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He Has Built It. Will They Come?

Dan Dietrich's new recording studio is up and ready to go. But places like his may be dinosaurs in the digital age.

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On April 4, Dan Dietrich lined his new 9,000-square-foot recording studio, Wall to Wall Recording, with kegs of beer and opened its doors to music fans for a party featuring three bands--local acts the Redwalls, Clyde Federal, and the New Constitution. It was pretty much what you'd expect from a studio opening. But guests wandering around the plushly carpeted hallways, some getting momentarily lost as they moved from one professionally appointed recording room to another, couldn't be blamed for wondering what, exactly, Dietrich could have been thinking opening this place--especially now.

Given the economics of professional recording, it's a weird time to be opening a studio. Boxes that turn a muscular PC or Mac into a home studio (like Digidesign's Digi 001 and Mbox) have made decent-sounding multitrack recording available to amateurs for as little as $450. Professional (and semipro) musicians who might have spent a fortune on studio time ten years ago are choosing to set up shop at home or in rehearsal spaces. As Soma Studios owner John McEntire notes, "Most people, if they can scrape together a couple thousand dollars, are more inclined to invest in a little bit of gear and learn how to use it." Devoted analog engineer Steve Albini puts it more bluntly: "From a practical standpoint, there isn't a worse business. You're competing with somebody who can do it for free on his laptop."

Minnesota's Pachyderm Studios, where Albini recorded Nirvana's In Utero, has had financial problems, and though his own Electrical Audio remains fully booked, he says, "I keep looking at my watch, waiting for it to affect us." And in a way it has. "The cost of equipment and the cost of staff are an order of magnitude higher than they were 20 years ago, but the billable price has remained exactly the same or fallen," says Albini. A typical 24-hour day of studio access at a big-time studio costs less than half what it did in the 1980s.

But Dietrich says Wall to Wall's combination of first-rate equipment and moderate rates fills a significant niche in Chicago. "We can't compete with some guy in his basement with a Digi 001 that charges $10 an hour," he says. "We also don't compete with [Chicago Recording Company] or somebody who charges two grand a day." There are other studios in town whose rates compete with Dietrich's--like Semaphore and Engine--but none of them has Wall to Wall's newly rebuilt Neve recording console (a pricey British-designed board) or its $100,000 worth of high-end German and British microphones. Dietrich says bands making digital recordings in their practice spaces are often less than satisfied. "They say, 'Wait a second, it doesn't sound the same'--the same as the records they grew up with." Those records, he notes, were typically recorded on "two-inch tape, analog console, and nice mikes." By switching between his three recording rooms (dubbed the Big Room, the Gold Room, and the Little Room) and an unnamed preproduction and rehearsal room for live tracking, overdubbing, and mixing as necessary, a group can make a complete record at Wall to Wall for about $3,000, he says. "We're trying to keep it affordable because around here that's what we have to do."

Ironically, the shakiness of the market in many ways makes opening a studio easier--and therefore more tempting--than ever. The big studios are "all going broke and their equipment is becoming available at fire-sale prices," says Albini. Sought-after gear like the precise German-made Studer tape recorders that once would have run a new studio more than 50 grand are now going as cheap as a few thousand dollars on eBay. Outfitting a studio with an arsenal of high-end recording equipment that would have cost a cool million not too long ago costs about $50,000 today. As a result, says Albini, "There's a shit million studios opening up."

Wall to Wall happens to have a few risk-reducing advantages over other start-up studios, most of which incur significant costs in build-out--soundproofing walls, floating floors, controlling reflection and sound absorption with various materials, wiring the building to higher specifications--even if the engineers do it themselves. Dietrich lucked into a space that had all that stuff already--it's been a recording facility of some sort since early 1972, when partners Chuck Lishon and Hans Wurman built it out as Sonart Productions and dB Studios.

Landlord Ed Van Baerle acquired the building, 676 N. La Salle, in 1970, when it had been vacant for 12 years. He remembers his tenant Lishon as a "wheeler-dealer" and a "phenomenon known for promoting local rock groups." Wurman, a classical composer, was the RCA recording artist responsible for the collectible The Moog Strikes Bach and Chopin a la Moog, attempts to reach the same market as Walter/Wendy Carlos's hit album Switched-On Bach.

At Sonart in the early 70s Wurman (who died in December 2002) wrote and recorded jingles and music for commercials and documentaries and sweetened sound tracks for various 16-millimeter movies, often using his early Moog synthesizer unit--serial number 002. "They were incorporating the Moog into documentary work," notes his son, Los Angeles-based sound track composer Alex. Though Sonart was the first public studio to have a Moog on hand, Alex says it was off-limits: "My dad wasn't letting anybody touch that thing." Over the course of a decade, Wurman made a couple more synthy albums, called The Electric Nutcracker and Comic Carmen. He delighted in combining synthesizer with live instruments and orchestration, a hybrid that Alex notes is "a huge part of the musical world now."

Lishon died in 1978 and Wurman sold the studio to Dick Girvin, who ran the audio and video postproduction house Zenith; he in turn sold it to one of his film mixers, Rick Coken, in 1982. His company, Coken & Coken, worked on projects such as Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and a slew of B movies in the space until Columbia College took it over in 1992 for use by its Audio Arts and Acoustics Department. (Coincidentally, department chair Doug Jones started his career soldering for Lishon's fledgling studio in the fall of '72.)

