There were a couple of years during the second George W. Bush administration when I was playing at Curbside Cafe every Thursday night with an acoustic trio called Captain Slicktalk.
During that time, I had a MacBook with Pro Tools installed and (apparently) a ton of time to experiment with recording and mixing. Hours and hours were spent getting to know the Pro Tools interface, learning how to correctly mic a guitar, not learning how to correctly mic a djembe, compressing, fading, and panning.
This article was featured in RVAMag #27: Winter 2016. You can read all of issue #27 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
Along with a handful of unreleased — and quite possibly unreleasable — recordings, two lasting realizations came out of those years:
One, I loved the process of recording music.
Two, I had no idea what I was doing.
I’ve since learned to lean on people who do know what they’re doing, and I’m lucky enough to live in a city that doubles as a buzzing hive of recording activity. As a huge fan of just about everything Spacebomb does, I’ve watched with reverence as the studio has earned headlines for lending sophisticated arrangements to artists from near (Matthew E. White, Natalie Prass) and far (Foxygen, Slow Club, Georgie). I feel a similar reverence when I visit In Your Ear Studios for their Shockoe Sessions; these networking events provide rare access to their stunning facilities, which host everything from Grammy-winning recording and live performances to audio production for films, video games, and commercials.
Including and beyond Spacebomb and In Your Ear, the options for Richmond bands looking to lay tracks down are many, varied, and often affordable, and even a brief survey of the studios in town is truly inspiring.
You might have caught Shannon Cleary’s article in the magazine’s last issue about The Virginia Moonwalker, the Mechanicsville studio operated by Russell Lacy that’s become popular among local acts. Another space Richmond musicians have latched onto is Scott’s Addition Sound. Offering “a classic mic collection, vintage rack gear and many years of experience,” Scott’s Addition has helped craft — among many other albums — two post-rock masterpieces that loom large in the local section of my own record collection, Shy-Low’s Hiraeth and Everyone Dies In The End’s All Things Lead To This. Both were recorded and mixed by engineer Allen Bergendahl and build expansive soundscapes, reflecting wonderfully Scott’s Addition’s generously sized live room.
Bergendahl’s is a name you’ll see often in the liner notes of Richmond-based recordings, as is Bryan Walthall’s. A popular engineer and producer in his own right, Walthall mastered the last two Lightfields releases, Feelings and Melodies, which were largely recorded and mixed by Bergendahl at Scott’s Addition.
Another name that appears often is Adrian Olsen’s. Olsen and his father Bruce helm Montrose Recording, which is named after the historic former plantation it resides on, just a ten minute drive from downtown. Montrose boasts a wealth of outstanding equipment and a three-bedroom, two-bath guest house, so visiting bands can complete extended projects in comfort. Fans of Avers know that Adrian works on both sides of the board, having served in complementary production and performance roles on the band’s two standout albums, Empty Light and Omega/Whatever. Indie favorites like Futurebirds and Spirit Family Reunion can also be found on Montrose’s client list, along with venerated Richmond names like Steve Bassett and Lindy Fralin.
Driving those ten minutes back into downtown gets you to the doorstep of the studio some would call the city’s most revered, Sound of Music. The facility’s history reaches back more than twenty years to a heyday when ‘90s alternative standard-bearers like Cracker and Carbon Leaf gained acclaim regionally and nationally with recordings made there. When the band I currently play with, Road Kill Roy, was first looking to record, we toured Sound of Music and were floored by the studio’s offerings — recording, mixing, mastering, video production, equipment repair and rental, and live performances all take place there. Founder John Morand has earned a reputation as one of the most gifted engineers in the industry, and he’s served as mentor to a whole generation of aspiring engineers. In fact, one of the studio’s significant contributions has been acting as an incubator for behind-the-board talent.
Pedro Aida is a great example. Aida and Sound of Music first crossed paths in 2002, when he moved to Richmond after earning a certificate from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe and interning with hardcore producer Brian McTernan at Baltimore’s Salad Days Studio. We talked recently in the living room of his family’s home about how he got started in the business.
“My friend Casey was an engineer [at Sound of Music],” Aida remembered, “and I interned for probably eight or nine months, twice a week. We went there and interned all day, before I had a paying assistant engineer job on certain sessions… Carbon Leaf had a record called Indian Summer that they recorded in 2003, and I was on their session. That was a six-month job. I learned a lot. I was an assistant engineer, so I wasn’t anything more than a paid intern — you know, putting up mics, getting lunch, charting sounds… That was a cool experience, watching those songs come to life.”
He even lived at Sound of Music for a time. “Everyone [who works there] lives there at some point,” Aida said, “because it’s free and you’re kind of like the groundskeeper… You help clean up, set up sessions, and you can just hang around and work on stuff.” Aida is who took Road Kill Roy on a tour of Sound of Music, and a handful of years and several sessions later, we’re still working together, having just completed a speedy three-song round of tracking and mixing at Audio Verite — the studio he now owns and operates in a built-out detached garage behind his Lakeside home.
