The pop singer leans across the 24-track console, presses the intercom and smiles through the control-booth glass like Scotty preparing to beam Captain Kirk up: "Really great, guys. Could we do it just once more? And this time a little holier on the 'amens,' okay?"
Down in the studio, one session vocalist signifies his comprehension by hoisting a middle finger, the other straightens her headphones and fixes a saintly expression on her face. Wry chuckles in the control room; the mouse- chatter of tape running backward; silence. Half a minute later the vocalists have summoned up their 48th and final "amen" of the evening. And it is holy.
Jackson Browne putting the finishing touches on his new album at L.A.'s posh Cherokee studios? Bruce Springsteen running through his perfectionist paces at New York's venerable Electric Lady? Nope: Local singer/songwriter Chip Franklin finishing the backing tracks for "Animal God," one of the songs on an album he's co-producing with Grammy winner Jon Carroll at Springfield's Bias studios.
Ensconced in arbored suburban Virginia, Bias may strike passing motorists as just another anonymous office building. But what goes on inside might surprise those who think that Washington's music scene is paltry at best.
Washington virtually teems with recording studios -- two- and eight-track basement affairs, small but adventurous newcomers such as The Image Factory and Source Recorders, and older, more established places like Bias with state-of-the-art equipment and experienced engineers to operate it.
It's in these soundproof rooms that Washington's music community asserts its wonderfully diverse personality, ranging from punk to rockabilly, from bluegrass to jazz. It makes for comfortable comparison with such traditional music towns as Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis and even Memphis.
Recording is, as regular session musician John Jennings puts it, "ultimately an act of communication. The success of the project depends on the ability of the engineer to translate whatever the producer and the artist have to say, and that means that communicative skill is what is most important in any studio."
Watching that process is fascinating for those curious about the means and methods. Complete recordings are rarely made all at once, as in the old days, so listening to, say, the same eight bars of a rhythm track may not be everyone's idea of the way to spend time. But even if that's not your bag and you don't want to sit through an actual session, the hectic rhythms and high-tech workings of the studio make for interesting observation.
Almost all studios in the Washington area open their doors to school groups, potential recording artists or the merely curious. Visitors quickly discover that the second- favorite activity of engineers is engaging in elaborate descriptions of what they do, and once you've heard an animated explanation of their gadgets and gizmos, the technology doesn't seem nearly so intimidating or mysterious.
"We like to show people around," says Bias' Gloria Daniels, "because it's our philosophy that people tend to come back with intentions to record. We usually like visitors to come around 9:30 in the morning, though, because that's about the only time during the day the place isn't so hectic."
Omega's Bob Yesbeck says that studio has frequent visitors, too. At his Washington and Kensington locations there are video games, refreshment lounges and other touches to make guests feel at home. Both Yesbeck and Daniels ask that visitors call first, however, since the pace of the studio varies from day to day and even hour to hour. "The most common question we get," Daniels says, "is whether they can sit in on a session. But we don't get in the middle of that -- it's strictly the decision of the artist."
And how do musicians feel about session audiences? "It really depends on who wants to visit and what you're working on at the time," says Franklin. "Naturally, you wouldn't want Howard Cosell at your recording session, but most people are happy just to sit quietly and watch the process. It depends most of all on whether there's also someone in control. If the producer's there, it won't matter much who else shows up, because he controls what's going on. I think most musicians feel that way."
The cream of Washington's recording studios is Bias, easily on a par with New York or Los Angeles studios and widely considered the world's foremost for bluegrass recordings. True, the Seldom Scene, the Country Gentlemen and the Johnson Mountain Boys have recorded there. But so have a variety of other nationally known acts -- Nils Lofgren, Evelyn King, Gil Scott-Heron and the critically acclaimed Washington band Trouble Funk.
"You might say I'm, uh, biased," says staff member Norman Rowland, "but I suspect what's made us so attractive to so many artists is that we're living the business. It isn't just that the staff is professional -- we love what we do. All the engineers end up being involved in the production. As a result, people just feel comfortable here."
"Feeling comfortable" is a phrase that turns up repeatedly in conversations with musicians who operate within the weird hours and the wild eclecticism of session work. It's a seal of approval they bestow on other local studios as well, most notably the Omega locations and Silver Spring's Track studios.
Omega has five staff engineers at its Kensington studio, two downtown; like Bias, it has full 24-track facilities with automated mixdown -- a highly accurate process for achieving balance in a recording. Recently, Omega purchased Room 10, recording home of soul singers The Reddings and Stacy Latisaw -- all successful Washington artists -- and is in the process of expanding its digital facilities as well.
