Technology aside, it's the music that matters

Recording studios in Southern Md. help hopeful artists polish their songs

Friday, Oct. 1, 2010

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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
William Bowser, the founder of Ill Soul Productions, adjusts his microphone before a session in his recording studio at his apartment in Leonardtown. Bowser has been recording music since 2002 and has played a major part in advancing the area's hip hop and rap scenes.

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
John Wilding of The Fabrockators demonstrates his drumming at his basement recording studio in Huntingtown. He and fellow musician Craig Pavone are currently recording music as The Fabrockators, but the recording studio, Glamorama Recordings, will be run by Wilding's two daughters, who are studying sound recording in Florida.

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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Ron Vento stands at the board in his Nightsky Recording Studios in Waldorf as Mark Green drums. During the past seven years that Vento has run Nightsky he has recorded numerous hip-hop and rap artists and an array of some of the best local bands.

How long will it be before compact discs go the way of the dinosaurs?

Weekly album sales last month were among the lowest ever. Consumers bought fewer than 100,000 of one top-selling album. Just a decade ago, they would have bought more than 2 million.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the lead singer of a band that in 2007 told fans to "pay what you can" for a digital download of the group's new album, has said he expects the whole industry to crumble any day now.

But don't expect Southern Maryland's recording industry to crumble as well. Although business has been a bit slow lately at local studios, the reason has less to do with a business model in flux than the same force affecting all local businesses: the recession.

Local studios mostly record local musicians, who in tough times are more likely, it seems, to invest in a single or demo than an EP or a full-length album. As well, whether or not CDs disappear, what is highly unlikely to disappear anytime soon is the inclination to make music.

Musicians always will need a place to record — and there are a lot of serious musicians in Southern Maryland.

As it happens, recording music is not quite as labor intensive as it used to be. Advancements in technology have made certain processes more efficient and reduced the bulk.

Starting in the late 1990s, with the advent of a truly solid version of Pro Tools, a program that allows engineers and musicians to record and edit music directly through a computer's hard drive, the transition from analog tape to digital software began in earnest. Now it's the industry standard, used everywhere — from the start-up to high-end operations — and by bigwigs and teenagers alike.

Pro Tools definitely offers a lot of advantages (like nonlinear editing) and more ways to manipulate sound. Another advantage is what is widely referred to as "total recall," which is the ability to record a dry cut (picture a rough draft) then save the file on a hard drive. Rather than proceed directly to the mixing phase, then, musicians have the option of taking a recording of the session home, listening to it with fresh ears and returning to the project with more inspiration and energy.

As far as manipulating sound and adding effects, whereas an experienced sound engineer might do this with hardware, a less experienced one just might purchase any of Pro Tools' myriad plug-ins.

No doubt, the ubiquitous recording tool is a handy one. Even so, those who seek quality still need a pro.

This is not to say one needs to go to Nashville or New York. One might, however, have to take a drive down routes 4 or 235.

Take the tour

The basement was supposed to be the family's "jam room."

Huntingtown's John Wilding, who owns a flooring company, has been drumming in hard rock bands since the 1970s. His two daughters, Kaitlin and Jacqueline, who are pursuing degrees in recording arts at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Fla., used to play in a band called Secret Squirrel.

Fueled by Kaitlin and Jacqueline's interest in learning the recording trade, the space morphed into a studio. Wilding called it "a nice, fancy place" to hang out and record.

Indeed it is. There are two spaces. One, "The Tiki Room," is for hanging out. The other room, the studio, is where the actual work takes place.

The hang-out room is outfitted with long couches, a television, African decorations, a bar and even a side room to crash in. In the adjacent studio, one finds a full band setup, which includes a drum kit Wilding bought in 1979, towering amps, an electric piano and plenty of extra instruments.

The only feature missing is a control room. Instead, a digital workstation is set up in the same area, without any separation. In the age of Pro Tools, Wilding said, such divisions are no longer necessary. (The studio does have an isolated vocal booth.)

For the past nine months, Wilding and Lusby's Craig Pavone — the two met through a band — have been meeting regularly to record original material. Recording as The Fabrockators, Pavone (handling guitar, bass and vocals) and Wilding (writing lyrics while holding down drums, backup vocals and percussion) have released a CD, "Party you Give," and now are working on a second.

They start out by capturing a rough mix with an ADAT 24-track recorder. Next, they download it into Pro Tools, knowing they will only keep the drum track. After that, Pavone might plug in his guitar and record directly through the computer.

Wilding said, "The band stuff nowadays is really kind of lame." He rather would record his own music, shop it around and see what happens.

