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Startup Studios: Exploring The Silicon Valley’s Fractured, DIY Recording Industry

In Music
CHAIN REACTION: The Atomic Garden Recording Studio in East Palo Alto is ready to expand, but due to Silicon Valley's skyrocketing rents, it will be moving to the East Bay. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

CHAIN REACTION: The Atomic Garden Recording Studio in East Palo Alto is ready to expand, but due to Silicon Valley's skyrocketing rents, it will be moving to the East Bay. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

The Annex in Menlo Park was doing about as well as any recording studio could hope to do. Throughout the aughts, or post-Napster years, everyone in the recording industry—from the labels and musicians to producers and engineers—had to innovate to survive. Compared to many others, The Annex had equipped itself well for the changing times.

“The main point of that studio was to be as diverse as possible, to be able to handle any project that came its way,” says Ryan Perras, a recording engineer at The Annex from 2008-2012.

He isn’t exaggerating. In addition to banda, rock and hip-hop, The Annex branched out into other areas of recording, like voiceover work for film, TV, video games and, increasingly, apps. It became the go-to spot for local athletes to record radio ads. Willie Mays, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott all came to record audio tracks for projects that they were working on—Mays for an audiobook, Rice for some green-screen filming and Lott to overdub some lines for an episode of One Tree Hill. Michael J. Fox came to voiceover an ABC special. Alan Parsons came to Studio A specifically to film its equipment (more specifically, its much-coveted Neve III console) for an instructional video about sound engineering. When Buffalo Springfield reunited for the 2010 Bridge School Benefit, Neil Young and crew practiced in Studio D.

And though record sales had dropped years earlier, plenty of musicians were booking time at The Annex. Over the years, countless bands from the Bay Area and beyond had come to record in one of its five different live rooms. Los Tigres Del Norte, the biggest band ever to come from San Jose (and one of the largest bands in the Spanish-speaking world), recorded almost every one of their albums at The Annex, starting before the building had even formally been named.

Since opening in 1975, The Annex rolled with the punches, expertly regrouping with the shifting record industry along the way.

And then Mark Zuckerberg went and ruined everything.

“Facebook moved literally down the street and that made everything crazy in that neighborhood,” says Perras. “It was depressing.”

Perras now runs his own studio, District Recording, in San Jose’s Sunol-Midtown neighborhood. District is an impressive studio that many in San Jose don’t even know is here. Asian Man Records (one of the precious few nationally recognized success stories of South Bay music) has utilized the studio for a number of projects.

Ryan Perras behind the soundboard at District Recordings in San Jose. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

Ryan Perras behind the soundboard at District Recordings in San Jose. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

Russell Bond, The Annex’s studio manager from 1975 until it closed in 2012, confirmed Perras’ take. After the social media giant moved into the former Sun Microsystems campus, a group of young real estate developers made incredibly high offers for a number of buildings on the street, including The Annex.

“Our landlord was made an offer she couldn’t refuse,” he says by email. It was a direct result of what he saw as “Facebook investing quite a bit of ‘improvement’ dollars into the area.”

“Improvement,” in this context, is a questionable word. By all accounts, The Annex was doing well for itself when the building sold. All five of its studios were booked a solid eight weeks out. And yet, when the landlord sold the building, they were given only six weeks to complete all business, strip it entirely and leave.

“No amount of pleading worked,” Bond says. “Nearly 40 years of collecting and storing media, machines and office stuff, enough to fill five studios in 16,000 square feet of space had to be moved. It was chaos.”

TheAnnexBoard

A massive soundboard in one of five of The Annex’s recording studios.

Before giving in to the coming tide, The Annex made an effort to raise enough money for a counterbid on the building. “A grassroots effort via a group of friends, clients and peers,” Bond says. All of them would have had partial ownership of the studio, had they been able to outbid the developers. The effort was within a few hundred thousand dollars of the goal when it became clear that they had to shift focus from fundraising to moving out.

In May 2012, after serving the Bay Area music scene for almost 40 years, The Annex went silent.

***

But if history has proven anything, it’s that all truly dedicated artists never stop creating, even when they’re on the down and out. In the same way that some of Silicon Valley’s most successful makers have embraced the principle of “failing upward,” so it goes with many of this region’s most gifted musicians. Whether it’s sleeping in their practice spaces, crashing on couches while on tour, or working shitty minimum-wage jobs to keep their gear up and running, musicians find a way.

That’s what Jack Shirley did when he opened his recording studio in the former murder capital of the U.S. with an economy computer and tiny soundboard designed for bedroom recording hobbyists—and then proceeded to produce one of the most critically acclaimed metal albums of 2013.

Tracked in just 10 days at the beginning of 2013, and released the same year, Sunbather, by San Francisco black metal band Deafheaven would go on to be hailed as a genre-redefining work. In their 4.5/5 star review of the album, All Music Guide wrote: “Many bands go through their entire career without making an album as well crafted, fully realized and downright gorgeous as Sunbather.” Rolling Stone listed it as the best metal album of the year, calling it “a mind-blower,” and it placed higher on Pitchfork’s best-of-2013 list than Justin Timberlake, MIA, Drake, Neko Case, Run the Jewels, Arcade Fire and even Daft Punk, whose “Get Lucky” charted as the No. 2 single of the year.

To record Random Access Memories, Daft Punk worked with two producers in the legendary Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles. To make Reflektor, Arcade Fire began recording in Louisiana, spent a month recording in Jamaica, workshopped the songs with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy back in Montreal, and then did more recording at Murphy’s DFA Studios in Manhattan.

Sunbather, on the other hand, was recorded out of a modest studio, hidden in a dead-end street between a boxing gym and an auto body shop in East Palo Alto.

“Just because it’s a high-end place, or they look professional, doesn’t mean you’re going to see eye-to-eye, or that they’re gonna, like, do a good job,” says Jack Shirley, owner of and sole producer at EPA’s Atomic Garden studio.

At this point, the Atomic Garden should be a household name for anyone interested in Bay Area music, or underground rock music in general. Shirley has recorded and produced not only the Bay Area’s brightest—musicians like Tony Molina, and Void Boys—but also some of the most influential metal bands from here to Europe. Jamaican reggae stars Black Uhuru recorded with him. And a number of records he’s produced have even landed on the American Billboard charts.

Shirley has managed to build a staggering resume as a producer from less than auspicious beginnings. He began his career as a record producer while also juggling art school, working at a BMW dealership and recording bands out of his parents’ house in San Carlos for $20 an hour.

“There was one semester where I was working 30 hours a week, going to school 30 hours a week, and then recording like 20 hours a week on the weekend,” he recalls. At the end of that semester he quit his job at the BMW dealership. Shortly after graduating college, he moved into the studio in East Palo Alto.

“The name of the game since day one has been to keep the overhead low,” Shirley says. In order to be able to afford the studio, he converted part of his building into housing, which he split with roommates who also ran a screen printing business. Within a year and a half, he went from working on a Dell computer with two microphone inputs to a fully functioning studio with just about anything a musician could need. In part, he chalks up this success to a bit of right-place right-time.

“I knew a lot of people who were in bands on the Peninsula and there wasn’t really anybody doing DIY recording,” Shirley says.

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