We sat down at Sonic Circus Studio with David Lyons to talk shop about the place, the inspiration behind it, how it serves the business, and what it is all about.
Why do you have a working studio at Sonic Circus and how did it all come about?
DL: Sonic Circus Studio is basically a non-profit. We don’t currently book commercial sessions for money. It is basically a laboratory for refining sounds, techniques, private studio projects, and learning. We like to practice what we preach here. We’ve amassed a cool collection of equipment and a lot of the pieces here have either personal significance or some historical relevance. We encourage musicians, producers and engineers to visit and exchange ideas and share knowledge.
What have you learned personally from the experience?
DL: If you are interested in running a facility like this surround yourself with talent. Put a team of people together that are both creative and technically versed. Don’t try to do it all yourself. The other thing that is absolutely apparent and may sound odd: I do think you can find inspiration in certain pieces of gear, and combinations thereof. There really is Mojo to this. It exists. The first time I heard music through the Mix Bus of a Neve 8068 in the early days it was like “This is what music is supposed to sound like!” I’ve also tried to put a collection together of instruments and equipment that have some meaning to me. This helps you dig a little harder when you are going for sounds or a particular musical part. You’d be surprised.
DL: OK. The business was started with the help of a few good friends back in 1996. We developed a reputation for being real with people. Some really amazing collections started presenting themselves when people decided they had to call it quits. It’s really bittersweet because, quite honestly, I would rather see these places still around. But every time I was able to hang on to a little piece of music history, I did. I have a few pieces from Bearsville Studio here. The EMT 140, Hammond B3, and the Wurlitzer. Knowing Muddy, Dylan, Todd Rundgren, The Band, and others did records on that equipment gives you a sense of responsibility.
Some of Kaplans (Indigo Ranch) gear was cool because it had double history. There is a Neumann KM53 back there he got from Abbey Road. The ECM Records Talent Studio Helios is hanging out in the shop. But some of the pieces remind me of friends that are no longer here. I have a Strat I play every day and a little Ampeg amp that lives in the studio. Those were both friends of mine that have passed. But the greatest joy is when the gear winds up going to great people. 10 years ago we set Derek Trucks up with a Neve that was owned by the Kinks and then David Cobb. That is one hard working Neve console.
You seem to have an infatuation with old equipment. I see lots of old amps, mics etc…
DL: Well true. We really try to combine the best of both worlds. New with old. Although, I’ve heard amazing records produced by people far more talented with far less than this. So there really are no rules. When John King from the Dust Brothers approached us about finally buying “real” gear like Pultecs and Neves, he had already produced seminal records like Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie boys and of course Beck’s Odelay. Incredible sounds you cant even fathom on some really cheap equipment they already owned. I was like, “What do you need Neves for?” It was pretty eye opening. (laughs). But really, to answer your question, we’ve acquired some really strange pieces and once it gets put through the tech shop we want to hear what it can do. If there is a use for it, then it can stay.
So restoring the gear first. Right?
DL: Correct. There is nothing more frustrating than something 1/2 working correctly, and honestly, it gets totally in the way of your creative process. Thats why many people are OK with a interface and a Laptop. (laughs) I get it. It’s just not for me.
Are you a musician?
DL: Yes. I consider myself a musician and person first, and guy who happened to start a gear business second. At times in my life where business preempted music, I was probably less pleasant to be around.
What are you going for musically?
DL: I compose electric guitar oriented instrumental music. Mainly musical forms that most people don’t care about. Harmonic, improvisational, often atonal. Put it this way: Its a good thing I have a day job at the moment.
Whats new at Sonic Circus Studio?
DL: Lots of changes this year. We recently updated the automation computer and software on the API Vision that is generously on loan to us. It’s really a phenomenal console. Really just learning what the console can do sonically. The resettable routing is intense and we are getting started mixing on the new automation. There are sweet spots on sweet spots with the gain staging. Very cool console. We are considering putting in a Helios next when this guy has to go next year.
So you change out consoles a lot?
DL: Well not as much as Dave Cobb (Laughs). But yes, since we are in the business of selling the things. It really is a tremendous amount of work. Rewiring, relearning etc… It’s disruptive to the studio and the downtime is never enjoyable
You like consoles?
But you don’t really need one anymore…
DL: This is a form of folklore created mostly by music merchandisers whom have never stepped foot in a proper recording studio. People thought that the advent of the transistor made tube equipment obsolete. You’ve heard the stories about Pultec’s and Fairchild’s being thrown into dumpsters haven’t you? “This is great, we don’t have to change these damn tubes anymore!” … “Hey wait, why does everything sound so small?”
Any other changes to the studio?
