On May 5, the musician Dave Madden arrived at Same Sky Productions in Austin to record their first studio session since the pandemic. Spotting a Rubik’s Cube on the desk inside the control room, the composer and songwriter cracked a joke to lighten the mood.
“I picked it up and said, ‘When was the last time this Rubik’s Cube was sterilized?'” Madden said. Billboard. But his humor was lost on the studio’s chief engineer, André Cantave, who replied without irony, “This morning.”
In 2020, working in commercial recording studios is no fun. Those that have reopened since shelter-in-place mandates began to ease are now operating more like medical facilities, where every Rubik’s Cube, microphone, console and guitar stand is sterilized and no human walks around without a mask.
These and other measures – all designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – have introduced a rigid quality to a setting that many once considered a fluid creative space and brought a whiff of paranoia to the daily interactions between artists, engineers, musicians. of session and others involved in the art of recording music. This left studio owners to balance the creative needs of their clients with the desire to protect them, resulting in an uneasy mix of priorities.
Now many industry players are trying to bring some semblance of uniformity to reopening protocols. One of them is the owner of Same Sky David Messierwho opted for a do-it-yourself approach in May after finding that national and local reopening guidelines were lacking in terms of recording studios, which, with their reliance on recycled air, create an environment with high potential for viral transmission .
“It was hard to understand, where do we stand?” says Messier, who notes he was able to continue doing remote work during the lockdown. “Nobody really touched specifically on the environment of a studio.”
In the absence of proper guidance from government and health authorities, Messier and his employees developed a list of guidelines — what he cheekily called “the FU-COVID plan” — based on the best scientific information available to the time.
They’ve arrived at a long list of health and safety protocols, which include mandatory face masks unless someone sings or plays a wind instrument (in which case they’re placed in a cabin. isolation from others); at least six feet of physical distance between players; temperature checks on arrival; the use of high-powered ultraviolet lamps to disinfect the rooms once the sessions are over; limit visitors to essential personnel; and the removal of sofas and other furniture that would encourage guests to congregate in close proximity to each other. Prior to arriving, all guests are additionally required to complete a questionnaire detailing their recent medical and travel history, and to leave addresses and phone numbers to facilitate contact tracing in case a visitor to the studio comes across the virus.
“Obviously it’s a creative environment, so I had a huge concern: ‘Is it just going to be total love at first sight? ‘” Messier said. “So far, we haven’t felt that. people understand and [they’ve] been happy that we have these things in place.
Messier then contacted Maureen Droney, executive director of the Recording Academy’s producers and engineers wing, to gauge her interest in using her recommendations for an industry-wide document. This launched what eventually became known as Project Safe Studios, an official list of recommendations released by the P&E wing late last month that incorporates suggestions from various studio owners, engineers and others.
Although it’s designed to be a kind of cheat sheet for studios, the Safe Studios document isn’t meant to be prescriptive, says the Recording Academy’s acting president/CEO. Harvey Mason Jr. While Mason says he follows all of the recommendations listed in the guide at his own recording studio in Burbank, Harvey Mason Media — which has held limited sessions — he understands that some studios don’t enjoy many of the same luxuries.
“I don’t want it to sound like I’m telling you what I’m doing in my studio and that’s what we expect from everyone, because that’s not realistic,” Mason says. “We appreciate that some people have studios in their house, some people have studios in their garage. We’re just trying to make sure that wherever our music community creates, they’re as safe as possible.
Among those who contributed to the academy’s Safe Studios document was the sound engineer and former co-chairman of Nashville P&E Leslie Richter, who collaborated very early on with Droney and Messier. At the time of the lockdown, Richter was working on an album by an alternative country/Americana singer. Josh Martin, a process that continued remotely once the studios closed. Following the reopening of The Sound Emporium — the Nashville studio that hosted the project’s first follow-up sessions, Richter set the tone for their first day back.
“I reached out to the players and said, ‘I won’t judge you for not wearing a mask, but I will wear a mask,'” she said, noting that neither the studio itself nor the state does not require them. “I put that out there for them, like, just so you know, that’s where we are.” To his relief, each of them showed up with a face covering on the first day.
