The DIY music scene is thriving in Philadelphia. And the do-it-yourself ethos extends to how emerging bands get their music recorded.
Take PUDH, a former DIY venue/house in Lansdowne, whose basement seems better suited for an Evil Dead remake than a makeshift recording studio. Members of the band Snoozer now call its basement home. Vocalist and guitarist Tom Kelly, who lives there with his two bandmates, says he has recorded demos for his band there. "We put the mics in the ventilation ducts," he said. "It cuts down on the reverb."
Snoozer has graduated from the PUDH basement. Now, the musicians record at Sex Dungeon studio in West Philadelphia. They did their first full-length album, Cottage Cheese, there in March and are returning soon to finish an EP.
Like many so-called mid-grade studios across Philadelphia, Sex Dungeon is somewhere between a repurposed basement/bedroom and a state-of-the-art studio. It joins such studios as the Headroom and East Room Recording in Kensington or the Boom Room in Fishtown. Accessible and attractive to underground bands, they are built, frequently by musicians, with a mind-set that makes them affordable.
In the fringe areas in Philadelphia's many developing neighborhoods, rough edges come with accessibility as musicians working as sound engineers share skills honed at local university programs or studio internships.
Studio engineers, and thus studios, are born in many ways. Some start by mic-ing up their houses or apartments. Others, such as Jacob Brunner, don't want to damage their sound by polishing it. He says that, besides a "mess of fidelities and textures" in different rooms of his house, there are creaky piano benches and passing cars to capture - "just life, sounds of life."
Some go from recording themselves to recording other bands in their lo-fi setting - perfect for capturing the sound of Philadelphia's hard-to-define DIY bands. And some start messing with acoustics and equipment - and eventually, they create yet another mid-grade studio.
Alex G, acclaimed local performer and studio engineer, compares studio recording to "writing a book with other people who are going to dictate how to write it," while DIY recording is like "writing it yourself, which is way easier. You don't have to compromise your vision."
Trenton rapper Wade Wilson uses mics and a laptop to record friends in his bedroom studio. He values that rawness: "I want you to get a feel of us struggling, to hear what pushes us through it."
Recording artist Ryan Schwabe says: "What's unique is the control thing." He's an engineer at Maniac Mansion studios in West Philadelphia and had been the studio manager of Drexel University's MAD Dragon Studios, where he oversees the music-industry program he helped create as an assistant-teaching professor. "Artists want plain ownership over everything. It's a beautiful, liberating thing." Besides mastering many projects, he says, he is, thanks to his Drexel work, connected to a world of musicians and engineers.
Scott Stitzer is an engineer at a joint called Stolen Studios in Kensington. More about that in a minute. What makes him, as an engineer, good for musicians to work with? "I know what they want," he says. "I'm not trying to push them in a lot of different directions." Stitzer has produced albums for his own band, Mumblr, and he's now working on a new album with the Philly band Pill Friends and the debut of solo artist Abi Reimold.
Friendship is where many Philadelphia musician/sound engineers get their start. Stitzer says it adds a sense of comfort to the already-relaxed environment. In November, he started working with Drexel alum Nick Barnes in a shared practice/studio space in a Kensington warehouse. Dubbed Stolen Studios, it has a full console and a big, contained recording space. Where Stitzer had previously recorded Pill Friends piece by piece in his bedroom studio, now "I was able to track the full band live, which sounds a lot better."
As Stitzer helped Reimold reach her best on vocal tracking the other day, Barnes, as a partner, improved the process. "Scotty knows the musicians," Barnes says. "He practices with them. He concentrates on them. That allows me to just focus on recording."
Brian Hall and Donnie Felton of Philly band Grubby Little Hands used to record in their respective basement studios, sending each other tracks by e-mail. Then they made frequent stand-in Joey Primavera - a teacher and administrator at Philly Music Lessons in Fishtown - an official band member. The band started recording in Cat Lady Studios at Philly Music Lessons.
"Donnie and I were piecing things together," Hall says, "but we didn't really know what we were doing. The engineering, it's very precise. 'We need these microphones placed here.' Joey's science pays off."
DIY recording calls for innovative ways to cut costs. Gary Dann transformed a gutted building next to the Market-Frankford El into the Boom Room, an intimate rehearsal and recording studio where the likes of Billy Paul and Amos Lee have practiced. Stitzer and Barnes of Stolen Studios save money by making their own cables and sound-dampening panels.
The engineers at the Headroom in Kensington are Joe Reinhart of Philly bands Dogs on Acid and Hop Along and Kyle Pulley of Thin Lips. They work with pianist Drew Taurisano, who is also a producer at East Room Recording (housed in the same warehouse with the Headroom). They tap their extensive collections to provide instruments for incoming musicians. They also do renovations themselves, as with the second studio room they built between July and November.
Real estate in Fishtown and Kensington is comparatively cheap, they say, with somewhat fewer neighbors to bother with loud music. These things help account for the abundance of studios in these neighborhoods. It's important to be a good neighbor: Stolen Studios avoids recording between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when adjacent commercial tenants are active.
Says Schwabe of the Headroom, where he masters the majority of the records: "There are probably 40 to 50 studios of that caliber, smaller studios pumping out Philly indie-rock bands. With such a low cost of living, tons of artists are coming here."