Friday, July 16, 2010
White stretch limos at Kimballs. Is someone recording at Blue Jay Studios?
Rihanna…Pink…The Pussycat Dolls. All recently in Carlisle. Nope, they didn’t come for the ice cream; or even Old Home Day. They were working.
You’ve driven by Blue Jay Studios a million times. Maybe you noticed it, maybe you thought the large grass covered hump at the end of a long driveway off Bedford Road was an overly ambitious septic plan gone awry. Like many things in Carlisle, it’s unique, serves a distinct purpose, and keeps a low profile. And like many things in Carlisle, once you peel back a few layers, you’re pleasantly surprised by how much there is to know, and that it’s located here of all places, in our small, (mostly) quiet town so far from the beat of the city and worlds away from the heart of the entertainment industry.
Which is precisely the point. “When you’re here, you’re here,” points out Marcus Siskind, the owner of Blue Jay Studios. Siskind, who lives in Belmont, is a former recording artist who has been writing and producing music professionally for over a decade; he’s worked with artists from The Backstreet Boys to Queen Latifah. “From an entertainment perspective, you’re out of the way; there isn’t much else to do.”
In other words, with none of the, ah, usual distractions, creative types tend to focus on the job at hand. Artists like Boston-flavored Aerosmith, Boston, the Backstreet Boys and Aimee Mann, Yo Yo Ma and John Williams. But also Alice Cooper, Roy Orbison, Genesis, NRBQ, Pat Metheny, Lauryn Hill, Buster Poindexter, k.d. lang…you get the idea.
Siskind and former Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson bought Blue Jay Studios in 2001 from original owners Bob and Janet Lawson, who opened it in 1979. They reopened Blue Jay as a totally renovated state-of-the-art recording studio to attract musical artists of every size and from every genre – and no one was disappointed. (Siskind bought Richardson out in 2008 and is now sole owner.)
The day I visited the door was opened by Assistant Engineer Bob Jameson, a young man who looked, well, like he spent a lot of time underground. Pale. Focused. Bob joined Blue Jay in 2008, and works with Chief Engineer James Zaner, a Berklee School of Music graduate, and a drummer for The Shills. The first thing you notice (after the suspiciously enormous hump at the end of the driveway) is the grill by the back door. How many recording studios have a picnic table and a grill out back? Jameson told me that Blue Jay is pretty much “open” (or “available”), “24-7, 365 days a year.” Bands typically record in 8-12 hour sessions, though sometimes a “session” can go days on end. “People fly here from all over to get a professional sound,” he said. “It’s high quality acoustics and gear.”
“We do a lot of album work. We have the largest recording console in New England,” he added. That would be the MadLabs VR72 with Flying Faders and a CM Labs Motormix, which provides 72 channels of audio at any one time. 72? I asked. “Sure, sometimes you can have 8-10 mikes just for a drum set,” Jameson explained. The things we don’t know.
In addition to its equipment and instruments, including several synthesizers and a Falcone piano, Blue Jay also boasts high quality surroundings. The lobby or “sunroom” is small but cozy, with a modern glass coffee table, custom seating, piles of magazines, and faces a small kitchen and opens to a sun filled, sky-light roofed office. Down the hallway is the heart of the place: the A room, a large open recording space with various instruments and a “gobo” – a three walled structure that’s good for “isolating lead vocals or stopping reflections and reverberations.” Facing the A room is the glass walled control room with the famous “board” which is 15 feet long. It is dauntingly impressive, and to the average civilian, not unlike something out of a science fiction movie or that nightmare where you have to land a plane and you’re looking at literally hundreds of knobs, dials, buttons and lights….again I’m struck by all the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. Right here, underground in my town. Amazing.
It’s rare to be able to see outside from a recording studio, Siskind tells me, and the A room boasts a view through the sunroom and office to the backyard trees. The B room has no such view, but it does have an awfully cool lava lamp and an abstract painting you can’t seem to depart. In the hallways there are stars on the carpet. There’s a cobalt blue toilet bowl. You want to hang out, hear the stories, feel the history – the things these walls must have seen.
