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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Becoming a minor mogul

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

E.J. Wells sat in front of a computer in his basement, silently mouthing the words to Nick Cave s The Mercy Seat as his own version of the song rumbled out of a pair of speakers in front of him.

The arrangement was intricate, with stacks of guitars building on each other in what sounded like a full-band take on the dark, forboding tune. Wells fiddled with a few knobs on a mixing board and stared at squiggly lines on a monitor, listening intently and fussing over details that a novice ear couldn t pick up.

When the tune was over, he broke the mix down, separating the six guitars he recorded himself so that each one can be heard distinctly before mixing them back together. He explained how he recorded the drums, painstakingly arranging each beat from a collection he has in the computer.

The end result is a complete song that is just as sophisticated as anything you d hear on a mass-produced CD, except it cost a lot less money. For Wells, and thousands of musicians like him, advances in recording technology have made it possible to test the limits of their creativity for a fraction of what they would have paid 10 years ago.

I ve probably got about 60 hours in what we just heard, and if I did that in a studio it would probably cost 3 grand, he said. I did it for nothing but two sleepless nights and a lot of coffee.

Lost in the controversy over file sharing and downloading music on the Internet is a technological revolution in the recording industry, one that is quietly taking power away from the big studios and putting it directly in the hands of artists.

No longer do musicians have to pay top dollar to studios for access to recording technology. Now they can do it in their own homes or those of friends with a few thousand dollars of equipment, a souped-up computer, and a little remodeling.

Roger Greive was there at the beginning.

The 51-year-old head of a Lucas County marketing and multi-media production company was a producer and announcer at a local FM radio station in the mid-'70s when he went to work at the University of Toledo to start its electronic music studio.

Everything was recorded on tape, and big, complex synthesizers that could produce an array of sounds were staples. Things were just becoming computerized, and all the technology, and information, were in the hands of a few people who controlled access to it, he said.

Greive formed his own production company for jingles and music for industrial films, working out of his home. He watched with interest - and joy - as technological advances in the '80s allowed his students and other musicians to steer away from paying for recording time in big studios.

"That was the start of the breakdown away from this priesthood of people who had access to really expensive instruments and synthesizers," Greive said.

The beginning of the independence movement came in the form of modest cassette-based multi track mixing units, starting as small as 4-tracks and then growing. The advantage was that having multiple tracks allowed musicians to separately record four, eight or 16 instruments or vocals, and then mix them together into a whole. The disadvantage was in the sound quality of cassette tape, which wasn't good enough for a professional-level recording.

Musicians could record on them - most famously Bruce Springsteen, who cut his stark, consciously low-tech "Nebraska" album on a 4-track machine - but then most artists needed a large studio to flesh out the sound.

Toledo guitarist Jeff Harris jumped into the recording world in the mid-'80s as the technology transformed rapidly, allowing musicians to afford 16 track machines with relative ease.

Artists could build tracks that were more detailed and intricate, adding layers of sound and exploring their every creative whim. But they were always stuck dealing with tape - miles and miles of the stuff. It was expensive, costing as much as $120 for 16 minutes worth, and clumsy.

Harris, 36, remembers sitting for hours, rewinding to the exact point in a song, then marking the tape and cutting it with a razor blade before splicing it together. Studio time cost hundreds of dollars an hour and home equipment was still relatively expensive.

Artists were liberated from this cumbersome process about 10 years ago, as computers became exponentially more powerful while going down in price. Music went from magnetic spots on a tape to bits and bytes stored on powerful hard drives, and suddenly there was even more access to sophisticated recording devices like mixers, pre-amps, and the software to make it all work together.

And it was cheap.

"The thing that amazes me is that the price-to-performance ratio is just out of this world," said Harris, an assistant vice president and director of technical services at HCR Manor Care. "Back in the mid-'80s you were shelling out thousands of bucks for analog gear. There was stuff back then for 35 to 50 grand that you can buy now for $5,000."

For that much money you can get a high-quality 24-track mixing board at a local music store, microphones, a computer, and software, and have the capability to record yourself and others once you learn to use the equipment.

"It's been a democratization of access to the equipment," Greive said.

Wells said that even though his studio is elaborate, for just a few thousand dollars a musician can buy a 16-track recording unit and do sophisticated work. "They're cool. You can do amazing stuff with one of them," he said.

Steve Dwyer, the drummer in Toledo band OnceOver, operates a studio in his Sylvania Township basement, working with 25 to 30 artists on a variety of projects. He went to school at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, and now he's a full-time producer and musician.

The freedom to create in what are called "project studios" can't be measured, he said.

"You have an unlimited amount of time to experiment with different sounds. You can hunker down and just think about the music and what you want to do with it," he said.

Wells, whose CD "Rhyolite" was recorded in studios in Cincinnati and Ann Arbor before his own was built, echoed Dwyer's view.

"I've found it to be such a liberating experience that my creativity flows with ease," he said. "I think once a person gets a taste for it, and hears what it sounds like, it's got to be empowering."

Harris said something as simple as getting rid of tape accelerates the ability to realize a song in its entirety and know exactly what direction it's going.

"The thing that was a huge transformation for me was in seeing the music on a [computer] screen. And it's in real time, no more waiting around for tape to rewind," he said.

Wells and Dwyer said they've each sunk around $40,000 into their studios, but most of the money is coming back working with artists who pay from $15 to $50 an hour to record there. By comparison, those same artists would pay $90 to $150 an hour at a free-standing studio, and thousands at one of the big-name places.

The only caveat is, of course, that you're working at home, which for Wells, a married man, means one rule:

"No drums after 8 p.m."

Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6085.



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