Over the past couple of years, Tulsa's music scene has experienced something of a rebirth, spawning a number of promising new bands and a fruitful indie rock scene.
On the pop scene, just take a look at what Tulsans Alaiyn and David Cook have accomplished on American Idol.
All of a sudden, it seems, the eyes of the music and recording industry are once again turning toward Tulsa.
And with the number of solid local CDs released, the players here are getting more than their fare share of recognition. But behind the scenes, it's the guys handling the sound--the recording engineers in the studios who are responsible for capturing, honing and polishing the products of local artists.
Every year about this time, UTW's Music Edition focuses on an aspect of the local scene, typically featuring the musicians, genres and developments in Tulsa. This time, we take a look at the business of capturing those great, live vibes produced by the artists performing at the city's clubs and restaurants.
It isn't as easy as you might think to get great sounds on disc. It takes a lot of time, talent, experience and hard work--both on the part of the musicians and the guys behind the boards, engineering and molding that sound. And although this part of our city's thriving scene is often overlooked or rarely thought of, it is playing a major part in the evolution and advancement of our most promising bands.
Recording equipment and technology have advanced dramatically over the past decade. Gone are the days (at least for the most part) of putting on a CD and immediately thinking "Yeah, this is a local release" as soon as you hear the first few notes.
The dramatic difference between the haves and have-nots--that distinct gap in production or sound quality and the lack of that certain something that sets a band apart and makes it sound like it's on a major label--is not as apparent as it once was.
Just recently, we've seen an increasing number of local releases that sound like they could have been Los Angeles, New York or Nashville when, in fact, they were recorded right here in Tulsa. In some cases, they were even recorded in home studios, and you can barely tell the difference.
While some people may think Tulsa's recording possibilities are dwindling, based on the closure of the famed Church Studio or Dave Perceful's recent relocation of Yellow Dog Studios to Austin, that's not the case.
Tulsa has a plenty or recording studios to choose from, you just have to know where to look. The musicians know where to find them. Perhaps more important to your end result than the studio itself however, is who you record with. No matter how good the equipment (or even how good the product is sonically) an artist won't be happy with the end result if it doesn't match the original vision.
As attested to by conversations with a number of musicians and studios around town, the artist's relationship with an engineer or producer can greatly affect the results of a recording session.
According to Stephen Egerton of Armstrong Recording, "It's kind of like finding a tattoo artist. It's an intense process, possibly painful, and the results are permanent. You've got to find someone you're comfortable with and identify with."
"If you meet someone and don't feel right with them, it's probably not a good idea to that guy," he continued, chuckling.
According to Egerton, he prefers to meet a band before working with it to make sure it's a good fit and everyone is on the same page. Occasionally, he will refer an artist to his partner, Ryan Wallace, or vice versa. On the infrequent occasion that he hasn't met the band beforehand, Egerton said he will at least try to familiarize himself with the members when setting up for pre-production and engineering the tones, to try and understand what sound or feel a band is going for.
While most studios can record just about anything, and many will record anyone regardless of the relationship, the best results arguably come from sessions where the artist and engineer (or producer) communicate well with each other. So it's good to spend some up front with the people you will potentially be working with to make sure you are a good fit--both sonically and chemistry-wise.
Costa Stasinopolous, of Ergopop Studios, who partners with engineer John Schrader, told me "pretty much any city has 'x' amount of studios that usually charge $750 a day without an engineer or producer. Where we differ is we're a studio, but we're also a production team. We help guide bands through the recording process."
"I don't care what studio we work in, whether it's here in Tulsa or in Dallas or Norman," he continued. "The question for us is, 'can we help bands manifest a vision?'
"Not to sound posh or snobby," said Stasinopolous, "but I prefer to work with bands with a vision or an artistic quality. The people I want to work with, admittedly rather selfishly, are the ones who are not trying to sound like another band, but want to create a sound of their own."
He also admitted, "As a producer, I'm not the right fit for everybody. My goal is to have as much character and be as neutral as possible, not to have someone hear a recording and think 'yeah, that has Costa's fingerprints all over it.' What it really boils down to is do I understand your music, what you're going for?"
Gary Sullivan, of Southtown Studios, is a touring and session musician as well as drum instructor, and, with such a full plate, has been able to become more selective of the artists he works with. Although his was previously a strictly commercial studio, due to his networking connections and experience, he now works mostly on a per project basis with other studios and particular artists.
