It's 7 o'clock in the evening and another band loads drum cases, guitars, and amps through Fusion 5 Studio's glass doors. Jordan Herschaft, the 25-year-old studio proprietor and one of Fusion 5's three main engineers, ambles past the musicians, bouncing back and forth between the sparsely-furnished front lobby and the spacious main recording room in the back of the sprawling facility -- a cypress-panelled, almost gymnasium-sized octagonal room with a beige/green parachute draped across the ceiling. "Go ahead and set the drum kit up on the rug," he tells the drummer. "We'll mic 'em up in a few moments."
Thus begins a typical session at the up-and-coming studio at the river end of Long Point Road in Mt. Pleasant. Most music fans rarely get to see the nuts-and-bolts work it takes to track an album -- the nerve-racking task of performing numerous takes and overdubs during the instrumental sessions, the frustration of vocal tracking in the isolated sound booths, and the tedium of mixing and remixing final sound levels. Studio sessions are where the true techniques and talents of musicians surface.
Just two years ago, Herschaft and his main studio man Jeff Leonard, 24, looked like a pair of laid-back, shaggy-haired college dropouts in sneakers and T-shirts, working under the guidance of longtime audio engineer John Uhrig, a former partner in the studio. They learned on the job, from one local band session to the next. While they still might be a bit scruffy, they've expanded their expertise beyond what most local scenesters ever expected. Not only did they learn the techniques and mechanical ins and outs of how to record a musical act -- they quickly figured out how to successfully manage a burgeoning business, create a comfortable atmosphere and a fully-functional modern recording facility, and deal with the unpredictable antics and behavior of musicians.
Working as a tag team, Herschaft and Leonard tell the band members to kick back on the big couch in the main room while they carefully place a variety of expensive-looking microphones and boom stands around the room and close to each piece of the drummer's kit. "I need a drum key to tweak these a bit," Herschaft hollers across the room. As a longtime drummer himself, he understands the tuning method necessary to comply with the acoustics of the big room.
Fusion 5 regularly bustles with activity from local songwriters, regional bands, and visiting agents and engineers. Among other studios -- Jay Miley's Charleston Recordings Studio, Keith Bradshaw's Recording Studio, Summerville's International Talent Studio (ITS) facility -- Fusion 5 has gradually become one of the busiest and most productive recording studio spots in town, mostly thanks to its growing reputation for a broad range of high-quality sounds mixed with the professionalism of the engineers.
"It's such a collective place," says Taylor Nelson of Maytag (who recorded their 2004 album Ode to a Son of a Bitch at Fusion 5). "All these groups come through here. It's very fertile. You run into other musicians. You can't play your stuff and record it at the same time, so I guess that's why so much is made of who produces records."
The dingy, gray exterior of Fusion 5 conceals a cavernous space, which was once a bulk item warehouse by the Wando Welch Terminal. It's an open, rectangular area with high ceilings, perfect for a spacious studio.
The gargantuan Harrison 3232 B12 Return recording console sits in the main room. It's a vintage mixing board that saw action in California in the 1970s and '80s (it was used during the Thriller sessions and on Neil Young records, among many others). There are numerous smaller mixing boards and two or three computers sitting in the middle of the main production desk (which Herschaft constantly toys with). Some of the smaller isolation booths and vocal recording rooms are connected to this nexus, and a large plexiglass window lets the engineers watch the magic happen in the big recording studio in front of the console.
Inside the main recording room, which looks a bit like a ballroom, are a grand piano, a Hammond chord organ, a Rhodes piano, several Fender guitars and basses, a vintage Rodgers drum kit, and various snare drums. This room has smaller isolation booths around the perimeter, too. All told, there are three different vocal booths and two isolation booths at Fusion 5, all of which are interconnected digitally.
Herschaft situates himself behind the Harrison console and calls for the drummer to sit down behind the kit, secure his headphones, and start kicking a steady beat on the bass drum. "Hit it as hard as you would during a real song," he says, while adjusting several knobs in hopes of getting a clean sound for the first of dozens of tracks going to tape. Boom-boom-boom. He's done this 300 times before.
From the moment a group starts hauling their gear through the front glass doors, the engineers begin making mental notes and assembling a game plan for the session. There's always plenty to consider: the technical proficiency of the players, the meter of the drummer, the temperament of the vocalists, how tightly the members of the band play together. More practically, they also have to weigh the number of songs they'd like to finish and the amount of time and money afforded against the goals of the artists. It's a tricky balancing act, but effective studio producers know how to referee and encourage the artists in session toward the ultimate goal -- as hinted at by the sign on Leonard and Herschaft's shared office: "I don't fix it, I mix it."
