Recording studio revived
Just like vinyl albums, conventional recording studios are in danger of joining the fossil record of the analog era as a wave of do-it-yourself...
Seattle Times business reporter
Just like vinyl albums, conventional recording studios are in danger of joining the fossil record of the analog era as a wave of do-it-yourself artists — equipped with little more than a Mac and a few mikes — churn out music to the dismay of audiophiles.
But don't tell that to Jonathan Plum. The 34-year old producer has mortgaged his condo and his parents' Bellevue home to acquire London Bridge. The legendary recording studio catapulted the Seattle grunge sound to the world in the early '90s but has sat idle, partly due to the move away from big budget, reel-to-reel recording.
Together with fellow producer Geoff Ott, 31, the two hope to restore London Bridge's former luster and avoid the fate of other landmark studios, such as Los Angeles' Cello and New York's Hit Factory, that have closed this year.
They plan to consolidate their already successful business model as low-cost producers and stay ahead of the fast-moving, technological curve.
"We want to join the digital revolution, not resist it," says Plum, who joined London Bridge as an intern cleaning toilets in 1992. He stayed with the studio until 1997, honing his skills as an engineer.
Founded in 1985 by brothers Rick and Raj Parashar, the Lake Forest Park facility surged to fame with the 1991 release of Pearl Jam's multiplatinum debut "Ten," which was recorded using the studio's trademark British-made Neve 8048 console.
Albums that sold more than 36 million copies have been recorded there by bands such as Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, Blind Melon and Soundgarden.
London Bridge is one of about 70 recording studios in Seattle. Often overlooked, the studios generate some 8,700 jobs and contribute more than $1 billion to the local economy each year, according to a 2004 study conducted by the city's Office of Economic Development.
During London Bridge's heyday, Plum says he regularly pulled 16-hour days, seven days a week.
"My day job consisted of hanging out with bands like Pearl Jam and helping them record music," he says. "It was incredible. It wasn't until years later that I realized I had been part of a musical revolution."
With Parashar in greater demand as a producer for big labels in New York and Los Angeles, the studio's sophisticated technology, which requires constant upkeep, fell into disrepair. The last big album recorded there was in 2002.
"Ten months of the year nobody even stepped foot in here," Ott says.
In September, as Parashar's 10-year lease was about to expire, he decided to sell the studio, its recording equipment and rights to the brand name. Ott and Plum cobbled together money from friends and family to buy the studio from their former boss for an undisclosed price.
"These walls changed music history," says Plum, admiring the vaulted ceilings and wood-paneled walls responsible for the studio's exquisite acoustics. "And it was all so close to being lost forever."
The two entrepreneurs now face the bigger challenge of making London Bridge profitable again.
Gone are the days when grunge bands would arrive with an entourage and book the studio for two straight months at $1,500 a day. In the face of sagging music sales and huge leaps in digital technology, bone-thin recording budgets are the norm.
Meanwhile, artists big and small have grown more tech savvy. The new archetypes are do-it-yourself bands like San Francisco's Red Thread. After spending more than $3,000 to record each of its first two albums in a studio, the band recorded and mixed its third release, "Ship in the Attic, Birds in the Subway," using equipment in the home of guitarist Jason Lakis.
"It's amazing the reverberation you can get from an upright bass played in a bathtub," says Lakis, who considers the album his most audibly polished work yet.
Although now owners of a flash, Abbey Road-like studio, Plum and Ott are anything but hi-fi purists. Quite the contrary. Says Ott: "We're down with digital."
Before joining forces to buy London Bridge, each operated businesses producing and recording local artists in makeshift studios using inexpensive recording software called Pro Tools.
The two plan to apply that same model to London Bridge, recording bands on richer-sounding 2-inch tape and then transferring the raw product onto their Macs, where it can be mixed and mastered at will.
By leveraging London Bridge's superb acoustics, the two hope to charge bands between $600 and $800 per day for their services.
Industry experts say that, with the right talent, such a no-frills approach is exactly what the ailing commercial recording business needs.
"Greater competition from cheaper technology means lower rates are here to stay," says Andrew Kautz, president of the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services in Nashville.
London Bridge's competitors acknowledge the studio has what it takes to make a comeback. "It's got wonderful acoustics and probably got the best [recording] board in all of Seattle," says Robert Lang, owner of Shoreline's Robert Lang Studios.
But as digital technology advances, analog's advantage over home-brewed audio is increasingly moot. More important, say industry members, are Plum and Ott's talents as engineers.
"They've got great ears — I'm sure they'll do just fine," says Martin Feveyear, owner of Jupiter Studios.
Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or email@example.com