He still works with outside bands on occasion, however, and will make an effort to go see them perform and hear them before he agrees to take on a new project.
"As a producer, my main goal is simply help an artist achieve what they are looking for," he said. "Sometimes it's kind of like little kids in a romper room--if they bounce too far out, you have to kick them back in a little bit."
"I've been on both sides of the fence," Sullivan explained. "I've been allowed to have some creative freedom, and I've also been the hired gun that plays just what he's told. It's much more fun when it's more collaborative. You can hear the difference between a band that's going through the motions vs. one that is allowed to express its creativity."
Hank Charles, of Valcour Sound in Broken Arrow, has worked with countless local bands over the years. According to Charles, his role starts out as an engineer, with a goal of making the band sound as good as possible. As a self-taught producer and engineer with a love of all types of music, Charles has had an opportunity to work with bands of all styles and does his best to take a neutral position.
"For the most part, I try to let bands do what they want, they way they want to do it," he said. "I may make a comment or two, but otherwise only really get involved if they ask my advice."
"Other projects, like Susan Herndon's last record, which we co-produced, I approach differently. Susan had a good idea of what she wanted and I helped her achieve that."
The Right Fit
Although most studios are set up so they can record any type of music, some are more suited to certain genres than others. At the same time, don't assume that just because you know a studio for producing records of a certain style, it wouldn't necessarily excel in a different genre.
While part of a studio's niche may be defined by the equipment or even a producer or engineer's background, you may be surprised with its results when switching gears. Even if an act doesn't seem like a match genre wise, the studio's approach to the recording process may be what brings out the best in the artist.
When asked what styles or genres he felt like he excelled with, Hank Charles claimed he really didn't consider it too much.
"I'll record anybody," he said. "Growing up, I loved all kinds of music. My Dad even wrote a song that was recorded by country singer Marty Robbins. Therefore, I think I can identify with all types of bands and music."
A self-proclaimed Beatles nut, Charles is still inspired by his musical heroes and their willingness to experiment with different sounds and styles. He does admit however, that he works with mostly rock bands and prefers to record bands while playing together live, then go back to overdub parts and fix things afterwards. That may be partially because of his background in music and recording.
Not only has Charles worked with singer/songwriter acts like John Moreland and the Black Gold Band, Brandon Clark and Susan Herndon, he was also the man behind the boards for Rewake's Air Bubbles CD and has produced incredible results for Irish bands like Larkin and Cairde na Gael. He has also recently been working with Sam and the Stylees on their third disc, which is tentatively planned for a spring release.
"Luckily, I've been able to make metal bands sound good," Charles told me, referring to his initial production work.
He also noted that he still does a lot of metal records and has worked with Crooked X on all of their previous material, including the song "Nightmare," which was recently included as an un-lockable song on the XBox Rock Band video game.
Charles has also had pleasing results with local jazz and blues artists like Rebecca Ungermann and Cindy Cain, as well with young, rising stars The Red Alert (who are, by the way, his kids). Considered as a whole, it shows that while Charles may be primarily know for working with rock bands, he is equally adept at producing bands of various styles.
One of Tulsa's more prominent rising stars, Armstrong Recording, has a reputation that initially grew from its work with local hard rock and punk bands. That was primarily due to partner Ryan Wallace's involvement in the local music scene, listening to a lot of punk, hardcore and emo bands. As a result, many of those bands came to the studio to work with him. Egerton admits that a fair amount of initial business came in because his history with iconic punk bands The Descendents and All piqued many people's interest.
"My field of interest and expertise is definitely in rock, based on my history," Egerton said. "I have done everything from country to hip-hop, but I'm probably more comfortable in the rock and pop genres. I just like to record bands that really enjoy what they do. If a band is really good, it's fun to record them no matter what style it is."
Over at Ergopop, Costa Stasinopolous acknowledged that his forte was in the indie category and noted that he prefers to work with bands for which "making money, being rich and famous and looking and acting the part is secondary or tertiary to creating art."
"I have worked with a couple of commercial-styled alternative bands in the past" he admitted. "If I'm working with them, it's different art, trying to read society and find some relevance . . . It's a fascinating art; I'm just not as in tune with making money as with something that sounds cool."
Gary Sullivan's specialty at Southtown Studios is with more organic, acoustic-based music, such as bluegrass, country, rock and blues.
"More of the roots-based material," he explained, "where it's important to capture the dynamics of the instrument."
