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Music Production

Could Boston’s Zippah Be Any Hippah?

By Steve Harvey. Founded 30 years ago, Zippah was purchased in 2003 by the studio’s biggest client, Brian Charles. Today, it remains a fixture on the vibrant Boston music scene, hosting recording and songwriting workshops and developing plug-ins with Rare Signals.

Boston, MA (February 21, 2019)—Zippah Recording Studios in Boston, helmed by producer, engineer, mixer and musician Brian Charles since 2003, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. The facility is crammed, floor to ceiling, with a collection of gear that enables Charles and his young staff to create recordings that compete with any album in their clients’ collections.

Indeed, Charles is quite the student of recording technique, voraciously scouring magazines and the internet to unlock the secrets behind releases of all eras. “I’m always quoting things from articles or buying gear based on something I want to get the sound for,” he says.

“There are some artists I work with that like to do the ’60s retro thing and I have a lot of those types of compressors and pres and microphones. From the drumkit and the instruments through the signal path, I’ll employ those recording techniques and get really authentic-sounding ’60s recordings. I would do those all day long, every day for the rest of my life, because they’re so fun.”

Charles is the guitarist in the band The Sheila Devine, and about five years ago the band’s singer, Aaron Perrino, suggested channeling his inner nerd into a project that became the Tuesday Night Recording Club. “He said, ‘We should do something where we pick a seminal album and you research those recording techniques. I’ll write a song, we’ll invite some friends down and see what comes out in one evening.’ The first one we did was Joy Division; I’m triggering snare sounds with SPX90s, stuff like that. It was really fun.”

Zippah was originally founded by Pete Weiss, with Mark Wlodarkiewicz sharing the space (and for a time Ken Thomas was a partner), in a small section of a large, freestanding garage, but later grew to occupy more floor area. When Charles began taking projects there, it was a big open space with a small control room that is now an iso room. Over the decades, clients have included Gigolo Aunts, The Figgs, The Faint and Tanya Donelly, among many, many others.

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“They were charging me $15 an hour as a freelance engineer,” recalls Charles, who was working at one of the area’s major facilities, Newbury Sound, as an assistant. “That was the first time when I thought maybe I could do this on my own and not have a boss. I started bringing everybody here, to the point where nobody else could get into the studio. They said, ‘Would you like to become a partner with us?’”

Each threw in $10,000—all that Charles possessed, and more, he says—and they built out the place to its current layout. Fisher and Weiss eventually chose to cash out and leave Charles in charge.

“We used to have a ’70s Neve desk. When Pete moved to Vermont [to open Verdant Studios], we had to horse-trade a bunch of gear so he could take the console there. At that point, I put a Neotek Elite in; I was a big fan of Steve Albini and that era of music was dear to me.”

The Studer A80 Mk IV in the corner continues to see action. “The funny thing is it’s getting more use. I try to make it affordable for people; I order tape by the box and charge a rental fee for the reel then recycle it. I’ve done more records on that machine in the past three years than I did in the previous 10,” Charles reports.

The studio’s plate reverb has been memorialized in a plug-in, released late last year by Rare Signals, a company founded by Charles and digital music agency Icon Interactive. Named the Transatlantic Plate Reverb, it offers his US-made example and a German-made classic, the EMT.

“As I started to mix more in-the-box, I was missing the sound of the real plate at the studio,” he explains. “Every time I had to recall a mix, I had to get out my recall sheet and try and match the decay time. Most of the time, the plate is on the lead vocal, so if you don’t get it right, the recall doesn’t sound right. It was frustrating.”

He took a deep dive into impulse responses. “As a hobby, I started making impulses of everything I could, trying different methods, and reading AES white papers, trying to understand convolution, multithreading and deconvolution.”

There are limitations to most reverb plug-ins that result in an inauthentic sound and performance, he says. One is that the out-of-the-box pieces of IR de/convolution code available tend to correct the very anomalies—phase shift, differing levels between the left and right transducers—that give a plate its distinctive character. “That was keeping me from making real impulses that sounded like the real thing,” he says.

“So I made a series of impulses. If they were out of phase, they were supposed to be. If the left side got hit first, it was supposed to be like that. Because that’s how it is in the real world.”

The other problem was that most plate ’verb plugs impose a fade algorithm to change the decay time. But that’s not how a plate works, he says. The solution was to offer a different impulse at each available decay time, selectable by the user.

“Then the challenge was to get 24 independent impulses to load one at a time as you flipped through the decay times. But the result is that it sounds just like the plate.”

His friend, David Lyons, owner of pro-audio equipment outlet Sonic Circus in Vermont, had acquired a load of gear from Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, including the EMT plate reverb. “I knew it was a magic plate; it’s on Jeff Buckley’s Grace album and those Todd Rundgren records. He was kind enough to give me unlimited access. So that is our European setting. The US setting is the plate I’ve had here for years that was made in 1971 in Nashville.”

The Recording Academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion recently announced a new initiative that aims to expand opportunities for female music producers and engineers. Charles was way ahead of the curve, employing two, Annie Hoffman and Miranda Serra, the former for almost a decade.

“I’m glad that we found talented people and it’s a bonus that they happen to be women. It wasn’t a conscious plan,” he says.

“Annie came in about nine years ago as an intern. She was a Berklee School graduate and is an incredible bassist and an amazing engineer. The first session she was put on, the client I was producing was blown away by how efficient the session was, and how great we all worked together. She went from intern to being paid within a week.” Needless to say Hoffman’s band, Weakened Friends, also records at Zippah.

Zippah Recording Studios •

Rare Signals •