The Great Analog Gamble

On a chilly November evening, a few hundred people mill around a warehouse in a quiet corner of Oakland.

The crowd spills into the empty street, where musicians, engineers, and music fans in hoodies and flannel huddle together, sipping from tall boys in paper bags. Inside, garage pop band Sonny and the Sunsets is putting on a live performance for a sea of heads in a recording studio space. Another crowd has gathered to gawk in the studio's control room where the main attraction is silent and inanimate: a massive, 40-year-old vintage recording console. This is the 1976 Neve 8068 that John Vanderslice purchased in 2013 from the now-defunct Record Plant in Sausalito. He is the proprietor of the studio, which will house the East Bay outpost of his growing analog recording empire, Tiny Telephone.

Forty-three years have passed since the Record Plant's legendary opening party on Halloween night 1972, to which John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously arrived dressed as trees. Venerable A-listers went on to record albums there, including Prince, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, and Metallica, before the studio closed in 2008.

Tiny Telephone's “sneak peek” opening party is less flamboyant. Invitations were sent via Facebook, not on hand-carved slabs of redwood. Instead of Champagne and cocaine, attendees swill beer from plastic cups and chug Two-Buck Chuck straight from the bottle. And, unlike the Record Plant, this studio does not have a hot tub or a conference room with a waterbed floor.

The glory days of recording studio glitz and glamour are long gone — even if the equipment has (at least in this case) stayed the same. And although analog recording has a certain cachet in the era of Pro Tools, sinking $800,000 into a second Tiny Telephone is a risky venture.

“What [Vanderslice] is doing is totally insane. I think that needs to be said,” says Jamie Riotto, a Tiny Telephone engineer. “He's opening a world-class studio, with a large-format console that is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a time when studios are closing all over the place. He's taking enormous financial risk, and he's very comfortable with that somehow.”

Through its first 16 years, Tiny Telephone has been a success. But despite that track record, there's a chance that Vanderslice's supply-and-demand equations are wrong, that the analog trend will subside, or that indie bands will find a new, hipper destination studio.

Vanderslice has bet quite a bit on the project turning a profit.

“I don't have the fucking juice to build this,” he says. “I borrowed all the money from clients. It's very stressful to be juggling all those loans, which are all coming due next year, so there's going to be a wave of financial responsibility.”

“Room C,” Vanderslice's name for Tiny Telephone's Oakland outpost — Rooms A and B are in the San Francisco studio — is located in a windowless, one-story cement hulk on a block with no sidewalks or trees, in the stretch of the East Bay where Emeryville, Oakland, and Berkeley intersect. The area has the same tucked-away vibe as the dead-end block of San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco's Mission District where the original Tiny Telephone is located.

Since it opened in 1997, San Francisco's Tiny Telephone has become a destination for some of the most respected indie artists around, including Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, Deerhoof, The Dodos, and Jolie Holland. Vanderslice, a respected indie musician who has also worked as a producer for the The Mountain Goats, Spoon, and Strand of Oaks, recorded 10 of his own albums there, too. While local artists such as Thao Nyugen and Rogue Wave have tracked there, Vanderslice estimates that about 60 percent of the clientele travels from out of town. (Disclosure: I'm a musician and have tracked guest vocals on a couple of projects there.)

When I visited Tiny Telephone Oakland a few days before the studio's official opening date of Jan. 1, the 48-year-old Vanderslice greeted me at the door wearing a headlamp — necessary for inspecting the reams of recording tape analog studios require — along with lavender-rimmed glasses, and a fleece pullover splattered with white paint. He asked me about my holiday travels before declaring with a smile, “This has been, like, the worst year.”

A thin man with chin-length blond hair who talks quickly, as if his mouth can't quite keep up with his brain, Vanderslice is buoyant enough that even his most hyperbolic statements are charming. One gets the sense that in the midst of a large and chaotic undertaking such as this, he's in his element.

For the last year, Vanderslice has been on hiatus — from producing records and from playing or recording his own music — to focus on building a world-class analog recording studio, a plan hatched after Tiny Telephone proved successful. Demand is such that both rooms in the San Francisco studio are booked most days of the year, even Christmas and New Year's Eve. When Vanderslice realized that all of his engineers lived in Oakland, as did almost every local band they worked with, he started toying with the idea of opening a location on the other side of the Bay. His timing was right: He was able to lock in rent at the Oakland space right before the East Bay market saw its most drastic increases.

