The array of activities is familiar to Chicago Recording Co. general manager Chris Shepard as he walks from floor to floor, studio to studio one late morning: a young rock band loading into the large Studio 4; an assistant engineer assembling a cable-company commercial in a small post-production studio; a guy recording voice-overs in a booth; a technician in another room hunched over his computer monitor working on a video game.
Shepard got into this business because he loves recording music. He's able to stay in it because his facility does so much else — all while other studios in town pare back, diversify or expand their services in these ever-challenging times for the recording industry.
"There's a lot of moving parts," the 48-year-old engineer says of his facility, which has recorded, among many others, Smashing Pumpkins, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Wilco, the Ohio Players and Lady Gaga, who cut vocals there last year.
Owned by Alan Kubicka, CRC opened in 1975 on Michigan Avenue — Shepard began working there in 1987, after its main location had moved to Ohio Street a block and a half east of Michigan — and since then everything has changed, and nothing has changed.
Then: Major labels would book out big studios such as CRC for weeks at pricey rates.
Now: Major labels don't boast those kinds of budgets anymore, and fewer bands have major-label deals, so more are paying expenses out of pocket.
Then: A studio was where you'd find professional equipment for multitrack recording, mixing and editing.
Now: One of your bandmates or someone you know is likely to have a Pro Tools digital workstation or some cheaper program on a laptop.
Then: CRC charged major labels about $150 an hour for studio time when it opened, says Hank Neuberger, CRC's executive vice president, who managed the studio for years.
Now: "That's all they're willing to pay today, 40 years later," Neuberger says. "You can see why it's not a great business model on its own."
Downtown Chicago used to be a hub for large music studios, including Universal — which opened in the late 1940s and was long considered top dog in town — and Streeterville. Both of those have closed, and the studio casualties extend far beyond Chicago. Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl directed last year's documentary "Sound City" about the Los Angeles studio of that name, which recorded some of the rock era's biggest hits ("Fleetwood Mac," Nirvana's "Nevermind," albums by Tom Petty, Neil Young, Metallica …) yet couldn't stay afloat.
So the surprise in Chicago may be not that these storied downtown facilities have shuttered but that CRC is still around — and other studios in town are not only hanging in there but in some cases growing.
Still, no one will mistake 2014 for the glory days of the professional recording business.
Rob Gillis, president of the Engineering and Recording Society of Chicago (EARS), says that at a recent meeting of about 45 members, the question was asked, "Who here is working as much as they ever have been?"
Three-quarters raised their hands.
The follow-up: "Who here is making more money than ever?"
Two hands went up, Gillis says.
"It's almost impossible to make money as a studio owner now," says renowned engineer Steve Albini, whose lengthy resume includes work with Nirvana and PJ Harvey and who opened his Northwest Side facility Electrical Audio in 1997. "If I were to try to build this studio now, there's literally no way I could do it profitably."
The music-industry meltdown and recession translate to musical acts not only having less money available to them but also less chance to recoup their expenses via dwindling music sales — so they're less likely to record full albums. And when they do book studio time, Shepard says, the average project takes about half as long as it did 10 years ago, even as the per-hour rate hasn't risen.
At the same time, many performers feel empowered to record themselves via software that costs a fraction of employing a professional studio.
"Everybody and his brother has Pro Tools and says, 'We can do this. We can do that,'" says Metro Mobile Recording owner Timothy Powell, whose recording truck has had to fend off competition from cheaper recording methods.
You may argue that most of those home-recording setups don't offer the quality of microphones, pre-amps, instruments and other pieces of equipment found in a top-notch professional studio — and your drums may not sound so hot in your basement, either. But you may also note that many people listen to music on their phones nowadays, so the sound-quality gradations aren't everyone's top priority.
"The people who need to work at a higher level, who can hear the difference, who need acoustic spaces designed for the purpose of recording, who need absolutely state-of-the-art audio equipment with gifted technicians, well, there you're going to find yourself gravitating toward facilities like CRC," Neuberger says. "But you've got to be able to hear the difference. Not everybody can, especially in an age of earbuds."
And that's just the music side. CRC's bread and butter has been ad agency work to take advantage of the high-powered firms based in Chicago.
Shepard recalls setting up sessions in the late 1980s in which large groups of musicians would record the tracks for, say, a United Airlines commercial before the quarter-inch tape was run over to the postproduction studio, with voice-overs and sound design to follow. "Some days these rooms could make serious money," Shepard says.
