The spacious, warehouse atmosphere inside the new Sound of Music studio at 1515 W. Broad St. already feels homey — if a little ghostlike.
You can sense the musical history embedded in the cumulative years of the vintage instruments and amps stored around the place. Live recording with real instruments — or "capturing the talent in the room" as co-owner John Morand says — is its specialty. And what's a musical recording but the ghost of a past moment anyway?
"I think we're the only studio where the people who own it don't work at Guitar Center," says Morand while pouring a cup of strong coffee in the kitchen upstairs. "We just make records, we don't play in bands that tour or work at music stores. It's our full-time job."
The studio is celebrating its 20th anniversary making albums in Richmond and beyond. And if one thing is certain: These people know their microphones.
There's the famous 1958 U47 microphone they use proudly to record musicians, the same classic German microphone once used by the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. Other vintage names include the rare Fairchild and Neve preamps, which offer more of a boutique recording experience in the age of easy digital recording.
"Microphones were one of the first things they got right when they were inventing musical equipment," Morand says. "They never really made ones better than these in the 1950s because they were designed for radio stations that had unlimited money."
With today's struggling music business, money is more of a problem for bands than ever — and studios like Sound of Music must think outside the box to survive. This includes branching more into video and sound production (YouTube has become a major player in the music world) as well as holding and recording concerts inside the studio's entrance hall, which holds about 150 people.
"[Since the Internet], bands don't sell as many records as they used to — so I think having music become this free commodity has been the biggest challenge," Morand says. "The good part about it is that people in Europe know about our records. But the bad part is music has been devalued. To us, music still has a lot of value."
It seems fitting that one of the most vocal opponents of illegal downloading in America right now, Cracker's David Lowery, was a co-founder of the studio with Morand in 1994. When Cracker's second record, "Kerosene Hat," started doing well, the pair bought a studio on Brook Road that was called Turpentine Mill. The original Sound of Music operated there until 1997 before opening a second studio above Metro Sound on Broad Street. Then both studios were combined into 321 W. Broad St. for the next decade until 2006, when they also opened a brief-lived annex in Carytown.
In 2004, Sound of Music opened an overseas studio in Holland that's still in operation. In 2008, it relocated to Foushee Street, and after a fire, wound up in the current location at 1515 W. Broad St. — a building owned by Frank Wood, father of Brandy Wood, who used to play bass in Cracker.
Within its various locations through the years, the studio has recorded musicians as wide-ranging as Daniel Johnston, Sparklehorse, D'Angelo and the Black Crowes, not to mention local luminaries Lamb of God, Gwar, Labradford and Avail.
The studio is operated by partners Morand and Miguel Urbiztondo, and recently added Scott Harritan. Local lawyer and Hammond B-3 player Craig Harmon also is a longstanding partner.
"There are few people who can make a drum kit sound the way it's supposed to coming through a stereo," says Harritan, a musician who used to play with locals HalfBrother Sid. "I can listen to recordings from the past 10 years from different local studios and tell which drums were tracked at Sound of Music."
Morand says the secret to the studio's longevity has been keeping the focus on musicians and treating all paying customers equally. Or as Urbiztondo chimes in: "Why not treat [local group] NrG Krysys like Michael Jackson? You book the studio, it's your time. We may cost a little more, but we get things done in a timely fashion."
Musician Ward Harrison, formerly of the Hackensaw Boys, who's recorded in the studio, says the owners have a knack for picking great-sounding rooms. "You can go to your buddy's studio and record on Pro Tools," he says, "but if you want really good quality audio gear, Sound of Music is the only game in town."
Definitely, there is increased competition from smaller studios as the recording process has become more accessible and affordable. But the knowledge that goes behind it is still relatively rare.
You can have all the gear under the sun, Morand notes, but if you don't know what to do with it, you're screwed. "We're back to recording on tape now where we started," he says. "Now that digital has become everywhere, analog is more interesting and it sounds so much better."
As it celebrates its 20th year, Sound of Music is working on the new Cracker record as well as post-production sound for a documentary about the band and the 25th anniversary of the "Get Off This" record made by a New York company. The initial Kickstarter fundraising campaign for the project raised more than $115,000.
We asked Sound of Music to share its top recordings through the years. Here's their curated list.