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It's late afternoon when a friend and I park in front of the flophouses and a homeless outreach center and walk down the small inlet that is Natoma Street. The alley is redolent with the smell of urine as we head toward SF Soundworks, a newly opened recording studio. My buddy is anxious to meet the members of Death Angel, the late-'80s thrash metal icons tracking their first album in 14 years. But I'm itching to shake hands with the studio's owner, Tony Espinoza, who earned himself a comfy nest egg back in the days of wine and IPOses, and who now wants to build a thriving independent music scene around his new audio playground. It seems this member of the same dot-community that drove bands out of their rehearsal spaces a few years ago is now trying, in his words, to "bring the music back to San Francisco." This I've got to see.
"My goal is to ... have the facilities that [musicians and producers] would have if they were going to L.A. or New York," Espinoza explains as he shows us around Soundworks. "So if you look at the gear setup and everything, it's all the usual suspects, it's all the stuff that people are used to making records with, plus a few more extras."
Make that a lot more extras. Today, any schmo with a couple grand can buy the gear to record an album. Espinoza is that schmo, except that he had a couple million to spend on Soundworks. The results of four years of designing, building, and wiring are on display in the sleek half-dozen rooms that make up the downstairs, with its two control rooms, Studio A and Studio B. The latter is a small, state-of-the-art mixing and overdubbing room; the former a super-size tracking room. With its enormous mixing console -- a custom-built Solid State Logic 9072 J Series, the only one of its kind in San Francisco -- and vast array of colored modules and machines, Studio A looks like the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise.
"There's 1,500 lines that run through all this stuff, through the floors, up into this patch bay panel," Espinoza explains. "You've got equipment that's just released in the last few months, all the way back to 1953. You've got old '50s compressors, '60s stuff, '70s console stuff from Neve. And you might use any number of these things just to get one sound."
Then there's the upstairs.
Above the control rooms are two giant, cathedral-esque lofts, one of which is where Espinoza lives. The other has the charm of your parents' bonus room -- except that it's three stories high and comes equipped with an expensive Pro Tools recording system, a gourmet kitchen, two fancy bedrooms, hardwood floors, skylights, a bathroom with heated towel racks and side-by-side showers, and a balcony (with wet bar) offering a compelling panoramic view of SOMA. If you were a rapper and bling-bling was your thing, you could shoot a video here and it would impress your peeps. But if you were an indie rocker shopping for an inspiring place to record, Soundworks might make you want to vomit. Which raises the question: What kind of self-respecting music community would rally around a former AOL VP?
With luck, it'll be ours.
Tony Espinoza is a visionary, and like most visionaries, he walks a fine line between idealism and lunacy. As he and we all know, the record industry is in its worst slump ever. Bands aren't recording albums like they used to, and when they do, they mainly do so on a tight budget, in New York or Los Angeles. Most recording professionals in this city believe the salad days of the San Francisco studio scene have come to an end -- and they aren't coming back.
Espinoza disagrees, and he's put his money -- nearly all of it, he claims -- where his mouth is with Soundworks. His plan is twofold: to attract big-budget projects to his big-budget space, and to use the revenues he collects from those deep pockets to subsidize the cost of recording no-budget albums by promising local bands.
Some think his noble effort is too little, too late.
"I don't think it's necessarily the case of, 'If you build it they will come,'" says Glynn Durham, who co-owns a low-budget studio called Closer Recordings located down the street from Soundworks. Closer is a modest facility compared to its neighbor, but like its sister studio across town, Tiny Telephone, it stays open because, unlike Espinoza, its owners have a history in the local music scene. "If I was a dot-com millionaire," Durham continues, "and I had 2 million bucks to drop and I got together with all my buddies and we spent 2 million on all the best shit and we were here in San Francisco, I don't think that people would just rush in the door."
It's easy to be skeptical of Espinoza. For one thing, he's rich. And not I-wrote-the-theme-song-to-Friends rich, but I-had-the-key-to-the-executive-washroom-for-one-of-the-largest-media-conglomerates-in-the-solar-system rich. Then there are the bling-bling lofts, the too-slick rhetoric, the fact that, as a computer executive for the past 15 years, Espinoza has little in the way of street cred. But the more I hang out with him, the more such suspicions melt away.