What comes to mind when you hear The Wonder Chamber? Something magical? Perhaps. Something that may hold a BDSM convention complete with play stations and leather? Maybe. Though there may be adaptations of the name here and there, in Austin, The Wonder Chamber is the coinage of Brian Beattie's musical lust for the perfect recording space.
Austin-based producer and former bassist/vocalist for Glass Eye, Brian Beattie has brought a long-time dream to fruition. After many years' experience in recording studios that were not his ideal, he has extracted and fused aspects of them and created something his own. Built from the ground up, The Wonder Chamber is distilled from everything he wanted but didn't have in a recording studio. The product of much planning, it eliminates the commute to work, since it is adjacent to his home, and allows him to merge, or at least keep parallel, the most important aspects of his life.
One of the many things he learned during its construction—though it seemed peripheral at the time—was the physics of sound. With "many walls and many dollars," Beattie has soundproofed the studio as much as possible, observing the importance to preserve neighborly relations. Broken-up angles and the lack of symmetry within the main room confuses and forces sound frequencies to stretch, contract, and dance in the space. "Most people design studios with a lot of sound absorption because it's safe….But then you suck out the actual acoustics of the room," he explained.
"I started recording in an era where the rooms were starting to sound deader and deader, and yet, the recordings I was fascinated by had some sort of room ambiance in them," he explained. "I like live-sounding rooms. I want to hear the sound of a room around me."
Working with Chapel Hill-based studio designer Wes Lachot on the initial floor plan and finishing with producer/engineer/studio designer Andy Barrett of Analog Domain, Inc., "the look and feel of the place is all filtered through my brain," says Beattie. Using local materials for as much of the construction as possible, the bathroom, which also doubles as a reverb chamber, is comprised of clay blocks from Elgin, TX, and the cement comes from just south of Austin. A generous amount of reused wood went into the construction upstairs, where he also included a painting studio for the missus. Cost-effective window units contribute to the Chamber's comfort and smart function, and keep the studio efficient. With just "a tiny bit of acoustic treatment in the control room [and] a big Ward Beck console," The Wonder Chamber will finally be complete.
What is Beattie's favorite thing about the studio, besides, of course, its sheer presence? "There’s lots of natural light and no windows in the control room," he explains. "The amount of live acoustics in here is what I'm most pleased about….The building itself works like an instrument."
He's come a long way from his old studio, which he less than affectionately refers to as a seventeen by seventeen foot "rat hole with cracked floors." Although, there is something endearing—most likely in retrospect— about "[drumming] on the ceiling [that] sounds like a maraca, [and having] pounds of rat pellets come filtering down," Beattie said with a chagrined laugh. "In that place….I was doing a high-dollar treatment, [because] we were being very careful." According to Beattie, the limitations of its being a shit hole kept the rate ceiling disproportionately lower than the quality of work done. At the end of the day, the learning experience sustains and the turds are easily brushed off the shoulders. Extracting from what he'd learned—or endured—at his previous studio, he made the Chamber's main room relatively large, hence its twenty-eight by twenty-four foot dimensions and thirteen or fourteen foot ceilings.
With a full plate of projects thus far, Beattie has been busy with a full-length project with Lee Barber, formerly of The Barbers, has almost completed Okkervil River's appendix EP to The Stage Names (2007), called The Stand Ins, and is working on an album with fellow producer Craig Ross with The Places. One of the unique formats on which he's working within this brood of talents is a live to two-track project with Bill Callahan and special guests (Horse + Donkey and Jonathan Meiberg from Shearwater on piano).
Live to two-track "is harrowing for most artists because… everything has to be the way you want it for it to turn out right." In addition to that added tension, "you have to depend on someone else in there" as he points to the control room, "to make all these mixing decisions." The interactions between performer and producer, or engineer in the case of live to 2-track work, are fulfilling and demanding for both. "While they're playing, my fingers are on the faders—the important ones—and I'm listening so actively. You can hear things unfolding….[in the performance and] under my fingers, so everything in that moment of time is printing onto that piece of tape." Glorious.
The logistics of multi-track recording are as varied as artists' choices for producers and studios. Its variegated layers are complex, but allow for different permutations of analog and digital. "When I do twenty-four or sixteen-track [work], I use one of the Alesis HD twenty-four hard drives ADAT's….You can edit things, but you have to use your ears. You don't look at a computer monitor, so it's a lot more fun." Because of its massive presence, digital recording has strict followers, and others who oscillate between it and its predecessor, depending on what the projects necessitate. "If a band wants to do a multi-track record where they really want to use studio trickery, I've got to use my digital [equipment]," explains Beattie.
"I'm actually much more suited to recording on a digital machine," he adds. Because tracks can be manipulated to varying degrees, "digital is always going to give it back to me the same exact way. There's something comforting about that." Genre and his prejudices oftentimes dictate the format to which he'll record, in order to preserve or convey the richest, most accurate time-honored product. His preference of the method of analog, and what it represents—tape rolling around a spool— and the sound that it yields, still works best for the production work that Beattie does. Not relying on a screen, and instead his ear and years of experience, he says, "the screen is just a magnet…everyone stares at it as if it means something. The more aliveness of the analog is more of a challenge." There is something special about the tangibility of tape, which begets allegiance to it. "I kind of want the analog to stay more purist and simple."
