On a chilly November evening, a few hundred people mill around a warehouse in a quiet corner of Oakland.
The crowd spills into the empty street, where musicians, engineers, and music fans in hoodies and flannel huddle together, sipping from tall boys in paper bags. Inside, garage pop band Sonny and the Sunsets is putting on a live performance for a sea of heads in a recording studio space. Another crowd has gathered to gawk in the studio's control room where the main attraction is silent and inanimate: a massive, 40-year-old vintage recording console. This is the 1976 Neve 8068 that John Vanderslice purchased in 2013 from the now-defunct Record Plant in Sausalito. He is the proprietor of the studio, which will house the East Bay outpost of his growing analog recording empire, Tiny Telephone.
Forty-three years have passed since the Record Plant's legendary opening party on Halloween night 1972, to which John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously arrived dressed as trees. Venerable A-listers went on to record albums there, including Prince, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, and Metallica, before the studio closed in 2008.
Tiny Telephone's "sneak peek" opening party is less flamboyant. Invitations were sent via Facebook, not on hand-carved slabs of redwood. Instead of Champagne and cocaine, attendees swill beer from plastic cups and chug Two-Buck Chuck straight from the bottle. And, unlike the Record Plant, this studio does not have a hot tub or a conference room with a waterbed floor.
The glory days of recording studio glitz and glamour are long gone — even if the equipment has (at least in this case) stayed the same. And although analog recording has a certain cachet in the era of Pro Tools, sinking $800,000 into a second Tiny Telephone is a risky venture.
"What [Vanderslice] is doing is totally insane. I think that needs to be said," says Jamie Riotto, a Tiny Telephone engineer. "He's opening a world-class studio, with a large-format console that is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a time when studios are closing all over the place. He's taking enormous financial risk, and he's very comfortable with that somehow."
Through its first 16 years, Tiny Telephone has been a success. But despite that track record, there's a chance that Vanderslice's supply-and-demand equations are wrong, that the analog trend will subside, or that indie bands will find a new, hipper destination studio.
Vanderslice has bet quite a bit on the project turning a profit.
"I don't have the fucking juice to build this," he says. "I borrowed all the money from clients. It's very stressful to be juggling all those loans, which are all coming due next year, so there's going to be a wave of financial responsibility."
"Room C," Vanderslice's name for Tiny Telephone's Oakland outpost — Rooms A and B are in the San Francisco studio — is located in a windowless, one-story cement hulk on a block with no sidewalks or trees, in the stretch of the East Bay where Emeryville, Oakland, and Berkeley intersect. The area has the same tucked-away vibe as the dead-end block of San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco's Mission District where the original Tiny Telephone is located.
Since it opened in 1997, San Francisco's Tiny Telephone has become a destination for some of the most respected indie artists around, including Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, Deerhoof, The Dodos, and Jolie Holland. Vanderslice, a respected indie musician who has also worked as a producer for the The Mountain Goats, Spoon, and Strand of Oaks, recorded 10 of his own albums there, too. While local artists such as Thao Nyugen and Rogue Wave have tracked there, Vanderslice estimates that about 60 percent of the clientele travels from out of town. (Disclosure: I'm a musician and have tracked guest vocals on a couple of projects there.)
When I visited Tiny Telephone Oakland a few days before the studio's official opening date of Jan. 1, the 48-year-old Vanderslice greeted me at the door wearing a headlamp — necessary for inspecting the reams of recording tape analog studios require — along with lavender-rimmed glasses, and a fleece pullover splattered with white paint. He asked me about my holiday travels before declaring with a smile, "This has been, like, the worst year."
A thin man with chin-length blond hair who talks quickly, as if his mouth can't quite keep up with his brain, Vanderslice is buoyant enough that even his most hyperbolic statements are charming. One gets the sense that in the midst of a large and chaotic undertaking such as this, he's in his element.
For the last year, Vanderslice has been on hiatus — from producing records and from playing or recording his own music — to focus on building a world-class analog recording studio, a plan hatched after Tiny Telephone proved successful. Demand is such that both rooms in the San Francisco studio are booked most days of the year, even Christmas and New Year's Eve. When Vanderslice realized that all of his engineers lived in Oakland, as did almost every local band they worked with, he started toying with the idea of opening a location on the other side of the Bay. His timing was right: He was able to lock in rent at the Oakland space right before the East Bay market saw its most drastic increases.
During my December visit, I followed him into the small room that houses two Studer 820 24-track tape machines the size and shape of small stoves, one with its green and red lights flashing, the other currently dimmed. Through the soundproof glass, I could see a half-dozen construction workers and audio technicians in the control and live rooms, putting sound treatments on the walls. Some were tooling with the 64-channel Neve console, which resembles the control board of the Starship Enterprise. It felt like the beating heart of the space.
The studio somehow seemed less finished than it did during the party the month before, as if it had to be fully taken apart one last time before being put back together. Sawdust still covered many surfaces, and lumber and tools were heaped in every corner. In the live room, an orange ladder stretched up to the exposed silver air ducts, and the bookshelf that dominates one wall was still empty of the hundreds of used books that will also serve as sound treatments.