"Should I get into the fact that producers and rockers really love Arizona because of the tit bars?" asks Jon Harris, owner of Phase Four Studios, a 24-track Phoenix recording facility. "And golf, too. I haven't met a musician who doesn't play golf. All these cats into heavy metal saying, 'Yeah, we're going to come out and record at Phase Four . . . and golf!'"
Although the Valley offers plenty in the way of golf and go-go bars, it also supports a substantial array of recording studios, ranging from low-budget demo rooms to upscale facilities hired out by artists like Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow and Patti LaBelle.
Harris' $4 million studio has catered to some of those big names, and he's excited about the way the local recording scene has developed and the high-caliber industry folk who have come here to record--and to live.
"You would be astounded," he says, "at the number of producers and artists already living here that people don't even know about. Neil Kernon, a producer from England, who's worked with the Sex Pistols, Queen and Elton John, just moved out of Seattle to come to Phoenix. And I found out that Stevie Wonder is building a house right out by mine."
"I feel real positive about what's going on here," agrees Tempest Recording's Clark Rigsby, who has worked with Valleyites Glen Campbell and Alice Tatum. "The studio scene is especially getting better. Everybody's building more facilities and trying to improve their lot here."
Much of the business in recent years has come from Los Angeles. "I think people are going to want to get out of L.A. to record," says Rigsby. "It's expensive, it's ugly and it's a pain in the ass to live there."
And those aren't the town's only faults. "I joke to people in L.A. that every time the ground shakes, my business increases by 15 percent," says Harris.
Harris may not have to sell Arizona as much as he thinks. Megadeth, for one, recently made a permanent leap from L.A. to Phoenix. As lead guitarist Marty Friedman told Guitar Magazine, "L.A. was too crazy for what we wanted to do. All the studios there were so busy; too many people in and out, lots of other bands wandering around, and too many distractions all the time. We needed some serenity, a completely different place. One by one we all started moving out to Arizona, because it's so mellow here."
Mellow it may be, but the majority of the deal makers are still in the City of Angels. "The biggest negative," says Rigsby, "is that the actual record business exists in L.A., and that's a little bit frustrating for me and for others in my position. But hopefully with the success of bands like the Gin Blossoms and the Meat Puppets, the business will come here a little bit."
One thing is certain: Your money goes a long way in Phoenix. Steve Escallier, a producer/engineer with Chton Studios, one of Phoenix's oldest and most distinguished recording facilities, claims the rates for upscale studios here are half of what they are in larger cities.
"The going rate in Phoenix is anywhere from $75 to $125 an hour in some of the higher-end studios," he says. "But in L.A. it's twice that much for the big rooms."
But even $75 is a stretch for a band on a budget. Fortunately, Phoenix offers plenty of options when it comes to quality recording at a discount. In Your Face Recording Studios (motto: "No Frills and a Sound That Kills") is a digital, 24-track facility owned and operated by producer Michael Vain, along with business partners Larry Williams and Char Presley, catering to the light-of-pocket.
Vain's average price per song (he doesn't charge hourly rates) ranges from $100 to $150, depending on the number of songs and complexity of the project.
"Many bands walk in here with tapes they've spent thousands on in studios that are all glitz and glamour," says Vain, whose clients include Satanic Industries L.T.D., Core and Platypus. "And the products just don't touch upon the bands' true raw energy and sound. Although we don't have all the bells and whistles of some of the bigger studios, with the digital gear we have, you get a truly dynamic, high-energy package."
Living Head Audio Recording, which has recorded local bands Horace Pinker and 100 Iced Animals, charges as little as $30 per hour and offers discounted block rates, as well. "What we're offering is a middle-market niche," says owner/engineer David Nichols of the 24-track studio. "A lot of times, people record at a smaller facility in line with their budget and they might get a poor-fidelity tape that isn't usable. Yet if they go into a larger facility, the price might be prohibitive. We offer a lot of high-dollar equipment that's close to their budget."
Yet some bands that can't afford the rates demanded by even the least expensive studios are recording in the privacy of their own basements on cheap, four-track recorders, then taking the tapes to commercial studios to be mixed.
According to Brian Talenti, singer for 100 Iced Animals, home-studio recording is a growing trend. "It's coming back to a do-it-yourself mentality," he says, noting that musicians often give their best performances in the comfort of a home studio, where they also can achieve a unique sound.
But for those financially challenged bands that insist on a plush studio, there are several alternatives. Some of Phoenix's bigger studios, including Vintage and Phase Four, offer what's known as a "B room," a smaller recording room where the rates are lower. Chton, for instance--known for working with such artists as Rob Halford, Alice Cooper and Paul McCartney--welcomes fledgling bands. "We try to support the local scene and give people a break by cutting back on the rates," says producer Steve Escallier. "We try to encourage that for bands to get going."
Steve Naughton, owner of Phoenix Recording Company (formerly The Groove Factory), is less than impressed with what he's heard around town. "As far as the local recording scene goes," he says, "I don't think anybody's done anything worth talking about. Everything I've heard sounds demo-y and doesn't have that national, punchy quality."
Naughton, who specializes in recording punk bands like Jimmy Eat World, Tilt, Face to Face, Jeff Dahl and Man-dingo, says he's spent the last five years developing his own "killer" sound. What does killer cost? A mere $35 to $55 an hour.
Naughton pinpoints a frequent pitfall of many locally produced CDs: Bands don't invest the time or money necessary to have their tapes properly mastered, a process in which the sound levels throughout an entire CD are equalized, or balanced. "Mastering is the frosting on the cake," he says. "It makes everything sound sweet. You can have a [well-recorded] album that, if mastered improperly, will sound cheap."
He claims that many of the Valley's engineers have inexpensive computer programs ($1,000 to $2,000) that don't provide good-quality mastering. Naughton generally refers bands to S.A.E. Mastering in Phoenix, or to K-Disk in Hollywood, California.
Another gripe comes from heavy-alternative locals N17, a band that began recording at Phase Four and then bailed to a studio in El Paso, Texas, with Phoenix producer Neil Kernon. Lead singer Trevor Askew explains the reason for the band's change in plans: "Phase Four is the best studio for mix-down in Phoenix because it offers top-quality mixing gear. But as far as big drum rooms, there's really no studio in Phoenix that offers a true drum room." Not yet, anyway; as Phoenix grows and more producers and engineers migrate to the Valley, things may change. Billy Spoon, owner of Anthem, a midsize facility that caters mainly to mainstream Christian pop groups, expects the number and quality of local studios to increase. "I really believe that the Phoenix recording scene is changing for the better," says Spoon. "There's going to be a shift here like there was for Minneapolis and Seattle."
Dave DeLorenzo, manager of locals Idols of Perversity, agrees. "More and more recording studios are coming out here because the opportunity to get good bands is gradually increasing," he says. "Phoenix will be the next city to have a lot of cool bands and a lot of people who record want to get a piece of the action."
And there is always, of course, all that golf and go-go.