Meanwhile, after Kaitlin and Jacqueline earn their two-year, accelerated degrees from Full Sail, they plan to return home to the fully soundproofed basement and open a professional studio: Glamorama Recordings.

Keeping busy

Outside of KMH Recording Studio in Lusby, behind a house bordering thick woods, a sign politely requests that hippies use the back door. One recent weekday morning, KMH's owner, Keith Harancher, welcomed a visitor inside of a portion of his home that happens to have a living room, kitchen and gear-filled control room.

The tidy, 11-year-old recording studio, with its natural wood walls and brownish tones, feels like a place one would find among woods — but more among mountains than near the Chesapeake Bay. That's the vibe, and the 50-year-old U.S. Navy retiree — with his neat ponytail, sandals and earthy clothes — has that vibe, too.

Guitar-adorned walls offer part of Harancher's resume: framed CDs by numerous local musicians and groups, from a late Chesapeake Bay bard (Tom Wisner) to local roots-rockers (Broken Stigma), from homegrown bluegrass (California Ramblers) to jazz cabaret (Gretchen Richie).

In the studio, one finds an array of amplifiers, from a tube to a vintage Fender, and a solid selection of axes for the musicians who record here to choose from. (Will it be a Les Paul or a "Strat?")

Having first recorded using a four-track tape recorder, Harancher said he likes to walk the line between old-school and cutting edge. While he does use Pro Tools, he also recently bought a 2-inch tape machine (though he is not yet sure how he will implement it).

Like most modern studios, Harancher's digital workstation is arranged in front of a window into the studio. The station, like most others, is equipped with built-in preamplifiers, which enable Harancher to work without a separate mixer.

This started as a hobby. At 18, a month after the Pennsylvania native bought a diamond ring and proposed to his then-girlfriend, he left his hometown for a combination of U.S. Navy-sponsored boot camp and advanced electronics school. Around this time, the amateur musician and singer-songwriter first tried recording his music with a portable recorder.

Ten years later, Harancher was out of music. He and his wife were living in Maine. Most of his instruments and gear had been sold.

But, in 1987, Harancher's wife died from a rare neurological disorder. In the aftermath, writing lyrics became a kind of therapy.

During his 20-year Navy career, Harancher was posted several times overseas — though nowhere quite like Sicily, where in 1990 he lived in a huge villa on a volcano. He recalled how a friend and fellow musician visited him there so they could record some of his songs, which he performed with a Martin guitar he bought after his wife passed away. Sometime after that first purchase, he returned to the same store and picked up an electric guitar and a four-track recorder. A four-track became an eight-track, and so on. After Harancher retired from the Navy, he quickly realized he had a second career.

Sometimes Harancher has more work than he can handle. Other times he said he feels like he's out of a job. All the while, his interests evolve as rapidly as his equipment. He helps clients design album covers and make music videos. A new hobby, wildlife photography, is creeping in.

After playing a sample from a recent full-length project, a Christian guitar shredder album by Mike Groves, Harancher loaded its accompanying video on his YouTube channel.

His cell phone rang: A local Elvis Presley tribute artist needed to record a one-track demo for a gig, and he said he hoped Harancher could waive the usual one-hour minimum. (It costs $60 an hour to record here.) He thought he only needed a half-hour — and Harancher agreed to let the minimum fee slide.

Amid the fog of recession, this is how it's been going. But, as Leonardtown's William Bowser, the founder of Ill Soul Productions, will tell you, the key is staying busy. Plus, $30 is his hourly rate inside his one-room studio. "Any artist who I work with," he said, "I try to let them know that when you stop is when everything stops. If you keep going, if you keep persisting at it, all kinds of good things are going to happen."

Keeping it simple

Although he has been recording since 2002, Bowser acquired his professional license last year and has been running his studio out of an apartment he shares with his wife.

Meanwhile, you might think of Brooklyn, N.Y. — indie music central — as a place a young man from Southern Maryland might go to learn the recording trade. But Bowser, a recording engineer, producer and pop rap artist ("Soul B") who moved from Brooklyn with his mother and brothers when he was 17, learned it all right here.

In recent months, Bowser and his longtime friend and apprentice, Rashad Hawkins, 21, have taken their previous commitment level and doubled it down. Bowser, who turns 27 next week, said he does not think he has taken a day off in months and though he recently left his latest in a string of full-time jobs, he still holds down a part-time job at CVS Pharmacy.

Bowser's homegrown label represents a handful of local artists. As of late, they have been performing on Wednesdays at Hula's Bungalow in California, he said, and Bowser views it like this: The venue allows his artists to record a song on Tuesday and perform it the next day.

