There's an unassuming line of corrugated shacks in the south of Potrero del Sol Park that houses a motley cast of artists, welders, and a pretty good motorcycle repair shop. Tucked in the corner of the little industrial park is Tiny Telephone, a virtually anonymous refuge that is one of a few truly all-analog recording studios resisting digitization of the industry. A throwback to classic studios like Abbey Road, Tiny Telephone offers strident recorders a veritable education in the reel-to-reel method supposedly made obsolete by software like Pro Tools. And eager musicians are lining up.
"Tiny Telephone started in 1997," explains studio proprietor and indie rock acolyte John Vanderslice. "In the beginning, we just wanted a warehouse rehearsal space for three or four bands. Back then," he says, self-deprecatingly, "it was nothing as impressive as you see today."
I met up with Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone during a recording session for his solo follow-up to 2011's acclaimed White Wilderness. The first thing you notice when you enter the newly constructed Studio B is a giant mixing console, donated by Death Cab for Cutie. The console is adorned with a number of cat photos (the resident feline, Marvin, receives affectionate pets from the crew throughout the day) and a healthy amount of masking tape with instructions written in Sharpie. These instructions include presets, notes, and references to the adjacent effects rack, a veritable Enigma Bombe of vintage gear. Spring reverb, vintage fuzz, an Eventide harmonizer: a bunch of dusty boxes that utilize old-school electrical engineering to sculpt sound.
John and his crew had spent the afternoon tracking drummer Jason Slota on a new composition of Vanderslice's. His team of in-house engineers (Ian Pellicci at the console, Jamie Riotto and Matthew Galecki sprawled on the floor) listens intently to a demo recorded by Vanderslice the night before, a bright major-key ditty full of double-tracked vocals and syncopated acoustic guitar strums. In the booth, Slota sits at his drums and works methodically toward nailing down a drumbeat, and they play the shit out of that demo.
It's a misconception to associate the recording studio with any kind of rock 'n' roll glamor. It's a special kind of drudgery, requiring hours of listening to Slota's work, mixing and matching effects, and periodically breaking for discussion before even a basic beat is set. In the next few months, Vanderslice will do the same with the other instruments, scrapping his quite pretty demo in favor of a cleaner arrangement. He doesn't even expect to finish the record until at least October, and projects a February release.
Part of the delay is that Vanderslice can't even get time in his own studio. "We're booked up at least two months solid," he says. "In the digital era, most studios only record 10 to 12 days a month." He pauses, a little unsure whether he's bragging. "So, it's ... great!"
"Great" has seen many indie rock luminaries lay down tracks at the studio. Death Cab, Bob Mould, and Deerhoof are just a few of the artists who have spent time at Tiny Telephone. But Vanderslice insists upon a democratized approach to the recording slate. In the adjacent Studio A (Tiny Telephone's first room), a relatively obscure metal group called Ash Borer is recording tracks for its new record; the sounds coming from the room are aptly described by Vanderslice as "next-level avant garde stuff."
The guys keep grabbing a classic Nintendo zapper — think Duck Hunt — to talk to Jason as he tracks, and it becomes clear that they've hooked it up as the microphone trigger. That's the wry, homespun attitude that has dictated the studio's mission statement. The guys laugh, trade crude jokes, and horse around during the day. Sessions with clients only differ in didactics. "I didn't know anything [about analog recording] when we first started out," Vanderslice admits. "We're willing to teach our clients all about the process, because it's just so valuable."
It's a wonderful proposition. While digital recording has revolutionized the recording industry, allowing bedroom musicians to create masterpieces with only a laptop, digital lacks the warmth of old-fashioned analog. Fewer and fewer listeners may care amid the ones and zeroes of a Spotify stream, but analog actually records sound more accurately. It may take more time to lay tracks down to reel-to-reel tape, scrounging up real instruments rather than using MIDI presets, but it preserves the performance while making accessible a level of craftsmanship that is arguably lost in digital recording. Plus, analog gives Vanderslice a more tangible sense of control. Think of it as painting versus taking a photograph.
The guys break from the session to grab food in the Mission, and Vanderslice seems like the king of 24th Street as we walk to the diner. Mike Sempert of local group Birds & Batteries greets Vanderslice with a handshake and brief conversation. He exchanges hand waves and pleasantries with various musicians and artists as we stroll — it seems that day like everybody's in a band — and leaves in his wake a progression of smiling friends.
Over lunch, Slota discusses playing African farmers' markets with his Afrobeat band and the tenuous accommodations during the tour, talking of sleeping under the stars in a village during a veritable "night of the chickens." Vanderslice describes growing up in the South and shares a surprising anecdote about the history of Silicon Valley: "It all goes back to Bing Crosby and Pebble Beach Golf Club. He was obviously the biggest recording star for decades, right? He was obsessed with Pebble Beach, so he built a big studio in the Bay Area. After him, a lot of studio and production companies started up here, and that was the beginning of our high-tech industry." Seems far-fetched, but who knows? Even if the story is the product of a musician's bias or wishful thinking, it's told with effortless panache.
We get back in the studio to continue tracking. The group talks about flourishes and backbeats for a few minutes, Slota gets back on his kit, and they continue iterating until they reach a satisfactory conclusion. As Riotto pulls out his bass to tune up for a session, I mention that I need to head out. Vanderslice walks me to the gate while continuing his stream-of-consciousness narration of his Tiny Telephone plans.
"We're actually thinking about building another studio," Vanderslice says. "They're building another warehouse across the way, so we're watching it closely." "Across the way" is an uninteresting stretch at the foot of Potrero Hill populated mostly by junkies, but I have a feeling Vanderslice already has a slew of plans in his head. Unlike many big talkers, he's so far managed to turn his vision of analog preservation into reality. He smiles. "People think I'm crazy."