House Music -- DIY Recording
In the control room of a posh suburban recording studio, a slender young man with flowing brown locks sits at a 16-track mixing board -- a long, flat box covered with knobs and levers and multi-colored plugs. He's staring into the main recording hall where, separated by a thick slab of plexiglass and several smothering acres of black soundproof foam, three skinny band guys -- younger still, with even longer tresses -- wander through a forest of mic stands wielding six-string axes and carefully treading the tangle of extension cord underbrush on the floor.After much clangorous ado, everyone reassembles in the control room for playback, where songs heretofore heard only in acoustically-impoverished settings will shine anew, freshly buffed with high-tech studio polish. Broad grins of recognition, then revelation, spread like hot butter as the boys hear their tunes recast as crashing rock symphony, transformed by Wyrick's 16-track magic.The band Disciple, a Knoxville Christian metal troupe, is hard at work on demos for an EP that may appear on a Warner Brothers subsidiary sometime in 1997. But their chosen workshop isn't the Record Plant or Ocean Way or any of the other swank sound factories where rock'n'roll up-and-comers might fashion platinum platters; it's Mi Studio, a well-sculpted basement hovel on the outskirts of Cedar Bluff, Tenn.And the man in the producer's chair isn't Rick Rubin, Bob Rock, or Steve Albini; his name is Travis Wyrick, once the fret-burning lead guitarist for Knoxville metallions Sage and now an unplugged patio regular at sundry local bars.Wyrick has been hoarding reel-to-reels, recorders, and other knob-laden knick-knacks ever since he started plucking strings -- he bought his first four-track to record band demos at age 17. Now 26, married, and a dad-to-be, the already-veteran producer/performer/guitar teacher boasts an impressive home studio, the value of which he assesses at a hefty five-digit figure."When we built the house, the basement structure alone cost an extra 20 grand," says Wyrick. "For the acoustics to be right, the walls had to have a certain shape and cut; the lay-out had to be a particular way; the insulation had to be just so."Wyrick's facilities may be a little more elaborate than those of other do-it-yourself studio wizards, but for many local musicians -- bar wars veterans and bedroom rockers alike -- recording equipment is a vital component of the creative process, a tool almost as essential to their muse as picks, sticks, and strings. According to one local studio svengali, high-tech sound gear manufacturers now market their mixers and monitors with the working musician in mind. And the resulting proliferation of home recorders has given rise to a whole new cottage industry -- a network of home-based recording facilities that provide a budget-friendly alternative to pricier professional studios."There are probably 30 to 40 people going into business for themselves in this area alone," says Matt Lincoln, whose home-based Underground Recording Studio opened in Seymour in 1985. Having played guitar in local bands throughout the 1960's, the slight, soft-spoken Blount Countian purchased a two-track recorder (a Stone Age relic compared to today's multi-track marvels) to stimulate his songwriting in 1971. Soon he was peddling his newfound skills to friends, friends-of-friends, and friends-of-friends-of-friends -- and sinking his profits into bigger and better toys.Today, Lincoln's 24-track digital basement sound hall, a three-room DIY wonder soundproofed with egg cartons and corkboard and lined with ceiling-high stacks of sheet music and tapes, serves as a vast Knoxville music archive, home to the formative blare of local luminaries from Smokin' Dave to Superdrag."Equipment manufacturers have discovered a new market, and the prices on everything from digital recorders to microphones have dropped way off," says Lincoln, hovering over the state-of-the-art Apple Macintosh in his densely-equipped control room. "If you're really ambitious, you can set yourself up with enough equipment to compete with big studios for as little as $25,000."Like Wyrick and Lincoln, however, most bedroom soundmen start with basic tools -- a four- or eight-track recorder and a mixing console -- and hone the producer's craft only as a corollary to their own musical ambitions.David Jenkins is such a case. The former Judybats drummer and current Doubters Club skinsman is also the Maestro of Disgraceland Studios, an eight-track minimalist marvel founded in the basement of his West Knoxville home. (Alas, Jenkins and some of his Doubters mates moved to Nashville in late 1996, but Disgraceland will reportedly continue to work with Knoxville bands.) Jenkins' first recording efforts were almost absurdly primitive -- he and a