But no one’s trashed the place. I begged for juicy stories of debauchery and destruction from musical superstars. Either there were none to be had or Siskind and his colleagues are simply discreet. The best he could come up with was a trip to Kimball’s which ended in scandal – someone’s used gum in the ice cream. It turned out to be one of his engineers (who had probably put in a long night). I ask if the studio hosts parties or events. Siskind thinks. “Listening parties,” he says. No raves, though apparently you wouldn’t hear it even if there were one. Legend has it that when Blue Jay first opened, in 1980 Aerosmith tested the soundproofness of the hump at full volume at about five in the morning. You went outside and heard…crickets. Birds, too.
Talking about how the music industry, and specifically recording, has changed over the years, Siskind admits, “You don’t necessarily need the huge console. The studio business is a dying business and large format console studios are a rarity,” he adds. Indeed the famous Hit Factory in New York is now….condos. “We’re still here,” he laughs. “World class recording, a serene environment, two engineers…bigger and better than a bedroom.” Which is how some artists actually record. (Did you see Hustle & Flow? If not, put it in your Netflix queue now.)
So if you don’t need the big board to make great sound, what do you need? “You need great artists, great music and production and great engineering,” Siskind says. He should know. He bought Blue Jay as much for local and national artists to record there as for his own publishing entities. His record label, Mass Appeal, (http://www.massappealmusic.com) represents a variety of contemporary musical acts including hip hop, soul, R&B and metal. He just signed Brockton artist Noel Gourdin, and also represents Lisa Lisa, Suzanna Lobrano, Memphis Bleek and Dre Robinson.
Blue Jay has done audio books, children’s choirs, hip hop and classical, jazz, New Age and Berklee projects. Jameson tells me that Curt Schilling was recently in, recording for Tom Tom (the navigation company in which he’s involved).
Liz Bishop is a Carlisle resident who frequently records voiceover here; Bishop is an “industrial voice-talent” (she’s the person who narrates things like training videos and websites and voice mail systems for national corporations).
“I like Blue Jay because it is a fantastic space for my clients. When I need to book for an extended session on say, a website with highly technical terms, the client can be present to assure the correct pronunciation or inflection that best meets their needs. My home studio can’t accommodate a large group or compare to the service I get from Blue Jay. Also, they will order out and pick up food for the client so that the work can continue uninterrupted.”
Just then the current client, Mark McCall of a hip hop / alternative rock consortium from Providence called Audio McSwagger, part of the “transformed genre known as Rock & Flow,” exits room A for a glass of water. Overhearing our discussion, McCall notes, “I’ve always thought it would be a great business idea to do celebrity voices for navigation systems. You get James Brown recording: ‘Take a left now, heh! Get on back a mile now, ha!’” A good idea, I say. “An expensive one,” quips Jameson.
We chat a bit, and I ask McCall what he likes about recording at Blue Jay. “It’s quiet,” he says. We listen to artist Armande Milhouse record a few lines. “Recording Hip Hop is mostly vocals,” Jameson tells me. “A lot of time everything else has been laid down before they come in.” Milhouse pauses mid-lyric and asks McCall, “Do you like the aggressiveness in my lead track, or should I be more laid back, like I’m talking on the phone?” McCall considers. “Like you’re talking on the phone,” he decides. They start again. It is a smooth sound, and Milhouse’s vocals are compelling, soothingly forceful, loud, clear and deep.
When it’s time to go, Bob leads me out to the sunny terrace. “It’s the only studio I’ve worked at with its own backyard where we can barbecue,” he remarks. In the bright light of the June afternoon, he’s the shade of Edward Cullen, though his skin doesn’t glisten. He smiles and it’s clear he and everyone here love what they do. “You’ll never get disturbed here – a big selling point for artists.”
I know just what he means. ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito