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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

How Independent Recording Studios Are Weathering COVID-19

Two recording engineers on stools at Tank Recording Studio
Ming Poon
Rob O'Dea and Ben Collette, the founders and engineers at Tank Recording Studios in Burlington's Old North End. They opened the new space just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

People all across Vermont have had to be creative when it comes to getting work done while also social distancing during the pandemic. Musicians and recording studios are no exception. Vermont Edition spoke with recording studio engineers and owners from around the state about how they are producing music safely and efficiently during COVID-19.

Our guests are:

Broadcast live on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Vermont Edition also spoke with Vermont artists about creating during the pandemic. Find host Mary Engisch's conversation with musicans about COVID-19 here.

Due to music rights issues, VPR was not able to podcast this show or offer a digital recording for listening. For more local music, listen to Safe & Sound, a weekly program on VPR celebrating Vermont artists and performers.

Creating During A Pandemic At Tank Recording Studio

Ben Collette is an audio engineer atTank Recording Studio in Burlington's North End.

Mary Engisch: Tell me about your space. Where are you? What's it look like when we open the door?

Ben Collette: We spent 2019 renovating the former Old Spokes Home bike shop building in [The Old North End of] Burlington. We have multiple control rooms, isolation booths, a beautiful tracking room. It's truthfully a dream come true for us. We leveraged everything we had and then some to get the doors open just in time for COVID-19 to hit.

More from Vermont Edition: Making Music In The Midst Of A Pandemic

In a way, the dream we had was devastated. And we were stuck wondering what the heck was going to happen. But it turns out we've been pretty busy, which has been good. We've been making a lot of great music. And once we were able to open the doors post-quarantine, we've been lucky to have some great local musicians come in.

"I mean, I felt like we were doing the best work of our career and then it was all gone." - Ben Collette

The one thing that's been a real downside for us is the lack of in-state musicians being able to come in. That was one of the big reasons we opened the larger facility. I felt like we were doing the best work of our career and then it was all gone.

We were looking at a summer calendar that was just empty. Things have turned around, but unfortunately, we have sort of fallen through the cracks with a lot of the pandemic financial assistance. We've been scrambling to pivot and figure out what we're going to do. We're really trying to make the best of it. I think we're doing a pretty good job so far.

recording booth, empty but for guitar
Credit Ming Poon
An individual recording booth at Tank Recording Studio in Burlington's Old North End.

Both myself and my partner, Rob O'Dea, are just constantly counting our blessings. We feel so lucky to have gotten into the new studio before everything hit, and to be making music for a living is just such an incredible gift. We're just trying to give back to the community. We want to help people make the best sounding records they can, whether it's from start to finish here at the studio, or mixing tracks that they worked on at home.

More from VPR: 'Between Abject Fear And Inexplicable Optimism': Vt. Poets On The Pandemic

You know, I think that there's a lot that a studio can do. As much as I think it's important for musicians to be able to record themselves at home and understand the process and all those things, there's a true collaborative nature to working in the studio with engineers, who have experience with the room and the equipment, that you just don't get at home. Even some of our best clients still record stuff at home and still record stuff here.

Creating During A Pandemic At Old Mill Road Recording

Joshua Sherman is the founder of Old Mill Road Recording in East Arlington. 

Mary Engisch: So what does Old Mill Road Recording look like, and how have you been faring amidst COVID-19?

Joshua Sherman: It's been busy, in all honesty. We're obviously following all safety protocols. In my other life, in addition to being a producer, I'm a physician. So we've made sure that temperature is checked when people are coming in, people are wearing masks and being socially distant. We've been minimizing the number of people coming in. We have, of course, established protocols consistent with recommended guidelines.

The truth is, there are a lot of live event venues that have been closed, and musicians right now feel a tremendous need to share their music. For professional musicians, coming into the recording studio is a perfect opportunity to actually lay down their next album or some additional tracks to get [their music] out to their fans while they're touring and live events are on hold.

More from Safe & Sound: Vermont Voices For Change

For people who are hobby musicians, certainly this is a stressful time. They're taking care of friends and family. And they're also feeling isolated. So to actually get into the studio and record music certainly is a great way to feel better.

We feel very blessed and very grateful. I'm sitting here in our isolation booth looking out at our waterfall and couldn't feel further away from the pandemic, even though we know it's not that far away.

Mary Engisch: It seems like so much about booking a recording studio, whether you're there for an hour or there for, you know, a matter of weeks, is about the hang. It's the camaraderie; it's the collaboration between musicians; it's getting together in an intimate space and creating something awesome. What does that look like now? Is that camaraderie still possible?

Joshua Sherman: The simple answer is: yes. There's a group of us who have quarantined together, which gives us more freedom in terms of working with one another. And, of course, a lot of the work we do, whether it's mixing or post-production work, can also be done in isolation. 

