The San Francisco Bay Area served as the launching pad for iconic artists including The Grateful Dead, Santana, Journey, Metallica, Joe Satriani, Counting Crows, and Third Eye Blind. Sadly, the tech boom dealt a death knell to the affordable housing and ample rehearsal space that drew musicians to the Bay Area in the first place. This trend has been echoed by studio closures including The Plant in Sausalito, where groundbreaking records like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” were recorded.
The first time I worked at 25th Street Recording was on a session with iconic producer /engineer Neil Dorfsman (Def Leppard, Dire Straits, Sting) for Mercury Recording Equipment. The massive live room, ample isolation rooms, sensational mic locker, and racks brimming with the coolest outboard made for an outstanding recording experience. Add great vibes, easy freeway access, and awesome décor to the mix and that begins to explain why 25th Street has flourished while other studios have shut their doors.
In addition to attracting all-star clients like Joe Satriani and Grammy Award winning producer Joe Chicarelli, 25th Street has also found innovative ways to utilize their space to generate additional revenue streams. While he would never say it himself, the following interview with studio manager John Schimpf really reveals how important his role has been in the studios’ success.
[GTR] John, always a pleasure! Although the studio is beautiful visually speaking, when you walk through the door it really feels like an inspiration place to make music. This is obviously not an accident, so tell us a bit about what atmosphere means to you?
[John Schimpf] First of all thanks, it’s great to be a part of the magazine! Aesthetics and atmosphere are very important to us. Owner David Lichtenstein was deeply involved in all aspects of the buildout, and paid very close attention to the design. The goal was to make the studio feel like home, not an office. Our clients and our staff spend countless hours in the building, so it was crucial that the environment be comfortable. We developed different spaces for people to work or relax in outside of the recording spaces as well. We spend a lot of time refining the rooms to better suit our clients, and we also make sure that every inch of the building is utilized in the best possible way. We are also hyper-critical about keeping things clean, organized and super-efficient. Our ultimate goal is to make everyone’s experience here special and memorable.
[GTR] Your collection of outboard gear is pretty breathtaking. Which pieces are you guys most excited about and are there any cool stories behind how they came into your possession?
[John] First and foremost, every single piece of equipment we have is here because it’s useful. If a piece of equipment is hard to use, constantly breaking, or isn’t in some way special or for a very specific purpose, we sell it. We take cues from our staff, guest engineers, and artists about what they want to have available to make their lives easier. Calibration and maintenance is crucial to our operations, so we meticulously go through everything before it goes into the racks. There is nothing worse than finally getting that opportunity to use a classic mic-pre or compressor, only to find it inoperable. Workflow also dictates what we keep around. We pay very close attention to what we are recording on a day to day basis, and we adapt our collection to that workflow directly. For example, we record a lot of drums, so we keep 10 channels of Neve 1073, 1084 and 1081 modules normalled into the first 10 channels of the console.
We also record a lot of vocals, so we have vintage V72, V76 and DW Fern mic-pres, 1176, LA2 and Fairchild compressors, and hardware de-essers ready for that. Almost no outboard is used for mixing these days, so our outboard equipment is used primarily for recording sounds. Having useful, easy-to-use EQ and compression at the recording stage makes life easier when it comes to mixing. We go for the sounds right away, and we keep the tools on hand to get that done, day in and day out. Nothing beats the classics when it comes to getting great sounds.
[GTR] Given how many big studios closed their doors before and after you launched, having a giant live room as an integral part of your studio was a pretty gutsy move. What was the strategy behind this?
[John] Our owner was involved in his own album project when he got the idea of building 25th Street. He spent a lot of time working in studios where he grew up in NYC, and here in the Bay area as a musician, and thought the area could use another big room where a full band or ensemble could make music together. In retrospect the idea was gutsy, but it has paid off. We are booked constantly, and our clients use this studio for its intended purpose of having an accessible and beautiful space to make music. Building our business hasn’t been easy, but we are proud of the hundreds of records that have come out of this place in just a few short years.
[GTR] You’ve got an API Vision console in Studio A which is great for big sessions. In addition to the number of inputs, what are your favorite things about this console?