During my December visit, I followed him into the small room that houses two Studer 820 24-track tape machines the size and shape of small stoves, one with its green and red lights flashing, the other currently dimmed. Through the soundproof glass, I could see a half-dozen construction workers and audio technicians in the control and live rooms, putting sound treatments on the walls. Some were tooling with the 64-channel Neve console, which resembles the control board of the Starship Enterprise. It felt like the beating heart of the space.

The studio somehow seemed less finished than it did during the party the month before, as if it had to be fully taken apart one last time before being put back together. Sawdust still covered many surfaces, and lumber and tools were heaped in every corner. In the live room, an orange ladder stretched up to the exposed silver air ducts, and the bookshelf that dominates one wall was still empty of the hundreds of used books that will also serve as sound treatments.


For a business about to open in 10 days, there was still a lot of work ahead.

“When the console I was looking for my entire life became free and this space became free, I was forced,” Vanderslice said. “There might as well have been a gun to my head. There was no way I wasn't going to build this studio.”

Despite never having the first-tier market or major label support of cities like Nashville, New York, or L.A., the Bay Area has a storied history of notable recording studios.

The area's studio heyday began in the late '60s, according to Heather Johnson, author of If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour Through San Francisco's Recording Studios. That's when Columbia and Mercury Records set up offices in San Francisco, hoping to recruit unsigned talent from the scene that had produced Santana and Jefferson Airplane. In 1969, engineer Wally Heider opened Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin. One of the first commercial recording studios not run by a label, it became a hub for Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and now operates as Hyde Street Studios. The Mission's Different Fur, which still operates under that name, was opened by electronic musician and synthesizer genius Patrick Gleeson in 1972, and much of Herbie Hancock's classic albums Sextant and Headhunters were recorded there. Berkeley's Fantasy Studios, which opened in 1971 and has recorded albums by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green Day, and Chris Isaak, still functions as a recording studio. The Automatt on Folsom Street in San Francisco, active from 1976 to 1984, was home to sessions by Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Patti LaBelle before it was destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Coast Recorders on Mission Street, which was built in 1969 and featured the largest live room in the city, changed hands several times before being taken over by mastering engineer Michael Romanowski in 2001. Romanowski relocated to Fantasy Studios this fall after the Coast Recorders building was purchased by real estate investors. The studio is currently empty, awaiting the investors' next move.

But one of the most notorious studios was the Sausalito location of the Record Plant, the former home of Vanderslice's Neve console. Opened in 1972 as the third location following Record Plants in New York and Los Angeles, Sausalito was where Fleetwood Mac recorded its seminal album Rumours in 1976. The studio was a second home to Sly Stone, Prince recorded his debut album For You there in 1977 (playing every instrument), and Rick James lived in the waterbed conference room for a time in the '80s.

The Record Plant switched owners multiple times, but continued to produce significant records by high-profile mainstream acts including Metallica, Mariah Carey, Dave Matthews Band, and Santana. Its profits dwindled in the digital era, until it officially closed in 2008. It's now used as a yoga studio and wellness center (though the Los Angeles location is still in business).

“These enormous dinosaurs of the recording industry based their whole model on bands having unlimited funds to make records,” says Eli Crews, an engineer and co-owner of New, Improved Recording, a studio housed in the same building as the new Tiny Telephone. “Should there be a hot tub at a recording studio? I guess if you're Fleetwood Mac in 1976, you want a hot tub in your studio, sure. But in 2015?”

In the 1990s, home recording software like Pro Tools and Apple's GarageBand hit the market and democratized the recording process — bands no longer had to book expensive studio sessions to cut an album. (Beck recorded his multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning Odelay at home in 1996 on an early version of Pro Tools.)

And if bands did go into the studio, it was often to lay down basic rhythm guitar and drum tracks, with vocals and additional instrumentation recorded at home. Once the album was finished, they'd sometimes return to the studio for a day or two of post-production mixing.

Home recording dovetailed with the internet-fueled decline in record sales and a new reluctance of labels to send artists into the studio for lengthy sessions. But some of the damage may have been self-inflicted. Vanderslice believes a lot of the old-guard studios sabotaged themselves by refusing to let go of the rates they were charging in the '80s.

“I don't know how you can't monetize these places,” he says. “[The Record Plant] is a famous destination studio, and they just fucked it up so bad.” In an attempt to stay as booked as possible, Vanderslice keeps rates below market rate: $375 a day for the A room, $275 for the B room, $300 for the C room.

