Saturday, February 12, 2011

Many local bands that Ithaca Underground has worked with over the last few years have released DIY demos which have found comfy homes on the shelves at Pirate House HQ. We'll always enjoy them and they'll be a good glimpse at the bands we were enjoying during these years.

Recently, however, there has been a handful of bands who have been looking to take their recorded sound to the next level, in an attempt to better demonstrate their full capabilities and sonic prowess, as they would live.

Today, we take a look at one of studios in the area which has been a cornerstone to the overall CNY music community for decades: Pyramid Sound Studios. We discuss the studio, recent projects, and a studios role in today's ever changing music industry with engineer/producer Phil Abbott.

IU: Can you give us a brief history of Pyramid Sound Studios?

Phil: In the 70's, Alex Perialas' father was running a talent agency which would book bands across the East Coast.  As far as I know, it was illegal for clubs to book their own bands without an agency.  I may be wrong.  But, anyway, the studio was built alongside the talent agency.  A few people cycled through as engineers before Alex decided to just run it himself.  So, juggling schooling at IC and full-time studio work, Alex started engineering and has been the main guy since.  He's worked with greats such as Anthrax, Testament, SOD and even had the likes of Ginuine and Missy Elliot come through.  He has also had various engineers/producers working out of the studio, and that's where I come in.

IU: What's your recording & music background?

Phil: I've been a cellist since I was 5 and took up tuba and guitar in middle school.  In middle school, Pete "McAwesome" and I formed a band with two friends of ours.  We didn't really play out much, but we played all originals in that bedroom, and it was the foundation of my interest in recording.  The first recording I was a part of was done with a single mic hung from the ceiling with our amps spaced around it to create the 'mix'.  The medium was an Aiwa tape/cd/radio boombox.  Our singer/guitarist would hit the record button with his toe after counting off.  We even punched in this way.  In high school, the band pitched in and bought a tascam studio-in-the-box thing-a-ma-gig and I ended up buying it off of them.  It worked great and we could record multiple tracks!  My dad got me Recording for Dummies and I recorded some demos using it as a reference.  In the coming years, I got a BM in Sound Recording from Ithaca College with a focus in cello.  At school I abused my studio privileges with any band I could find that would come in.  This is the time I valued the most--just trying again and again to make good sounding recordings.  Learning how to use the gear, deal with people and generally what works and what doesn't.

IU: How did you come to be working at Pyramid?

Phil: After school, I decided that interning again would be a pain.  SO many free interns out there.  I had made a few CD's already and really didn't want to stop recording and having fun.  The studio where I had interned was not really hiring as it was the homebase of a producer that people would come for and not necessarily a studio that people would come to.  Me and my friend decided to go into business together juggling all sorts of crazy ideas.  Eventually, we kind of gave up and he went off to NYC and I started working out of Pyramid.  Alex has been very good to me--letting me play in his domain and all.

IU: Tell us about some of the projects you've been working on lately at Pyramid:

Phil: Lately, I've been doing a variety of things.  I worked with metal band Lux Carentes, hard rock band Aim Nine, voice overs for the Lab of Ornithology, pop-alt band Underwater Tiger, and then last weekend, I worked with the genre defying Mouth to Mouth to Mouth.  People don't have tons of money to spend on an EP, so most of these projects are done in an afternoon/day.  Recently I've been pushing the live set up that is still fully isolated.  Play it live, fix individual mistakes, do overdubs you're interested in, and I'll have been mixing while you've been doing overdubs.  We've got lots of great gear and tons of inputs, so I'm able to work quickly and smoothly without having to set up for every different instrument.  I just do one big set up that covers everything and then we can jump between drums, guitars, bass, vox, etc. as needed.  I think this set up has yielded some good results.  People seem to be happy.

IU: What are some of your goals for your involvement in the growing/changing Ithaca music scene?