The idea is simple: Get the music out. He and Hawkins host an Internet radio show, "Free Music Friday," on the website, on their ReverbNation website. They also have a YouTube channel and just recently released a mix tape, "The Prequel."

Asked to explain his setup, Bowser, who records with Pro Tools and sits at a desk with a computer and two Behringer sound boards, said he likes to "keep it simple." His monitoring system has a built-in, talk-back mic, which allows him to communicate with artists while they're in the isolated vocal booth.

But the quality of recordings produced in this studio might surprise people — and the setup has come a long way. Hawkins recalled how they started out recording in Bowser's mother's living room with a Radio Shack microphone.

After he amassed significant hands-on experience, Bowser took a 12-week online course an engineer runs in Nashville. "What we do here is the same thing being done in a million-dollar studio," Bowser said. "[They have] more equipment and prettier lights to look at. Other than that, from sound structure to sound design, recording, mixing, mastering, it really can be done anywhere. You really can do it in a bedroom. But you do need people that have the talent for it. You need someone who can engineer."

Taking the time

Ron Vento, who runs Nightsky Studios, would definitely agree with Bowser.

"You can have all the gear in the world, [but] it's irrelevant if you don't know how to use it," he said at his studio in Waldorf recently. "You can have a compressor, but if you don't know what compression ratio is, your compressor is useless. I tell these guys, ‘Keep recording out of your house, keep trying it, keep doing it, but at some point you better get with a professional and learn the trade.'"

Months before this recent interview, a visitor met with Vento while he worked with Dave Lewis of the local band Ars Poetica on a pop-slash-hard rock EP. It was in the process of putting roughly 100 work hours into the EP's making.

Although Vento cut Lewis a break, he said, on his usual $60 hourly rate, it still cost Lewis in the "multiple thousands." To have a recording that might impress larger labels, or even local fans who might buy it at local shows, this is the cost that committed local musicians are willing to pay.

Vento has been running Nightsky full time for seven years. Before that, he ran a studio in Clinton for as many years with Gene Quade, a local musician and manager at Hot Licks Guitar Shop. Before that, he recorded in a garage.

"Just like anybody else, you got to start somewhere," he said. "Some of the guys you will see in their houses right now, they'll grow and build. They'll take my spot."

Vento is an affable guy who is seriously intense about what he does, and music. He plays in a couple of bands, like Crystalline Entombment. The better-known one, though, is Aurora Borealis. "They're metal, obviously," he said. "I play metal, man. But I enjoy what [Lewis] does, for production, because you don't really produce metal too much. You produce pop rock. I really enjoy working with bands like his."

Local musicians with larger aims have been come to Vento willing to invest time, money and artistic trust. On pop-rock soul musician Sam Grow's last EP, for instance, an acoustic track, "Information In," went ultra-digital with Vento's touch.

In the hallway connecting the waiting and control rooms to the studio are framed CDs of some of the local groups Vento has worked with. Country musician Jeff Miller, who has had a video on CMT, recorded here. So did Wakefield, formerly signed by Arista Records; Count Your Blessings, who works with an indie label; and Minus-One, who in 2007 won DC101's Last Band Standing.

Vento has been able to earn a nice living. He owns a home in Mechanicsville and drives a Lexus. He's also "sitting on $100,000 of gear."

The studio has 12-foot ceilings, three isolation booths, 6-inch floating floors to reduce vibration, bass traps in the corners and tunable ceiling clouds.

Although the digital side of the equation is constantly changing, Vento is more concerned with investing in hardware that does not need to be constantly replaced. He does use Pro Tools; for mixing, though, he also uses nondigital equipment.

A visitor's more recent drop-in to Nightsky took place while Vento was in the first day of recording Aurora Borealis' new album. The band, which no longer plays out, is known for its drummer. That's the only thing Vento doesn't play.

Drummer Mark Green of New Jersey had traveled here just to be part of the project, and it would not be a quick visit, either. Vento said they might spend 100 hours — just on drums.

Later, while talking about some of the local bands he had recorded, Vento noted that Nightsky's early reputation was forged through its good handling of hip-hop artists and rappers the likes of Ginuwine, Devin The Dude and Scarface.

In fact, Vento said about a year ago he received a call from Lil Wayne's manager. The rapper was passing through the area and wanted to stop somewhere just to record something. But there was a problem. "We turned him down," Vento said, "because we had a band in here at that point, and we're not canceling on a local person to get some star in here."

He made a good point. "The local guys are the people that are going to keep coming back."