As cautious as she is, Richter admits it was difficult to adhere to social distancing guidelines once inside. “There’s so many things you do in the studio that just aren’t remote,” she says. “We were in a studio with a fairly large control room, but there were a lot of times during the day when we were within six feet of each other.” A familiarity with Martin and his “conscious” habits during lockdown made her more comfortable, she says, although she admits a level of blind faith. “I didn’t talk to my artist while we were listening to the playback because I [wasn’t supposed to] get close to him,” she said. “I just kind of made that choice like, ‘That’s the risk I’m taking today.'”
Producer/Engineer Joe Chiccarelliwho has worked on projects for Jagwar Twin, Didirri, Little Dragon and others since the start of the pandemic and also contributed suggestions to the P&E document, says the dynamics of the studio are inevitably transformed in the age of COVID- 19
“We’re all going in with our test results emails and presenting them to people like it’s a graduation,” says Chiccarelli, who has her own space in Sunset Sound in Los Angeles and also works in its main commercial studios, where masks, temperature checks and other strict measures are applied. “When an artist entered the room [before the pandemic], [they would] talk about all the music gossip they read in the morning before coming to the studio,” he adds. “Now the morning conversation is, ‘Oh my God, did you see New York just had a peak?'”
An inevitable complication of in-person sessions during the pandemic is the varying risk tolerance of those involved, especially in situations where fewer warrants are in place. Los Angeles-based drummer Darren Weisswho has recorded in both a commercial studio and a home studio since the virus emerged, says entering the home studio session – his first since the pandemic – has been a source of anxiety.
“I just didn’t know how it was going to be and I didn’t know the artists or anything, so I couldn’t really get a handle on everything,” Weiss says, noting that he performed alone in a piece throughout the session. while the artists and producer – who had all tested negative for COVID-19 the day before – gathered in the control room without masks.
Nervous aside, Weiss says returning to the studio has been invigorating.
“The experiences I’ve had, I think people are excited to work on something in one place with a group of people — and I know I feel that,” he says. “That excitement and joy is greater than any fear or nervousness I might feel.”
And the pandemic has created demand, with some studios saying they are now fielding a slew of booking requests. “Now that we’re back, we’ve had a lot of requests because everyone can’t wait to get back and get into production,” says Jeff Greenbergowner of The Village in West LA and who provided input to the P&E document.
By his own admission, Greenberg leads one of the stricter operations in town. In addition to requiring all guests to wear face masks, fill out questionnaires and observe social distancing once inside, they must undergo a thermal scan and have their shoes and phones disinfected upon entering the hall. ‘establishment. Greenberg has also mandated plastic coatings on studio floors, constant disinfection of touch surfaces throughout the building, and heavy use of UV lights — including inside air conditioning vents — to keep the virus from circulating. . It has also retained the services of a doctor located down the street to regularly test its staff, and is staggering sessions for the moment to avoid traffic in the common areas.
In Las Vegas, the director of the Studio at the Palms Zoe Thrall – who also contributed to the P&E document – says she is unable to mandate face masks due to the location of the facility inside a casino that does not have one – same need. However, she asks her own employees to wear them and always encourages guests to bring their own or borrow one from the studio before entering.
“I’m one of those people who think the virus is widespread and who believe everyone should wear a mask,” she says, pointing to the success of high face mask usage in Asian countries like South Korea. South and Vietnam. “It seems like a very slight inconvenience to follow this and care about others.” ‘
Thrall says she is also implementing a number of other strict protocols, including physical distancing, constant disinfection using electrostatic sprayers and “hospital grade” sanitizer, limiting the use of common areas and prohibiting cash payments.
Besides the potential human cost of infection, there are business considerations to be made, and not just for individual stores. As Messier points out, the transmission of the coronavirus in a studio could create a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem. And for a company that’s already struggling from the virus — not to mention competition from home studio setups — it could have disastrous implications on a much larger scale.
“An outbreak that starts in a studio anywhere,” Messier says, “is probably bad for all of us.”