'Burgh recording studios each carving out a niche
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 7:56 p.m.
While he has had the opportunity to record in some of the great studios in the nation, including with his friend Bruce Springsteen, veteran Pittsburgh musician Joe Grushecky says recording here has its own attraction.
“The music biz in the 'Burgh is very small in comparison to places like New York and Los Angeles,” Grushecky, leader of the Houserockers, says. “That being said, there are some really cool places to record here.”
Studio L, run by B.E. Taylor band member Rick Witkowski in nearby Weirton, W.Va., is a magnet for many Pittsburgh-area artists. It's where Grushecky made his latest album, “Somewhere East of Eden.”
Grushecky, who sees himself as a “first-take type of guy,” finds working with Witkowski, himself a music vet and good friend, quite comfortable.
“The digital age has changed everything, (but) it all comes down to who is twirling the knobs a lot of times,” Grushecky says.
Matt Firek and partner and fellow musician Andrew Wilds are excited about the opportunity to do just that as owners and operators of Fire K Studios in Baldwin, one of the newest studios in the region.
“We believed that the area did not necessarily need another recording studio,” says Firek, a pharmacist. “However, we felt that the regional market could support it, given the area's population and low number of professional studios.”
He and Wilds, a second-generation Pittsburgh firefighter, have a combined 25 years as musicians and 10 years in studio recording.
“It was a dream of ours to open a studio that was specifically designed from the ground up to have ideal acoustics and top-notch architecture,” Firek says. “The city continues to cultivate its already expanding arts and entertainment industry, and this positively impacts the region's music and recording scene.”
Considering the absence of a core record industry in Pittsburgh, the studio community is definitely active.
“More than one would think,” says former Forest Hills resident Anthony Rankin, now based in Nashville as a touring player for various artists.
He was one of the first musicians to do an entire record at Pittsburgh's Red Caiman Media, which opened five years ago Uptown.
Jesse Naus, owner, engineer and producer of Red Caiman, says he is consistently impressed by the talent that he finds in local clubs and venues and from bands walking through the studio's doors.
“This city really has a lot of great music, if you know where to find it,” he says.
Commendable work is being done in the area's studios, too, “helping show that this city can compete in the modern music industry,” Naus says.
It doesn't hurt when Pittsburgh rappers such as Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller reach the national limelight after honing their craft at local studios like ID Labs out of Lawrenceville and now Etna.
Each studio, Naus says, and more importantly, its staff of engineers and producers, offers a different approach to the process of making a record. Having a variety of quality facilities and being willing to work with each other are vital to any market's success, he says.
“There's, honestly, something for everyone's budget, but there are only a handful of studios that, I think, really do it right,” says Rich Kulbacki of Natrona Heights, guitarist, mandolinist and vocalist in the indie-folk band Rising Regina.
“It's all about what you're comfortable with,” Kulbacki says. “A good engineer or producer is worth his weight in gold because they help the music really reach its full potential.”
Rising Regina chose Red Caiman, whose clients include touring artists Joey Fatone, the Bloodhound Gang and comedian Kevin Nealon, to make its next album, which is set to be released in March.
Naus, who produced it, teaches engineering and producing at Duquesne University and album production and the business of operating a recording studio at Point Park University.
“Having a generation ofstudents that understands both of these sides of the business is really important to the music industry's survival,” Naus of Shaler says.
Zach Rock of Pittsburgh is optimistic. He's a member of the group Nameless in August, which will release its debut album this year.
“The music scene is growing and, in return, the opportunity for studios will grow as the scene does,” Rock says. “It is going in the right direction, and national attention to it is inevitable.”
Dana Cannone, owner and chief engineer of the Church Recording Studio in Overbrook, rates the Pittsburgh music community as “quite healthy and active,” comparable to other cities its size.
He has been to a lot of cities as tour manager for System of a Down, Gov't Mule and Howie Day and as production manager for Art Garfunkel. National clients at the Church Recording Studio, which he says offers a great space to track large ensembles and acoustic instruments, range from The Wallflowers and Chrissie Hynde to Warren Haynes, Michael Franti and Billy Bragg.
“Your music is personal,” Cannone tells prospective clients. “Make your studio choice as much on the confidence you have in someone (at the studio) as you do in price.”
It's an exciting time in the business, says Garrett Haines, owner and chief mastering engineer at Treelady Studios in Wilkins, which has been involved in numerous Billboard Top 10 singles and albums with national artists.
Treelady does a lot of voiceover work for national television programs such as “Myth Busters” and other shows on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and for audible books.
Haines would like to continue to build the reputation that Pittsburgh is a vital music town.
“In the early 20th century, Pittsburgh was the premiere jazz city,” Haines says. “Our colleagues at ID Labs are putting Pittsburgh on the national map for rap and hip- hop. A few other studios do national jazz artists. We have cousin studios that are national advertising and commercial recording studios. Things are happening.”
