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The Great Analog Gamble 

Wednesday, Jan 13 2016
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For a business about to open in 10 days, there was still a lot of work ahead.

"When the console I was looking for my entire life became free and this space became free, I was forced," Vanderslice said. "There might as well have been a gun to my head. There was no way I wasn't going to build this studio."

Despite never having the first-tier market or major label support of cities like Nashville, New York, or L.A., the Bay Area has a storied history of notable recording studios.

The area's studio heyday began in the late '60s, according to Heather Johnson, author of If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour Through San Francisco's Recording Studios. That's when Columbia and Mercury Records set up offices in San Francisco, hoping to recruit unsigned talent from the scene that had produced Santana and Jefferson Airplane. In 1969, engineer Wally Heider opened Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin. One of the first commercial recording studios not run by a label, it became a hub for Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and now operates as Hyde Street Studios. The Mission's Different Fur, which still operates under that name, was opened by electronic musician and synthesizer genius Patrick Gleeson in 1972, and much of Herbie Hancock's classic albums Sextant and Headhunters were recorded there. Berkeley's Fantasy Studios, which opened in 1971 and has recorded albums by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green Day, and Chris Isaak, still functions as a recording studio. The Automatt on Folsom Street in San Francisco, active from 1976 to 1984, was home to sessions by Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Patti LaBelle before it was destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Coast Recorders on Mission Street, which was built in 1969 and featured the largest live room in the city, changed hands several times before being taken over by mastering engineer Michael Romanowski in 2001. Romanowski relocated to Fantasy Studios this fall after the Coast Recorders building was purchased by real estate investors. The studio is currently empty, awaiting the investors' next move.

But one of the most notorious studios was the Sausalito location of the Record Plant, the former home of Vanderslice's Neve console. Opened in 1972 as the third location following Record Plants in New York and Los Angeles, Sausalito was where Fleetwood Mac recorded its seminal album Rumours in 1976. The studio was a second home to Sly Stone, Prince recorded his debut album For You there in 1977 (playing every instrument), and Rick James lived in the waterbed conference room for a time in the '80s.

The Record Plant switched owners multiple times, but continued to produce significant records by high-profile mainstream acts including Metallica, Mariah Carey, Dave Matthews Band, and Santana. Its profits dwindled in the digital era, until it officially closed in 2008. It's now used as a yoga studio and wellness center (though the Los Angeles location is still in business).

"These enormous dinosaurs of the recording industry based their whole model on bands having unlimited funds to make records," says Eli Crews, an engineer and co-owner of New, Improved Recording, a studio housed in the same building as the new Tiny Telephone. "Should there be a hot tub at a recording studio? I guess if you're Fleetwood Mac in 1976, you want a hot tub in your studio, sure. But in 2015?"

In the 1990s, home recording software like Pro Tools and Apple's GarageBand hit the market and democratized the recording process — bands no longer had to book expensive studio sessions to cut an album. (Beck recorded his multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning Odelay at home in 1996 on an early version of Pro Tools.)

And if bands did go into the studio, it was often to lay down basic rhythm guitar and drum tracks, with vocals and additional instrumentation recorded at home. Once the album was finished, they'd sometimes return to the studio for a day or two of post-production mixing.

Home recording dovetailed with the internet-fueled decline in record sales and a new reluctance of labels to send artists into the studio for lengthy sessions. But some of the damage may have been self-inflicted. Vanderslice believes a lot of the old-guard studios sabotaged themselves by refusing to let go of the rates they were charging in the '80s.

"I don't know how you can't monetize these places," he says. "[The Record Plant] is a famous destination studio, and they just fucked it up so bad." In an attempt to stay as booked as possible, Vanderslice keeps rates below market rate: $375 a day for the A room, $275 for the B room, $300 for the C room.

The rule of studio ownership — for those who aren't independently wealthy — is to start small, grow slowly, and keep your overhead low. Vanderslice understood from the beginning that he was entering an industry that had been "totally flat lined" by digital recording.

When he rented the practice space that now holds Tiny Telephone's A room in San Francisco in 1996, he was 30, working as a waiter, and fronting the respected but relatively unknown alt-rock band MK Ultra ("We had, like, five fans," he says.) The space rented for $660 a month, divided among nine other musicians. When they bailed, he decided to turn the space into a recording studio in order to break even and have a place to make his own records.

In his mind, the window for becoming a successful full-time musician had closed.

Tiny Telephone's opening coincided with Vanderslice's first month as a waiter at Chez Panisse, chef Alice Waters' farm-to-table mecca in Berkeley. The two experiences are inextricably tied in his memory. Everything about Chez Panisse seemed different from the corporate tourist traps he'd worked in throughout his 20s. The employees were happy. The ingredients were carefully sourced. The cooks never had to turn in a budget.


About The Author

Jessi Phillips


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