In Muscle Shoals, a recent documentary about the tiny Alabama town that houses two of the most important recording studios in the world, the filmmakers speculate that sound, like wine, has terroir – local flavor imparted by the land. As strange as that may sound, living in Oklahoma makes the idea feel more likely; after all, one of the Sooner state’s signature musical styles, red dirt, literally takes its name from the soil.
A major foundation of Oklahoma’s growing music culture that goes easily unnoticed are the recording studios that musical acts use to give permanence to their creations. Yet in recent years, these studios have grown in number and prominence, gaining a national reputation for quality. In all styles, from country to rap, Oklahoma recording studios help ensure that local music stays local, not just in its creation but in its production.
A quick tour of the state’s recording studios reveals a large diversity of focus and method. Most belong to a single owner who also runs much of the operation, but some find their place within a larger context. Some studios focus on singer-songwriters, some on full bands, and others on everything in between. Many record the big, established names of the Oklahoma music scene, but some focus on developing new talent. What ties these very different studios together is their unflagging commitment to making Oklahoma music great.
When most people hear the words “Oklahoma music,” the image they likely conjure involves guitars and fiddles and country twang. Wes Sharon, owner and operator of 115 Recording in Norman, specializes in just this sort of music. 115 has served as the recording location of a number of albums for regional country and Americana acts. The studio pushes beyond the typical boundaries of folk and country music, however, and also records singer-songwriters and bands with more of a rock edge.
Recently, 115 worked on a number exciting projects, including with rising stars of the folk world John Fullbright and The Turnpike Troubadours. Fullbright’s 2013 album From the Ground Up, which was nominated for Americana album of the year by both the Grammys and the Americana Music Association, was fully produced, mixed and recorded at 115. The same goes for The Turnpike Troubadours’ album Goodbye Normal Street, which was Lone Star Music’s bestselling record of 2013.
If country is Oklahoma’s tried and true musical genre, the title of exciting new kid on the block goes to hip-hop, which has seen something of a Renaissance in recent years. Tulsa, especially, houses a vibrant hip-hop scene, with local acts performing socially conscious, infectious songs at a number of hot venues in town. The newcomers at MuGen Music are seeking to propel this culture to undiscovered heights. A management company as well as a recording studio, MuGen works with local artists from beginning to end to bring about new hip-hop albums.
Other studios focus less on genre and more on shared artistic vision. Breathing Rhythm Studio in Norman records work from bands of all stripes. Instead of narrowing in on a particular sound, the studio instead searches for artists ready to open themselves up to the spontaneity of the recording process. As owner/operator Steve Boaz puts it, he looks for acts that possess “a drive to capture a moment that is imperfect, uncorrected and real.”
This openness has led to a number of opportunities for Breathing Rhythm. Fayetteville, Ark.-based band Smokey and the Mirror has made the trek to Norman to record at the studio, which has also produced work by Kyle Reid and the Low Swinging Chariots that has garnered critical buzz. Upcoming work includes an album with the band Young Readers.
Studio Two, in the heart of downtown Tulsa, boasts a long history of quality recording in Oklahoma. Since the mid-‘90s, owner Lane Lollar has recorded hundreds of projects for local musicians, including big acts like Steve Liddell. He has also, thanks to reputation and location, recorded work by national artists like David Archuleta, Chamillionaire and even the touring cast of the musical Grease. Because of Studio Two’s proximity to performance venues like the BOK Center, Lollar often records these artists as they pass through Tulsa.
While most studios focus on capturing high-quality recordings for as many acts as possible, the studio of the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma has different priorities. The studio simultaneously acts as a testing ground for the school’s music performance students and a laboratory for those pursuing a degree in music production. Though the studio occasionally records acts from the wider community, most of its energy gets focused toward producing the next generation of Oklahoman musicians and studio engineers.
So how exactly does a record get made? How does an act move from the initial lightning strike of inspiration to an album worth sharing with fans? As it turns out, there’s no one way an album gets recorded. Depending on genre, temperament and the desired sound, the process can take a number of different shapes.
