Making Waves: A Profile of the Recording Studio

by Julia Waldow ’17

Hunched over his guitar in the WKCO Live Room, Vincent Femia ’17 cradles his instrument in his arms and plucks away a few notes to “Magic Box,” a song he penned over Thanksgiving Break.

“Okay, ready to go? We’re gonna record it, and you might have a single when you leave,” Studio Co-Manager Teddy Farkas ’16 tells Femia from the recording booth.

Femia nods and begins strumming away, his clear, strong voice reverberating through the speakers. “Dodge the broken bottle glass / Suck in the laughing gas / Cause I can’t breathe / Ribs made of chicken bones / And words made of silent tones / Form a cage…” he sings.

Melancholy, powerful, and rhythmic, Femia’s lyrics and music mix to create a solid combination. It’s moments like this that the studio staff strives for.

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Overwhelmed with the musty scent that can only come from the hundreds of old records on its shelves or its location in the basement of Farr Hall, WKCO’s recording studio is any drum-banging, guitar-playing, earbud-wearing student’s paradise. Hidden in a maze of CD racks and DJ schedules, the small room grants wishes to those looking to extend their influences beyond the studio’s four blue wire-covered walls.

“A lot of bands come in here just wanting a really raw capture of what they sound like, and through the course of recording, realize that they can make something that’s a lot bigger,” Former Studio Manager Alex Evans said. “That’s such a fun realization for a band that’s practicing in someone’s basement and playing local shows at the Village Inn.”

Since the studio’s establishment in the 1960s, musical groups, playwrights and singer-songwriters have trekked to the whitewashed building’s lowest floor to make discoveries about their sound and contribute to Kenyon’s musical scene. Here, they learn things about their instruments or vocals that cannot be taught in a classroom.

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“Okay, I need you to set up 57s on each of the guitar amps and the bass amps, DI the bass, set up the Oktavas as overheads with one set up pointed towards the snare and the other towards the floor tom, and set up another 57 on the snare and the Beta 52 for the kick.”

Farkas’s instructions to prepare for a recording session sound more like a recipe delivered in code than simple, technical directions. But to those hungry to learn all they can about the process, his directives are helpful, not confusing.

“[Recording] is something you learn by doing,” Evans said. “It’s like riding a bike. You watch videos of people riding a bike … and it will give you some good tips but until you start turning the pedals, you don’t really know what you’re doing.”

Farkas and Evans began teaching recording classes last year to better establish the studio as an active organization and carry on the studio’s legacy but quickly found that they needed a new method if they wanted to keep people interested and engaged.

“As great as it is to tell everyone about how to record and how certain cables work and how to coil and how to solder, it’s unhelpful if people get bored quickly,” Farkas said. “What we’re going to do is gather everyone and have classes like [before], but [now] mostly it’s going to be us making them come to sessions and do work, because that’s how you learn.”

Recording projects vary in length and occur intermittently. The first step in the process is tracking, when microphones and/or instruments are plugged in and record a live source. Next, staff mixes the sounds by adjusting volume and applying effects. Then, they master the recording by optimizing it to sound the same on all devices before sending the tracks to the artists.

“It is strange listening to your own recording because you know everything you have messed up, and you can hear it so clearly,” Femia said. “Recording is very nitpicky.”

In recognizing and correcting these mistakes, though, bands and sound technicians alike get to understand an artist’s sound and feel on a much deeper level.

“As a recording tech you listen to all the songs, over and over again as you record and then mix specific parts and double things,” Farkas said. “It’s one of my favorite parts [of the process] because you really get to know an artist and get excited about what they’re doing.”

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SPORTS practices in their garage for an upcoming Ohio tour. Photo by Teddy Farkas

SPORTS members practice in their garage for an upcoming Ohio tour. Photo by Teddy Farkas

After recording their album Sunchokes in the recording studio, SPORTS is excited about what they’re doing, too. Adjusting microphones, drum kits, and guitars, the pop-punk student band takes the stage at the Horn Gallery amidst a crowd clad in the latest plaid shirts, backwards baseball caps, and thick black glasses, ready to knock it out of the park.

“Hey, we’re SPORTS,” Carmen Perry ’15, wearing a striped shirt and overalls, says into the microphone. The crowd erupts into cheers, hollering, and whistling, and the band begins playing tunes originally recorded and mixed in a basement not too far away.