guitar-playing dormitory roommate plugged a set of headphones into an ordinary tape recorder. (It's a little-known fact, says Jenkins, that one side of the headphones will act as a microphone.)As a Judybat, Jenkins purchased his own four-track and eventually conned Sire Records reps into buying the band an eight-track machine. With that fateful eight, Jenkins recorded all of the demos for Full Empty, the 'bats fourth and final album. But it wasn't until the advent of the Doubters Club and last spring's work on the band's local Fleur de Lisa CD that Jenkins realized that his passion for capturing music on tape matched, or perhaps even exceeded, his passion for making it in the first place."I really hit the gas pedal," says Jenkins. "I had a chance to experiment more than I ever had before. That was the point where I discovered I had a driving interest in this thing."After hearing Fleur cuts such as "I Blew It" and "No Todays" on local radio, sitting on the modern rock showroom floor next to the silvery sonic finish of state-of-the-art major label products, it's almost impossible to believe Jenkins' songs were recorded on $6,000 worth of equipment with a budget little thicker than a shoestring.The rest of Jenkins' DIY discology is no less keen, and anyone with so much as a passing interest in the Knoxville music scene has probably experienced some of the wondrous production alchemy wrought in the downstairs laboratory of his erstwhile abode -- platters by the Opposable Thumbs, 30 Amp Fuse (the nationally-distributed Wind Up CD, on the Darla Records independent label), demos and singles by Superdrag, and most of the demo and pre-production work that precipitated the V-Roys' signing and subsequent album release (Just Add Ice) with Steve Earle's E-squared Records.In the latter instance, he even received a production credit for "Cold Beer Hello," the lovably sottish album-closer that Earle and producer Ray Kennedy decided to pull straight from the Disgraceland demo."After working with the V-roys, I started to realize I had probably taken things as far as I could in Knoxville," says Jenkins, speaking from the new Disgraceland outpost. "I moved to Nashville because of the producers that are already here, so I could learn from what they do. My plan is basically to throw myself on the mercy of the industry."Another Knoxville expatriate, Bearden High grad and Movement (the artists formerly known as Hypertribe) bassist Nick Raskulinecz, had the same idea when he and his bandmates packed up and trekked out to Los Angeles last year. But Raskulinecz, whose bedroom eight-track skills were almost legend among the 30-odd Knoxville bands he recorded over the course of five years (Superdrag, 30 Amp Fuse, The Scenesters, Torture KittyÉ) took an altogether different tack; rather than setting up his own shop in the Big Town, he found an entry-level position with Sound City, one of L.A.'s most prestigious recording facilities.In doing so, Raskulinecz learned hard lessons about the difference between doing it yourself and doing it for someone else. Despite an expansive resume of local releases and credits on two nationally-distributed discs (The Fabulous Eight-Track Sounds of Superdrag, as producer, and the subsequent Regretfully Yours, as an assistant), Raskulinecz began his Hollywood studio career as a runner -- a coffee-brewer, sandwich-getter, and all-around errand boy.Now a production assistant, Raskulinecz logs 80-hour work weeks at Sound City, rubbing elbows with the likes of Tom Petty ("really nice"), Bobby Brown ("a dork"), and most recently, Lenny Kravitz ("A cool guy with a lot of money -- the other day he went out and bought a Dodge Viper on our lunch break"). And although Raskulinecz says he's found his life's calling, he warns that other four-track pioneers may find fragile illusions shattered once they step beyond the comfortable confines of bedrooms and basements."Lots of home recording guys think they'll go to a big studio and do it all right away," he says. "That's just not the way it is. You start at the very bottom rung and slowly work your way up the chain of command. There are as many recording engineer wannabes as there are bands out here, and most of them fall by the wayside."But according to Lincoln, who makes a respectable living from his almost exclusively local studio clientele, all home recorders needn't aspire to Kravitzian heights, any more than an eclectic indie label should vie for the screechy talents of multi-platinum divas, any more than iconoclastic punk rockers need seek arena fame."I'd love to save some money and expand, but the bottom line isn't my bottom line," says Lincoln. "The Underground is a great place for someone without a lot of money to record a good demo without spending a mint. I'm in it for the love of it. That's the reason you do it."