Every studio starts in the same place, however – finding acts worth recording. Though they get paid regardless of a band’s quality, the studios have an interest in working with acts that will reflect well upon them. Like so many areas of the entertainment industry, talent discovery at a local level is driven largely by connections. Often, musicians the studio operators have worked with will bring new talent to their attention. This ensures a level of quality, reliability and seriousness. Some studios even screen potential acts thoroughly. MuGen Music, for example, makes all potential clients undergo a rigorous interview process and a sample recording session before agreeing to a contract. Studio Two also proceeds with caution, given how many people approach them without understanding the full scope – or cost – of a recording session.
Once a studio agrees to record and produce an album, the work has just begun. With actual recording time at a premium, lots of work goes into the front end of making songs work. Boaz says he spends a long time in preproduction simply discussing each song with a band. Preproduction can also vary depending on the type of act. With a full band that plays together regularly, the songs often come with arrangements in place beforehand, thus cutting down on the preproduction process.
With singer-songwriters, however, the work can be more rigorous. Often these acts will come to the studio with only a simple melody line worked out and lyrics laid on top. It is the job of the studio operator to take this rough product and shape it into something more polished. A common way to do this is to record a demo, a stripped down version of a song that will later be transformed into something more fleshed out.
Some studios prefer to skip this step and work from a more developed starting place. Sharon says that, rather than demos, he likes to work from templates. He will have a singer play along on the instrument of his or her choice (usually guitar or piano), then pair that with a beat from a drum machine. From that template, he will go on to create lush orchestrations that fill out the song.
The recording process itself also varies widely depending on the needs of the group. Established bands come fully equipped and ready to record, with little need for added players. Many groups, though, require the backing of studio musicians. Here again, connections play a key part in the process. Sharon often recycles players on multiple projects – for instance, using members of The Turnpike Troubadours on many albums by other groups. A musician himself, Sharon will even occasionally fill in, playing bass or other instruments from the booth.
It’s also possible, thanks to technology, to record albums in separate chunks, with each instrument doing its own thing, coming together in the mix. Many studios, though, prefer the more organic feeling that arises from having all the musicians in the same room, at the same time; this togetherness lends what Boaz calls “a certain vibe” to the proceedings.
Lollar likes to record “on floor,” with the entire band’s musicians playing together in a way that feels most natural to them. However the players are arranged, it can take a surprisingly long amount of time to record a three- to five-minute song. Though Sharon has seen entire jazz albums recorded in a day, he tends to allot one to three days per song.
Another variable in the recording process is the role – and sometimes lack thereof – technology plays. Though everyone uses computers these days, especially in the mixing process, the part the machines play during recording can vary widely. Many studios that specialize in country or folk music use computers sparingly, preferring the old fashioned ways of recording. Sharon uses computers when necessary, but keeps his studio well stocked with all the classic equipment, which he feels gives him more control over the recording. Likewise, Boaz, though well versed in digital recording, loves the feel of albums recorded onto analog tape.
Given all the new technology, the way we experience music has radically changed over the past 10 years, from the recording process down to the listening experience. Not all this impact has been positive. Though the lowering of cost afforded by home recording has allowed for a democratization of the process, it has also had an adverse effect on recording quality. As Lollar points out, this degradation has continued, in part, because new formats like MP3s sacrifice quality and balance for reduced file size, and listening devices like earbuds inherently lower sound quality. Because people get trained to listen in this way, their understanding of the full possible range of sound has diminished, which in turn lets producers get away with lower standards.
Technology is not going away, so the trick becomes teaching recording engineers to use it wisely. At ACM, students learn both the classic techniques involved in recording and the cutting edge process enabled by computer programs. ACM features training in both Avid and Ableton, two of the most common software programs for recording music. It employs one of the only Ableton certified engineers in the country, which allows them to teach their students the proper techniques for getting the most out of the technology. In addition, ACM requires that all students at the school take basic classes covering the recording process – not just those training to be sound engineers, but also those specializing in music performance and music business. This means that, in theory, people in all areas of the music business get trained to be sensitive to the nuances of recording.