Note: The following is written by the fabulous Imade Borha. It appeared as the cover story in last week’s edition of 72 Hours, but we’ve been out of town for the last week or so, and this is such a great story, so we felt compelled to share. If you dig what you read, you can follow Ms. Borha on Twitter here. Enjoy!
Recording studios in the Frederick area can be anything from a townhouse basement like Gypsy Cab Studios to the multi-room Commodore Recording Studio where even the over-stuffed sofa was picked to absorb sound and limit echoes. Whether you simply need a rehearsal space or you’re looking for a chance to sign with a record label, most likely there is a studio in the area that fits your needs.
Acacia Recording owner and engineer Luke Rohwer, 39, meticulously designed his studio for optimal sound when he relocated it from Germantown to Mount Airy in 2006. “There are six layers of 5/8 drywall,” Rohwer said of the measure he uses to keep outside noise from entering. The studio walls are made up of materials that diffuse and absorb sound to prevent echoes. He even has two sliding doors to prevent sound from leaving the vocal booth, and he arranged the air ducts so sound cannot enter through them into the next room.
The studio is cozy with stone walls and dark hardwood floors, but there is ample space for the studio’s grand piano, Hammond B-3 organ and Wurlitzer piano in the main room.
The inviting atmosphere, as well as Rohwer’s Christian faith, has attracted a long list of gospel artists, including Donnie McClurkin, Bebe Winans and Donald Lawrence. McClurkin won a Grammy award in 2005 for “Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs,” an album he recorded at Acacia. Anthony Brown and Group Therapy, a longtime client, won 10 Stellar Awards in 2016 for their Acacia-recorded “Everyday Jesus.”
With some of the biggest power vocalists in gospel music, Rohwer is tasked with capturing the wide dynamics of gospel singers without any audio distortion. He also has a large collection of microphones to capture different voices, from raspy to nasal, so the recording represents the authentic voice of the singer.
Rohwer, in the audio engineering business for almost 20 years, focuses on his strengths. He doesn’t serve metal or rap clients, due to his musical preferences. “But I never hunkered down and say, ‘I only do gospel,’” said Rohwer, adding that he’d like to venture into more rock-driven contemporary Christian music. Rohwer also mixes and masters and does post-production work using the studio’s high-definition surround sound.
He also does audio transfers, helping to preserve treasured memories. One client played a recording on her flip phone of her father who was saying goodbye shortly before his death. Rohwer made sure that his client had a CD copy.
“Every single thing you do is your calling card,” Rohwer said. “You’re not going to walk out of here with tracks that have issues. It’s either going to be done right or it’s not going to be done at all.”
Commodore Recording Studio
“I read a lot of books on studio design,” said Doug Benson, owner and engineer of Commodore Recording Studio in Thurmont. Benson, who’s frequented recording studios since the late 1970s, made sure to have non-parallel walls so sound doesn’t bounce back and forth, which could distort audio quality. Benson also made sure to have multiple rooms for drums and vocals, as well as a live room with a Yamaha grand piano. These separate rooms prevent sound from bleeding into each other.
Benson often caters to clients who are seeking live acoustic performances. A loud rock drummer can play in a different room and a classical ensemble can perform with reverb levels similar to a small concert hall. “I have all the [sound-absorbing] panels at the top there,” Benson said, pointing. “If I want to, I can take those down if I want a more live room. I can roll up the carpet. There’s a lot of things we can do to change the sound of the room depending on what the artist wants.”
For those wanting their music mixed and mastered, Benson provides that as well. This in-house service is rare among studios. “Most people if they find out its being mixed and mastered in the same place won’t take it seriously. Because the whole idea is the mastering engineer has to be neutral,” Benson said. “I’m just particularly good at removing myself from the recording process.”
Benson’s other service is audio restoration and digital audio transfer. Benson was part of a team that digitally restored jazz pioneer King Oliver’s 1923 album that featured a young Louis Armstrong. The album was nominated for a Grammy in 2007.
