Exit the Holland Tunnel or one of the two PATH train lines that link Manhattan and New Jersey and you've made it to Hoboken, a town unlike any other in the Metropolitan area. Famous as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, Hoboken seems pleasantly trapped in an earlier time (although older neighborhoods have released liberal tracts of territory to the renovation that the post-Yuppie hordes have demanded). Attracted by low rents in the warehouse district, about five recording studios operate as colleagues in this town. We visited a pair of them recently.
Rob Grenoble is not George Harrison's twin, but Central Casting would send him to read for the part in a flash. "Yeah, I've gotten that one for a long time-Mick Jagger, too," says the guitar-toting Grenoble. Despite the demands of owning Water Music and engineering a fair amount of sessions himself, Grenoble still identifies himself as a rock player and writer.
He insists that the studio be artist-friendly before all else. "I view studios not from the eyes of an engineer or producer but from those of the people playing the music," Grenoble says. "That thinking can lead to some debates; a producer or engineer would want the outboard rack right behind the console, for example, because it's easier to turn around and access the equipment, but, hey, when I cut a guitar solo, that's where I want to stand! Another example has to do with the way we set up lighting in our main room. Most studios have all of the lighting controls in the control room. But we have the studio light controls out in the room, so that the band can adjust the lighting to make themselves more comfortable. Little touches, to be sure, but they reflect the fact that we're here for the artists all the way down the line. There's one more funny story that illustrates this point. We once had a very famous English producer make a record here. When he looked into the control room, the first thing he said was, 'Get rid of those two couches, otherwise the band will be hanging out in here all the time!'"
Water Music has been operating in its current location since 1993. Grenoble is unabashed in his admiration for famed Bears-ville Studios (upstate a bit from New York City). "We based our concept of coupling an outstanding facility with comfortable living quarters directly on the Bearsville model," he says. George Augspurger was brought in to design the studio and control rooms. "I marvel at the signature George is able to put on his rooms. There's so much air-both for sound and people! We have good equipment-a 48-input Neve 8088 with Flying Faders automation, Aug-spurger's custom monitors and so on-but in this day and age most of the equipment is standard issue to all studios. The real differences lie in the design of the rooms and the feel that artists get from working in a studio."
Water Music books a fair amount of regional acts, but most of their work comes from across the country. That's where housing comes into play. "We have two residences," Grenoble says. "The Loft is primarily a band residence." Well-lit and newly renovated, this 1,800-square-foot space sparkles with decidedly un-rock-like freshness. "Lots of times artists from New York City will book a few days and say that they don't want to stay here but change their minds when they see the place." Producers often stay at The Duplex, a two-bedroom apartment with bath, laundry and kitchen. Outside, flower beds dot the property, making Water Music feel as if it's located somewhere in the south of France. "Hoboken has a small-town, neighborhood feel-a little bit like the Village, or the lower East Side. It's distinguished from New York by its slower pace. We could never have afforded to build a studio this size in New York."
Jolly Roger Recording is in a 5,000-square-foot loft space several blocks from Water Music. The studio has a distinctly informal air to it: A freight elevator will deliver you to the fifth floor, but I took the wooden stairs instead. The original section of the building is over a hundred years old, but Jolly Roger co-owner Roger Johansen has operated his studio for considerably less time. However, walking through the storage space (littered with vintage Studer 2- and 4-tracks, ancient Rhodes pianos and various pieces of classic processing gear), one might be forgiven for assuming that the studio is an original tenant!
"My accountant tells me that the recording business is very difficult," Johansen says, "and he's right! But we run this studio out of love. The fact that we're able to make it work as an enterprise is a plus." (The other owner is Gene Holder, who was a member of critically lauded melodic rockers The dBs in the '80s; the band had relocated to New York from their South Carolina home, and when they disbanded, Holder decided to stay in the area.)
"Both Gene and I love classic equipment," Johansen says. "We have a pair of Neve 5316 broadcast consoles, ten Langevin AM16 mic pre's that we really love, a bunch of Pultec EQs and lots of quirky things-early Roland synths, fuzz boxes, etc. We track to an Otari 90 2-inch machine and half a Studer A80 2-inch deck."
Bowing to the demands of its client base, however (and out of an appreciation of the advancements in the sound of digital recording), Jolly Roger has installed a Pro Tools 24 suite in a comfortably sized, well-lit back room. "Hip hop artists in particular like to work in Pro Tools," Johansen comments. "Pro Tools 24 is a great-sounding system." Johansen and Holder decided to forego a traditional console completely in this room. "We decided to commit ourselves to the Mackie HUI as a control surface. The amount of features they've been able to put into this piece of equipment is amazing, especially given its relatively modest cost."
Johansen had only recently completed his Pro Tools room when we visited, but he says that early indications are that it will integrate smoothly into his otherwise tape-based facility. "Clients like working first on 2-inch," he says. "So do I. My experience is that bumping material over to Pro Tools works very well. There's something about working initially in the analog realm that gives that warmth that we all love. Transferring via 24-bit retains that warmth and gives clients all of the flexibility of digital editing."
If you're in the New York area, check out these and other Hoboken studios. And when you visit, make sure to drive by Monroe Street and 5th Ave. Sinatra's birthplace is gone, but a star marks the spot where it once stood.