"Fusion 5 offers an extremely professional atmosphere," says local songwriter John Crain, who recently finished a long session. "They don't have a holier-than-now attitude like some. They listen to your style and deliver a product that is consistent with what you're looking for. They're proficient with the engineering tools and have a good ear to point out off-tones, off-beats, or other minor inconsistencies. If you have a good idea of what you want, you won't walk out of there feeling that your product isn't up to snuff due to their engineering or production methods."
"When people come in to record, they're not listening to the things that we're listening to," says Herschaft. "We're listening to EQs and frequencies. The way you relate that to the band, giving them what they want to hear plus what you want to hear and making everyone happy, you almost have to lie to them occasionally to cover up that everything's fine, even though you know that they're trying to get you one thing but that's step eight, and you're only on step four.
"Most bands come in and think they're gonna do five to ten songs in eight hours, and then they realize they can hardly do one song in that time," he adds. "They get really frustrated, and it really shows how tight the band is, if they're close or not, if they're willing to work together. Most bands can come in here and work for eight hours, and we can almost guarantee that the other eight hours they spend recording it is gonna turn out the way they want."
Fifteen years ago, any local band wanting to make a high-quality, radio-ready recording had to travel to Reflection Studio in Charlotte, Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, or a fancy 24-track spot in Atlanta and fork out a lot of cash. A few bands recorded at home on cheap four-track machines, while some paid a couple hundred dollars for a quick session at one of the few 8-track or 16-track studios around the region -- the lo-fi quality usually sounded sub-par.
The rise of digital technologies in the '80s and early-'90s revolutionized and democratized recording studios and home studios. The release of ADAT format and digital machines allowed for much more affordable recording. The digital stuff changed the landscape immediately. Suddenly, people could set up a 16-track digital machine without having to pay for the expensive 1" or 2" tape. Compact discs were also gradually becoming less and less expensive to manufacture. The rise in accessibility of the internet accelerated things in the studio and band scene as well.
The Fusion 5 crew utilize both digital and analog recording to their advantage, embracing the natural warmth of analog tape and gear as well as the editing, re-writing, and mixing abilities of ProTools and digital equipment. Oftentimes, a session will begin with a basic drum or rhythm track (recorded using analog gear) and build from there. Once a track or song is downloaded to a hard drive, the engineers can easily change it around, add verses, make it longer, attach an intro that has nothing to do with the song, etc. That sort of thing is extremely difficult to do with an analog machine and takes a lot more time and skill; it's much faster and more efficient with ProTools.
"We all use digital, but we all love analog sounds," says Bass.
"We're basically an analog studio that's hooked up to a digital recording studio," adds Herschaft.
These days, it's not unusual to have musicians show up at a studio with their hard drive instead of their guitars. They'll come in and transfer it to the system and, in the process, save thousands of dollars of studio recording time by doing all they can at home.
Stumbling through the beginnings
Far from cocky, Herschaft and Leonard come off as confident, nonchalant professionals, capable of working as quickly or as casually as necessary for each visiting artist. They earned their confidence the tough way, however. When faced with a messy personnel bust-up and a daunting financial crisis in 2003, the young entrepreneurs plowed ahead with purpose. Together, they spent the last two years renovating and rebuilding the studio's equipment, facilities, and reputation.
The pair initially signed on as rookie assistant engineers while attending Trident Tech, both hoping to earn a degree in broadcasting. Despite the fact that the college allowed internships for credit with only a small handful of local television and commercial radio stations, the pair convinced their professors to allow them to venture into the commercial recording studio setting and took internships at the small Six Mile Studio in Hollywood, S.C. in 2000. They mostly learned under the tutelage of veteran engineer John Uhrig, a longtime Florida and Carolina tech who spent years working in a small studio on Calhoun Street called American Holly.
Things went so well that the trio decided to embark on a new studio business venture in 2001. "We worked on the rooms and the wiring of the gear up until literally the last minute," says Leonard. "In our first session [in May '02] with our first band, they were setting up amps and drums while we were quietly trying to wire the rest of the mixing board!"
As they pushed ahead with their session work -- learning the intricacies of the gear and polishing their techniques as they went -- Leonard concentrated on working with guitars while Herschaft focused on the drums.
Within a year of opening, the dynamic between the engineers began to shift. Assistant engineers Travis Porcelli and Ray Massive left the studio to pursue technical work elsewhere. Uhrig, the main engineer, drifted away, too, after a dispute over financial affairs and conduct. While the split left the studio with a huge financial debt and tarnished professional reputation, Herschaft and Leonard were nonetheless determined to rebuild both. They immediately started booking as much work from local and visiting bands and solo musicians as possible, sometimes working night and day to get ahead.