Gypsy Cab Studios
Jordan Miller is inspired by movies set in the 1970s, including “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
“At one point, one of the characters gets picked up in this really sketchy, rickety taxi cab called Gypsy Cab,” Miller said of a scene in the Wes Anderson flick.
Though Miller’s townhome basement isn’t exactly sketchy or rickety, he identified with the cab’s “do-it-yourself, punk rock” aesthetic.
“I feel that the Gypsy Cab exemplifies what I’m about,” Miller said.
His studio’s large painting of two topless women, who could easily be in a blaxploitation film, also points to Miller’s love for the era.
Miller’s small, intimate space lends itself to cross collaboration. Miller is a multi-instrumentalist himself and has been in numerous bands, including his current retro-soul group Luna & the Lost Keys and prog-rock band Time Columns. “We brought in an organ player and we put his rotary organ amplifier in that bathroom back there.” Miller pointed to a small room several steps from where he sat at the control board. “And our guitar player put his amp in there, and the two of them did, like, conversation solos back and forth live.”
Miller is primarily a drummer with a love for a wide variety of music, including world music, metal and lo-fi boom-bap hip-hop. He often has hip-hop clients who rap in Miller’s small vocal booth and communicate with Miller during the recording through a talk back mic.
He prefers clients based on their mindsets, not necessarily their chosen genre. “My ideal client already has a strong vision so I can get on the same path they are and we can make it happen together.”
Another plus: Miller’s talent as an engineer, musician, film composer and film editor means that a band can record and have their music video edited in the same place.
HotShot 2 StarPower Studio
HotShot 2 StarPower may be based in Hagerstown, but the company has a vision that goes much farther. “We’re here to turn Hagerstown out. To turn H-Town into the new Motown,” said Fernandez M. Evans, known as Mr. Hotshot. Since March 2016, Mr. Hotshot runs both the studio and record label that is called HotShot 2 StarPower. Currently, the label has three signed artists in pop singer Teesha, rapper Diamond Queen and singer-songwriter Carissa B. These artists are given in-house production. Other artists, including rapper Jerm!, serve as marketing and artist development support.
HotShot studio has a large front room of computers for producers to make beats, and a vocal booth and control room for artists to record vocals.
Evans cited that he uses his 40 years as a musician, producer and an entrepreneur to identify artists who could be the next big thing. “We have a lot of artists that come into the studio. I can use my listening ear and listen to what’s going on in there and see what’s on the verge of becoming a hit,” he said.
Diamond Queen, who lists Nicki Minaj and Lil Kim as some of her inspirations, caught the ear of Mr. Hotshot and was offered a contract after recording her mixtape. “I said yes because I’m not passing that up,” Diamond Queen said while surrounded by other artists on the HotShot label. She signed a contract with Evans in September 2016.
Evans is looking for commercial success from his artists. He’s also interested in longevity. His strategy for his signed artists is to build a following through cover songs, then original music in the form of singles and album releases. Evans has two albums of material planned for Teesha, who has a built-in audience from being a pop star in her native country of Sri Lanka.
“We want to position people to be able to stay in the industry and not be a one-hit wonder,” Evans said. “That Hotshot sound can be any genre. It’s just about the quality.”
Lady of Noise Studios
Lady of Noise Studios owner Jason Hiner has a solution for engineers chasing the latest technology: “You get a tape deck.” Hiner has both a tape deck and a 1982 mixing console that offers the raw, analog sounds Hiner calls “gooey.”
“You have to find those sounds that people ask for,” he said. His large recording room is full of antique instruments, including a gong.
Hiner, a drummer, often records bands by capturing their tracks through a tape deck that gets loaded on Pro Tools editing software. Hiner then seeks the sweet spot between utilizing analog and digital sounds. “When you’re in the studio, there’s this balance of art and technology.”
