25th Street Recording studio owner and engineer Gabriel Shepard. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Just about every social movement has left a soundtrack in its wake, a body of songs that served to galvanize protests. The international demonstrations unleashed by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month are likely providing inspiration for many musicians seeking to champion social change. But in the midst of a pandemic, artists face unprecedented challenges recording their music. 

Confined spaces designed to keep out the world’s noises, studios are inherently risky spaces for airborne viruses. They’re filled with equipment and instruments that people are constantly touching and sharing. Creating safety measures is still very much a work in progress. Some artists have managed to produce albums on their own from home, but Oakland’s once-bustling recording scene, which encompasses more than a dozen studios, is still largely shuttered. Even with shelter-in-place rules easing, there are far more questions than answers about how and when it will be safe to start recording again. But some studio owners and engineers are working to find answers.

North Oakland’s New, Improved Recording is owned and run by brothers and recording engineers Jay and Ian Pellicci and guitarist/engineer John Finkbeiner. The studio space, which once served as home base for the R&B superstars En Vogue, has managed to weather the pandemic thanks to an understanding landlord and low debt. But as shelter-in-place moves into phase two, “we have very mixed feelings,” Jay Pellicci said. “There’s relief we can start opening up the studio, but there’s so much ambiguity over the right thing to do.”

Like most of the Oakland studios I contacted, Pellicci says New, Improved Recording will limit the number of people working to two or three at any given time. 

“We’ll keep face masks on unless people are singing, and use lots of sanitizer,” he said. But Pellici said there are so many surfaces in a studio that germs could be deposited on, and some, like sophisticated microphones, are difficult to clean. He’s unsure when and how it will be safe for bands to gather and record. “I’m not sure anyone knows when that becomes safe,” said Pellicci. “We don’t want the studio to be a disease vector.”

When he’s not writing music or performing with his wife Sivan Lioncub in their psychedelic rock band Everyone Is Dirty, Chris Daddio runs Donut Time Audio, a highly regarded North Oakland home studio. He was enjoying a busy spell in March when the shelter-in-place order came down. A two-time cancer survivor, maladies he attributes to the years he spent working at a studio in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard that’s now a Superfund site, Daddio isn’t going to risk working with artists in person until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine in place. 

He’s done a few mixing sessions via Zoom, “but nothing can substitute for people being in the room, vibing off of each other,” Daddio said. “It’s always been my job not just to record, but to create the space so my clients feel good enough and free enough to make their music. That’s the element I really miss. The connection between you and the artist.”

When not in use, plastic bags cover microphones in the studio of 25th Street Recording. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland singer-songwriter Zoe FitzGerald Carter was putting the finishing touches on her second album when the health officials shut everything down. She was forced to put her work on hiatus. Nearly two months later, she started talking with a studio in Berkeley about how to continue recording safely. Last week, she was back at work, laying down background vocals on the final track.   

“The engineer and producer and I all came in with masks,” she said. “There’s been a lot written about the possible [transmission] effects of singing. I was in my own room. In most recording studios, singers can be in a separate room. The rest of the time, we’re going to do our best, bringing in our wipes, trying to get in and out of the studio quickly.”

While the digital revolution that reconfigured the music industry has been most visible in transforming the ways people acquire and experience music, it’s also disrupted the infrastructure for recording music. 

Myles Boisen is a veteran engineer who moved to the Bay Area in 1984 when the local recording scene was very strong but dominated by a few larger studios like Russian Hill, Hyde Street, Different Fur, and Fantasy, which all used bulky analog equipment that was expensive and difficult to acquire. A guitarist for ensembles like the alt-country band Crying Time and hot club-style Miniwatt String Quartet, Boisen has watched one major studio after another fold as relatively inexpensive software provided artists with much more control over the recording process.

“From a business standpoint, it’s changed pretty radically,” said Boisen. Today Boisen runs the Guerrilla Recording Studio/Headless Buddha Mastering Lab near Laney College. 

“You don’t have record labels laying out big cash advances,” said Boisen about the old ways of the recording industry. “There was a time when the big national groups from San Francisco were recording here for big labels. There are many reasons for changes, including the switch from very expensive analog recording to doing it on a computer at home.” 

Recording music is just one part of the process before an album or single gets released. Boisen spends most of his time these days in post-production, mixing and mastering recordings. In some cases, the projects sat on the shelf for years, and musicians are now using the pandemic-imposed downtime to complete them. Boisen said he has plenty of work at the moment. 

“But my studio partner Bart Thurber tends to work with rock bands, and they like to record all together,” Boisen said. 

“The management of groups of people is going to be the biggest challenge,” said Boisen. “Bands are the bread and butter of a lot of studios. People like to drink beer, ingest some substances–it can turn into more of a party than work. This is a totally new area that none of us have had to think about before.”

Inside the 25th Street Recording studio during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Pete Rosos

Even if the spread of the coronavirus ends this summer, and musicians start to perform again in venues where social distancing can take place, it may be some time before bands have enough money to be able to pay for studio time.

“The larger issue is that if we’ve been through six months or a year of no gigs, how are people going to afford to record?” Boisen said.

If there’s a studio in Oakland that’s a throwback to the analog days, it’s 25th Street Recording near Pill Hill. Gabriel Shepard, 25th Street’s chief engineer, said the studio was crazy busy before the pandemic, but now recording a band seems unsafe. “Anything more than three people I get anxious, even with masks for people and bottles of hand sanitizer in every room,” Shepard said.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s East Oakland’s scrappy Survivor Sound, which was turning into an important community resource before the pandemic. Founded by Jonah Strauss and Zoe Stiller in a building that used to house Freeway Recording, Survivor Sound opened in March 2019 as a work in progress. Over the past year, various audio engineers rented the space for recording sessions, and the plan was to start training Oakland teenagers in sound engineering once the studio was on solid financial footing. Since April, Strauss and Stiller have kept the studio running with remote mixing and mastering projects.  

“Eric Bateman, an excellent technician, hipped me to a live streaming solution for high-quality audio that makes it easy to tap musicians into the studio,” Strauss said about one-way technology has helped bands play together virtually.

“It’s given us an opportunity to think about what we can do remotely, and the truth is, almost everything,” said Strauss. Even so, the fact that bands can’t rehearse safely yet has been a blow to the studio’s community. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll studio,” said Strauss. “If bands can’t rehearse, you can’t record them, and people are bummed.”

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