Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Story of Musicol Recording Studio, From Pitchfork

Link to original post on Pitchfork

"Those famed music-making locales, and others like them, are long gone. But every weekday between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., you'll find a Musicol employee pressing vinyl in the basement on two manual, steam-heated Finebilt record presses-- emphasis on manual. Vinyl collectors like to think of records as handmade treasures-- the earthiest, most tactile music format-- and at Musicol they're exactly that. Whereas larger pressing plants use an automated process to crank out records by the thousands, at Musicol a sweaty dude pours the PVC pellets from a coffee can into a hopper that funnels them into an extruder, which heats the pellets into a blobby substance and oozes it out like toothpaste from a tube. He makes the blob into a patty, affixes a label, and presses it like a pancake with a nickel stamper, carefully trimming off the dross around the edges and inspecting the final product. A run of 500 takes about eight hours. Musicol has turned out a few million records this way, doing runs of 100, 300, 500, or 1,000, all pressed by hand one at a time. (Eat your heart out, Etsy.)

J.R. Ferguson pressing records at Musicol

These days, the basement pressing operation brings in more business than the studio. Local label Columbus Discount Records, run by Musicol house engineer Adam Smith, presses all of its records here, including releases by Times New Viking, Psychedelic Horseshit, Ron House, Cheater Slicks, and other Ohio lo-fi luminaries. Chicago's famed jazz/blues label Delmark Records (Junior Wells, Magic Sam) has pressed many of its records at Musicol since the early 90s. And Musicol presses records from all over the world-- Europe, Russia, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan. Even with overseas shipping, it's cheaper to press at Musicol.

The two recording suites still bring in business. Times New Viking recorded to 2" tape on Studio A's 16-track machine for their 2011 full-length, Dancer Equired, and the Black Swans recorded their 2012 album Occasion for Song at Musicol, as well. These Columbus bands are following in the footsteps of thousands who came before them, recording garage, soul, gospel, folk, country, and pretty much every other genre at Musicol since the 60s. Even Chicago's Numero Group, arguably the most respected archival label in operation, has noticed: The label is in the early stages of compiling music recorded at Musicol for a future release.
So how did Musicol do it? In the age of Pro Tools, home studios, and laptop recordings, why is this analog dinosaur not just surviving but thriving when the vast majority of its peers closed up shop decades ago? Sure, the oft-referenced "vinyl resurgence" has played a major role; sales of and interest in vinyl releases continue to rise annually. And even Clear Channel rockers are singing the praises of analog: Dave Grohl recently made a documentary about California's Sound City Studios after purchasing the famed studio's Neve 8028 recording console. But there's more to this survival story than the recent fetishization of a format, and it all starts with Musicol mastermind John Hull.

John Hull mastering a record at Musicol

"On a rainy afternoon in December, 84-year-old John Hull stands over his 1944 Scully lathe in Musicol's lower level mastering suite, cutting grooves into an aluminum disc coated in lacquer for the London, Ontario, band Disleksick. The lacquer will be used to make the shiny nickel stamper that gets loaded into the press. This particular 7" is a brutal, punishing onslaught of sound. (The group requested Hull inscribe the words "West Coast Noisecore" into the record's innermost ring.) Some tracks on Side A last less than 10 seconds. Most octogenarians wouldn't stay in the same room as this music for even that long, but Hull-- a mild-mannered, Baptist Midwesterner prone to grandfatherly chuckles and plaid button-downs-- just grins, tweaks some levels, and watches as the Westrex cutting head transfers sound from electrical impulses to the motion of the heated stylus, which makes grooves in the spinning lacquer. It's the 491st side he's mastered in 2012, meaning Hull is on track to break Musicol's previous single-year record of 504.

"John is an expert mastering engineer," says Dante Carfagna, Numero Group's man in the field and an archivist with Columbus roots. "I went in there one day and he was in the mastering den downstairs, sitting there with an oscilloscope trying to figure out a basically inaudible signal from some experimental metal guy-- some 50 billihertz tone that he was trying to get right so it would show up on the LP. He's really, really good at figuring out what those things need to sound like when they get pressed to records. It's not often you get a guy, particularly of John's age, that would even have the tolerance for some harsh noise CD."