The biggest blow to CRC's business, he says, was the advent of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), which spurred the widespread use of easily mixed electronic instruments. "Suddenly there were no live players anymore," Shepard says. "It was all 'in the box.'"
So those recording sessions went away, but at least music was being created, even as more agencies set up in-house recording rooms. Now, Shepard says, much music for ads is found through searches of huge virtual music libraries stored on servers. You can designate a desired tempo, alter the pitch and license the passage you need, often cheaply.
"Done," Shepard says. "That's a big switch."
Shepard is talking while seated in the control room for Studio 5, another large CRC suite, which boasts a massive, almost-30-year-old, 56-channel Solid State Logic (SSL) mixing console.
This is where Wilco recorded much of its 1996 double-disc album "Being There." "It was very organic, they wouldn't let me use anything digital," Shepard says. It's also where, along with Studio 4 and other rooms, Smashing Pumpkins worked on its epic 1995 two-CD set "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." "I knew nothing about stacking guitars and stacking tones until I met Billy (Corgan)," Shepard says.
Former Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin says the CRC experience was essential to the recording of that album and other Pumpkins tracks.
"Could you create (Pink Floyd's) 'The Wall' in your basement?" Chamberlin asks. "The idea of recording a 'Mellon Collie'-type record in Billy's house or my house or (former Pumpkins guitarist James) Iha's house, there's no way that could have happened."
A key factor, he says, is the energy generated when you're working with a team in an outside location, the clock is running and you've got to get it right — which is to say, you're capturing actual performances rather than stitching together a bunch of digital edits.
"There's a transfer of emotion that doesn't happen when you do it at your house," Chamberlin says. "I still have difficulty manifesting that type of emotion in my own studio. I've got too many safety nets. Not much is on the line. I can always do it tomorrow."
As Shepard sits in the Studio 5 control room, the view to the biggest performance room is blocked because it's occupied by a computer graphics company leasing the space. These are the types of economic adjustments being made, along with working with mostly freelance engineers instead of staff ones, offering acts highly negotiable rates ("Flexibility is what keeps us here," he says) and jettisoning what's no longer deemed cost-effective.
Until the late 1990s, CRC also ran three studios in the corner building at Michigan and Ohio that now houses the Gap, including the one in which R. Kelly produced Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" and recorded his own material.
"R. Kelly did rent the studio for a year one time," Shepard says. "That was a good bill, but most of it was in dog care, having to take care of his damn dog. He just brought a dog one day and never took it with. (We) charged him kennel service."
CRC shut down that space and subsequently opened a new location with smaller studios on Wacker Drive. It also sold its Neve console, the brand of analog mixing board celebrated in "Sound City" (Grohl winds up buying Sound City's Neve for his own studio); Shepard says it had become too expensive to maintain.
Wicker Park's Gravity Studios, which opened in 1993 and has recorded such bands as Fall Out Boy and Plain White T's, used to have a high-end Neve 8058 but sold it in 2008. Gravity owner Doug McBride says this console had been used on Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" and half of Steely Dan's "Gaucho." The replacement was a newer-model Neve, but McBride says he sold that one in 2011 and has since has been using a digital-analog hybrid.
Part of what enabled him to make this move was the improvement in digital technology. "Ten years ago I could always tell when a mix was 'in the box,'" says McBride, who worked at CRC before opening Gravity. "It sounded a little thinner, a little harsher, more two-dimensional. But about five years ago I started to become fooled."
Meanwhile, as fewer bands were flying in to record at Gravity, McBride had to figure out how to keep the balance sheet out of the red. He built a mastering studio (which converts a final mix into the archival source to be used for all duplication) and says he now spends about 60 percent of his time mastering. He also invested in his rooms' acoustics and fine-tuned his sense of what the studio truly is selling.
"There was a time when I was suckered in by gear lust," he says. "There was lots of fancy glowing gear. When it all kind of came down to brass tacks and we had to lower our prices, we had to diversify. I realized the most valuable thing we have is not the gear, but experience and technique and the ears of the engineers, myself and my guys."
Matt Hennessy, a local producer/mix-engineer specializing in urban music, came to a similar realization when he was working at United Technique Recording on the South Side before deciding to open his own VSOP Studios in Humboldt Park in 2009.
"The studio owner now needs to be the guy," he says. "When you book VSOP, you know that you're going to have me there."
