Check 1-2, 1-2: Ann Arbor's Recording Studio Scene

The past decade has not been kind to the recording studio scene. Given the proliferation of DIY recording technology and home-based musicians it's hard to imagine where the next Muscle Shoals or Sound City could develop.
"I heard a statistic that 60 percent of Nashville's studios closed down between 2008 and 2011," says Ann Arbor musician Fred Thomas. "It takes millions of dollars to keep a studio running. They're just not sticking around, like record stores."
In 2009, the L.A. Times reported that as many as half that city's studios had closed or been sold for private use. Even musical history landmarks have felt the burn - like New York's Hit Factory, which closed in 2005. Meanwhile, the National Association of Music Merchants has estimated that sales of music hardware have grown from $140 million in 1999 to almost $500 million in 2008. 
Nonetheless, Ann Arbor's recording studios have remained strong through the national downturn. Geoff Michael opened Ann Arbor's Big Sky Recording in 2000, and has managed and worked in several local studios since his high school days in the late '70s.
"[Ann Arbor] never had big studios," Michael says. "We never had record budgets, label budgets. Those are the studios that are getting hit."
Jim Roll is the owner of Backseat Productions, a rustic, pleasantly messy studio that fills a small house on Ann Arbor's west side. He says that two of Ann Arbor's biggest studios - Big Sky and Solid Sound - have remained "consistent" in recent years.
"Not everybody can record themselves well, so there'll always be a need," Roll says. "But there's not always going to be these million-dollar behemoths that take out a $4 million bank loan to open a studio. If you did it'd have to be in L.A. or New York or Nashville. So what's remarkable about that is that Solid Sound and Big Sky are still plugging along and doing well."
Knowing your niche
Solid Sound owner Eric Wojahn says the key to that success is knowing which segment of musicians you're playing to. As the only local facility built specifically to be a recording studio, Solid Sound offers a particularly pristine recording experience, with the central studio literally nestled inside two encircling buildings. Wojahn says jazz and classical musicians are some of his "biggest draws."
"We are one of the more expensive [local studios]," Wojahn says. "So we don't get as much indie, as much rock ‘n' roll, because they typically don't want to spend as much money."
Roll, on the other hand, focuses on folk acts. Although the genre is less financially lucrative to work with, it's a matter of personal preference for Roll, whose own work as an artist has been firmly entrenched in Americana.
"I make it so bands are able to afford to record," Roll says. "I don't overcharge, in my opinion. No one in this area does."
Erik Alderink's niche is more specific than most. Alderink owns media duplication business World Class Tapes and an adjoining studio, the Ann Arbor Recording Company. Alderink has outfitted the facility as "a strictly analog studio that could have existed in 1966."
"Making records live to tape is not for everyone," Alderink says. "In fact, it's not for most. I turn down far more projects than I accept."
Professional brotherhood
Local studio owners are all aware of each other's specialties, and maintain respectful relationships between their businesses. Michael, Wojahn and Roll all separately mention that they have breakfast together from time to time. If anything, the local competition is friendly. 
"Engineers are usually competitive, but if there's a piece of gear I need, I'll call Geoff [Michael]," Wojahn says. "It's easier to get along and just coexist. There's plenty of work to go around, so it's not like we're cut-throat."
Michael espouses the idea that good news for one local studio will end up benefiting the others. He recalls his initial reaction when U-M renovated the Duderstadt Center's recording studio in 2006.
"At first I thought, 'That's not fair,'" Michael says. "But actually it's been the reverse. There's more interns and more guys bringing other people in to record. It actually brought more work in for us."
Bringing it all back home?
Area studios have still felt the shift as more artists have begun recording at home. Wojahn says Solid Sound has adapted to that change by taking on new kinds of work, like doing live sound or creating audition videos for musicians applying to college. At Big Sky, Michael says artists are still coming to him, but sometimes just to record certain parts of an album.
"We just cut the Verve Pipe here," Michael says. "They like to record drums here, then they record the rest of it at different home studios and send it somewhere in England to mix."
Thomas took a similar approach for his new recording; the drums were recorded in Detroit, vocals and mixing were done in Georgia and Thomas did the rest at home. A key element of Thomas' modest private studio is a four-track recorder he purchased at a thrift shop in Arizona in 2010. He hasn't changed the batteries since he bought it, and the ghostly sound it produces is one of a kind.
"You can't get a sound like this on a computer," Thomas says. "You have to seek out a sound this crazy."
However, Thomas says he still values the unique advantages a full-fledged studio has to offer. Although home setups like his may have drawn some artists away from studios, Thomas feels that trend is already beginning to reverse itself. 
"There's just so much music being made now and so much of it just sounds plasticky," he says. "It sounds like the program it was made on and there's starting to be a backlash against that. I feel like people are starting to come back to the idea that there is a reason that studios are good."
Although revenue streams may be changing, area studio owners as a whole don't seem interested in making big bucks so much as just making ends meet. Michael says he's worried about the future, but that's just in his nature. Since he's been in the field, he says, he's never been one to take out major loans or make too many assumptions about the long-term stability of the business. 
"You don't go into it because you really want to make money," Michael says. "You go into it because, sadly, you really like music. If you make enough money to buy some more gear, it's good."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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