Phil: Ithaca's got some great bands and now that IU is around, they have places to play and develop publicly.  I would love to be a part of making these bands sound as good as possible in their recordings so that they will be respected both here and elsewhere.  Then, when they go on tour, they can stand out from the rest.  I get very attached to everything I work on, and It'd be great to work closely with the various bands to make something they're really proud of and produce a quality that is associated with our scene.  Bands can actually sound like the CD's they buy from the store, and that will get them so much further than a demo where they have to explain that it's just a demo.  It sucks when people say 'man, they're pretty good, but this sounds like shit' and then shelve it and forget about it.  This isn't just the one mic demos either.  Tons of CDs that bands are spending exorbitant amounts of time on sound 'good' and better than a demo, but are still nowhere close to a national release.

IU: Tell us about some of the gear is available for bands to use:

Phil: Anything they want.  Great recordings come from great sounds and we've got lots of original tube amps, 60's and 70's guitars, and can pretty much secure anything.

IU: What are some of your favorite pieces of gear to use in your sessions:

Phil: I hate mixing in the box physically and sonically, so I don't know what I'd do without the console.  We've got this bass DI that sounds great.  Usually the classic limiters make an appearance.  I bought a new reverb.  It kinda varies with the season.

IU: How is the studio as a whole set up?

Phil: Each room is a little building inside the building built on sand.  There is a control room, a large live room and three iso booths and each can be patched into via mic cable, speaker cable, and instrument cable.  Due to the separation, you can have amps in the iso booths and they will not bleed into the live room.  Everyone can play together in the live room and listen through headphones.  That's how we do the live set up and still have the ability to fix things.

IU: What are some things young and up and coming bands should consider when recording?

Phil: Get sleep.  Eat.  Make sure the arrangements of the songs work.  If it doesn't sound good in the room, it won't sound good recorded.  This goes for tuning your instrument as well.  Intonate your guitar, get new strings, get new heads, bring tuners.  If you have a little recorder at home, record yourself playing your part beforehand.  Make sure you're playing it as well as you think and that it translates well to the recording.  Think about what pick ups you're using.  Think about how you're hitting the drums. Just be aware.

IU: What is a typical day-in-the life of a recording session from the point of the band and any preparation considerations they should keep in mind?

Phil: Show up, set up.  Discuss with the engineer the vibe/sound they want.  Make themselves comfortable while the engineer gets sounds.  Work with the engineer to get the best sounds possible.  Adjust things as needed.  Warm up.  Start doing takes.  Listen to the takes.  Decide what's working well and what can be better.  If it's just not happening, take a break.  Eat.  Do more takes.  Listen.  Do some overdubs and fixes.  Listen.  Play some games while the engineer edits or mixes.  Listen to what he's been up to.  Berate him for messing with 'your sound.'  Eat.  Do some more fixes.  Go to bed and continue tomorrow.

IU: In an era where nearly anyone can set up a simple DIY recording rig in their own home, how do you see studios like Pyramid still playing an important role in independent music and recording - now and in the the years to come?

Phil: Unfortunately, DIY recordings just rarely sound good.  While people say they don't care, they do.  It will change what they get out of it.  Someone's favorite album of all time will never be a local band who self recorded their release because their recordings just don't relate to national releases.  It's like a completely different quality standard, which is why people will say a home recording is great.  They don't even compare it to a major release.  Established bands that say they self recorded their album still did the drums in a studio or had it mixed in a studio or recorded alone in a studio.  Pyramid has lots of great gear and was built from the ground up to be a recording studio.  Studios make work flow easy.  The recordings take substantially less time to make because the gear is top line, the acoustics are relevant, and there is a skilled engineer/producer who has worked for many years to develop their skills, so they can help bands make something great that will be theirs forever.  Studios are not trying to milk bands for all they are worth as seems to be the sentiment these days.  They are not 'the man.'  They are an equally important part of the industry that helps bands reach the full potential on CD as they do live.  Home recordings can only go so far before people see and hear how much easier it is to just use a studio.