Dietrich, a Springfield native, moved to Chicago in 1997. He'd been working unhappily as a buyer for Flex-n-Gate ("a company that makes truck bumpers") and recording on the side with his brother, Matt, and their band, the Aquavelvets ("a surf, Vox organ, and fuzz-guitar band, sort of Fuzztones-like"). "My brother and I had a little home studio," he says. "We had an eight-track machine and some preamps. We had some 45s we put out." When the band laid down tracks with Mark Rubel at Champaign's Pogo Studio, Dietrich took notes. He eventually took classes from Rubel through Parkland College, "sort of an intro to recording that he taught at his studio," he says. "After being in the studio a few times, I thought it was something I liked, something I could do, and the thought never left me."

In '97 Dietrich called Mitch Marlow--then the manager at Kingsize Sound Labs and now the Redwalls' manager. "He knew that he could get me started with them interning," says Dietrich. "He just sort of pushed me over the edge." Dietrich eventually was hired as a studio assistant, working on sessions for Bobby Conn and others and recording projects the higher-ups didn't want. But in 2000 the three owners split Kingsize into separate studios, and two eventually relocated to Los Angeles. With the experience he'd gained, Dietrich landed a job managing the studio at Columbia. In his downtime, when the students and other faculty weren't around, he began recording local bands, including the Pages (who would become the Redwalls), the New Constitution, and a Uriah Heep tribute act whose name escapes him. After a year and a half, he joined the faculty as a part-time instructor. He still teaches Production 1 and 2 at Columbia's new facility at 33 E. Congress.

When Columbia pulled up stakes last summer, Dietrich approached Van Baerle, and they struck a deal. "This opportunity came up and everything just fell into place," says Dietrich. Van Baerle, who prefers to rent to creative types, cut him a break on the first few months' rent to help him get up and running. "I ended up with a building that only rents to artists, photographers, and designers, and we have maintained that position for 30 years," says Van Baerle. "When you get a community together, they feed on each other." Other tenants at 676 N. La Salle include a film and video equipment rental facility, an audio production and voice-over house, a graphic design agency, an art-reproduction company, a movie theater that runs dailies for films like Ocean's Twelve, and a caricaturist. The jingle house upstairs has already used Wall to Wall on two projects.

Dietrich has preserved many of the space's expensive structural appurtenances, such as a glass-walled control room that overlooks the main live recording room and some of the Studio 54-era decor: blue and red shag carpeting and a hall-of-mirrors entryway. The studio's original rooms have dimensions and structural extras (like the layers of wood that isolate the smaller control room) that are, by design, acoustically favorable.

Dipping into his savings and a profit-sharing fund from Flex-n-Gate and borrowing from family members, Dietrich put about $120,000 into refurbishing and outfitting the studio, which is peanuts for a studio start-up of its size. "If I were going to build a place that was, say, two rooms, I would budget a couple hundred thousand dollars," he says. "That's not including equipment." His girlfriend, his recently retired dad, and some Columbia students pitched in with chores such as painting and finishing acoustic treatments. Advanced students wired the consoles and assembled mike cables.

Columbia, naturally, took its recording equipment to its new building, so Dietrich had to spend a good chunk of cash on gear. But the studio's Neve console and closetful of vintage microphones have been made available to Dietrich on a kind of lend/lease program from an "equipment partner" (he'd rather not say who) who Dietrich says trusts him to share the wealth if it comes.

Dietrich has one full-time employee, Jonathan Parker, who manages the studio day to day. Parker worked for seven years as Wilco's production manager and guitar tech. Dietrich says he didn't actually hire Parker--he hired himself: "J.P. basically showed up as we were in the final week, getting ready for our first session. He said, 'I think I should run the place,' and he started showing up and has been showing up ever since." Parker also runs a guitar-repair shop inside the studio where bands can drop off their guitars and have them checked out and fixed up before a session.

Though the opening party was last month, Wall to Wall's been recording bands since October. "It was kind of unofficial," says Dietrich. "It was like, 'I guess we're done soldering and here comes the band with their gear, so...' Mark Sheehy was the first one."

Dietrich now charges a base price of $75 an hour (though discounts for multiday projects are available, as at most studios) and says he needs to be booked a minimum of ten days a month to make it work. "We've been busy 18 days [a month] since November and that's average," he says. "In December, it was 20-some days."

Still, at this point Wall to Wall's resume is a quick read. The Redwalls' regionally notable Universal Blues and an Andrew Bird tune--a bonus track for a European release--were made there, and the studio just recorded tracks for the Reputation's new CD, To Force a Fate. Freelance producer and engineer Liam Davis (credits include the Moviegoers and his own band, Frisbie) has recorded children's-music artist Justin Roberts and Tracy Spuehler, whose songs have been used in car commercials and on TV shows, at Wall to Wall. Chris Brickley (who's worked with R. Kelly, Wilco, and the Backstreet Boys) has used the studio to record the modern-rock band Tripperblue and has more sessions booked in May.

"I particularly just like the vibe and the look of everything," Brickley says. "It was like walking into a different era. There's something about that place that makes for a creative environment for me. There are such nice big live rooms, you can get a really live sound there. I like it because there's not a lot of bells and whistles, no beautiful lounges and big-screen TVs. It's more about getting work done."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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