"So whether you're wearing a mask or standing between glass, being in the booth or in the control room, the truth is that you still connect to the music." - Joshua Sherman

But in terms of bringing musicians in, the truth is there's plenty of space here and after you sort of get the safety components out of the way, the camaraderie doesn't go away because what you're really connecting over is the music. So whether you're wearing a mask or standing between glass, being in the booth or in the control room, the truth is that you still connect to the music.

Mary Engisch: So I'm hearing you say that some bands are isolating together, say that they’re roommates or something. So it wouldn't be as much of a deal for a trio to come in altogether and use a recording space. What about some bands that still want to record, but who haven't been together quarantining? How is that working? Are you just laying down one track at a time? What does that look like? 

Joshua Sherman: We're a destination studio. We really serve three different populations. We've been able to do some student work during this time, although we've really minimized that. And that's both on them and their parents, and on our side that we've both agreed that it's safer to minimize that.

If you're regional or from the area, our governor and health commissioner have encouraged taking a staycation. So I think that there is a real increase in locals and regional musicians coming in.

More from Safe & Sound: A Celebration Of Vermont Music

As far as destination artists, we've still been able to accommodate that because we have housing. We've made it very clear as far as quarantine goes, and so we really do sort of double check to make sure that people are following guidelines.

Obviously, as the owner and producer, I want to protect the crew here as well as any visitors. I'm also a practicing physician, and the truth is the [shared] skillset that goes into producing and being a doctor is really problem solving. And so we've sort of been able to pivot and adjust and accommodate while still respecting the rules.

Creating During A Pandemic At West Street Digital Recording

Andre Maquera is the owner and chief engineer of West Street Digital Recording in Saint Albans.

Mary Engisch: So how's it going? You're in Franklin County and you've got a nice little studio up there. Walk us through the door of your studio. What does it look like when we walk in? 

Andre Maquera: Well, when you walk in the door there, I'll be sitting here probably, you know, 20 hours-a-day, straight in the control room. And I try to make something that is very comfortable because we started on the other side of the glass, as we say, as musicians.

For me, the key to any studio is setting the vibe initially. So when you walk in here, you should feel as comfortable as wood on the walls. As a musician in a studio, my job is to create the vibe. So first impressions are important. When you walk in here, it has to be welcoming. That's the most important thing.

Mary Engisch: You said you've been busy. Bands are coming in, they're booking studio time. Do you think that's due to the pandemic? 

Andre Maquera: You know, it's funny, when the whole thing first hit, I had some serious concerns about the longevity of the business. But then I realized, 'Hey wait a minute. This is the 21st century. And

"I'm probably busier than I've been in the last five years." - Andre Maquera

musicians, by and large, can't survive playing music in a live situation.' So it's not like that revenue stream has been cut off from them, you know?

For original music made by Andre Maquera and other Vermont artists during COVID-19, head here.

On the contrary, now they have time to be home. A lot of them are getting unemployment checks and they can afford to have the time to hone their craft and work on their songs. And they have the financial resources to make them a reality. 

Mary Engisch: You're finding that folks now maybe have an income source that they may not have had before and that they're using it to head into the studios?

Andre Maquera: Yeah. In a way, it's almost like they play with house money. And again, it stimulates the economy and it creates art. So it's a win-win really for everybody. I’m probably busier than I've been in the last five years. I’m wearing a lot of different hats. I've got projects where I do just mixing. So I think not being able to have people in here hasn't really adversely affected my revenue stream because I'll get whole projects and we'll just be mixing for hours on end. 

digital control room at West Street Digital
Credit West Street Digital, courtesy
The control room at West Street Digital.

Mary Engisch: So you're surrounded by a bunch of super expensive technical equipment. You can't really go in there with the Lysol wipes and drench everything down and spray different solvents to keep things safe. What is your protocol? What have you changed? What have you kept the same?

Andre Maquera: Well first of all, we've been wearing masks right from the start. But I mean, my wife's the smart one. She buys Clorox disinfecting wipes by the case. Again, she's the smart one in the relationship, so she makes sure we're well stocked. We never ran low on toilet paper and all of that. But I mean, all these surfaces that people come in contact with - headphones, pop screens on a microphone - all of those get wiped down. There are no chairs where people sit. So we try to be very cognizant of the current protocols. 

For playlists from VPR's show Safe & Sound, featuring music from local artists, follow VPR on Spotify.

Mary Engisch: So before, you've got a band that comes in to do a session, you probably have a set list and things to get you into a zone or a headspace. Has any of that changed? Have you sort of changed up your own prerecording protocols? Not necessarily in terms of staying safe during the pandemic, but is it a different mindset? 

Andrew Maquera: I say yes and no. One of the protocols I've had to adapt to is to say, 'Hey, where have you been in the last couple weeks?' You know, I've got clients that are like, 'Hey, we will be vacationing in this area.' And I say, 'Well, when you get back, call me and we'll start the clock and in 14 days you can come in.' And that's something we never had to think about before.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
Emily was a Vermont Edition producer at Vermont Public Radio until September 2021.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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