North Brooklyn: Recording Studio Central

By Judith Kampfner
May 27, 2014
The WG News & Arts (Williamsburg & Greenpoint)
Brooklyn, New York

Image via Excello Studio.

North Brooklyn is “studio central,” with tons of new studios surfacing and a growing number of recordings coming out of the area. “It’s what Hell’s Kitchen used to be,” says Paul Gold of Salt Mastering on Greenpoint Avenue. Hardly surprising perhaps, since great music is being made and performed locally by talented indie bands and singer songwriters that want to record close to home. “I can basically master a record and walk a few blocks and see a band I just worked with. If I walk into a bar and talk to the bartender who happens to be in a band, I may end up scoring a gig,” says mastering engineer Heba Kadry, of Timeless Mastering.

Increasingly, international musicians are either coming to record or relying on local studios to mix and master. Bands are drawn to the luxury of large spaces that are innovatively designed, achieving a cross between a living room with vintage instruments and a hospital operating room. There are still, of course, the more garage-type spaces and places that musicians can rent by the hour.

One thing the proliferation of local recording studios is not is corporate. At least not yet. Not here. No one seems to want to establish a monopoly culture or drive out the competition. One clear indication of that is that most of the engineers interviewed were adamant that competition is a good thing. According to Paul Gold, the more recording and production studios in the neighborhood, the better. “I think a rising tide lifts all boats. I like it.”

The musical hub means the community is self-driven and that standards are pushed higher. The engineers, composers, musicians, and sound designers who own or share or hire studios here all appreciate the creative atmosphere and high concentration of musicians. Many of them have their own record labels. “There is a community here, there are a lot of specialists who repair equipment, and studios often exchange gear or help each other out in a pinch—when we can’t do a session because we are booked, we’ll generally refer the artist to another local studio that we know and can trust,” says Ken Rich of Grand Street Recording.

Pool speaks for his proud peers when he says of his space, “It is a temple of sound with all the romance and commitment that are implied in those words.”

It’s a cheery thought that the recording industry, at least around these parts, is alive and kicking and revived from a recent period in the doldrums. A key reason for this seems to be that musicians are now more prepared to go into recording studios than they used to be. So instead of recording in a friend’s basement and post-producing on a rig at home, they may do part of the work at home and then bring tracks to the studio. So, for instance, they might want to record drum tracks in a commercial studio and integrate them with the vocals already recorded at home. “Generally they’ll come back to us when they want to mix,” says Rich, who describes his recording studio as a “classic boutique studio.”

The common goal of the studios seems to be to make the environment as friendly as possible for clients; to give them the musical product they envision, but to make it more affordable and pleasurable than comparable Manhattan spaces. This is also true of the mastering process, which Heba Kadry says “is the last stop on the train before everything goes off to press; so allowing artists to feel like they are able to collaborate and indulge as much as possible is massively important to the work process.”

She also delighted that “more mastering facilities are popping up with vinyl hugely on the incline.”

The granddaddies of the group arrived as long ago as the mid 1980’s. Some have, sadly, been driven out, like Coyote Recording Studios, run by Michael Caiati, who left in 2007 after his landlord tripled the rent, and that after having been a pioneer for twenty years. His first studio was in an old meatpacking house, where he recorded The Ramones, Joan Jett, and They Might be Giants. Of the first wave that survive, Studio G (448 Union Avenue and 44 Dobbin Street), Excello Recording (21 Powers Street), Mission Sound (16 Powers Street), and the 3,000-square-foot Bunker studio (South Williamsburg) seem to be anchors for the rest of the community.

The owner of Excello is Hugh Pool, who considers himself a pioneer. “The first recording session was April 1992.” On his website he proudly displays this quote: “Quietly and with rock-solid determination, Excello Recording has served the New York rock community for twenty years.” (Mix Magazine).

He’s nostalgic about the old days, “not just because of the packs of wild dogs on Kent Avenue,” but because “I sort of miss the concept of failure and winging it. Now the rents and stakes are high enough that most folks have full-on business plans and significant investment capital behind them, and I definitely did not move here to rub shoulders with that mentality.”

