WHAT A WICKED GAME WE PLAY
“And then…the '90s came,” Studio D co-owner Joel Jaffe says with a sigh. Like many other recording industry vets, when probed about the era of flannel shirts and grunge, of “Tell Me What You Want” and the new Silicon Valley swear word, dotcom, his usual joyful grin fades — his voice drops by at least a fifth as he recalls one erratic, problematic, darkly humorous decade.
Producer/engineer Matt Wallace (left) and Paul Westerberg at Toast
It wasn't easy, but Jaffe's place survived the tumultuous 1990s; however, many of the less fortunate did not. Coast Recorders, Brilliant Studios, Rocket Lab Mastering and Russian Hill all closed their doors in the late '90s — unable to survive the rise of the home studio, electronica and the ridiculously soaring San Francisco rents.
“I had a studio on 20th Street called 3030 Recording,” says producer/engineer Mark Needham (Chris Isaak, Taj Mahal), who owned studios all over the city during his two-plus decades here. “But with not being able to park on the street and rents going through the roof, [we moved out].”
Before the dotcom bubble blew up and burst like a hot-air balloon at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the recording industry maintained a subdued business as usual regime. Cigarette smokers got pushed outside, studio managers discovered more empty water bottles than liquor bottles and those shreds of analog tape mysteriously disappeared. Digital 32- and 48-tracks were in, and new blood came on the scene to use them.
Different Fur's clientele diversified to include everyone from Phil Collins and Gene Clark to Robert Cray, Kronos Quartet, Charlie Hunter and Neurosis. “We were sort of a holdover because we were a full-service studio,” says co-owner Howard Johnston. “In the '80s, people would start and finish records at Fur and then we'd have playback parties. In the '90s, as technology got more advanced and Pro Tools came in, it got more difficult. We remained a full-service studio but the needs changed.”
On Mission Street in S.F.'s South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood, acts such as Faith No More, The Breeders, Black Lab and the Red House Painters passed by run-down flats and industrial warehouses to enter Coast Recorders, which featured one of the last remaining Bill Putnam — designed rooms. In 1995, Alexander moved this operation to the former Golden State Recorders space on Harrison. “It was a classic large-room facility,” says Cuniberti, who managed Coast from 1996 to 1998. “Chris Isaak recorded two records there, including Baja Sessions, live-to-tape. Galactic, Cake, Tower of Power and Joe Satriani also made records there. Coast on Harrison had a huge playing room and a vintage Neve. But, sadly, due to rising rents during the dotcom boom, the studio was forced to close.”
When the Mission Street building became available, engineer Craig Silvey and producer/remixer Philip Steir pounced, installed a Neve 8026 in Studio A, a Trident TSM in Studio B and opened under the name Toast. During their first year of business, radio-friendly locals Third Eye Blind recorded their sophomore release, Blue, produced and partially mixed by Jason Carmer. Carmer later mixed and/or produced projects for Run-D.M.C., Korn and the Butthole Surfers at Toast, while other top-name producers kept the studio booked with R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, Sheryl Crow, Rage Against the Machine, Live and Lucy Pearl, among others.
Producer/engineer Matt Wallace moved to Los Angeles in 1988 but continued to work frequently at studios all over S.F., including his own, Dangerous Rhythm, which was home to many Lookout Records demos. In addition to working with The Replacements, John Hiatt and Train in the 1990s, Wallace produced several albums for Faith No More, including groundbreaking albums such as The Real Thing (1988) and Angel Dust (1992), both of which influenced the next rap/rock generation. “Of all the bands I've worked with, those five guys had the truest democracy,” Wallace says. “Angel Dust was a tumultuous time for them, but in spite of that, the core group pulled together and made things work.”
Digital Underground's Shock-G (left) and engineer Matt Kelley kick back at the Neve 8048 in Hyde Street's Studio A, circa 1998.
YOU WANT IT ALL
While most of the higher-profile rock acts flocked to The Plant, Studio D, Different Fur, Coast and Toast, Hyde Street became a downtown destination for punk, metal, rap, R&B and hip hop. Engineer Matt Kelley began working at Hyde Street in the late 1980s, mainly as Needham's assistant before his first “big break” came in 1990. According to Kelley, Digital Underground was frantically searching for studio time after a tape machine at Starlight Studios broke mid-session. Not many local facilities were eager to book a then-unknown hip hop group from Oakland who wanted to work the midnight shift. But Hyde Street took them in, and Kelley got a sweet firsting gig. “We were ready and waiting at midnight for the group to show up,” he recalls from his current Hyde Street space. “By 2:30 a.m., they still weren't here, so I decided if they didn't show up by three, we'd call it off. At like 2:59 they walked in, we did the session and we got some really great tracks. Next thing you know, the album [Sex Packets] went Platinum and they went on to great success. My phone didn't stop ringing after that.”