"When John left, Jeff and I sat down and decided we had to do something different," says Herschaft. "We spent the last two years proving that Jeff and I could do a great job and knew what we were doing. John had great ears and that's primarily why everyone came to him. It's a fact that without him, there would be no Fusion 5 Studio. But, you know, he'd been doing this for 30 years, and maybe it was time for him to stop."
After technically reopening and changing the company name from "Fusion Five" to "Fusion 5" in Oct. 2003, the duo had to slave every month just to stay open. They recorded singles, demos, and quick albums on the cheap for anyone who signed up for time. "For a year, Jeff and I worked our asses off just to stay afloat," says Herschaft. "There's running a business and there's the musician side of it, which the bands see. Jeff and I basically started over twice, as far as the business thing is concerned."
The new "Fusion 5" team
Over the last two years, both engineers became determined to reinvent the operation and change the sound. In mid-2005, they officially joined forces with a friendly local rival, acclaimed local engineer/producer Eric Bass. The accomplished guitarist earned a positive local reputation in recent years for his quick wit and creativity behind the boards at his own recording studios in North Charleston and West Ashley. He moved his gear into Fusion 5 over the summer, bringing assistant audio engineer Eric Rickert's talents along with him.
"If I bring a band in here and my job is to produce the band, I let them know that they get 30 percent of the control and opinion, and I get 70 percent," asserts Bass. "If they believe in something, they'll tell me about it and I'll take it into consideration. But if I think it's not going to work, it's not going to happen. Because I'm going to have to make decisions that are going to get the best end product; not always what the band wants. I want to try to capture the band and make it as good as I can, but at the same time, I know what's going to get a good result and a good end product."
At 30, Bass is the veteran rock dude on the crew. His receptive and articulate manner goes a long way with bands hoping to communicate the "ideal sound" they're hoping for. Bass often encourages musicians to bring CDs and other recordings to demonstrate a drum or guitar sound, and discusses what's needed to do to get a similar sound. "I tell the bands there are no preconceived notions about what it's gonna be when it's done," he says. "You've got to let it become what it becomes."
"On the first record, Eric Bass had to chop our songs up," says bassist Evan Lampkin, of Kapone, who recorded their recent disc Vampires Are the New Pink with Bass. "This record is totally different. Our songwriting got a lot stronger, but he had a lot to do with what led up to this record and our sound. Bass is a real asset to this music scene."
Young garage bands and amateur acts who have never spent time and effort in a proper studio may be shocked at Bass' direct approach to arranging and manipualting their music, but veteran players (at least the ones with manageable egos) understand the role of producers, and use it to their advantage.
"I go by gut reactions more than anything," says Bass, who, despite learning on the job only a few years ago, has the ear and judgment to steer a group in a good direction. "When you're listening to an album and you're listening to it the first time and it gets to a part and it doesn't do what you wanted it to do, and you're like, why didn't it do that, it shoulda done that ... within two times of listening to a song, we start working on it. With a guitar tone, it's the same thing. Nine times out of ten, it's the first reaction."
The solidified crew celebrated their newfound union with a massive overhaul and spent months refurbishing the facility, constructing new rooms and sound booths, and meticulously rebuilding their main work station. The idea behind it all was to maintain a professional yet casual environment where serious musicians and songwriters can create in comfort. With the dust settling -- literally and figuratively -- it looks like they've accomplished more than they expected and are ready to set newer, more ambitious goals.
"It makes work so much more worthwhile when you're doing stuff that you wanna do rather than when some guy calls you up and wants a demo recorded, or they have 100 cassette tapes and want them transferred to CD," Bass says. "That's what all this construction is about. It's gonna be a much nicer facility than it is now and make it a much nicer working atmosphere for us and for the clients that come in here. Now I can say, 'I want to work with you, I want to produce your band' ... it's kind of exciting."
Pushing Ahead with a Distinctive "Sound"
Good recording studios get most of their business by word-of-mouth rather than advertising. It's very much a private, behind-the-scenes kind of operation. Simply having a credit on the sleeve of an acclaimed release can generate publicity and interest. If the Fusion 5 guys continue to press ahead toward the goal of becoming a "project-driven" facility, they'll likely land on the map as a destination for a variety of national acts, whether they're totally indie or signed with major labels.
Eventually, every working studio and every serious producer gets to a point at which certain qualities -- snare drum effects, natural room reverberation, massively condensed instrumental tracks, etc. -- consolidate into a recognizable "studio sound." Is there a distinctive "sound" unique to Fusion 5? As with every local studio, absolutely. A studio's unique acoustics and wide-open "room sounds" are just as important to the final product's sound as the gear. So far, their favorite recordings feature a big, clean, live drum sound and a variety of massive guitar sounds -- clean and distorted.
