, doing business not so differently from the rest of the workaday world.

Explaining creativity to someone is not easy. Where do the ideas come from? Why this form of art and not another? How does it go from a mere idea to a finished piece? How does someone judge when a piece is ready to be put out 'there ' for the rest of the world to hear? All these questions apply to everything from painting to music to science to cooking. Applying them to the specifics of music is as tough as any other subject.

I have been in a number of studios in my day, some small and homemade, barely what one could call a studio, as well as buildings built specifically as recording studios, back in the infancy of recording. Yesterday, I was given a chance to see yet another, and despite being perhaps a little jaded in my thinking, I was surprised yet again. It was a humble place, a small place, and yet it has been the birthplace to some of the most important music in my life right now.

I must preface this with a note: I have worked for nearly two years to gain the trust of these guys, and while they are as accommodating as anyone could hope for a band to be, they are private people. Please know this was a special favour, and don't bug these guys about it. Anyway, they are planning on moving to a "real" studio as soon as money allows. It's long story as to why, and I will touch on it here.

Where should a studio be? Well, if my son-in-law Dave is to be believed, or the original members of Pitbull Daycare are to be believed, the front room of the communal apartment is a good place. Both bands recorded their first demos on 4 track machines hooked directly into tape or ADAT machines in their living rooms. I have been to Abbey Road studios, and to the Decca studios used by the Moody Blues for many,many years. While there may have been comfortable places to hang out, these where definitely not living rooms. The history in both places alone was overwhelming. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, the Moodies, countless other bands whose influence on the music industry might actually be immeasuable...and they are both still very active places to record to this day. The best studios are. Some things don't change.

As for location, other than being accessible to the clients, it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference. Oh there are certain aspects that should be considered: space for equipment, electrical needs, space for recording, mixing and editing, and the ability to work in different rooms and still see each other. There are different ways of dealing with this last bit: the Moodies had a camera system set up in the control room (the sign said 'control womb'- someone's late night humour) and a set of monitors so the engineer could see them all and co-ordinate. the actual studio they used was the largest of three in the building, and so large in fact that they could all leave every bit of equipment up while they were recording. It doesn't seem like much, until you know that Patrick Moraz alone had at least 10 keyboards set up, one of which was a full sized grand piano! ( I slipped into the seat of that piano one afternoon, feeling very guilty, and played a brief piece. What a magnificent sound, especially under his hands.)

**I must at this point recommend to the truly curious a book written by George Martin, the producer of every Beatles album, and much more. His writing describes how recording used to be back when four tracks were hi-tech and reel-to-reel tapes the standard. The man is possibly one of the most brilliant producers in music, someone who could mold without interfering with both the piece being done and the creative process of the artist. The stories might seem a bit dated, but his perspective is still valid today.

Okay, I digress big time. Let me get to the point: I was given a tour of Rick del Castillo's Smilin' Castle Studio the other morning. I had asked some time back and things just kept delaying it. I was worried I might not see this place before it was no more.
Now, I am not going to tell you where it is, and I will not encourage anyone to ask the same thing of the band, especially if there are ulterior motives involved. I really wanted to see where the albums had been made, and frankly it wasn't what I think I was expecting. I have sen all kinds of studios, as I said, but this one is akind of unique. Well, for the rest of the world anyway; chances are, it is pretty common in Austin.
From the outside, you wouldn't even know what it is. It looks like an average part of a neighbourhood, in an average suburb. I believe the guys have even said that the neighbours don't really know who the band is. That's cool. They are big enough to draw negative attention, so a little anonymity is a good thing.
Apparently, the insides have changed a bit over time. Even walking in the door now, one might find it hard to accept that this is a studio. The massive sound board and Mac in the back room might be the biggest give-away. There isn't much to tell about the place that ears can't already tell you. To know these two very professional CDs were done here is fascinating. I can see why a producer/engineer with such an ear would want to move to some place a bit easier to work in. I will be curious to hear what comes out of this band in a more standard setting.

What's it look like in the control room? Lots of pictures and sculptures, Beatles to Beethoven. Lots of chords and instruments and blank Cds and other normal recording odds and sods. though a little crowded if there are too many people in the room, really a pretty typical studio. Just a lot less space to work with. Doesn't help to be claustrophobic.

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