Having recorded everything from country (including Hank Thompson's final studio album) to progressive Christian rock and jazz (he has recorded drum tracks for Wyman Tisdale and Eldredge Jackson), Sullivan has a solid grasp of nearly any type of music.
While many studios have been going digital over the past few years, there is still a love and affinity for warmer, analog tones, especially in Tulsa it seems.
Armstrong Studios boasts a digital recording set up, complete with Pro Tools TBM, one of the bigger Pro Tools rigs and an older, analog McCurby mixing board, which was custom built in Canada. According to Egerton, Pro Tools is now somewhat an industry standard. It sounds good and provides unbelievable flexibility when editing and mixing. Armstrong has also built up an impressive arsenal of amplifier and high-end microphones for use stocks a few guitars and other instruments as well.
Ergopop Studios uses the highest level Pro Tools rig and "lots of analog gear as well--it provides more warmth and crunch," according to Stasinopolous.
"When we built the studio, we thought, 'What's going to make things easier, both for us and the musicians?'" he told me. "We decided not to get gear just because is cost a large amount of money. We want something that will work and help with any band and everybody we work with."
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that Ergopop is set up to network with other studios in the state and region as well as a number of musicians.
"If we need a certain instrument or need something beyond or below us, I can make a phone call and get it," said Stasinopolous. "That helps us get over the bumps and makes it more special."
"Also, sometimes I think, 'This would be so great if we could get a specific person,' and I can call and usually get them to show up and play the part," he added.
Valcour is set up a bit differently. Although Hank Charles does record to a hard drive, he is one of the few in town who doesn't use Pro Tools or another digital editing suite.
"I use a 32-channel board and mix everything manually--I'm not paging through the computer," he told me. "It's kind of funny, I've had some people not come to me and others do come to me, specifically because I don't use Pro Tools."
In Charles' opinion, "I think it all boils down to what kind of ear do you have? You've got to have good ears to get a good sound."
Gary Sullivan at Southtown works with yet another mixed set up, affectionately calling it "danalog," mixing digital and analog technology.
"I still have analog equipment," he said," including a 16-track tape recorder."
Instead of using the more common Pro Tools, Sullivan prefers Sonar 6.2 production edition, stating, "It's more open-ended. It does hard disc recording, but I can download to Pro Tools, Q Base, Logic, pretty much any wave format. Hilltop Studios in Nashville has even gone to Sonar (by Cakewalk), because it just offers more bang for the buck."
"Originally, I didn't like recording digitally, because you couldn't get the warmth. I realized the value, but the tones sounded so brittle. A lot of the interfaces have a real digital, brittle sound, which can be good for some things, I guess, but not with what I'm doing," Sullivan explained. "I've found that if you get the best I/O interfaces and more importantly, A/D (analog/digital) converters, it sounds much warmer than even the Pro Tools HD systems, which is important to me because I'm into real organic music--bluegrass, country, rock and blues."
No matter at which level an artist performs or what type of music he plays, he should be able to find a local studio that fits his needs and budget. While some studios charge per song, most bill by the hour, and prices can run from $40 to $50 on up to $75 or $100 an hour.
Sullivan shared his opinion of the process and encouraged young bands and artists that "It's a learning experience: you've just got to get in and get your feet wet. Even if you've got a great vocalist with a lot of mic time on stage, it's a totally different experience when recording. Remember, it's just a snapshot your experience or career at the time, it's not the whole motion picture."
Being in the studio, working with a producer and recording is much like being in a band, he continued.
"The more you work together, the more you learn from each other and about each other. You'll also become more efficient and get more out of each hour you're in the studio," he said.
"There are a lot of fine studios in Tulsa," Sullivan stated, noting that artists just have to find the one that works best for them. He also suggested that depending on what a band needs, they might consider recording live, but recommends tracking each instrument separately so it can be remixed properly for a CD, as the sound at concerts is usually mixed for the room's ambience.
"It can make for a good demo for booking purposes," he said. "And if you record the individual tracks, you can go in and overdub and fix the little things. Also, it gives you a fair assessment of your live sound."
"It's another service most studios can offer," Sullivan said, "and it's not necessarily extremely expensive. The big mistake that I see people make is everyone thinks you just go into the studio and record and you're done--and that's not the case."
"In major markets and on the big labels, only 20 to 25 percent of the time is spent on recording time," he shared. "You need to allow for more time for the mixing, mastering and other production elements to be finished."
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