From Mix, October 1998
An Eclectic Analog Haven in San FranciscoBy Anne Eickelberg
John Vanderslice’s band, MK Ultra, recorded barebones in their rehearsal space, and made their next record at a mid-level studio. Then, while still working toward turning their practice space into a studio, they decided to test the high-end waters. What happened at a fancy, expensive studio convinced them that bigger isn’t always better. “The recording we did at this 24-track studio in Marin [County, near San Francisco] was the most awful, horrible experience. The studio owners weren’t nice to bands coming in, and they were paranoid about getting paid. I could deal with bad vibes, but they had this really bad console. Our engineer brought along a lot of great gear and mixed back through their console, which totally ruined the sound. I thought, ‘I can do better than this.’”
Tiny Telephone is hidden away in a long-established fortress-like compound full of industrial performance artists, punk rock record distributors and musicians. For years, mostly over weekends, a loose co-op labored to transform the space into a correctly built recording studio. “One of the members was a contractor—he and some of the other people did most of the work of building just the frame of the studio, the double, non-parallel walls, the control room and double windows,” says Vanderslice. Everyone else slowly dropped out of the venture, leaving Vanderslice at the helm. “The truth is, you can’t really make any money doing it,” he says, “but I never started with the idea of making money. The reason the studio is open is because my band needed a place to record. Also, I came to realize that if you own a studio and it’s cheap enough that all your friends can come and record there, it’s a fun place to hang out.”
The 1,700-square-foot facility is industrial-looking yet very comfortable. Vanderslice culled the relaxed aesthetic from his experiences at other studios. “I have this weird theory that if the architecture and decorations are conservative, it seeps into the music. I pay attention to color and like to use cool lamps, colored lights.” A pink lounge allows entry to either the tracking or control room. The tracking room has 21-foot ceilings and is roomy enough for full-band live recording or for capturing big drum sounds. A floor-to- ceiling theater curtain can be pulled across to break up the room. An assortment of funky keyboards is set up on a raised, stage-like platform that leads to the control room.
Overlooking the area where the drums are usually set up, the control room (with “the most comfortable couch in San Francisco”) is full of vintage gear. The console is a 1976 Quantum Audio Labs QA 2000, a handmade, discrete board from Studio 55, recently re-capped and serviced. The monitors are Dynaudio BM15 and Yamaha NS-10Ms. The Ampex MM 1000 2-inch 16-track came from San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios and was originally owned by Brian Wilson. Mixdown is to either an Ampex 440 1⁄4-inch 2-track or to Tascam DA30.
Vanderslice has made a home for displaced engineers and their gear. Dancing Dog’s [the now-defunct studio owned by Counting Crows member David Bryson] engineers Damien Rasmussen and Rick Stone and house tech Lawrence Mannion frequently work at Tiny Telephone. “Because the studio has a co-op kind of feel, it kind of attracts equipment,” Vanderslice says. “A lot of the barebones stuff of the studio is from Dancing Dog. We bought all of their Mogami TT cables, even all their mic stands.” Mannion did all the wiring, all the snakes, cabling, TT bays and a lot of work on the board. “He’s central to the studio,” says Vanderslice. “He taught us a lot about wiring and how to do stuff on our own.” Vanderslice also welcomed the equipment and services of engineer Greg Freeman, whose Lowdown studio was demolished last year to make room for the S.F. Giants’ new ballpark.
Vanderslice is persistent when it comes to getting the kind of mics and outboard gear he wants to have in the studio and made plenty of “cold calls” to producers and engineers whose work and sound he admired to find out what they used. He collects a piece or two at a time, always keeping an ear open for deals. “A dbx 160 was a good find,” he says, “for money and studio time, from a friend; a Beyer M88 for cheap.” Other favorite items are a Coles 4038 ribbon mic, four Neve 1272 mic pre’s, UREI compressors and limiters, and a pair of Neumann M582s. “I’m a total fanatic. I’m definitely getting a 67 or a CMV563 before the end of the year. Eventually this place will be mad with gear; it’s gonna be insane!”
For a complete list of gear, clients and photos of the facility, visit www.tinytelephone.com.
Anne Eickelberg is Mix’s editorial assistant.