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Recording collective reaches out to the community

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by Amy Kingsley

Sandy Blocker stands in the middle of the recording studio with a bass guitar slung around his neck and his hands jammed deep into his pockets. Jonathan Henderson and Stef Smith inspect his amplifier, hook up a microphone and run a direct line out of the back. A former music student from UNCG looks on.

‘“I just want it to stop sounding so twangy,’” Smith says.

‘“I felt like it sounded pretty good direct before,’” Henderson says.

The two compromise by recording both the direct and microphone signals. But the sound still isn’t right. Smith runs into the other room, a practice space, and grabs a Fender Squire bass and I go get the G&L from my car.

Almost 30 minutes had passed since I walked through the doors expecting to observe a recording session when suddenly I find myself a participant in a recording collective. With the addition of yours truly, the proportion of technicians to musicians jumps to four to one. Blocker warms his hands over a small space heater during the hubbub.

Finally, he starts to play his bass part ‘— the first track in a new song ‘— when he stops.

‘“I’m sorry guys, I need the drums,’” Blocker says.

Blocker and his co-collaborator Chronis, who are recording an album of Middle Eastern music, are responsible for the third full-fledged project since the recording space opened for business in November. Local indie bands Blank Blank and St. Clare have already cut the basic tracks they used for their albums here.

The recording collective occupies one corner of a warehouse used by artists and musicians as practice and studio space. Sound is contained and muted by dozens of egg flats sequestered by a friend who works at a local bakery and the booth is a converted shipping office complete with windowpane. A large air vent wrapped in Christmas lights runs diagonally from above a heavy, medieval wooden door to a brain-like mass of sealant on the perimeter wall.

That crazy door, which resembles a set piece from the film Texas Chainsaw Massacre, bars a dedicated isolation chamber. Cakalak Thunder, the 16-member samba drum corps, once recorded in there.

Equipment in this space consists of a multi-track hard disk recorder, a few rack-mounted compressors and a digital reverb. A handful of dynamic and compression microphones complete the inventory.

‘“There isn’t a lot of pretentiousness here,’” Henderson says.

Indeed, the project as it stands focuses more on access and empowerment than high fidelity. The collective charges a sliding scale up to $20 an hour for anyone who wants to use the facility, but no one will be turned away for an inability to pay.

Recording can be an expensive prospect for struggling musicians. The same can be said for the spoken words artists and others eager to commit their art to tape (or byte).

Henderson conceived the plan for the recording collective at a Greensboro Community Arts Collective meeting, and he approached Danny Bayer (an occasional contributor to YES!) with the idea. Bayer had some recording experience, processing equipment and a four track reel-to-reel. In addition to the equipment, Bayer had inspiration from the last summer spent in Murfreesboro, Tenn., home of the Middle Tennessee State University recording industry department.

‘“I was just blown away by the level of equipment just at these house parties,’” Bayer said. ‘“Stuff you’d see in a professional recording studio these guys just had in their bedrooms.’”

Along with the surfeit of equipment came a collaborative approach to the art of recording. It was a model Bayer said he thought would work in Greensboro.

Smith’s recording experience has largely been confined to the other side of the console, as a member of the band Requiem. The recording process always interested her, and she spent one month watching a friend’s band, The Spectacle, toil in the studio.

‘“They were able to get that weird kind of Scandinavian grant money,’” she says.

A month is a pretty leisurely time for most struggling bands to spend in the studio. Blocker and Chronis are scheduled to track a full-length in three business days. And although government funding might not subsidize their undertaking, the recording collective is supported in part by a $1,065 United Arts Council Grant.

That money, coupled with the hard disk recorder Henderson received as a graduation present, Bayer’s equipment and the rock-bottom rent of $50 a month is allowing them to create a space for artists of all stripes. Henderson just finalized a deal to record a children’s poetry workshop at the Greensboro Public Library and is trying to find a way to work with the city’s homeless. It’s all part of proving to community leaders bent on recruiting the creative class that the act of creativity has nothing to do with economic class.

‘“One thing that’s really important is to find ways to break out of our social circles,’” Henderson says. ‘“We want to find a way to be a resource for the whole community.’”

The entire project seems less in the vein of Abbey Road than Alan Lomax, I say.

‘“Yeah, but where Alan Lomax came from outside the community, this is where the community records itself,’” Bayer says.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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