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Births And Rebirths: Chicago Recording Studios in the time of Covid-19

Written by on March 30, 2021

courtesy Marquis Hill

Facing unprecedented times, two Chicago recording studios adapted amid pandemic, serving as midwives for the births… and sometimes rebirths of recordings.

In the control room at Soundmine Studios, along South Stony Island Avenue, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and some Lysol all are within the reach of Dennis Tousana.

Tousana, a partner and head engineer at the South Side studio, said his business has adapted to the pandemic during the past year, but as vaccinations expand across Chicago and Illinois, he’s starting to see the other side of the crisis.

Engineers, studio owners and managers all have dealt differently with challenges during the past year, some finding that nichey side hustles were able to float them through the most difficult times. For Soundmine, which closed its doors during the early stages of the pandemic, initial uncertainty around how recording would work was buffered by a steady stream of inquiries.

“What I did see over this last year is, we weren’t slow. But we weren’t super busy,” said Tousana, who’s been with the studio for 13 years. “I did see a lot of people were starting to work on things, because they were bored. They weren’t playing out anywhere or touring or doing anything. So, a lot of people were working on fresh ideas and thinking about after this is over.”

Trumpeter and South Side native Marquis Hill has bounced around during the pandemic, leaving his home in Harlem, New York to return to Chicago as gigs across the world have all but dried up. The pandemic, as Tousana saw, fostered Hill’s already sturdy entrepreneurial spirit. And Soundmine provided a platform for his vision.

Trumpeter and bandleader Marquis Hill performs with saxophonist Greg Ward, bassist Junius Paul and keyboardist Justin Dillard for a streaming concert recorded at Soundmine Studios.

For a performance streamed on the Mandolin platform during late February, Hill assembled some of the city’s best-known jazz players, including saxophonist Greg Ward and bassist Junius Paul, for a set dedicated to historic Chicago composers. The performance, which Hill dubbed “Made in Chicago,” included work penned by jazz legends Von Freeman, Nicole Mitchell, Lester Bowie and Ernest Dawkins.

“COVID kind of shut everything down, and I was just sitting at home one day, like, ‘I want to start creating my own opportunities and put on my own livestream shows, since touring doesn’t exist anymore,’” Hill began. “I called Dennis, and Dennis had a connection with a video guy that he had been working with, so it was kind of a one-stop shop. The video guy, he brought in five cameras, I brought in the musicians and everything was live. But we prerecorded it and had a little bit of time to edit the video real crispy and have the titles of the songs come across the screen, and then presented it a week later.”

As a bandleader, Hill was on the hook for any up-front costs, as well as paying members of his band. Though his ensemble took home what would be commensurate with a weekday gig during pre-pandemic times, Hill said, streaming gigs like this one couldn’t fully replace income from lost live shows.

“It was a ticketed event, so just the whole structure — that’s the new gig right now, putting on your own livestream performance or going into a venue in some states that are open, who already have that capability,” the trumpeter said. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience.”

“Part of the reward of engineering and being involved in music at the recording stages is that you’re at the moment of genesis…”

Taylor Hales, Studio Manager and staff engineer at Electrical Audio

At Electrical Audio, along West Belmont Avenue on the city’s North Side, a significant portion of the studio’s business traditionally had been from out-of-town performers stopping in to work with renowned producer and indie rock guitarist Steve Albini (of the band Shellac). As lockdowns precluded travel (and with more available studio time), local bookings increased, according to Studio Manager and Staff Engineer Taylor Hales. But an additional business seems to have picked up, too.

“Part of the reward of engineering and being involved in music at the recording stages is that you’re at the moment of genesis; that’s not the case with transfers,” Hales said about the increase in tape transfers the studio saw during the pandemic. “The reward is that often you’re present for a rebirth, where the music is being rediscovered. Almost all of the tapes we get haven’t been heard in 30 years.”

The projects generally haven’t been for reissues of well-known and established acts, adding an enigmatic tint to the work.

“It’s either a family or someone who has a [relationship] with an artist and comes upon tapes — or there’s some vinyl collector who knows that this obscure band has relevance,” Hales continued. “In either case, when you’re doing these archival transfers, you’re the first set of ears on them in decades.”

Regardless of whether that sort of reward was found at each area studio during the past year, those who’ve made it through the pandemic seem to be on sure footing, and some have even picked up a few new ideas to bolster business in a post-pandemic world.

Written by Dave Cantor

This piece is a part of Vocalo’s series on the Music Economy of Chicago in the time of Covid-19. More from that series can be found here:

Keeping The Faith: One Year In, Small Chicago Music Venues Await Hard-Won Federal Relief Funds

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