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Area recording studios turn dreams into CDs

By Thomas Goldsmith
tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com

CHAPEL HILL Triangle recording studios capture music ranging from country picking to hip-hop and chart-ready pop sounds, helping both veterans and beginners reach their professional dreams.

Veteran owners such as Jerry Brown of the Rubber Room studio in Chapel Hill and Dick Hodgin of Osceola Sound in Raleigh use both vintage equipment and the latest digital devices to accommodate Triangle musicians and illustrious visitors. In March, Hodgin welcomed four-time Grammy winner Erykah Badu to Osceola, where she recorded a guest appearance on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a current hit by dance artist Janelle Monáe.

“Erykah Badu was in town for the Women’s Empowerment event, and she called a couple of people from around here with some cred,” Hodgin said about landing the sessions, which Badu extended to record some additional music.

“Customer service is 90 percent,” Hodgin said. “When you are sitting there helping the artist, you make it look easy.”

Any ambitious soul with a moderately powerful computer and basic software such as GarageBand or Audacity can make a start at recording music. But costs for equipping a professional studio begin in the low six figures and climb skyward.

Because of the blurry line between enthusiasts and professionals, it’s hard to get a handle on the exact scope of the recording industry in North Carolina. However, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 5,000 people work as producers, musicians, vocalists and sound engineering technicians in the state.

They carry on a tradition that dates to the 1930s when hillbilly and gospel musicians recorded in Charlotte. It was there that bluegrass founder Bill Monroe (along with brother Charlie), the influential duo the Delmore Brothers and many others made major hits of the day. And it was also in Charlotte – at Arthur Smith’s studio – that James Brown recorded “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in 1965.

Post-World War II recordings continued at Raleigh’s WPTF radio studios and at a flurry of Triangle facilities likely beginning in the 1960s with JC studios on (then) Hillsboro Street.

Don Dixon, master of recording arts from Chapel Hill, made a second musical home at Charlotte’s Reflections beginning in the 1970s, recording the ’80s superstars R.E.M. and many others. In 1980, Winston-Salem’s Mitch Easter opened his Drive-In Studio, the earliest recording home for R.E.M. and many other acts. Veteran performer-producer Chris Stamey has presided since 1996 over Modern Recording in Chapel Hill, with clients including Whiskeytown and the Ben Folds Five.

Today, an active Triangle hip-hop scene can boast nationally prominent producer-performer 9th Wonder and his Bright Lady Studios as an epicenter, churning out productions of artists including the N.C. State-born act Kooley High as well as his own influential work.

Working the rooms

At Osceola, such rock, pop and country artists as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Clay Aiken, J. Cole and Jason Michael Carroll have recorded music for release. And at the Rubber Room, musicians from Doc Watson to Branford Marsalis to the Red Clay Ramblers have cut tracks.

Award-winning acoustic act the Steep Canyon Rangers, who got started in Chapel Hill, spent a lot of time at the Rubber Room before they hooked up with actor, comedian and musician Steve Martin and became headliners. And in their pre-Grammy days, the Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded two CDs at the Rubber Room, taking advantage of its combination of techy expertise and old-time feel.

“The sessions were fun and fast; they knew what they wanted to do, and we did it,” Brown said of the Chocolate Drops sessions. “There was not a lot of effort put into retakes and polishing. It was really old style: play it, mix it, and move on.”

Brown, 55, was running sounds from vintage Neumann microphones through an analog mixing board to computer software Tuesday as he oversaw a session with Big Fat Gap, a Carrboro band that claims to have “no plans to take Nashville by storm.”

For a regional band like Big Fat Gap, polished from frequent live performance, making a high-quality acoustic recording with Brown can cost as little as $5,000. Even with design and manufacturing costs added, that means acts can make money from selling as few as 1,000 CDs at gigs and from the trunks of their cars. The band, not a record company, decides when it’s time to record.

“We kind of had the band where we really wanted it,” banjo player Chris Russell said.

On Tuesday, Russell, bassist-vocalist Miles Andrews, mandolinist Jon Hill and guitarist Jamie Griggs recorded some lively original music at Rubber Room. Andrews played and sang on tune in the middle of the recording space, while the other musicians played in glassed-in booths that allowed for good sight-lines and recording their instruments on separate tracks.

That meant the band could enjoy the same instinctive visual and musical cues of a live performance, while keeping the ability to fix any rough spots or bad notes by taking another shot while listening to the previous recording over headphones.

Preparation is key

Recording costs at serious studios can easily reach $200 an hour, putting performers under time pressure to create top-level work as judged by the unforgiving ear of $5,000 microphones and exacting recording machines. Technology allows for fixes such as pitch and time correction.

But Hodgin, at Osceola, said bands often think they are ready to rock long before they’d be able to make best use of the studio environment.

“I meet with the band, find out what they want to do, and I try to use 30 years of making records to sway them into what I consider to be the correct way to go about doing things,” he said.

Confronted with the difference between live and studio performance, musicians will discover, for instance, that their jamming bass player and drummer don’t really keep a consistent tempo. And their screaming guitar solos aren’t played in tune. And, oh, they don’t really know how many times they do each section of the song, not to mention what to do about that verse where the lyrics are still sketchy.

“They say, ‘We just want to turn the amps up to 12 and sound like we do live, dude,’ ” Hodgin said. “I say, ‘Go home, learn how to play in time, check your parts out.’

“If they aren’t working on a record company budget, I have to make them prepare to make the best use of their time. Don’t come in unorganized with a bunch of last-minute decisions that haven’t been made.”

Sometimes, they move on

As in the case of 9th Wonder, some Tar Heel-bred musicians decide to build their recording empires here, bringing acts from other music capitals for production work, as well as developing local talent. Prominent, homegrown artists such as singer-songwriter Tift Merritt mix it up; she’s recorded one record in Durham and one in Brooklyn, N.Y., since 2010.

But in the cases of artists including the Avett Brothers, Ryan Adams and “American Idol” contestant Chris Daughtry, the musical and studio skills that grew in North Carolina are harvested in other music centers.

The state’s studio scene stands ready to handle the top-level stars who are sometimes born here, as well as those who come because they like the proverbial vibe. Studios are seemingly everywhere now – from Dave Tilley’s low-key, old-school Bogue Sound in Durham, to Red Hat exec Michael Tiemann’s multimillion-dollar Manifold Recording facility in Pittsboro.

Meanwhile, Dick Hodgin, Jerry Brown and others like them are around to teach the basics to budding rockers and rappers.

“You don’t want to bring in a guitar that won’t stay in tune,” Hodgin said.

Staff writer David Menconi contributed to this story.

Next week: Sweet potatoes

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929
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