It's not exaggeration to say Hull has been perfecting this process for nearly 70 years. The latter half of World War II coincided with Hull's high school years in his hometown of Fort Recovery, Ohio, a literal stone's throw from the Indiana border. Settled by Catholic immigrants from northern Germany who refused to convert to Lutheranism, fewer than 1,000 people lived in Fort Recovery in the 40s. Among them, though, was a science teacher who encouraged Hull to pursue his interest in electronics and sound recording. Emboldened by the support, Hull and his brother started a pirate radio station, broadcasting music and high school football games for almost two years until the FCC shut it down.
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Hull didn't have any way to record music, though, and that bothered him. Because of the war, metal was hard to come by, so Hull took parts from junked radios and other discarded electronics gear and built a lathe that would record onto discs. "I still have some recordings I made back in '45," he says.

After spending three years studying electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, Hull transferred to Ohio State University in Columbus to get his degree in engineering physics. He also enrolled in Ohio State's ROTC program and went on active duty in the Signal Corps in 1956, providing communications for tests on the atomic cannon in the swamps of Louisiana. He was discharged in 1958 and soon after went to work for North American Aviation (later becoming part of Rockwell International and now Boeing) developing antennas for airplanes.

Watch a mini-documentary about Musicol Recording Studio: 

"I had been out of the recording side of things for some time," Hull says. "But some of the people at North American found out I had done recording in the past, and they started a concert band. A couple of the guys who were in the group said, 'Do you think you can get some equipment together and record it?' That was enough to light the fire. I recorded the first concert of the North American Aviation Concert Band in 1960."

Everything snowballed from there. Through a mutual friend, Hull found a like-minded business partner in Boyd Niederlander, and they began recording high school bands and choral groups. At first it was mostly field recordings, but Hull also did studio work in his family's suburban homes through 1965. As studio work escalated, the partners moved to the current location on Oakland Park Avenue in the North Linden neighborhood, incorporating Musicol (often written "Mus-I-Col" in the early days) in 1966. They were savvy businessmen from the get-go, able to run the enterprise out of a residence because the property originally housed the offices and model home for the builder of the surrounding neighborhood, so the lots were incongruously zoned commercial.
Hull's engineering acumen quickly earned him a reputation in the community. Gary Hedden, Musicol's first employee and longtime engineer, was recruited when he was just a high school freshman. He remembers an existing company doing most of the field recordings before Musicol came along, but Hull convinced the high schools and bands to hire him, too, and then choose the recording that sounded better. It was a shootout. "Every time we went up against this existing guy, we won," Hedden says.

"Almost every person who ever started a studio in the 20th century comes from an electrical background," Numero Group's Carfagna says. "They were tinkerers. They would build their own circuit boards. [Hull] is in a long line that, for the most part, is gone."

Vintage Musicol ads

At Musicol, if you can build it, you do build it. One of the original consoles Hull built in the 60s is still in use today. When the record presses were put in the basement in the 70s, Hull couldn't get consistent quality, so he built control systems to regulate temperature and other variables.

"The term DIY gets thrown around a lot, but John actually did do all this stuff himself," says Musicol engineer Adam Smith. "The stuff he built around here is bananas. All the control systems, boxes that I still use, the bits and bobs that make a studio work-- he built all of it."
There was very little ego or showmanship that accompanied Hull's extensive know-how. As impressive a room as Musicol's high-ceilinged Studio A is, the place was and remains down-to-earth and unassuming. If some studios are sterile spaceships, Musicol is a dusty living room. "It's never bought into the glamorous side of studio recording equipment," Hedden says. "The quality of the product [at Musicol] has always been good even though the d├ęcor was never fancy."

Musicol's Studio B

Hull and Niederlander were frugal, always on the lookout for bargains on good equipment. Hull picked up RCA ribbon mics and Neumann tube mics on the cheap from radio stations and concert halls that grew tired of the maintenance required to keep them functional. (Hull could fix any of them, and those microphones are worth thousands today.) Even Musicol's trippy carpet was salvaged from the Cincinnati Convention Center in the 70s. You can still flip over boxes at Musicol and see "Army Signal Corps." "He doesn't sell anything," Smith says. "There's attics full of gear."