The rule of studio ownership — for those who aren't independently wealthy — is to start small, grow slowly, and keep your overhead low. Vanderslice understood from the beginning that he was entering an industry that had been “totally flat lined” by digital recording.

When he rented the practice space that now holds Tiny Telephone's A room in San Francisco in 1996, he was 30, working as a waiter, and fronting the respected but relatively unknown alt-rock band MK Ultra (“We had, like, five fans,” he says.) The space rented for $660 a month, divided among nine other musicians. When they bailed, he decided to turn the space into a recording studio in order to break even and have a place to make his own records.

In his mind, the window for becoming a successful full-time musician had closed.

Tiny Telephone's opening coincided with Vanderslice's first month as a waiter at Chez Panisse, chef Alice Waters' farm-to-table mecca in Berkeley. The two experiences are inextricably tied in his memory. Everything about Chez Panisse seemed different from the corporate tourist traps he'd worked in throughout his 20s. The employees were happy. The ingredients were carefully sourced. The cooks never had to turn in a budget.


“It was political, but also totally aesthetic. There were these interesting parallel realities,” he says. “It made total sense to me and I bought into it naturally and passionately within five minutes of being there. Chez Panisse is a physical shrine to an idea, and it's an obsessive, totally extreme position.”

In many ways, the ethos of Chez Panisse are reflected in Vanderslice's approach to Tiny Telephone, which has a relaxed, lived-in vibe that he describes as “not a shit-hole, but not built with Daddy's money either.” It's full of reclaimed wood and a carefully curated selection of gear: a 1921 Deagan Marimba, the Studer tape machines. He often takes instruments out of the hands of musicians as they walk through the studio door and replaces them with ones he thinks will record better. The studio emphasizes simplicity and efficiency — musicians should come in prepared and able to record their part in a few takes. And it's dedicated to a philosophy than runs counter to the mainstream: That recording on tape is almost always superior to recording on a computer. He often uses the philosophies of organic farmers and artisan chocolate makers as a touchstone for his own ideas about the craft of recording and the importance of attention to detail.

“The profit margin is so low that it's got to mean something to you philosophically,” he explains. “I despise the laziness of Pro Tools engineers so much, and the short cuts, and the ease at which people forget how much better tape machines sound, that it's like a political mission.”

Over the past decade, Vanderslice has become one of analog recording's most vocal proponents. He first fell in love with tape after buying a Tascam four-track when he was a teenager, but describes his purchase of an Ampex MM 1000 16-track at age 31 as a major turning point. Ampex tape machines were developed in Redwood City in the '40s with financial support from Bing Crosby, who is often referred to as one of Silicon Valley's first “angel investors.” The white Ampex sign is still visible from US-101, although the company is much smaller and now develops a variety of audio products.

Digital recording was introduced in the '80s and exploded over the next decade, becoming standard protocol for both home and professional studios. It allows engineers to save large amounts of data and easily cut and paste together the best sections of multiple takes without the laborious process of physically splicing tape. But Vanderslice and other digital detractors argue that the sound quality of digital still lags behind analog.

“Digital is going to be great one day, but having a robot boyfriend or robot girlfriend may be great one day, too,” says Vanderslice. “That doesn't mean I want one now.”

Merrill Garbus, leader of Oakland indie pop outfit tUnE-yArDs, considers herself a hybrid user of digital and analog. She recently joined the Tiny Telephone roster as a producer and describes the sound of tape recordings as having “a roundness to tones, a subtlety that's not there in recordings that are only digital. The idea that you're getting a range, all the spaces between the ones and zeros.”0x2029It's not just the sound, however, that's kept Vanderslice and other Tiny Telephone engineers devoted to analog. For engineer Jamie Riotto, it's not even the sonic distinctions that interest him as much as tape's “ethos of recording,” which forces musicians to up their game and create better music. “There's a feeling of, 'Okay, this engineer's not going to piece together my performance from 14 different takes. Like, I've got to actually do this.'”

Crews, who also works as head engineer at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn, works in both digital and analog and has seen the way bands “turn on” at the site of a tape machine.

“It makes the studio environment more special, which makes the band have a better time, which makes the whole process go better,” he says. “You have this enormous machine that looks like it's from NASA or something in the corner, and it's got all these flashing lights and moving parts on it, and it just increases the importance of what's happening.”