Students push to the front, sweat pouring down their faces, their fists pounding in the air, their bodies rolling like ocean waves. The angsty track “Clean Jeans” comes on, and the crowd chants the lyrics back to Perry, Jack Washburn ’16, Benji Dosseter ’15, and James Karlin ’15. It’s a weird experience for the band to hear their words screamed, but it’s not insignificant.

“After playing all of these songs for two years and not really doing that much with them, now we have an actual thing,” Perry said. “Nobody knew any of the names or the words before we recorded them.”

Taking about two weeks to record, the band’s eight-track album granted the band the opportunity to tour around Ohio and features new material as well as several songs from the band’s May 2013 demo SPORTS. The songs were recorded in no particular order, although Dossetter mentioned, “We have two slower ones, so we try to intersperse them throughout. We do that when we play live, too.”

And if the Horn crowd’s reactions are any indication, the band knows what it’s doing.

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Despite its popularity, SPORTS is only one of a variety of successful bands on campus.

Like Ice Cream Social, the Dads and other groups before them, Noah Weinman ’16, Adam Reed ’15, and Samuel Graf ’16 navigated the winding path of old photographs and tangled cords to record their song “Looks Like An Amy” last year. Formerly known as Tom Johnson’s Big Day but now known as Park Strangers (featuring Femia), the group expected to leave with a normal-sounding tape but emerged from the dimly lit basement with something quite different.

“The composite that we ended up with was actually very impressive,” Weinman said. “The song took on a mellower, [more] ghostly feel than we were accustomed to and I honestly think it turned out better.”

Both the musicians and the sound technicians enjoy finding this element of discovery. A puzzle with many pieces, the correct sound is difficult to find. But with some fiddling, twisting, and turning, magic can be created.

“A lot of times I hear a band and I just want to mess with that sound,” Co-Manager Seth Reichert ’17 said. “I just want to play with it and find the ways that make it sound great and how to make it sound awesome, and I think that’s the job of a recording tech. To say, ‘This sounds great, but I want to put it in a place where it sounds phenomenal. How do I do that?’”

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Sometimes, though, students come into the recording studio with different types of stories not written in musical notes.

The cast members of the radio drama serial play “The Magical History of Knox County,” for instance, brought a different sound to the station after brainstorming on a hiking trip.

When walking along the Kokosing, Chris Wilson ’16 “launched into this completely off-the-cuff thing about how the topography of the area was made by these giants who were fighting. By the time we were back on campus, we’d been talking about what [would happen] if we wrote folk tales [for WKCO]. Two weeks later, we got a radio slot.”

Emma Lasky '16 records an episode for the show. Photo courtesy of The Magical History of Knox County

Emma Lasky ’16 records an episode for the show from the Live Room. Photo courtesy of The Magical History of Knox County

Comprised of seven to eight rotating writers and three to four recurring actors, the cast blocks out seven episodes at a time. Writers pen first drafts by Sundays. On Mondays and Tuesdays, members edit the script and cast roles using a student voice database from earlier in the semester. Actors record Wednesdays and Thursdays. The show gets edited on Fridays and airs at 9 p.m.

“We recorded the first couple episodes on a pretty good quality mic in Colton [Flick ’16]’s room, and that was fine, but getting to use the studio and have two mics set up at once so the people can actually act off each other and have a lack of white noise is great,” Wilson said.

From planning to performing, Wilson, Flick, and the rest of the cast enjoy seeing their scripts come to life.

“My favorite part is hearing things go from fun but sort of dead on a page to how real they feel when someone’s voicing them,” said Flick, recommending that others also come into the station to experiment with their work.

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With updated technology and a new budget for next semester, Farkas and Reichert look forward to taking on even bigger and more diverse recording projects, like continued live coverage and more album production.

“Great musicians continue to come in, and we hope new people aren’t scared to approach us and say they want to record an album,” Farkas said. “As long as they come in with an idea of what they want to do … anyone can be a part of the music community.”

Reichert agreed, pointing out the value of having a recording studio on campus. “Come in and you can get more or less a professional recording experience you wouldn’t get somewhere else,” he said. “We’re a studio that’s open to all students and we’re free. Anywhere else you wouldn’t get an opportunity quite like this.”

Look out for a compilation tape of student bands, coming soon!

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