Residents of Brooklyn's Williamsburg section recall a time, not long ago, when their streets were canyons of bleakness: Abandoned factories harbored the most undesirable members of society, who, in turn, were responsible for much of the neighborhood's crime. Today, the same streets teem with chic shops and restaurants, and many of the old factories have been converted into fancy apartments. The rents have risen, too, but not to the levels of Lower Manhattan, just across the East River.
This month's column profiles four of the top recording facilities in Williamsburg. They are all one-room shops with ample tracking space, vintage analog consoles and tape recorders, and digital audio workstations. Despite their similarities, each has carved its own niche in one of the nation's toughest markets.
Of all the Williamsburg studios, the one that best mirrors the district's transformation is Oliver Straus' Mission Sound. As recently as five years ago, Straus operated out of a tiny basement space in his home. Today, his Neve-equipped studio resides in a skylit, client-friendly space with a spacious control room, vast tracking space and two good-sized isolation booths.
Straus has been able to upgrade his facility largely as a result of improvements in his neighborhood. “Ten years ago, Williamsburg was a virtual world away,” Straus says. “This is the new music and art community in New York, especially for younger musicians. It has the potential to be what Seattle was. It's certainly the only place within 30 miles of New York where a band can live and work — if only just barely. It's a very fertile community, and the word is getting out.”
Since opening in the late 1990s, Mission Sound has hosted producers Dave Sardy, Mark Plati, Ted Nicely and Kevin Killen; artists Girls Against Boys, Biohazard, Ashley Hamilton and Dave Matthews Band's violinist Boyd Tinsley; and major labels including Columbia, RCA, J Records and DreamWorks.
The clients who do venture across the East River find themselves in an atmosphere more akin to a remote residential studio than to an urban facility. “When people work in Manhattan studios, they tend to get distracted by the nightlife,” he says. “It's harder to do that here. There's an aspect of removal from the city where people can focus on their work in a way they would otherwise not be able to do. They find themselves far more creative.”
COWBOY TECHNICAL SERVICES
When Eric Ambel's production career skyrocketed in the mid-1990s, owning a full-scale recording studio became as much a practical necessity as a creative imperative. He was so busy in the studio that it made sense to own his own space. His first choice was the East Village, where he lived and owned a club, the Lakeside Lounge. However, finding an appropriate and affordable venue was impossible, so Ambel headed east. He rented three rooms from an Apple broker and set up Cowboy Technical Services, a spacious, comfortable and well-equipped studio that features as much vintage gear as any band might need. Ambel and engineer/partner Tim Hatfield work behind a Neotek Elan 32-input console, tracking to an Otari MX-80 2-inch recorder and mixing — with a healthy assortment of outboard gear — to a Studer B-67 ¼-inch mastering deck. CTS also offers digital editing via a MOTU Digital Performer workstation.
Among the clients who have recorded at CTS are Steve Earle & The Dukes, Marshall Crenshaw, Mary Lee's Corvette, Greg Trooper, Steve Wynn, Ryan Adams and Dan Baird. Although Ambel and Hatfield run CTS as a commercial enterprise, most of the projects that come through the door have some personal significance to Ambel: he plays guitar in Earle's band, both in the studio and on the road; and his wife, Mary Lee Kortes, fronts Mary Lee's Corvette's band.
Although Brooklyn was Ambel's second choice, he has found a good groove in the neighborhood, which he frequented with his first major band, the Del Lords, who rehearsed at what became Coyote Studios (see profile below). “Williamsburg has a lot to offer,” says Ambel. “There are a lot of restaurants, a lot of people live here and it's easy to get here from anywhere, including out of town.”
COYOTE RECORDING studios
Before there was anything that could be called a “Williamsburg scene,” there was Coyote Recording Studios. Opened by brothers Michael and Albert Caiati in 1987, the studio launched in a MIDI-intensive climate in which large tracking spaces were considered unnecessary and vintage analog equipment obsolete. A decade-and-a-half later, Coyote still swims against the mainstream, hosting such large and loyal clientele as Joan Jett, Dion, They Might Be Giants, Rancid, Mojo Nixon and The Smithereens.
“We're basically an analog, rock 'n' roll studio,” says Michael Caiati, who is now the principal owner of Coyote following his brother's departure last year. “The underground bands and the ones who appreciate analog recording are keeping us alive.”
Although Coyote — with its API 3288 console, Studer A827 multitrack and EMT plates — lives and breathes analog, the studio also offers clients a Pro Tools MIXPlus system with Pro Control. The idea behind the workstation was to stem the tide of clients who would use Coyote for its tracking capabilities and then take the tracks elsewhere to overdub and mix, thus capturing some sessions that would otherwise be lost to home and project rooms.
Caiati reckons that “the economy and Pro Tools” are the biggest challenges for Coyote, but he's seeing signs that the business is “coming back.” He adds, “I don't know if it will ever come back 100 percent, but anybody who can stick it out will come out all right.”
Quietly and with rock-solid determination, Excello Recording has served the New York rock community for 11 years. The studio has never advertised; through word of mouth, it has attracted the likes of David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Molly Ringwald, Michael Brecker, Richard Hell, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, the Jesus Lizard, Steve Albini, Fred Schneider, Marc Ribot, John Zorn, Mark Eitzel and Don Fleming.
Producer/musician/partner Hugh Pool attributes the studio's success to its no-nonsense approach and its affordability. “We've been able to keep our overhead low,” he says. “We are surviving through this really screwed-up time in the music business. People are closing right and left and ours is a large footprint, but we're hanging in.”
Excello recently upgraded to a Calrec Series B 58-input console it purchased from the BBC. It also acquired an EMT 140, an Echo Plate and a Studer A800 analog recorder from former Platinum Island owner Richie Kessler, who originally got the gear from the old Hit Factory studios. Other gear highlights at Excello include a 12-channel, quad-bus Neve console with 1063 preamps; LA-2As and LA-3As, 1176 and Summit processors; an Ampex ATR-102 half-inch mastering deck; and a Studer A80 quarter-inch recorder.
Like many studios that are built on a vintage, analog vibe, Excello makes a nod to the workstation world via a dual-processor G4 loaded with Pro Tools. However, Pool admits that he's less interested in the computer than in “the moving parts.”
Besides Pool, the other partners in Excello are Dann Baker, Bruce Hathaway, Chad Swanberg, Gil Shuster and studio manager Jane Pool (Hugh's wife). In between “commercial” sessions, the studio serves as a conduit for various in-house projects, including Pool's own activities and sessions by Love Camp 7, an acclaimed indie rock band that features Baker and Hathaway.
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