Oklahoma singer-songwriter Samantha Crain, who recorded her last two albums with Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone, appreciates how tracking to analog forces a singer to ditch the oft-used digital practice of recording vocals one phrase at a time and then pasting them together.

“I never realized how strange that is until I started doing the one-or-two takes sort of thing,” she says. “It just felt so much better, and when you're listening to it, it actually feels like someone singing a song instead of some pieced-together GPS system or something.”

Even musicians who don't plan to convert to analog recording for life often enjoy the challenge of making at least one record using the process. Oakland's Astronauts, etc. recorded its last record with Riotto at Tiny Telephone, even though singer Anthony Ferraro had recorded the project's first few albums at home on a laptop.

“The limitations, in terms of time and the physical medium, force an ethic of efficiency and spontaneity on you,” Ferraro says.”It was a really healthy experience for us and a nice contrast to my previous experiences recording, which were fraught with a lot of hemming and hawing and walking away from the computer and trying to distract myself.”

There's also no denying the “cool factor” of analog — the romance, nostalgia, and mythology of working in the medium of so many classic records. “There's a lot of juju about making recordings and a lot of mysticism about what it takes to make a great album,” Garbus says. “If the magic of tape and the world that tape kind of brings into a studio has something to do with that, then that's fine by me.”


Vanderslice rented the Oakland space for two years while engineer Garry Creiman restored the Neve. (A console basically intercepts the data from the microphones and allows an engineer to manipulate the sound before it's tracked onto tape or a computer.) Buying the console, offered to him via email, turned out to be Vanderslice's major motivation for the new studio.

To many, the Neve consoles made in the '70s have become the holy grail of vintage gear, renowned for their craftsmanship and large, warm sound. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl declared his love for the Neve in the 2013 documentary Sound City — which a thankful Vanderslice says came out a few months after he purchased his Neve for $165,000 (several hundred thousand dollars less than the owner's original asking price of $450,000).

This console has a rich history. Before landing at the Sausalito Record Plant in the early 2000s, it was the main console at the Record Plant in L.A., home to sessions by Neil Young, Tom Petty, Nirvana, and Metallica. As Vanderslice holds one of its 64 hand-wound modules in the palm of his hand, he explains that this Neve was created at the peak of the big-budget recording studio era, when companies like Helio, Trident, and Neve were racing to make the most beautiful-sounding console.

“All we can do is go back and pull the best of what was really the peak and rebuild it,” Vanderslice says. “It's maybe a little bit crazy, but I think that it's also strangely intoxicating to be like, 'We know that this is the best that was ever done, and we're going to re-enter it, and make a pact with the geniuses that came up with this idea and keep this going.'”

He adds, “We did the same thing with tape decks, and it's maybe not the smartest thing financially, but if it was about money we wouldn't be in the art thing anyway, right? We'd be working at a fucking startup. Or a tech company. We'd be on the bus.”

Investing in expensive gear has been a mainstay of Vanderslice's philosophy as a recording artist and studio owner. He released his first solo record, Mass Suicide Occult Figures, on Seattle label Barsuk in 2000 and began touring extensively shortly after. He recalls coming home from one of his first tours, spreading all the cash he made on his bed, and blowing it all the next day on a new microphone.

To buy the Neve and build a third studio from the ground up, however, has required spending other people's money and has been an “incredibly painful” undertaking at times, Vanderslice admits. His only bank loans are in the form of a few credit cards; he raised $115,000 on Kickstarter and was also offered a few large low-interest loans from clients (“bigger bands”) and other members of the Bay Area music community. On Dec. 9, he tweeted, “If I survive this studio build I will be one strong motherfucker.”

There are at least a half-dozen analog studios in the country, including Steve Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago, The Bomb Shelter in Nashville, and Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic in Olympia, Wash. Chris Woodhouse, who has engineered analog records by Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, specializes in analog recording in his Sacramento studio, The Dock, and Tim Green of Louder Studios in Nevada City, Calif., records almost exclusively to tape. Most studios have tape machines on their list of gear. (There is also a swath of local artists, like Jessica Pratt and Kelley Stoltz, who have made notable recordings using lo-fi tape machines.)

Still, most engineers employ a hybrid model or work in tape very little. Many don't have bands asking for analog, while others don't feel it fits into the workflow or budget of the modern, digitally minded studio. It's also expensive: There is now only one tape manufacturer in the country, ATR Magnetics. Vanderslice estimates that Tiny Telephone spends about $5,000 a year on tape.