Most of the studios specialize in either a specific type of music or a musical field like record mastering, audio books, music licensing, jingles, or mobile event recording. Joe McGinty of Carousel Recording says he has “a specific niche: vintage keyboards.” Grand Street Recording does live tracking, overdubbing, and mixing. Allen Towbin works out of his home studio and for the most part does voiceovers for audiobooks. That’s the meat and potatoes for Towbin. But for him, as for many people interviewed, writing music and working with a band is where his heart is. So, in short, there appears to be a movement away from diversifying; perhaps that’s a sign of the sophistication of the industry. “Over the past four years, I have simplified my client list, mostly recording voiceover for audiobooks while maintaining relationships with some loyal musicians,” says freelance engineer Ethan Donaldson, whose main source of income is audio publishing.

Some buildings, like the iconic Pencil Factory that used to produce Faber pencils, now contains Able Mobile Recording, Carousel Recording, Salt Mastering, Rough Magic, and at least six other independent engineers who often share space and rent. It’s a local parallel to the art deco Film Center building in midtown Manhattan—thirteen stories of film and recording studios, workshops, and offices. In fact, some Williamsburg engineers, like Towbin and Donaldson, routinely work in the Film Center building. There’s a healthy pollination of business between the boroughs; after all, this is a highly specialized world.

Interestingly, although the Williamsburg/Greenpoint studios are often in the same building, they don’t always know what each other is up to. It’s a hard grind with engineers often pulling all nighters. “Studios are like submarines. You can’t just look out of the window and see what everyone else is doing,” says Joel Hamilton of Studio G. When he does poke his head out, he may be recording in places like Easter Island and Columbia because “it’s easier for me to go there than for the whole band to get visas.” Sharing studios makes it easier for younger musician-engineers like Jacob Plasse, who has the Latin music label Chulo Records and works out of the Creamery building on McGuiness Boulevard. He moved his residence to the area in January of this year, choosing to live closer to the studio where he spends so many hours making New York Latin soul. There is a trend toward more self-taught engineers and younger engineers and artists like Plasse, according to Steve Silverstein, who established his studio near the Graham Avenue L train station in 2001 and has a band called Christmas Decorations.

Don’t, however, get the feeling that coming to North Brooklyn and setting up a recording studio is easy. ”Studios come and go all the time because so many factors make it difficult to sustain a space. On average, it’s become a bit harder to sustain spaces in the neighborhood, but that trend is far from uniform,” says Silverstein sagely. Studios are moving out—to North Queens and L.I.C—but there’s not an exodus, for the time being anyway. “It’s still quite affordable, a real musical crossroads, and easily accessible,” Jay Sherman Godfrey maintains. He was one of the first wave pioneers and has moved studios several times, but is now happily settled in the Pencil Factory as Able Mobile Recording Lab.

Nevertheless, it remains true that many engineers choose to stay steadfastly in Manhattan. “Manhattan still has the proximity advantage. Almost all of the production companies, ad agencies, and corporate content people are still there,” argues Towbin, who records both in Manhattan in the Film Building and edits and post produces at home. “The studio scene in Williamsburg has been happening for fifteen years or more,” he adds, “and, for better or worse, it’s one of the ‘coolest’ places to work now.” The passion is there, whether newbie or pioneer, analog or digital gear, new room (architect designed) or old room (converted space). Pool speaks for his proud peers when he says of his space, “It is a temple of sound with all the romance and commitment that are implied in those words.” He expresses the drive and dedication it takes to set up and survive spectacularly well: “You have to put everything you have into this business. It has to be an all-consuming obsession. A burning headache of throbbing pain that will only relent when you are at your rig creating, because you are fish and this is your only water, and without it you would die.”

Judith Kampfner is a radio producer and writer based in NYC.

Studios interviewed for this article:

Carousel Recording, Joe McGinty

Able Mobile Recording Lab, Jay Sherman-Godfrey

Studio G Brooklyn, Joel Hamilton

Maze Studios, Allen Towbin

Ethan Donaldson
*protected email*

Creamery Studio, Jacob Plasse

Grand Street Recording, Ken Rich

Timeless Mastering, Heba Kadry

Excello Recording, Hugh Pool

Steve Silverstein, jokingly refers to it as SteveCo Worldwide
shares space w/ Carousel Recording and Able Mobile Recording
*protected email*

Salt Mastering, Paul Gold

Bunker Studio, John Davis and Aaron Nevezie
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