These are the days of DIY pop dreams, of manufacturing musical fame and fortune (or at least really rockin' tunes) in the comfort of your studio apartment. Got a computer? Got a guitar? Got bedhead and morning breath? Go for it.
Think of this: You can't make a major motion picture in your attic. But thanks to the growing popularity and technology of the home recording studio, you can make an album that sounds just as sweet as whatever's topping the charts. (That would be Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III. Oh yeah, you can totally beat that.)
The biggest factor in shortening the distance between you and Bob Dylan — besides great gobs of interstellar talent, of course — has been the advent of Pro Tools. Launched in the late '80s, this "digital audio workstation," available in Mac and Microsoft formats, allows makeshift musicians to save on expensive "real" studio time. For as little as a few hundred bucks, musicians can roll out of bed, record a song, edit through Pro Tools and introduce said song via the Internet.
As major labels hemorrhage money and talent, as the music industry figures out how things got so bad, the biggest biz buzz has been generated on MySpace and YouTube, socially minded online sites that allow no-name talents to post their music, videos, podcasts — and become name-names overnight: Lily Allen. Colbie Caillat. Marie Digby.
All you need is enough space for a computer, an instrument or two and a microphone. If you have a mixing board ($300, cheap!) and a videocamera, all the better. More than a few weekend knob-twiddlers have taken their home-studio hobby to extremes, spending many years and many, many dollars feeding their obsession. They are now not just producing their own music, but that of other acts, as well.
"Music made here can sound just as good as music made in a fancy studio," says Dan Byers, who built his own studio in the oddest of places in Clearwater. "Maybe it can sound even better, because you don't have to worry about time, about rushing."
Byers is one of many DIYers in the Tampa Bay area who have carved out a part of their world for their music. Some of these local studios are fancy; some are cool; and some have to be seen to be believed. We dropped in on three joints, each one with a different story to tell, and each with lots of hot music to play.
Dan Byers, 27, Clearwater
"Some vocalists don't like to record in front of everyone," says Dan Byers, the trucker-capped king of Rock Garden Recording studio. "So I tell 'em, 'You're being put in the Baby Room!' Hey, they're being babies, so why not put them in there, right?"
Ah yes, the Baby Room. Byers' studio may be the only one in the world built within the confines of a Tigger-littered day care center. Several years ago, Byers' mother, Diane, donated "an old crappy room" in her Bay Vista Learning Center to her son, who turned the humble space into a sparkling tribute to his passion.
Three years ago, Byers hired an acoustic engineer as a consultant. He then split the room in two — performance space, production space — and divided them with a glass partition. Byers then built the slats and soundproofing with his father; it now looks like something you'd see at Sony.
"Every penny I've made for the past 11 years has gone back into this," says Byers, whose day job is rebuilding BMX bikes in a nearby shop. He ballparks his studio's worth at $80,000.
A former engineer at Ron Rose Productions in Tampa, Byers was also in a few area bands, including the Simpletons and Human Echo. Now he's exclusively behind the soundboard, accepting new clients on a word-of-mouth basis. He spends about 40 hours a week here (along with 40 hours at his bike-store job, plus whatever time is left for his girlfriend), and works with acts ranging from country to rock to gospel. If he could spend more time in here, he would. Who could blame him?
"We're surrounded by children's toys, so no one takes it too seriously," says Byers, who recently borrowed a purple Scooby-Doo tambourine from a nearby room to record an effect. "It lightens the mood. I've been in a lot of studios and there's always pressure."
These days, Byers is recording local metal band the Flying Snakes, a bunch of talented tough guys. Their lead singer, Cletis Chatterton, prefers to record in the Baby Room, which is just around the corner from the studio. "Every once in a while you'll hear one of the children's toys go off," says Byers. "That means these rockers are in there pressing buttons, seeing what the toys do."
Jean "Quad" Vixamar, 33, Wesley Chapel
I'm leaning to the left as I'm riding through the city . . .
The Haitian hip-hop collective Dirty Money mixes street rhymes with cinematic oomph, a great, gritty cacophony that sounds larger, tougher than life. Think Jay-Z meets Danny Elfman. It's good. Real good.
And yet, the way this music is made is just about as mundane, modern and nerdy as the jams are cool and cunning.
Jean Vixamar pulls a 9-to-5 at Verizon. He's also a student at USF, working on a management degree. Most of all, he's dad to his 5-year-old son, Jamir. But when Vixamar scrounges the time — and when bandmates Jay and Mack, twin brothers also from Haiti, can make it — they hole up in his house in Wesley Chapel.
There, in the little office behind the kitchen, is where Dirty Money comes alive. The three men hunker behind two computer screens to make beats, tweaking and tinkering on Pro Tools and Reason, another software program. It sounds like they're making music; it looks like they're doing their taxes.
As well as two computers, they have a Behringer mixing board and a Korg keyboard. They also have two Bob Marley posters hanging above them, the guiding importance of which should not be underestimated.
One at a time, Dirty Money stuff themselves into the room's tiny closet to record vocals. They rhyme with glamor and swagger, all while crammed in a space that could barely hold three suits on wire hangers.
The guys are close to finishing their album. They're planning on recording a video, too, something to put on YouTube or their MySpace page. "We'll do a little something crazy," says Vixamar.
Although they long to be heard, they have no desire to deal with a major label. "A lot of hip-hop is cookie-cutter, everybody doing the same thing," says Vixamar. "In order for you to advance as an artist, you have to step outside the box."
In order to gauge success, Vixamar often turns to one very special critic: 5-year-old Jamir.
"If it's explicit stuff, I don't want him to be in here," says Vixamar, breaking into a smile. "But if he's in here, and he's moving, I know that we got a hot one."
Brian Merrill, 45, St. Petersburg
Everything you need to know about Brian Merrill can be found on the porch of his house: a stroller, beer bottles, a drum, a Super Soaker.
Father of three by day, rocker of thousands by night.
Behind that house is the aural oasis where Brian Merrill can stretch the buzz of his night job even longer. Welcome to Studio B.
"This is my muscle car," he says with a smile, motioning to the teched-out innards of a former garage. Seven years ago, the squatty building was filled with junk; now it's painted a puckish red and yellow and has the musty reek of rockin' good times.
"I was sick of watching my wallet in the studio," says Merrill, who's been an integral part of such beloved local bands as Barely Pink and the Ditchflowers, whose 2006 album Carried Away was a critical darling.
Unlike, say, Dan Byers or Jean Vixamar's studios, Merrill's has a partied-in feel. As well it should. The first piece of vintage equipment he installed here was a bottle opener. The cozy quarters would also come to include a full bathroom plus "$75,000 to $100,000" worth of gadgetry: a Shadow Hills Equinox, an Apogee Rosetta 800 and, of course, a well-worn program of Pro Tools. (He finances all this, and supports his family, with a day job designing Web sites for Outback.)
"I'm making records today that sound superior to stuff I made in bigger studios years ago," says Merrill, who figures he spends three or four nights a week in Studio B.
He's working on a new Ditchflowers album with partner Ed Woltil. He's also recording a "heavy-metal Christmas album" for an assortment of headbangers.
"This studio is bad-a--," says Nick DiCosola, 23, a musician friend Merrill calls his house engineer. "It's totally got a vibe."
Sometimes too much of a vibe. When Studio B is rocking and rolling too hard and too late, his neighbor will often hurl grapefruits against the wall. Merrill smiles: "He lets us know in different ways if we're too loud."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.