In Session

Local studios offer musicians the best in vintage and modern recording

By Kyle Melton

Brian Whitten in Centre City Studios.

Brian Whitten in Centre City Studios. Photo courtesy of Tyler Lukacs.

Throughout the 20th century, the proliferation of audio recordings on various formats provided some of the most galvanizing artistic moments of their eras. From early jazz 78s to influential blues and country 7” 45s to the ascendancy of the 33½ 12” long-playing album as the dominant force in rock ‘n’ roll, musicians suddenly were able to connect with audiences with a degree of permanence previously unknown in history. At the center of this shift were the technical innovations being made in recording studios, from the stunningly accurate microphones capturing near life-like performances to the flexibility afforded by the development of multi-track recordings; the recording studio served as both laboratory and canvas for musicians.

Dayton’s legacy of influential recordings often brings to mind such bygone locations as Roger Troutman’s studio on Salem Avenue, which unleashed searing funk, and Cro-Magnon Studio on East Second Street which produced much of Dayton’s influential punk and indie titles from the 80s into the early 21st century. As music entered the digital age and computers afforded musicians the opportunity to create relatively glossy productions in their homes at low cost, the big rooms and high-end audio equipment suddenly seemed unnecessary.  Although the expertise of a trained audio engineer and the fidelity of state-of-the-art equipment can provide an artist with an exceptional recording, currently there are only a handful of full production studios remaining in town.

As the longest-running studio currently operating in the Gem City, Phil Mehaffey’s Cybertechnics Studio, on East Third Street, has produced countless recordings in nearly every genre of music since opening its doors in 1969. At the height of its operations, the studio was running nearly non-stop, although four years ago Mehaffey took a step back from the fast pace and is currently working to re-establish his facility among Dayton artists. At his disposal is an arsenal of vintage recording equipment and microphones, 16- and 24-track analog tape machines, and a vintage Electrodyne mixing console which previously was employed at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, providing an incredibly affordable opportunity for bands seeking a warm, vintage sound.

“Mostly I stayed with the [multi-track] tape thing and this kind of console,” Mehaffey said. “That might have hurt me a little, because I didn’t jump into the computer thing. I didn’t understand why someone would go to a computer when we had analog. Still don’t understand it, but there must be a reason.”

Opened in 1984 by Gary King, Refraze Recording Studios in Kettering serves as home base for Ron Pease, who has been working at the studio for eight years and bought the facility in 2007. While Refraze retains the capacity to work on analog multi-track tape like Cybertechnics, they have also continued to modify their spacious studio to allow for digital recording as well, which allows their clients increased flexibility.

“I use both analog and digital together,” Pease said. “I like the ‘best of both worlds’ approach. I think technology has come a long way for both home recording and bigger studios. I can do lots of things that weren’t possible 15 years ago. Better equipment gives you the ability to get a better sound. If it didn’t, nobody would spend the extra money. The recording space is part of the sound. It adds that extra dimension to the sound.”

To the north in Troy, Hawthorne Heights guitarist Micah Carli set up his PopSide facility a little over a year ago to begin recording both local and touring acts. As with many modern recording studios, Carli employs a fully digital setup to capture bands.

“I run a modest 16 channel Pro Tools rig,” Carli explained. “ I do use a fair amount of outboard gear, mic [preamps], compressors and such.  I try not to rely on having to manipulate everything heavily once in the box. I use digital for ease of use and cost purposes but love the sounds of analog recording.”

Although he opened up Centre City Studios two-and-a-half years ago with a few partners, Brian Whitten could be considered more of a freelance recording engineer, having done work at the three previously mentioned facilities as well as at his own Centre City, depending on the demands of the client.

“I record at Refraze, PopSide and Cybertechnics if I feel the project will benefit from their different environments than my usual [room at Centre City],” Whitten explained. “I like the drum sounds I can achieve at Refraze, I love the amazing collection of amps, effects and guitars at PopSide, and if I find a band that wants analog,
Cybertech is the spot for that.”