Hennessy, who has worked on projects by acts both national (Beyonce, DMX) and local (Twista, Sidewalk Chalk, Carbon Tigers, Nikki Lynette), has been so successful in the one-room VSOP that he's building a new West Town facility that will have five music rooms, including a large performance space. He says he's hoping the new VSOP will allow him to mentor audio-school graduates who otherwise get little exposure to sound at its finest. "I'm going to treat my room more as an incubator for engineers and producers," Hennessy says.
Manny Sanchez, who started at CRC in the late 1990s, is another producer/engineer/owner in expansion mode, having moved his IV Lab Studios to North Clybourn Avenue in July 2013 from a smaller location on North Sheridan Road.
"I love technology," says Sanchez, who has recorded Umphrey's McGee, North Mississippi Allstars and solo music by Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, and now does much mixing work in Los Angeles. "I love the fact that I can take my laptop anywhere and do almost the same amount of high-level work as I can do when I'm plugged into IV. It doesn't bode well for the big studios, but regardless of how accessible the technology is, (people) can't make themselves have a good ear for how to put it all together."
Mark Brunner says the primary draw of his Reelsounds Chicago studio in Skokie, which he opened in 1995, may be the room. "If the studio has considerable square footage, it allows for the sound of instruments and amplifiers to achieve a certain texture that is difficult to achieve in a small room," says Brunner, who continues his day job as senior director of global brand management for Shure, an audio products company based in Niles. "Today the primary benefit of going to a recording studio may in fact be just the space itself, whereas in years and decades gone by, it was clearly the equipment."
Yet Caroline and Schaeffer Lucius are getting much out of Brunner himself as they record an album under the name Quinlin. Their mother, Jane, hired him a year ago after the siblings had recorded two albums on a laptop and she thought, as she told a friend, "My kids should be on the radio — I think it's ridiculous that they're not."
The 24-year-old Caroline, who sings, co-writes and plays on the songs, says she didn't realize how much she didn't know until she started working with Brunner, who has shaped arrangements, performed and made songwriting suggestions.
"It's changed everything," she says. "He even taught me about the structure of songs, and he would make it better and improve it."
Shepard says CRC also benefits from clients who, once they've recorded themselves a few times, decide they want to hear how much better they can sound while letting someone else worry about recording them. He says CRC is amenable to musicians bringing in tracks they've recorded elsewhere or taking home tracks recorded at CRC because such flexibility pays off on both ends.
"It's really empowering for the artist," Shepard says.
That sense of empowerment is no small issue for Albini, who personally works only with analog equipment (though his studio includes some digital) and hears how the digital revolution has led to a diminishment in sound quality and natural performances. Yet he says: "There's so much good that comes from bands being more in control of their own destiny that way that whatever we've lost from an aesthetic standpoint, we've more than made up culturally."
Albini says Electrical Audio stays busy because it still appeals to the working musicians who traditionally record there. "We're not ringing any bells about how great the business is," he says, "but because we were never really reliant on the big-ticket sessions, the fact that that business has all dried up hasn't really affected us."
Shepard says the split of CRC sessions paid for by labels versus bands is about 50-50. "Every week we have Jennifer Hudson in here doing a session, always working with her producers, and that's paid for by RCA," he says. "But most bands today pay for their own recording time. It's not that expensive. They can do things really quickly if they're efficient and they're a good band."
Shepard says CRC's revenues have been growing "slowly" since 2009, those gains routinely offset by the cost of doing business just off Michigan Avenue — considered a necessity given the nonmusic clientele. Much of the growth exists in the postproduction world: overdubbing work for movies, voice-overs, ads, video game work. There's a reason CRC boasts nine postproduction studios and just three music rooms (plus a smaller booth and a video suite) in its two locations.
CRC also has gotten into the business of shooting videos, sometimes for webcasting (its website includes live in-studio performances from such bands as Future Monarchs and the Kickback). It has been setting up "virtual studios" to work with ad-agency clients in other cities. And Shepard has a side business, American Mobile Studio, that employs CRC workers; it mixed and webcast last weekend's Lollapalooza music from three stages, including the large one at the south end, while Powell's Metro Mobile covered the large stage at the north.
Through all of this activity, CRC hangs in there while so many of its peers have faded away, as Shepard and his staff of young engineers — and similar-minded technicians at studios around the city — pursue their passion for a mission that hasn't changed after all these years.
As Shepard puts it: "You're trying to capture a song."
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