These days, plenty of albums get made in basements and bedrooms. Very good albums, even. The expense of a recording studio can be overwhelming, and investing the same amount of money in your own equipment can prove an irresistible temptation.
Thing is, having the stuff doesn’t mean it’s easy to use. Learn to twiddle the knobs, and even that isn’t a guarantee the results will sound good. Just as writing well requires years’ worth of reading, recording well requires years’ worth of listening. Not just listening for enjoyment, but listening for things that are hard to hear at first.
When Dave Snyder of Guilford Sound steps into the first of several isolation booths at his studio in Guilford, Vt., he says, “We’re still learning this room.”
What he means is learning exactly where to position a mic and a performer in order to avoid things like overemphasis of a particular part of the sound spectrum. The room has, he explains, a low-mid frequency tone that can overshadow vocals. He reaches over into a corner with an imaginary mic. “Mic right here or so and you’re good.”
Such things can go right over your head without a close listen. But as Snyder’s tour continues, it’s easy to hear differences in each room we visit, and easy to tell he’s got years’ worth of recording in his ears. The main room at Guilford Sound has a very high ceiling, and plenty of what look like rectangular wood sculptures on the ceiling and walls. Those objects, which appear all over the studio’s rooms, including the control room, break up sound waves in order to take away things like that low-mid frequency.
Snyder explains that the construction of the control room and the placement of those wooden baffles is meant to make the sounds as neutral as possible, so that playback of recordings isn’t inaccurate when you’re sitting at the massive mixing board.
“It even cancels out for the board itself,” Snyder explains. “If we got a new board, we’d have to redo everything else as well.”
The board, like everything else at Guilford Sound, is more than adequate to the task. At first glance, the thing looks like something that would be right at home in a NASA control room. The number of knobs and switches is astounding. As with any mixing board, it starts to make sense when you look at one row of controls at a time, but overwhelm takes over when you see the scope of the whole thing, which spans at least eight feet.
Every room boasts similar overwhelm. It feels as if the whole building is a spaceship that recently landed, full of unexpected angles, advanced materials and electronics (every room, even the bathroom and kitchen, boasts mic connections, just in case it turns out to sound good). Solar arrays help the place power up, and six geothermal wells fuel radiant heat. The room behind the control room houses racks full of gadgetry, including the converters which turn the raw sounds into digital information, and also holds old-fashioned two-inch tape machines. Snyder points up through an open hatchway with a ladder, past plenty more cables and machinery of mysterious purpose. Beyond that ladder is another stretching into the far-off reaches just below the roof. Way up there, he explains, is yet another room, this one crafted for its echo effect.
The air at Guilford Sound seems expectant, as if the decks have been clearecd for creativity. The machinery all around doesn’t feel cluttered, and a calmness prevails. It makes sense that it’s already been the site of some unusual recording. For a piece called “Inuksuit” by the composer John Luther Adams, some 30 percussionists spread out around the hillside and forest that adjoins the property. “We had 48 mics outside,” says Snyder.
Studio manager Cindy Larsen adds, “Thing is, it was about to rain the whole time.”
“When we got done recording,” says Snyder, “It was like, ‘Grab a mic and run inside!’”
“Twenty minutes later, it was pouring,” says Larsen.
Plenty of studios hang out a shingle to do business, but Guilford Sound is taking an approach that’s unusually helpful for local musicians. With renovation of a three-season house complete and work underway on a new year-round facility, the studio plans to offer residence on-site for musicians. At around $1,500 per day, such setups are generally well beyond the budgets of all but the most successful bands, but Snyder and company have invited contest applications (for a $15 fee) from unsigned bands all over New England. The winning band or solo performer receives a two-week residency and recording and a $1,000 stipend.
“Part of it is getting our name out there,” says Snyder. “But what I’m most excited about—you don’t get that kind of time in a studio with an unsigned band. It’s usually more like people have a handful of songs they’ve rehearsed, and they want to get in and out. This way they can really get creative.”
Already the application process has been ear-opening, he says. “We’ve heard some incredible music.”
Hearing such things propels another of Guilford Sound’s long-term goals. “We’re looking to branch out into artist development,” Synder says. “That will be down the road, though. Right now, we’re game to hear music from people who would benefit from two weeks in the studio. It’s a no-strings-attached deal. They’ll walk away with the masters.”
“The best part of it for us,” adds Larsen, “is that we’ll be helping a band get its foot in the door.”
Snyder has few illusions about the difficulty of making a living with a studio, and when he’s asked about the considerable cost of constructing such a state-of-the-art facility, he says with a smile, “Oh, that’s just gone. Down the black hole. It’s really hard to make it by just renting out a studio.”
“If we break even, we’ll be happy,” says Larsen.
Snyder, who used to play drums in a band himself, seems to be piloting the effort because he thinks it’s a worthwhile thing to do. He’s doing it in the middle of nowhere in Vermont in large part because he wanted a change of environment. Like a lot of folks, he found the small, expensive spaces of New York City stifling. Building his studio in Guilford enabled him to do everything he wanted to do for much less money. It also got him closer to his alma mater, Marlboro College.
The environment at Guilford Sound seems perfect for creativity. It’s set in a large field at the end of a winding road, and seems a million miles from distractions. The studio mainly aims to appeal to big-name musicians who want a destination/vacation spot in which to record, but that ought to make it all the more interesting to hear what will happen when a small-time group climbs aboard for two unfettered weeks of creativity.
For more info on the studio and contest, visit www.guilfordsound.com.