Unlike some of Musicol's contemporaries, Hull never aimed to run a studio that doubled as a label cranking out genre-specific hit records. Musicol is a custom studio providing a service. There were brief attempts at label imprints-- Hull Records in the early years, Ironbeat for garage, Now for gospel, Mus-I-Col for various genres-- but artists released their music however they desired, Musicol imprint or otherwise. Some recorded there but pressed elsewhere, others recorded elsewhere but pressed at Musicol. Sifting through the music made at Musicol would take years (and a lot of patience for white gospel, choral groups, and Ohio State Fair recordings).

There's no wall of fame at Musicol, but recognizable names did come through from time to time, usually to do voiceover work in Studio B: Lou Rawls, Dom DeLuise, Phyllis Diller, Pete Rose. Many early recordings weren't well-known at the time, but plenty of diamonds in the rough exist. Columbus soul legend Bill Moss recorded at Musicol before launching his own Capsoul label, which Numero Group chose for its first compilation. (Hull remembers Moss doing 180 takes before nailing a bass line.) A psych-rock outfit called Owen-B recorded a fantastic, but mostly forgotten, self-titled album and some singles at Musicol. (They payed it off by helping with the construction of Studio B.) Quite a few gems from 60s garage bands-- Ric Ocasek's little-known pre-Cars combo Id Nirvana, for example-- never saw release, but a punky 45 by the Myrchents titled "Indefinite Inhibition" remains a coveted collector's item. And J.C. Davis, who played sax with James Brown and Etta James, recorded the song "A New Day (Is Here at Last)" that was later reissued by Carfagna and his pal Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) on The Complete Mus-I-Col Recordings of J.C. Davis and subsequently sampled by Will.i.am on Justin Timberlake's "Damn Girl".
Many of Ohio's underground greats passed through Musicol, too. Twisted psychobilly outfit the Gibson Bros. and Ron House's post-punk band Great Plains made albums for Homestead Records there, as did countless Columbus rockers who were poised to break nationally but never quite did. Rappers came through from time to time, and still do; Bizzy Bone of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony once got angry during a recording session and punched a hole in the wall.

Like so many aspects of Musicol that remain unchanged, the hole is still there.

Warren Hull searching through old masters in a Musicol attic

After meeting Musicol's five staffers-- Hull, his son Warren, grandson Jonathan, engineer Adam Smith, and press operator/plumber/boiler repairman J.R. Ferguson-- you'd probably guess the Honda Gold Wing out front pairs with Ferguson, a 50-year-old jeans and sleeveless T-shirt kind of guy who's worked here since 1985. But the touring motorcycle actually belongs to Warren, a graying, doughy 51-year-old with a kind face and incisive eyes. You'll find him in slacks and a polo most days, reading glasses hanging around his neck. He's taller than his father and similarly amiable, though not as jolly. Warren keeps Musicol's wheels turning. He answers the phones, manages the record and CD orders-- billing, shipping, scheduling. He cuts the grass, blows the leaves.

This morning Warren sips from a coffee mug courtesy of No Idea Records ("Black coffee colored vinyl," it reads), then pauses to take a call from a Jose in Puerto Rico, who is checking on a test pressing. Afterward, he laughs while recounting the early days running around his dad's home studio poking holes in the speakers. He talks about the hard times, too, particularly the 90s. His dad doesn't remember the presses ever stopping, but it seems to be selective memory; during the down period, Warren says they were silent "for months at a time." Through the 70s and most of the 80s, the records pressed each year fill pages upon pages in Musicol's handwritten logs. Flip to the 90s, though, and each year gets just a few spiral notebook pages. Records were dying off. The CD was king, and CD duplication was not initially profitable. Warren remembers 63-minute blank CD-Rs going for $25 apiece. Cassette duplication still brought in some business, and people still used the studios occasionally, but times were tough. Niederlander, a founding partner, bowed out in 1990. John had to pump his own money into Musicol to keep it afloat. Then Bela Koe-Krompecher's Anyway Records came along.

Start listing the "important" bands to come out of Columbus in the 90s, and chances are they had a vinyl release on Anyway: Gaunt, New Bomb Turks, V-3, Bassholes, Jenny Mae, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, not to mention Dayton's Guided by Voices and Cincinnati's Ass Ponys.

