In soundproof rooms lined with thousands of dollars in microphones, guitars, amplifiers and computers, Berkshire County recording professionals have kept their small piece of the local economy humming.
Far from the music meccas of New York City, Los Angeles and Nashville, these small studios have found a niche catering to local musicians and reaching out for specialized business like the recording of books on tape of spiritual CDs. In an industry that has been reinvented by the explosion of digital media, these small studios have adapted and survived.
At Derek Studios in Dalton, Greg Steele has been in business for 25 years. He has worked for artists signed to record labels and for independent musicians. he has recorded Arlo Guthrie and just recently completed a project with 30 children singing for a United Way promotion.
For his top-of-the-line services, Steele charges $125 an hour. For smaller clients in need of “less intense” work, the rate is $75.
He says his business earns in the “six-figure range” each year and he employs two to four engineers at any given time.
Steele and the other recording professionals in the Berkshires have been forced to change with the times. The ubiquity of the microship and the ease and cheapness of recording in a digial media have changed their industry irreversibly. Almost any home somputer can now be converted to a multitrack recording studio for a few hundred dollars, so studio owners have to sell their expertise, experience and their ability to produce excellent sound to lure artists into their studios.
“We have been through quite an evolution,” Steele said. “It's a great thing. The way that we work has changed. You have to have flexibility with your approach toward production.”
At Off the Beat-n-Track in New Marlboro, co-owners Todd Mack and Will Curtiss have parlayed what began as a basement business into careers. They server mostly musicians from Berkshire County and northwest Connecticut, and do a steady business recording books on tape.
With rates of $50 an hour for independent musicians, studios have to balance buying the latest, glitziest technology with keeping their overhead low. In a business where a single microphone can cost $10,000, it is a difficult task.
“You have to work with what you've got and make the most out of it. That is still the bottom line,” Mack said.
“Ultimately, it has to be the quality of the finished product, and as long as that is up to snuff, I'm not sure that it matters how you get there. That is our philosophy, and we try to balance that with keeping up with the Joneses. We are pretty crafty — if there are areas where we lack the best gear, we try to get creative in achieving the same kind of quality,” he said.
Mack and Curtiss are adding to their income by using their studio to record a two-hour radio show that airs once a week on WKZE (AM 1020_ in Sharon, Conn. The first hour features local independent musicians from around the world. They are hoping to syndicate the program to reach a broader audience.
They are also working with a promoter, Emily Edelman, who will start offering promotional services to musicians under the Off the Beat-n-Track name.
“You have got to do these kinds of things, you have got to find ways to make revenues,” Mack said. “You have to sort of pull it all together and think outside the box to stay afloat.”
In Richmond, Mark kelso has found a niche of his own, specializing in relaxation recordings, spiritual music and the spoken word with his business, Muddy Angel Music. He attracts clients from New York and Boston, and, with a genre on which to focus, he is able to concentrate his dollars on the equipment he needs and avoid high-priced items he won't use. Still, Kelso estimates he spends half of his six-figure gross revenues on infrastructure.
He also has branched beyond recording, and coaches young musicians on song writing and their music careers.
Kelso said he tries to “invoke a sense of a sacred space here for people as they work, so they feel at home and comfortable. … It's always been a place where there is no smoking and you can get a warm cup of tea.”
Anybody with a computer, a reasonably good microphone and some other, relatively inexpensive equipment can record themselves, he said. People come to him because of his experience and his ability to produce recordings that — simply put — sound good.
“We've been doing it for 25 years. We have this long history and know how to support somebody and get them into the space where they do their best,” Kelso said.
Much of the competition for these studios is coming from Apple Computer. The company has begun shipping its computers with a low-cost, stripped-down version of recording software called “Garage Band” preinstalled. With little more than a microphone, any teenager can turn his or her bedroom into a recording studio.
At Mad Macs in Pittsfield, a licensed Apple service provider, partners Scott Kirchner and Daryl Corbett have helped hobbyists and professional musicians configure their computers for audio recording.
Kirchner used to work at Derek Studios, and while splitting time between there and special effects company Kleiser-Walczak, he realized his extensive work with Apple computers could be a job in itself. Though he says the potential of home recording on a computer is huge, it will never replace the full studio.
“Real musicians need not only the quality of what a real studio can provide, they also need the expertise of a real engineer, and that’s like having an extra tool right there in the studio with you,” Kirchner said.
He thinks the studios might lose some hours from musicians who used to do all of their pre-production work in a studio and can now do it at home. but he believes there will always be a place for the recording studio.
“They can save money before going into the studio, but when it really comes down to it, the real studios aren’t going to lose, because the quality of the product is going to be there,” he said.