In many places — especially New York — having a personal studio means carving out a small corner of a cramped space and imposing one's work on the rest of one's life, and vice versa. In such an environment, overdubs and editing are the most one can hope to achieve. As far as basic tracking and mixing go, the typical home studio operator takes a “don't try this at home” approach. Not Duncan Sheik. The Atlantic Records artist — never a creature of convention in the first place — has built an impressive facility in his Tribeca loft that can accommodate the entirety of a project, from basic tracks to final mixes.
In the short time since Sheik moved to his current apartment from a smaller space near City Hall, he hasn't had much time to take advantage of the facility. Between road stints promoting his latest endeavor — the “side” project Phantom Moon, released on Atlantic affiliate Nonesuch Records — and a variety of music, film and theatrical projects, Sheik has hardly been home at all.
That will change soon, and the timing couldn't be better, because Sheik has already begun writing and demo'ing his next Atlantic album and is due to start recording it later this year. “The only thing I'll do outside of this studio is cut strings in London,” says Sheik of the upcoming project. “I'm going to try to do everything else here, including basic tracks. If it works, I'm home free. If not, I'll do a drum day or two at a studio in town.”
A visit to Sheik's home reveals why the place is so ideally suited for recording. A large loft in a converted industrial building that once housed a bread factory, it features towering ceilings held up by huge concrete pillars. The floor, too, is made of concrete, which could have been covered over with virtually any material, but Sheik chose to leave it intact. “I'm going to leave the concrete, because it offers a great sonic contrast to, let's say, the control room,” says Sheik, his words resonating through the space. “The ultimate idea is to have audio tielines in the control room, the drum booth and the main space, all interconnected so I can work anywhere and still be the tape operator. I'm also installing a Gefen system that will allow me to move my computer monitor and keyboard anywhere within the apartment.”
The control room at Sheik's place features a newly installed Calrec console that he purchased from a BBC studio in London. “I talked to [audio dealer] Dan Alexander in San Francisco about getting a board for, say, $10,000 or $15,000; instead of just having a Mackie like everyone else, to be maybe one degree more intense but without having to mortgage the house,” explains Sheik. “So, Dan told me about this board in London that had been used mostly for classical recording. The construction of it is awesome, the EQ sounds great and the mic pre's are great. Since I don't need automation and a lot of features, this board seemed like a good idea for me.”
A 32-channel desk, it is used mainly for its preamps and as a monitor, because Sheik doesn't plan on doing final mixing at home (even though the studio could handle it). Twenty-four channels of Pro Tools are normaled into the console, and its eight remaining channels are open for mic or line inputs.
Besides the Calrec and the Pro Tools rig — a TDM system running Version 5.1 of the popular program — Sheik's studio is outfitted with some choice analog outboard gear, including an Avalon VT-737SP tube mic preamp/compressor, a Tube-Tech 2B compressor, and Telefunken V-72A and Guiltronics 2TMP tube preamps. The mic assortment is similarly impressive, with a Neumann U87, several AKG condensers and two models built by Dave Royer of Mohave Audio: a C-12-derived condenser and a ribbon mic. For digital conversion, Sheik relies on an Apogee AD-8000, which is the front end of his Pro Tools and Emagic Logic rigs.
An avid collector (“I think I have a spending addiction,” he once told me), Sheik owns a grand piano, a Hammond B-3 organ with a Leslie cabinet, a hammered dulcimer, a Slingerland drum set, lots of amps, and an extensive assortment of stringed instruments, including a baritone guitar and a guitarrón he acquired in Mexico. The collection and the studio have served Sheik well recently, particularly during the final stages of Phantom Moon and other projects that have ensued since then.
Phantom Moon is collaborative effort between Sheik and playwright Steven Sater. It was born when the pair met at Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist organization to which they both belong. Sater had written a song lyric to his play Umbrage, and he asked Sheik to set it to music. The success of that co-writing experiment led to a fruitful partnership in which Sater contributes lyrics and Sheik music; Sheik calls it a “windfall,” because music comes easier to him than words.
Although the basic tracks for Phantom Moon album were taped at New York's Sear Sound and the strings were recorded at Angel Studio in London, many of the acoustic guitar and lead vocal overdubs that give the work its intimate, Nick Drake-inspired sound were cut by Sheik in the privacy of his home. The album was engineered and mixed (at nearby Looking Glass Studios) by Kevin Killen, noted for his work with U2, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel and Sophie B. Hawkins.
“I'm not going to say engineering is my forte at all, but I know how to get a really good acoustic guitar sound, and I know how to cut vocals,” says Sheik. “There are certain things I know how to do well.”
With its acoustic orientation, Phantom Moon is a departure from Sheik's first two albums, the pop/rock-oriented Duncan Sheik and Humming. The experience of recording such a stripped-down record has inspired the artist to pursue new creative avenues on future releases, starting with the forthcoming Atlantic project.
“Now that I made this kind of record in this particular way, I kind of feel much freer to play around with technology and pop music conventions in a way that I was resistant to for a couple of years,” says Sheik. “It was a liberating process in that way.”
With that, Sheik paused to play a recording of a work in progress. Like Phantom Moon, it was a predominantly acoustic number, but it was punctuated by warm synthesizer textures reminiscent of early '70s British progressive rock bands King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis.
“Now I'm in there doing things that I never did before,” says Sheik. “It's amusing to me that I'm even working that way.”
If having a full-fledged home studio with lovely acoustics is a luxury — particularly in space-starved Manhattan — then it can also be a burden. “The downside is the procrastination factor that it can engender, because you always feel like, ‘I'll do that whenever,’” says Sheik. “There is a thing about booking time in a commercial studio where you go in and you get to work because you're paying all this money for it. [Laughs.] But that's my personal issue that I've got to work on.”
In the meantime, there's work to do. Sheik and Sater are collaborating on a musical, and Sheik has a film score in the works. Then there's the Atlantic project, which he hopes to work on with Killen, Rupert Hine (who produced Sheik's first two records) and guitarist/producer Gerry Leonard.
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