"Many of the early [Anyway] releases had inserts that were sort of a catalog that promoted Musicol," says Koe-Krompecher. "This wasn't an agreement we had with them. I just thought it was the right thing to do, to plug a local operation. At the time, there was only a few places that pressed vinyl-- Dixie in Tennessee and Erika in California-- but both had higher prices and you had to pay for shipping. Plus, Warren always gave me a break, and I love Musicol."

"Bela is the one who resurrected the records coming back," Warren says. "He was one of our biggest customers-- he actually was on the beginning edge of the resurgence of vinyl. It has probably picked up 10 to 15 percent every year since '95."

Record pressing is the mainstay of Musicol's business today. In fact, Warren says if it weren't for record pressing, "we probably wouldn't be here." Every weekday, Ferguson starts pressing around 8 a.m. Smith follows him around noon, and Jonathan works the 5 to 10 p.m. shift. Only about a dozen pressing plants remain in the U.S., and Musicol is one of a handful that can do small runs.

Diversification has served Musicol well over the years; if one part of the business was down, another picked up the slack. Even outside Musicol, John Hull stayed involved in other ventures. He helped launch a Christian radio station. He started and sold a medical company and a communications business-- hence Musicol's cell tower, which he still owns. He even worked full-time jobs in addition to Musicol through 1994.

Building and fixing your own equipment, resourcefulness, an eye for bargains-- they all factor into Musicol's survival. But there's another, rather obvious component: John Hull is still here. Most other studios of Musicol's vintage aren't around anymore because the founders aren't around anymore. And Hull isn't Owner Emeritus. When healthy, he's at Musicol every weekday afternoon mastering records.

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Much of the studio's strengths are a direct result of Hull's skills. Musicol isn't a top-flight digital studio because Hull isn't a digital guy. (There's a Pro Tools rig, but it's about 10 years old; when your studio's founder loves to talk about the studio's aircraft-quality Teflon wiring, Pro Tools projects will probably never be your bread and butter.) He's not an analog snob, mind you. He doesn't revel in Musicol's vintage-ness or wax poetic about recording to tape. He doesn't romanticize vinyl; he presses it. This is what he knows, what he was trained to do.

While Warren will likely inherit the business from his father, he admits he knows little about the recording side of things. Smith, 33, is John Hull's ideological heir. Very few modern engineers know anything about electronics, but Smith believes in the old-school ethic enough that after getting a degree in graphic design from the Columbus College of Art & Design, he went back to school at Columbus State for two years (at Hull's prompting) to learn electrical engineering. The technical, hands-on approach comes naturally to Smith, who describes his parents as "back-to-the-land hippies."

Engineer Adam Smith

"We built our own house, had a farm," he says. "I've always worked on my own stuff. That's why I like working here. [Musicol] is a pretty similar setup to what my mom and dad's house was like." John brought Smith on as an engineer about four years ago, when a previous engineer left. "It's not an easy thing to jump into," Smith says. "At this point, there's 100,000 tricks of the trade. For the first several sessions I was just terrified."

Smith picked up his shift pressing records about a year and a half ago. Now, mastering is the final frontier. John has always done the mastering, but last fall he went under the knife for quadruple bypass surgery. Orders had to be sent down to Nashville while he was laid up, and outsourcing did not sit well with Hull. He began training Smith to cut lacquers in December.
Smith's involvement at Musicol has given the recording side of the business a boost in recent years. There have been times when Smith says Studio A stayed locked up for months, and though it may be too early to call it a Renaissance, younger Columbus bands are returning.

"I believe in the vibe and history of rooms, not just the gear and engineers," says singer Jerry DeCicca of the Black Swans. "I wanted to record within the same walls where some of my favorite records from my own community were made. And once Adam stepped into the fold there, I knew we'd be comfortable."

Times New Viking inside Musicol's Studio A. Photo by Jo McCaughey.

Musicol was Times New Viking's first studio experience after doing mostly four-track recordings. "We liked the history of it," says TNV singer/drummer Adam Elliott. "And we've always been sticklers for analog. Adam had re-done these mics, and we could record on 2" tape. And the carpet-- we were going to make our album cover that pattern."

"It's pretty amazing that Musicol kept going," Elliott says. "The world wasn't looking, but it was still going. And it's still here.""