Recording for the Future
JA captured the image: I watch as Michael Bishop works with a dirty pot. Robert Baird sits in the hotspot. Lukas Lipinski monitors the session.
There's a simple note taped to the glass door. In black magic marker, it tells you, RING BELL FOR AVATAR STUDIOS.
I had just finished my bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. There was nothing left to do. And so:
I wondered if there was someone, somewhere, in front of a monitor, finger poised on a buzzer, watching me as I waited. I didn't have to wait very long at all. The buzzer buzzed, the door pushed open.
And up the couple flights through the purple-painted hall and following the friendly arrows to the lobby where I find music editor, Robert Baird, already comfortable and flipping through the few thin pages of Spin.
I walk into the cinnamon-scented Avatar Studios. Coffee is brewing.
"Hey Slick," Robert says.
"Yo," I say.
"Your name is Slick?" another voice says.
I look left to the sound of the strange voice and laugh. "My name is Stephen."
"Oh. Stephen. You're here to see Michael Bishop, correct?"
His voice is that of a radio DJ or ringside announcer, full and booming and articulate. He exaggerates it.
"Yes," I say.
"Thank you. This has been the morning show on W-A-D-E."
"W-A-D-E," he says again: "Wade. That's my name."
"Nice to meet you, Wade."
I sit down beside Robert, and together we make fun of Spin until John shows up.
And then the three of us together make fun of Spin and Dick Cheney, quail-hunter / heart-attack man, until Michael Bishop shows up. Handshakes and introductions.
We follow Michael Bishop through Avatar Studios' mocha-colored carpeted halls to the legendary Studio A.
The walls are diagonal streaks of delicious wood, the floors are perfectly parquet. Old nails make themselves known here and there, but, for the most part, things are smooth and wonderfully finished, like a fine loudspeaker. The entire place seems to be alive, pulsing with music. Even our footsteps sound like love songs. If you listen close and run your hands along the beautiful walls, you might still hear echoes of Madonna moaning "Borderline," or Springsteen wailing "The River."
Inside the control room, you'll find a massive mess of cables, fighting for position within a wall of switches and ins and outs. It would seem impossible to have a handle on them all, but, sure enough, there is order beyond the chaos. Michael Bishop introduces us to the old, weathered Neve console. It's enormous and, though bruised and dusty, coughing up cigarette smoke and spitting out booze, it is wonderful. "It was installed back in 1977," Michael tells us. "It's got some problems, but we'll make it work."
In front of the console, three Lipinski L-707s are set up. Behind the console, near the back wall, there are two more Lipinskis placed on either side of Michael Bishop's computer setup running Sonoma digital audio workstation software. Behind a glass window, the hard drives hum and whir. To the right of the glass, and behind a gobo, are EMM Labs converters. Colorful cables happily hang all about and an endless row of power sockets stripes the entire place.
Michael points out the old barroom-style stage monitors hanging from the ceiling. "That's what we used to use," he says. "They were just brutal. It's amazing what people can get used to after awhile."
"We've had some trouble with the bass in this room," he continues. "It falls apart a bit and gets a little loose, but we'll work with it."
Beneath the old brutes is a long, glass window throwing wide a view of the live room, where the musicians get to work. Looking out into it, I have the sudden and strong urge to pick up a guitar. Any musician would love to record in a place like this. In the center of the room, a Yamaha piano waits patiently, covered in velvet and dripping lacquer. Behind the piano is a majestic drum kit, all red wine and glittering brass. Just beyond the reach of the riveted ride cymbal sleeps a bullish and leathery upright bass. It snores gently. In the vocal booth sweep the scents of vanilla and lavender. Ann Hampton Callaway has her music sheets and comforts and charms so quietly displayed.
Back in the control room, Michael Bishop is explaining a bit of his recording philosophy. "We can't record for the present," he says. "We have to record for the future. SACD could vanish tomorrow and it wouldn't effect what we do here."
While I'm not so very interested in the fate of SACD I don't own an SACD player, and I haven't taken the time to examine the format's worth what Michael Bishop believes about the future makes such beautiful sense to me.
Before we take turns sitting down to listen to Ann Hampton Callaway, whispering to the wind, John asks Michael Bishop about mic placement and instrument separation: "How much work do you do correcting bleed between instruments?"
"Oh, none at all," Michael is quick to answer. "We're very much interested in having the musicians perform close to one another, face to face, in a real space. Leakage isn't a factor. Leakage is my friend."
On our walk home, John points out to me that Michael's methods are indicative of masterful technique.
I nod my head, completely convinced.