It’s hard to think of Audio Verite as a garage now. It’s split down the middle into a live room and a control room that are separated by an entryway at one end and window at the other. The control room has a comfortable couch, chairs lining the walls, and a massive TV monitor on the back wall, and every now and then, Aida’s incredibly sweet dog Pisco will make an appearance and help you finish a guitar part by licking your hands while you’re playing.
We’ve spent enough time at Audio Verite for it to feel like a second home for the band, but the hours we do spend there are jam-packed. “One thing that I bring to the table is [being] quick,” Aida said. “I know what I want out of the recording and I know how to get it, and as soon as I get it, we move on.”
Studio efficiency is any band’s best friend, and guitarist Kenneth Close affirmed that Aida’s pace is part of why Positive No returned to Audio Verite for a new round of recordings. “We worked with him on our ‘Automatic Cars’ single and his flexibility in working quickly at a good price was a big influencer in us coming back, along with being pleased with the final product. I’m extremely picky about drums sounding big and he’s managed to help us achieve that without 30-foot ceilings.”
Aida maintains a relentless sense of momentum — he even speaks quickly, I noticed while interviewing him for this article — which has prevented Road Kill Roy from getting bogged down by excessive ornamentation or easily-fixed imperfections. “I’m not an audio nerd,” he confessed. “I’m not an audiophile.” As part of a band where everyone has kids and time is tight, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate his approach. Add in the fact that our singer, Mike Raybould, did carpentry work on the facility, earning us some studio time, and you can see why going back to Pedro was a no-brainer for us.
But for other bands — groups just starting out or musicians looking to achieve a specific sound — the choice of where to record can be a complex one, made especially complex by the fact that there are so many good options in Richmond. I asked Aida about how to go about making that decision.
“The first thing bands [should] think of is the sounds the engineer has put out in the past.” He mentioned Steve Barber, Bob Rupe, Alan Weatherhead, and Kevin Willoughby as respected colleagues, and he praised Montrose and Scott’s Addition for their ability to capture specific sounds. “Montrose… there are some really cool studios in town that you don’t hear about all the time but do really cool, more organic, big-room stuff. Scott’s Addition Sound… they have a big room, but it’s also very tight, with the tile ceilings.”
Aida went on to note Sound of Music’s versatility. “John [Morand] is so diverse in what he can do. But I always liked things John did that were more folky, or even garage-y, like Cracker, or things like Carbon Leaf where you get that Sparklehorse [sound] — that slow, folky, big, lots of old lo-fi gear, talk box stuff.”
Location, scheduling, and cost were other factors Aida pointed to. “Once you know your budget, that narrows down the studios that you can go to, which is still a lot of them. I think most studios in town now are at that same rate — mid-level, $35 to $45 an hour.”
While Aida acknowledged the warmth of analog, he issued words of caution about the expense of recording to tape. “When I started at Sound of Music, my first few sessions were on tape. It definitely has this warmth to it, and this nice compression, especially if you have a solid drummer. But it’s very expensive.”
One way musicians can keep costs low, regardless of whether they choose digital or analog, is to show up ready. “Be prepared,” Aida advised. “New [drum] heads, new strings, that kind of stuff. Know the parts. If you want to use studio time to rehearse, that’s fine. I’ll take the money. But for your sake, I’d rather you be as ready as possible.”
Aida placed less emphasis on how extensively studios are outfitted, though he talked about acquiring his current drum set as a turning point for Audio Verite. At the same time, he acknowledged the significant role band members’ own gear plays. “Starting off with good equipment from the musician’s standpoint is important. If you have a good drummer and a good drum set — a good drum sound — then you’re already 80% of the way toward a good recording.”
Drum considerations can be decidedly different for hip hop and electronic artists. “There are people out there who work in a digital realm where that’s all they do,” Aida said. “They’re really good [at] sequencing, MIDI, Reason, and programming drums, getting them to sound really good and real… that’s what they bring to the table.” I was immediately reminded of Jellowstone Records mastermind Devonne Harris (DJ Harrison), known across several of Richmond’s musical circles as the prolific producer of beat tapes like his landmark Stashboxxx album, and as the keyboardist of soulful jazz outfit Butcher Brown.
Aida is also used to sharing producing and performing duties. He currently both plays guitar in and plays engineer to punk band Ann Beretta. “I recorded them before I was in the band,” Aida said. “I recorded Rob [Huddleston] in a producer-engineer sense, so he was very open to ‘Let’s do it this way, let’s do it that way.’ They’ve always come back to me. Now that I’m in the band, we’ve just kept that mentality going. ‘I’m recording your band that I just happen to play guitar in now.’ We’re doing our new record here next year and starting some stuff now. I’m really excited about it.”
Aida’s passion for recording runs deep, especially when it comes to people, reflecting how, ultimately, your studio decision should come down to who you’re happiest working alongside. “My favorite thing in general about recording,” Aida stated, “is connecting with all of the people in the bands… When I can get with a band or project [where] everybody’s cool and the songs are good, it doesn’t feel like work. I almost feel bad getting paid for it sometimes.”