"You might like one studio over another because it's closer to your home or they just installed new carpet and you like the color," says Carroll, "but beyond the basic technical requirements, it all comes down to a matter of atmosphere, and there are several studios around Washington that offer a good, comfortable atmosphere."
"There's so much untapped talent in this town, great musicians people never hear about," says Jennings. He should know, since he spends an average of three to four days a week working at Bias, Omega, Track and other local studios. Primarily a guitarist, Jennings has played almost every conceivable instrument on recordings for a variety of performers, although he makes his income "mainly on jingles."
Jingles constitute a thriving industry in Washington, and not just the local ones touting cars and banks. Omega's Kensington studio is a regular jingle jungle during the day, according to Yesbeck. The soundtracks for the ubiquitous milk commercial and U.S. Air, Church's Fried Chicken and other slick ads seen on network television were made at Washington studios.
Washington's attractiveness as a jingle town may be due in part to the fact that it's generally a non-union town, which undoubtedly stretches the advertising budget. But with seasoned talent such as Jon Carroll and Margo Kunkel (both formerly of the Starland Vocal Band); regular session players and singers such as Jennings, percussionist Dave Palamar and vocalist Vince Olds, it's clear that Washington's creative and production values are high.
Getting a job as a jingle singer requires a versatile voice, and isn't as easy as it might seem. "People are always asking me to get them a jingle job," Carroll says. "And whenever they do, I always wish I could zap them right into the studio, with nothing but a microphone and a chart in front of them that they have to read and interpret in two minutes, so they could see it's not just an easy way to make a buck." Nor is it an easy field to break into, despite the large number of commercials recorded in the area.
"Take the guy on that MacDonald's commercial," says seasoned jingle/session singer Vince Olds, "you know, the one about 'risin' up in the morning?' He doesn't have a great voice, but it's got that gruff appeal. If a producer's looking for a certain sound like that, you'd better be able to come up with it." If you do have the right combination of versatility and skill, and you're able to break into the cliquish world of session players, you're likely to average $50 to $75 for backing vocals, $100 to $125 for solo work, per non- union job. Instrumentalists generally average $75 to $100 per job. Suffice it to say that only the most seasoned musicians can support themselves on session work alone.
Track studio's Doug Percival suggests that if you think you're good enough, "calling around to all the studios" is your best bet for cracking into the session league, "especially if you're new in town and don't know any other musicians." Olds adds that contacting ad agencies for jingle opportunities isn't a bad method, either, "and if you can come referred, it really helps."
"There's a handful of producers, most of whom like to use someone from an established group of regulars," Carroll explains, "partly because they're already familiar with their voices and know what they can do."
But maybe your interest is on the other side of the glass, where head charts and microphones are replaced by view- meters and equalizers. If so, Omega has a state-approved engineering school with hands-on training in both basic and advanced engineering. Yesbeck, who also teaches the principles of sound engineering at American University, oversees five to eight courses a year, depending on demand, and classes are broken down into small groups so that everyone has plenty of opportunity to learn the boards.
If you're considering making a record of your own, the ranges of price packages and supplemental instrumentation are as broad as the choice of studios. Both Bias and Omega are booked solid for some time to come, according to Rowland and Yesbeck, but several of the smaller studios have plenty of available recording time. There are also new local labels that can help you economize by making sure you're ready to record before you ever get in front of the microphone, among them Jennings' D.C. Disc.
"A lot of people think of a recording studio as a rehearsal hall," says Jennings. "That's a drastic and very expensive mistake. The only thing preventing some of these talented local musicians from making good records is money, and we're trying to alleviate that obstacle by helping them get as prepared as possible before, so they won't spend all their studio time being frustrated."
Carroll, currently producing a local band called The Process, agrees that preparation is essential. "I'm a member of the John Huston school of record producing, meaning go in prepared and make it short and sweet."
Another local label is Rowland's Schizophonics, which recently released a Rosslyn Mountain Boys record and is now the home of such local bands as The Sleepers and All Night Long.
Both Rowland and Jennings cite the desire to tap Washington's rich musical lode as the impetus for starting their labels. "The club scene is pathetic," says Jennings. "It doesn't begin to support the music community in this area. I got so tired of looking around and seeing these people go unnoticed, I decided there had to be some kind of record, historically and otherwise, of what they're doing. Heaven knows, in this area we have the technology to do that."