[John] Because 99% of all of our mixing happens in the box these days, the console is used exclusively for recording. Having a big console allows us to record very large ensembles and offers a lot in terms of bussing and general routing. We have spent a lot of time this year customizing the layout of the console to help sessions run better and to make setups easier. We normalled all of our outboard mic pre’s into the console, as well as all of our 2 track decks and outputs, which cut our patching by almost 75%. We also relabeled our patchbays from the factory to make things more clear and easier to use. We are constantly making the studio easier to use and the console is at the center of that. Console maintenance and calibration is very important to us, and we have made modifications to the console to make it sound even better. Recording a full band with an all analog large format console is an amazing experience!
[GTR] I love the fact that Studio B enables you to use the isolation rooms from Studio A for overdubs or re-tracking parts if they’re available. This is a great use of space – was this part of the original plan?
[John] Studio B was originally intended to be an office! After the first few years in business we needed a second studio to take on smaller projects, editing work, and a host of other day to day tasks that we couldn’t accomplish because the main rooms were getting booked so regularly. We slowly built up the room with gear that had been in the owner’s project studio, and added the tie lines into our main patchbay, which allowed us to tie all of the rooms together. Like everything else here, we paid very close attention to what our clients actually need and we have continually adapted the equipment and workflow to accommodate that. We just completed a total makeover of the room last month, which included new speakers and a total rework of the gear and acoustics. Everything that was done we did to better accommodate our clients.
[GTR] What tips do you have for home recording enthusiasts for track prep and so on when incorporating a large studio like yours into their production process?
[John] We live in a Pro Tools world, so making sure that tracks can be easily imported onto that platform is essential. We spend a lot of time helping clients prep for sessions, and encourage them to book a few hours in Studio B to sort out a project if it seems like a complicated integration. We accept all relevant formats digital and analog, and we are a lot more concerned with what’s on the tracks vs. what format they are in. Great songs and amazing music can be recorded on an iPhone or it can be recorded on a $25K Pro Tools system. We don’t judge. Our goal is always to serve the music first and to pay attention to the artist’s intention. We know our place can be intimidating to a first-time client, so we do as much as we can to make people feel comfortable, including engineers and artists. No project is too small, and almost everyone can usually benefit from some way by coming to us. We do everything from pre-production to mastering, and every member of my staff is capable of making the entire record – or making the coffee. We have no ego about our roles here. We treat everyone with respect no matter what level they are at in the business. That is what we are all about.
[GTR] The facility has great site lines as you work, which is a big part of why I used it to stream the Ultimate Speaker Demo and to shoot the Roswell Pro Audio Delphos mic video.
[John] Video didn’t factor in until the very end of the buildout. There was a last-minute decision made to install a lighting grid into the studio, and to include some fiber optic cables into the mic panels for video. It still took years to build up the resources and expertise to shoot great videos in the space. We experimented with many combinations of cameras, positions, and lighting arrangements. We also spent a lot of time working in different ways to determine what could be done to get the best results for the least amount of time and money.
[GTR] Mason from Vertex has also shot a number of videos there. How much did video factor into your original business plan?
We took a lot of cues from watching other video crews who came through the building. We have hosted a music series sponsored by Pandora Radio, as well as commercials for The Ford Motor Company. Presently we have a very good selection of high end cameras, lenses, lighting and equipment to make very high-quality videos in house. We can also live stream, and change the space in many different ways to shoot unique looking music videos. We work with our clients very closely to determine what can be done within their budget and also what will have the most impact for their specific project. The results have been amazing, and every shoot gets better.
[GTR] Your offerings also include mastering as well as DSLR and lighting package rentals. How important have these revenue streams been in terms of your bottom line, as well as attracting new customers?
[John] I continually try to offer more services to both boost our bottom line and to help our clients. The more we can do in house the better. That being said, we also encourage our clients to ultimately do what’s best for their project. If we feel like we can connect a client with an engineer or director that will better serve their project, we suggest it. Every service we offer has been thoroughly developed before I charge a client. If you come to shoot a video, you will get an amazing video for a great price. If you make your record here you will get a top shelf product and experience. We spend the time making sure that every service we offer is first rate. We stand behind everything we do 100%.