Kelley's hot streak continued through the '90s and beyond, engineering albums for Del the Funky Homosapien, Spice 1, Tupac Shakur, Souls of Mischief and George Clinton, who, ironically, is the source of many Digital Underground samples.
FREE YOUR MIND
Bookings at the high-end studios with the large-format consoles started to dwindle in the mid-1990s as recording equipment became cheaper and items such as the ADAT arrived on the market. Suddenly, bedroom demos could sound pretty good, and for a little more money, artists could open up studios of their own.
Hundreds of project studios infiltrated the market in the 1990s, though many shuttered just as quickly. Engineer Greg Freeman opened Lowdown Studio, but it was crushed to make room for the S.F. Giants' stadium, SBC Park. Engineer Tom Mallon, who produced literally hundreds of demos and albums, including the first four for American Music Club, owned a few studios around town — one in the Haight (evicted) and two in SOMA, the last of which he owned until 1998, “when my second child of three was born and the final milliliter of bodily fluid was wrung out of me by the death-to-small-business combination of the newly built Pac Bell Park and the ‘dot-zombies,’” he says.
Counting Crows guitarist David Bryson opened and closed Dancing Dog; however, he sold some mic stands and cables to musician John Vanderslice, who brought them to his new project studio, Tiny Telephone, which officially opened in 1997. Rather than grab the latest digital gear, Vanderslice remained analog-faithful, arming his Bob Hodas — tuned control room with an automated, discrete Neve 5316 and a Studer 827 tape machine. As a result of his vintage gear, $350-a-day rate (no sliding scale, ever) and good street cred, Tiny Telephone has remained steadily booked with a mix of local acts such as Beulah, Chuck Prophet, Erase Errata, the Stratford 4 and Vanderslice's own solo work, and out-of-towners such as On the Speakers, Death Cab for Cutie, Preston School of Industry, Nada Surf and X's John Doe, among others.
The same year Vanderslice opened Tiny Telephone, Paul Stubblebine launched his mastering facility (after a seven-year stint at RocketLab, a mastering studio launched by Nancy and Fred Baysinger and David Haynes in 1990). From his original location inside Hyde Street Studios, Stubblebine kept his Sonic Solutions workstations humming with projects for David Grisman, John Lee Hooker, Roy Rogers, Charlie Musselwhite and Richard Thompson, as well as a long list of unsigned local acts. “We've always been involved with local labels and upcoming bands. They make up a substantial part of our work and we're happy to see them succeed,” he says.
Unfortunately, many of those indie artists skipped town in the late 1990s, scared off by soaring rents and pushed out when landlords turned their rehearsal studios into offices for the dotcommers. “A lot of money was blasted into this town in the late '90s and so many musicians and artists left because they couldn't afford it anymore,” says Carmer. “It's sad because there was a long strain of artists who came out of the Bay Area who were making a major contribution to the art of music.”
Despite the artistic exodus, a large number of Bay Area acts realized commercial success and/or cult figure status throughout the 1990s. Chris Isaak, American Music Club, Four Non Blondes, Counting Crows, Faith No More, Metallica (and to a lesser extent, fellow speed demons Slayer and Exodus), Primus, Mr. Bungle, Tracy Chapman, Third Eye Blind and Train all reaped commercial success. Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead carried on, and Santana released their multi-multi-Platinum album, Supernatural.
Meanwhile, the Bay Area punk scene re-exploded in the mid-1990s due to the remarkable success of Berkeley-based Green Day and their record label, Lookout Records, and city dwellers NOFX and frontman Fat Mike's label, Fat Wreck Chords. “I had a little studio on Divis [Divisadero] that was booked eight months in advance,” says producer/engineer Ryan Greene, who now co-owns Motor Studios with Fat Mike. [See page 60.] “The studio was running no less than 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I worked every day for a year-and-a-half.”
The area also produced some hot R&B and hip hop during this time, most notably from Digital Underground and The Hieroglyphics collective (comprising Del the Funky Homosapien, Casual, Pep Love, Domino and the group Souls of Mischief), Too Short, E-40, M.C. Hammer, Raphael Saadiq (formerly of Tony Toni Toné and Lucy Pearl) and Bobby Brown, among others.
To read more about Tiny Telephone, Click here
To read more about Morningwood Studios, owned by producer/engineer Jason Carmer and Third Eye Blind, Click here