DL: Yes, my good friend Jef Brown, who is a highly skilled amp tech, guitarist, and sax player has been doing a residence every couple of months. We acquired a giant pawn shops worth of vintage amps from Rich Kaplan (Indigo Ranch) and Jef has been coming in and dialing in the most interesting ones. Last week we did the Metal Rickenbacker, a 1930’s Gibson, a weird painted brown Gretsch, an old italian Cry Baby Wah. I’ve got to tell you, Jimmy Page had it right. Those little amps in the studio can be the biggest sounding ones.
I talked to Jonathan Little this week and we are going to set up the entire Little Labs system next so we can have proper splits, dedicated buffered wet/dry effects sends and maybe razorblade some speakers and weird amps to reamp to. It’s cool when you can create space and tones that you like and not be dependent on plugins. Fix it in the mix. That trap.
Why do you have a piano, Hammond B3, and guitar amps in the control room?
DL: This is a giant old furniture factory here in Vermont. The ceiling is naturally pitched and it is inordinately large for a control room. We cut a lot of music without headphones. We can comfortably put a Jazz Quartet in here, and its really intimate to work with a keyboard man in the control room. Also I do a lot of composing/playing and engineering at the same time so its a matter of practicality.
When I went to Daniel Lanois’ house in LA, he was running sessions this way, so I was like if its good enough for Emmylou and Neil Young, there is probably something to it. His place was aesthetically beautiful. He had a podium with a Pultec sitting on a LA2A and he points to it and says “Thats the vocal chain”. So our place here, you can work that way or go in there. (Points to the tracking room)
Don’t you get tons of bleed?
DL: Yes. I’m getting accustomed to the sound of everything bleeding. I like it. Also the nature of the music we are going for is, you have to play it through, and if someone drops a part, you go back and play it again together. Or if it’s not terrible you just leave the mistakes in. Weird concept
How come you don’t run a commercial facility?
DL: I had plenty of opportunities to be involved in commercial studios in the past. Sonic Circus became a resource for a lot of the major studios and I took that responsibility really seriously. When I started Sonic Circus, my studio owner friends were knee deep in major big city leases. 3 Room facilities and huge investments in SSL and Neve consoles, staff etc… These guys were icons and the industry was changing fast. It started with the digital recording boom with Pro Tools and ADATS. A lot of big players we’re forced out of doing the one thing they loved the most: Facilitating making records.
This wasn’t a money making venture for these guys. They truly loved the industry. So without getting too philosophical, I had a job to do for them and we really took that to heart. We had to help people solve a tremendous problem. Out of pride a lot of these guys and gals hung in a lot longer than they should have. Mixing business with emotions can be a slippery slope. It was really about not letting these guys down. There is a lot to that. So to answer the question, it never appealed to me to try to sell studio time for my living. I’m really interested in making music though.
What do you see changing?
DL: Instead of being overly wistful about the way it used to be, roll your sleeves up and try to put some people to work. People should think about bridging the economic gap a bit more right now as opposed to being insular. There are incredible people who can play, mixers, mastering engineers, arrangers. People are now more open minded and approachable. They have to be to survive. In the past you would have to get permission from an artists label to have them play on your record. Basically they were property of their label. Now you can hire people directly.
It would be cool if people began to support an independent economy. Hell, if you called up mixers like Jason Corsaro or Mike Shipley when cats like that were around and said “can you check out some of my mixes and I’d even like to pay you for your time” you would be amazed at a) How much you don’t really know and b) How cool these guys really were. You would be helping create a support structure. The Zappa model is a good one. He fired Warner Brothers and became a true independent. The only difference now is that you don’t need a $500,000 Synclavier and an 80 piece orchestra to get your work heard. The tools have gotten really good.
What advice would you give to someone starting up a studio today?
DL: A few things. Beyond physics there are no rules. If you want to put a studio in your living room, go for it. If you have the budget for an uber-designer and thats your thing then do that. Remember, it’s a place to make music in ultimately, so try to make it match your own personality and aesthetic. Lots of great records have been made in modest places. If you want to talk about how to make a living with a recording studio thats a whole different conversation.
Can customers come to Sonic Circus
DL: We are by appointment. An excellent Claw Banjo player named Tom Collins met up with me last weekend and brought his instruments. He was having trouble making it sound full so we tried some ambient mic techniques I thought would work. We recorded some tracks in the studio and he really liked it. As a result, I learned about Claw Banjo. We are an unconventional music equipment store. It’s very mom and pop. If you get to the studio we may be smoking some barbecue, taking you out on a mountain bike ride, or throwing a difficult piece of music in front of you. Bring your axe and your ears. You never know what will happen.