Engineer and producer Michael Starita, who serves as president of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy and has worked with Childish Gambino and Spearhead, agrees that tape can motivate better performances in theory, but when it doesn't, an engineer needs to use whatever tools are necessary to make the track sound professional, even if it means combing through 50 versions of a guitar solo to find the best one.

“If you're using tape, nine times out of 10, people are still going to come in and maybe not play as well as they should,” he says. “Then you're sitting there with something that sonically might sound good, but performance-wise might not be there, and you're sort of restricted in what you can do.”

Only about one in 10 bands asks for an analog experience, says Crews. He often encourages them to work with tape at some point though, either in the tracking or mixing stage, to add some analog warmth. But he takes umbrage at the notion that tape sounds better in absolutely every case.

“It's not better, it's different,” he says. “I wish it were always consistent because then I could just say, 'We're always mixing to tape,' or 'Fuck tape. It's not worth the extra effort and cost.' But it's kind of a case-by-case basis for me.”

There is also the argument that the sonic advantages of analog are lost on a world that now consumes the majority of its music online on sites like YouTube or SoundCloud. But Vanderslice argues that musicians shouldn't be making music for the average listener: They should be making it for the best possible listener.

“I don't think Brian Wilson was like, 'We don't need [drummer] Hal Blaine on this session because maybe some people can hear that his feel is unbelievably good and some people can't,'” he says. “This never ends, this line of thinking. We have tons of bands who are like, 'Why should I spend money on mastering when everyone is going to listen to my record on earbuds?' It's like, why not lie down in front of traffic because you're going to die one day?”


Tiny Telephone serves the demand for analog recording, but it's possible that by creating critically acclaimed records, Vanderslice has also strengthened that demand.

The first band to record at Tiny Telephone was the San Francisco art-rock act Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, who coughed up $100 a day for 30 days. After that month-long session, Vanderslice realized that maybe he could go into business, although he continued working at Chez Panisse part-time to be safe. Five years and a few solo albums later, he was making enough from the studio and from his own touring and record sales to quit the restaurant industry for good.

All but one of his own records has been tracked at Tiny Telephone, which allowed him to become intimately acquainted with the gear and the space. While his songs often fall into the singer-songwriter-raconteur category, they also evince a dedication to production and an interest in experimenting with sound, often drawing from a palette of vocal loops, synthesizers, and drum machines. He's become known for fastidious yet dramatic arrangements and unusual pairings of instruments. On 2001's Time Travel Is Lonely, for example, he plays almost every instrument himself, but he also plays with classical recording samples, distorted drums, a plethora of horns, and, from time to time, an orchestra.

Vanderslice's music career has fueled the success of Tiny Telephone and vice versa. He's toured with several of the bands he's produced, played more than 1,000 shows in 14 years, and has often spent at least four to six months of the year on the road. Much of his earnings from touring and record sales were shoveled back into the San Francisco space.

Vanderslice applies a simple supply-and-demand curve to Tiny Telephone — he keeps prices under market to remain as booked as possible, and supplies services musicians cannot easily replicate at home. He shuns the common studio practices of giving away time or employing sliding rates — his rates are in bold font on the web site.

“You don't give away free time if you're actually a business,” he says. “Imagine if you were walking down 20th Street and Flour + Water was like, 'Free dinner tonight.' You'd be like, 'There's something wrong with this restaurant.'”

Vanderslice has taken a hiatus from songwriting, and after he and his band narrowly escaped a car accident on their last national tour in 2013, he decided to quit touring, too. (“It felt super mundane to die on an American freeway.”he said.)

An Oakland band called The Blue Hours will be the first to record in the new studio, followed by Dear Reader, a singer-songwriter from Germany who booked a 17-day session in Oakland at the end of January. Room C also features a small apartment to entice out-of-towners.

The studio is currently fully booked until the end of August.

While he predicts “continued decimation” of the music scene in San Francisco, Vanderslice has a more optimistic outlook for the East Bay. “Oakland has the fuck-you spirit of a place that survives, so I'm not going to count Oakland out no matter who moves downtown into what building,” he says.

And even if every musician in the Bay Area moves away, Tiny Telephone will survive.

“The studios will be fine because it's a wonderful, lovely place to travel to,” he says. “It's a great fucking destination.”

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