"If [I'm] doing a straight jazz thing," as he'd done with Austin-based jazz quartet Torch, "I really like doing it as it would've been done in the late 50s…straight onto my analog two-track machine," he says. Not only is the band good enough to do that, Beattie says, but because "music falls over a piece of time, jazz especially manipulates time while it's doing that."
So, Beattie looks to a four-track MR 70, last tube analog machine that Ampex made, which is perfect for working with something that has "a lot of acoustic breath to it." For bands that are more rock-based, "I'll try to talk people into using my eight-track," though he understands the preference for more tracks. From there, "we'd probably move onto the twenty-four-track." Regardless of format, the formula for each band does not come predetermined. A seasoned ear extracts and applies varying degrees of proficiency to honor the project. "I've had so many experiences where just getting it right makes it sound good."
While working with an artist, it's obviously important to respect different aesthetics and opinions, but it is crucial to pair these with a fair, clear dialogue. "If I'm hearing something…I tell them," he explains. "I'm wrong plenty of the time, and I like being wrong, but I also have opinions all the time." In order to understand what an artist wants, and how most closely to deliver that, says Beattie, "We sit and do a lot of listening to other records," opening up a healthy discourse that may widen the boundaries or heighten expectations of a project.
"A lot of the time, real subtle things about what makes something magical become lost on people…. Most bands don't understand the context of what they're doing in relation to how they sound," he said. "Talking helps." Beattie brings up Will Sheff (of Okkervil River) as an example. "Before we make a record, he always sends me a CD of a bunch of songs. [Although] it has no bearing on anything we do…[It] becomes part of the language we use when we talk about what we're doing."
Throughout his experiences, Beattie has purified his specialty in arrangements. He has seen many rock bands not "really understand the subtleties of arrangements," which are very important to making records unique, beautiful, and helps capture listeners. "Sometimes if you're a little more careful with how certain instruments are conversing with one another, [it can] sound much larger." This, oftentimes, in some form, is what many artists seek, even if they can't immediately identify it.
One thing that many producers and engineers should keep close is the reality that "no matter how much you struggle while you're making a record, the only thing that anyone hears is the end [product]." But for those present throughout the process, foul-ups and difficult times inevitably find their way into album production, even with the best. What are Beattie's challenges? "My own ineptitude and fucking drummers," he says emphatically with a little laugh, though I can tell he's serious. "My pet peeve lately…[is] people coming into a session and just sucking shit," he explained with a slight shake of the head, making it hard not to laugh at his straight-faced delivery.
When we are fortunate enough to meet people who influence us in ways that drive us to become something, we take from those interactions and carry parts of them with us. According to Beattie, Stewart Sullivan, owner of Wire Recording and Mike Stewart "basically showed [him] how it works. I got to see some sessions with Malcolm Burn….[And] I also worked with Steve Albini once," he divulged.
As varying schools of thought exist in every specialized craft, record production is no different. There is inevitably dissonance between the need to keep a craft alive and esoteric, and preserving it from mediocre saturation. "I'm impatient with people who think that recording, or any art form should remain mystical…whose secrets are only shared with certain people," Beattie explains. Thinking about the evolution of music and the lost or old recordings of legends, the need to share and preserve is obvious. "I think that people should—especially with technologies that are at a danger of being lost—share as much as possible."
So, Beattie welcomes amateur producers and engineers into the field. "It's the best time because it used to be such a specialized experience, and you were dealing with experts, which was an advantage." The one piece of advice he has for green engineers? "The main thing is having the confidence that you can use your ears, and don't get so caught up with…[needing] this magical piece of gear to make it sound better." Beattie implores them to trust their abilities and their instincts. "You could make it sound better tomorrow just by doing it a little better."
Due to the plethora of for-hire studios available, rates correspond to the quality of the product bands walk away with. Beattie's discography—which includes the Dead Milkmen, Daniel Johnston, Kathy McCarty, and Okkervil River—is one of the attractions of a seasoned, well-developed producer. At The Wonder Chamber, a regular multi-track record, is approximately $1,000 per song, no matter how long it takes, plus expenses. If mixing onto analog, it ranges from $300 to $600, and for live to 2-track projects, it is $500 per 8-hour day, but does not restrict the work to banker's hours. Beattie does not watch the clock. It's very important to him to "avoid half-assed work," which oftentimes follows the stress and anxiety of temporal boundaries and perceived deadlines.
As his current projects are wrapping up, Beattie must make time for new projects. Though adjusting routine and sometimes sleep patterns to find his next big thing can be difficult, finding artists to alternate between that are both beyond and behind his years is important. They provide an "entirely different set of concerns" that help keep him balanced, so these days, his ears are upturned.
"I'd really like to work with James Hand," he said of the Austin-based country singer, whose style is reminiscent of Hank Williams. "I'd like to work with somebody or something very very very minimal, or something that's very strange." Straight-faced yet again he says, "I'd like to work with those guys that sing ballads over at Guerro's," because in some incarnations, he finds the guitar-playing, harmonizing trios beautiful. So, as The Wonder Chamber prepares to stand up to its creator's expectations, we wait for what else emerges from its perfectly imperfect angles.