Having worked with numerous bands over the past few years, Darryl Robbins of local band the Motel Beds has focused primarily on the recordings of his own band over the past year, with the stellar results of Sunfried Dreams speaking volumes about his craft.

“I don’t really have a proper facility, but I’ve been in the place I’m at for about two years,” Robbins said of his recording space. “It’s our practice space and it happens to have three nice sounding separate rooms so it’s good for recording. These days I’m kind of using a hybrid of both digital and analog. Any form of analog is great because you can fuck things up in a great way. Doing that in digital doesn’t work as well, but I love digital for the editing and mixing ability.”

While approaches in technology may differ from one engineer to the next, the central goal in their means of execution is consistent: making the artist sound their best. For anyone pondering a trip to the studio, considerations of time and money can be daunting. However, being realistic about the end result and how to prepare should be of the utmost concern.

“I always ask bands to take care of their instruments,” Whitten said. “Change the strings, get guitars intonated and set up, and most importantly the drums. Drums record the best with new heads properly set and tuned.”

“The more rehearsed and familiar they are with the music, the better,” admitted Pease. “The better idea they have for what they want to end up with is also helpful. Most people don’t realize the main expense in any studio recording is lack of preparation.”

“It’s important they have their songs as ready as they can be,” Carli continued.  “I can’t stress enough how much more productive things are when the band / artist is well-rehearsed.  It can be quite a block to the creative process laboring intently to get through a take.”

If an artist is realistic about their expectations and arrives at the studio as prepared as possible, they will likely find an engineer that is both willing and capable to provide them with technical expertise and help them navigate the somewhat intimidating environment of the recording studio.

“I’ve got it down to a pretty good science,” Mehaffey said. “If you’ve got a band, you can just bring them in. I always defer to the musician because that’s just they way I am. I don’t try to impose anything on them at all; they can do whatever they want. When they come in here they can do what they want, and I think that’s really important. I don’t say no.”

“It depends on the band, what they do, and their willingness to let you have control over the major aspects of their music, and of course their lives,” suggested Robbins.

“Subjectivity is kind of the key word for me. You can’t apply the exact same pair of lenses to everyone’s eyes. If you record music for people other than yourself or your band, I think you kind of owe it to them to try to find a way to frame it that sort of plays to the aspects that make it great in the first place.”

As different studios offer various technological capabilities, the ultimate goal for virtually any recording project remains the same: to make a record that can find a listening audience. As the music industry continues to polarize, so do the attitudes of recording engineers regarding the level of polish required from any recording.

“What they always say is true about getting one chance to make a first impression,” Pease said. “Most labels aren’t looking for demos these days. They want a finished product. If they pop in a CD and the quality is bad, they probably won’t listen long. If the quality is good they might listen a while even if the band isn’t as good.”

“I think it’s very important for bands to spend as much time and money they can afford on their recordings,” admitted Whitten.  “I’m not saying you need to spend thousands, but like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. But you need to find the right engineer/studio to work with to ensure you will be happy with the end product.”

“High-quality recording can make all the difference sometimes,” Carli said. “The timber differences in $5,000 recording versus a $500 recording are acutely noticeable and could deter people away from giving your songs a chance.  I personally think great songs, written and performed passionately, will shine regardless of your recording budget.”

“Be cautious of the word ‘quality,” Robbins remarked. “We’re all navigating in an extremely oversaturated world of very mediocre music. Shooting for the right presentation is what you want, shooting for quality will get you nowhere because that’s what everyone else is doing anyway. There’s a certain (yet limited) amount of room for a bit of production style on the recordings themselves. I think one of the current big diseases is a fear of imperfection. I think it’s because of everyone making their band’s demos and whatnot on their laptops, endless technology, endless options, and endless time. It’s awful. ‘Quality’ is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re in a band, your recording is your business card. Presentation is hugely important, far more important than subjective standards of quality.”

Reach DCP music editor Kyle Melton
at MusicEditor@DaytonCityPaper.com and
read his blog at TheBuddhaDen.net.

Cover photo and inside cover photo courtesy of Jessica Valle.

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