"A lot of business comes in locally from bands who want the studio sound," says Leonard. "If you have a five-piece band in here, sometimes you get pulled five different ways, and that just doesn't work well."
"I'd like to see us turn this into more of a project studio where we pick what we'd like to produce," says Bass, who's the most excited among the teammates about establishing Fusion 5 as a place where accomplished bands and musicians sign up for lengthy production sessions, as opposed to a one-or-two-day demo session. "That's what I've been doing with bands recently, where I chose what to do by project and concentrated on a block of time with an artist. If you bring a band in here and you're hired to produce them, you have to establish what's happening early on. That's how good albums are made. That's how projects work."
Ultimately, that is the number one goal among the Fusion 5 crew. Leonard and Herschaft never had the opportunity to explore serious production projects with serious bands because they were constantly struggling to pay the bills and stay afloat. Any amateur band, rap act, solo artist, or local rock star who could afford the $50/hour rate could book time ... and did. The workload gradually piled up, which allowed the studio to stay busy and grind away while slowly getting the word out in the local band scene that the facility was worth a damn. It also allowed the engineers to learn firsthand how to properly produce a recording session, rather than simply documenting it on a tape machine and computer.
"If a band could pay us the rate, we did the work," says Herschaft. "We can be a little more selective now. It's difficult for some bands to trust a producer to do the work they're hired to do. When bands come in for the first time, we all listen to figure out where they're at, then we try our best to show them how we can benefit them and help them get somewhere."
They learned how to offer solid guidance on musicians' instrumental sounds, band's song arrangements, multiple tracks and overdubs, and audio effects. They learned how to direct a band's session, rather than taking instruction from the band themselves. They developed sharp enough ears to judge that a snare drum that sounds perfect on two songs might sound out of place on the next ... or a trebly Fender amp sound might work on one track, while a muffly Marshall amp sound works better on the next.
"I tried all these different studios and none of them worked out," says singer/guitarist Aaron Levy of The Library Fire, who recorded their debut album at the studio. "It's a huge facility. I'm almost sure it's the biggest around. They've got a good ear. Right now they're probably in the best shape they've been in a long time as far as their setup and their personnel there. I worked mainly with Jeff, and I think the thing I liked best is that he had good ideas and a great way of making suggestions about something in a very sort of laid-back manner. There are so many little things on my album that would not have been there, would not have existed, had Jordan or Jeff not said, 'Hey, why don't you try this or that?'"
With such strong word-of-mouth, the bolstered Fusion 5 staff stand ready to make 2006 their year to expand and excel. The old warehouse where rookies made local demos for up-and-coming bands night well become a "go-to" state-of-the-art facility known around the country.
A DUDE'S STUDIO-SPEAK GUIDE:
Analog -- n. The technology in use for more than 50 years that transmits conventional radio and TV signals; vinyl recordings, and cassette tapes are examples of analog technology. Dude, I only go analog ... except when I'm broke.
Click Track -- n. An audible metronome that follows the changes in time signatures; often played through headphones during tracking. Dude, even with the click track blasting through the phones, you can't even come in on the right beat!
Comp -- v. To create a composite performance from multiple takes. Dude, I betcha Nirvana was comping vocal takes during the making of In Utero!
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) -- n. A computer that is specially equipped with a high-quality sound card and programed for editing and processing digital audio at a professional level. Dude, just send that track to the digital audio workstation ... and don't spill any beer on it!
Final Mix -- n. A combination of two or more audio tracks or channels used to produce a composite audio recording. Dude, play it right; we can't just fix it in the final mix.
Mastering -- n. The process of assembling all the mixed tracks into a single, finished album. Dude, the final mix is kick-ass, but wait 'til you hear the mastered version!
Phaser -- n. An electronic sound processor that creates a sweeping effect by modulating a narrow notch signal filter. Dude, there's phaser all over Zep's "Kashmir."
ProTools -- n. A digital audio workstation by Digidesign used for music production and digital audio editing. Dude, I can record and mix my entire concept solo album using ProTools on my Mac.
Punch-In -- v. To edit audio to an existing track, often as a correction to a brief mistake. Dude, we can totally punch-in at that sour note in your solo.
Punchy -- adj. A term describing a dry, defined, clean, sometimes muffled drum or guitar sound; usually on a basic track. Dude, Mick Fleetwood's snare drum sounds too punchy on "Don't Stop."
Reverb -- n. A sound effect composed of a series of tightly-spaced echoes; in addition to natural reverb, software synthesis of reverberation is also possible. Dude, did The Cramps ever turn down the reverb?