He thinks it’s worth it to record a group playing together at the same time. “Even if you lose a little bit of the [sound] isolation … I’m cool with that. Because if I can catch a vibe that way, that I can’t catch doing separate [tracks], then who cares about a little bit of spill?”
The vibe that Hiner wants to capture is hard to describe, but an example is the synergy between musicians during a live performance.
“I think so much soul — the guts of the music — is lost [through digitally recording tracks]. If you follow the timeline of popular music, it’s the computer,” Hiner said in reference to the emergence of Pro Tools in the mid-’90s and early 2000s. Now, tracks can be recorded and emailed from all over the world, allowing a band to never record a single track together. “There’s something to being in a room and playing music with other people. To me, that’s what a record should be.”
Mystery Ton Studios
Kenny Eaton’s Mystery Ton Studios has a name that is outside the box. Mystery Ton, a homonym of Mister Eaton, is a playground for guitarists who want the perfect amplifier tone. Marshall and Orange guitar amplifiers are stacked throughout Eaton’s bohemian studio, including in the large recording room and control room. “I’m a guitarist, so I can justify this collection. It’s a business investment,” said Eaton, who has lived in Frederick all his life. “But it’s kind of rooted in me just loving gear.”
In addition to being an engineer and studio owner, Eaton is in prog-rock band called Time Columns.
Eaton’s fascination with guitar amplifiers is rooted in his love for tinkering with the variations of a guitar’s tone. “Each [amplifier] has its own soul and particular sound,” he said. “Those are all different colors for making a record.”
Eaton mostly records bands, but the genres run the spectrum. “One week I was working on an album from this, like, Satanic death metal [band]. This really heavy, brutal stuff. They’re an awesome band. Later on that week, I was working on a Christian folk acoustic, three-piece.”
Eaton estimates that 25 percent of his customers are based in Frederick, while the bulk of his clients are from Baltimore, D.C. and Philadelphia. Eaton, however, is seeing a renaissance in Frederick’s music scene. “Frederick has been really coming up, [client]-wise, in the last two years. … We have our own thing going on. I’m proud to say I’m from Frederick.”
Shab Row Recording Studio
Doug Smith, owner of Shab Row Recording Studio, defers most of his mastering requests to Commodore Recording Studio owner Doug Benson, but Smith’s strength is offering affordable sessions for high school and college students, as well as retirees. Shab Row Recording Studio is simply one large room that evokes the psychedelic style of Greenwich Village’s Electric Lady Studios.
The open layout is called a clubhouse design. There’s no wall or a glass window. Everybody is all in the same space during sessions, ideal for jazz and bluegrass groups.
“Some of my favorite albums were recorded in this kind of setup. Get a space. Set up the equipment. The engineer is in a room with everybody else. The band just rehearses and records in one process. You don’t really draw lines between the songwriting and the rehearsing and the recording.”
Many of Smith’s clients are new to recording and may be intimidated by a rigid environment. “The songwriters … play a lot of open mics around town. They play songs for a long time and they want to come to a place and not spend a lot of money and get a CD for their songs that they can sell at gigs and things. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve been in any kind of studio at all. Sometimes they’re nervous. I just keep it real laid back.”
Smith’s studio is full of worn-in furniture and large multi-track mixing and mastering equipment he restores that dates back to the 1940s. Smith puts his doctorate in physics to use in refurbishing audio equipment in his studio’s back room. He even has a Hammond organ in his studio from 1953.
For clients who want the warmth of analog mixing and antique microphones, Smith has an expansive collection. “I can take all of those [recording] tracks and instead of mixing them in the computer, I can pull them out through a nice old analog [console] and I can mix them here.”
Smith also hosts monthly video sessions with Ted’s Roots Band. And Smith offers mobile recording services and opens his space for rehearsals. He advises clients to provide their own cameras and camera operators, but Smith is flexible when it comes to music engineering. “Arrange yourself however you’re comfortable and I’ll work around you.”