Larry Luther, owner, producer and engineer at Mr. Smalls Recording and Mastering Studio on the North Side, says the music scene is quite active, containing a “huge amount” of talent that may be “a little deeper” than some other cities its size.
He has recorded, mixed, mastered and/or produced hundreds of albums in Pittsburgh of local and national performers. While there may only be a handful of professional studios in the area, he says, “there are tons of semi-pro and home studios now.”
The recording industry is contracting talent throughout the country, says Greg Joseph, bassist and vocalist for The Clarks, who teaches artist management at Point Park University. “But those who are good remain in business,” he says.
“Working in a great studio with a great engineer and producer is a monumental event. Some of the greatest experiences I have had with this band have been studio experiences,” he says.
Mr. Smalls' large, professionally designed facility has attracted such national names as Roger Daltrey of The Who, The Black Eyed Peas, Ryan Adams, Phish's Jon Fishman, 50 Cent, Keller Williams, Meatloaf and Jackie Evancho, among many others.
“Even though we work with a lot of national clients, my goal has always been to support local musicians,” says Luther, whose business partner is Liz Berlin of Pittsburgh's Rusted Root. “I want to give clients the same experience and level of quality that they would get in New York or L.A.”
Sean McDonald, owner of Sofa King Music Services and Red Medicine Recording Studio, Swissvale, does not think there is much overlap in the studios serving the region. “Most of the studios that have been around all have found a niche that they've carved out,” he says.
With the ability to exchange work over the Internet, studio location is less of an issue than it once was, McDonald says. He has clients in Nashville, San Francisco and New York.
McDonald, currently working on The Clarks' latest album, produces the music for the hit PBS series “American Soundtrack” and “My Music” that takes him throughout the country. “Some artists end up coming back to Pittsburgh to work on the shows. They all seem to have a positive experience working here,” he says.
Artists he has recorded, produced or mixed cover a wide range of genres representing many decades of music, including Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Dionne Warwick, The Four Tops, Ben E. King, Iron Butterfly, Wynton Marsalis, Jewel, Sinead O'Connor, Janis Ian, Nanci Griffith and Michelle Shocked.
“I consider myself very, very, very fortunate to have worked with the household names that I have,” McDonald says. “But I'm equally proud of the independent bands that have given me the keys to their life's work and trusted me to do my thing. I never lose sight of their trust, and it's why I work as hard as I do on every project, to never lose that trust.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Home vs. studio
Thanks to new, considerably more affordable technology, home increasingly is where the recording is taking place for many musicians.
“Considering it's 2014, probably more than half of the kids in bands have a Pro Tools (recording) rig in their apartment,” says national touring musician Anthony Rankin, formerly of Forest Hills. While he does some recording at home, he says, “no home studio is ever going to be able to supply an artist or band with everything a traditional studio can give you.
“I find my brain fires differently when I'm in a different space, and a recording studio can always be a very inspiring place,” he says.
While the availability of inexpensive home recording gear has changed the industry, and do-it-yourselfers are now capable of making professional-sounding recordings at home, the best recordings are still coming from professional studios, says Greg Joseph, bassist-vocalist of the Pittsburgh-based Clarks.
“The personnel, equipment and acoustically tuned rooms offer the opportunity for the best possible results, unless, of course, you are going for the low-fi thing. Then you can record anywhere.”
Whether the average listener can tell the difference between an album recorded at home or in a studio depends on the skill of the engineer and, maybe, on the style of music,” national artist Bill Deasy of Pittsburgh says.
On his last record, Deasy says, he was going for “a low-fi 1970s analog-type sound,” so the home studio worked well. “But even a super-shimmery pop song is more about the gear than the ‘studio,' ” he says. Although he has had many great experiences in traditional studios, Deasy has recorded his last several records in home studios.
Because of the nature of new technology, he says some home studios are “really fully operational, true blue” recording studios. “It's just not the traditional model of a bunch of isolation booths and a massive control panel, etc.”
As it is becoming increasingly more challenging to make money selling records, more affordable recording becomes a mandatory part of the equation, especially at the local level, Deasy says.
Garrett Haines, owner of Treelady Studios in Wilkins, applauds the proliferation of affordable recording gear, allowing many more people to capture their ideas quickly and economically. However, he insists, “You simply cannot compete with national artists if your tracking room does not have the cubic feet to permit sound to develop. Basement studios will always be fighting physics.”
There will always need to be someone who is both creative and technically adept to turn songs into records, predicts Sean McDonald, whose recordings, done at his Red Medicine Studio in Swissvale, are heard worldwide.
“Anyone can buy every piece of gear that I've acquired, but that doesn't mean they have my music experience and objectivity,” he says. “I believe that, and not the gear, is what makes a studio successful or not.”
— Rex Rutkoski
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