In the mid-1990s, following the opening of the huge, gorgeous, acoustically dialed-in Hit Factory Scoring Stage in New York, I asked local engineer James Nichols what he thought of New York City’s newest, biggest room for orchestra, big band, Broadway cast albums and rock/pop superstars. He paused, a little uncomfortable, as if he didn’t want to offend anyone, then said, “There’s not enough dirt in the walls.”
He added that it did sound great and would be amazing one day. At the time, Nichols was an active spokesperson in the local Save Our Studios campaign, an effort to preserve the legendary RCA Studio B in Midtown. It had hosted the biggest of the big bands, cast albums, Sinatra! Nat King Cole! And it was to be one of the early casualties in the NYC movement in favor of condos and retail over historic studios.
Nichols had recorded orchestra and jazz there. He loved the sound. RCA Studio B had the ghosts. It had the feel, the history, the legend, the vibe. It had the smoke and the dirt and 30 years of uncomfortable folding chairs scraping across the wood floor. The amenities were awful, the green rooms too small, the carpet in the hallways torn in places. But inside the room, musicians felt like they were there to play. Singers sang better. There was a vibe—a reverence to the past, a promise to the future.
Related: Dave Cobb at Home in Nashville, by Barbara Schultz, May 2, 2018
Then back in late March 2018, while putting together the May issue and arranging a cover with producer Dave Cobb, the whole notion of history and loss and big studios disappearing for all the wrong reasons came flooding back. But this time, Cobb was able to step in after a decade-long run by Ben Folds and help save the Nashville’s famous RCA Studio A, which had seen every legend you might think of come through its doors, from Roy Orbison to Chris Stapleton.
In the interview accompanying the story, Cobb, in reverence, said: “The walls have a lot of history and music in them. It almost feels like I need to wear a tie every day, to respect where I am. I love that about it. I think everybody that walks in can feel who came before us, and I think they all put on their Sunday best in a way, and try to be better because of who came before us.”
When it came time to shoot the cover photo (an amazing image captured by David McClister), we settled on Dave sitting alone with a guitar in the middle of a big, big room, shadows in every nook and cranny, in black and white. It was designed to be a tribute to the legacy of the room, the space, and the musicians, a tribute to what I call the Ghosts in the Walls.
And then, in putting together this December issue, the Ghosts came rushing back during my conversation with producer Eric Valentine and the legacy of the room he’s been living, working and breathing in for the past 18 years. Before he bought the former Los Angeles post office building back in 2000, it had been home to Crystal Industries Recording, a legendary facility built in 1967 by Andrew Berliner and home to hits from Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and countless others. It was one of the magic rooms in town, at a time when the recording industry was discovering itself.
Related: Barefoot Recording Opens Its Doors, by Tom Kenny, Dec. 4, 2018
Berliner designed the space, built his own console, formed a division called Crystalab to pursue technology interests, and had a good run. Lots of classic records. A great sound.
Valentine took over the space, built his own console, formed a company called Undertone to develop technologies, and also had a good run. Lots of great records. And, with modifications, an even better sound.
There is history in Crystal-Barefoot, and you can feel it when you walk in the doors. “There are definitely ghosts in the walls, I felt it instantly,” laughs Grace Potter, who first came to Barefoot looking for a producer and is now married to Valentine. “I found it inspiring, like I wanted to play better and sing better to honor the legacy. It’s a magical place, and so much great music has been made there. There really is something about the walls.”
Call it dirt, smoke, old wood, or simply thousands of hours of sessions from great players whose resonance lingers long after the final note is played. To me they are ghosts. And every now and then, they become real.