Safe & Sound: As Recording Studios Reopen, Health Concerns Clash With Creativity

Recording Studio
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With varying mandates from state and local governments -- and few that apply directly to musicians -- studios are working together to create best practices as they return to business.

On May 5, musician Dave Madden arrived at Same Sky Productions in Austin to record his first in-studio session since the pandemic. Spotting a Rubik’s Cube on the desk inside the control room, the composer and songwriter cracked a joke to lighten the mood.

"I picked it up and said, 'When is the last time this Rubik's Cube was sterilized?'" Madden tells Billboard. But his humor was lost on the studio’s lead engineer, Andre Cantave, who replied without irony, "This morning."

In 2020, working in commercial recording studios is no laughing matter. Those that have reopened since shelter-in-place mandates began to ease now operate more like medical facilities, where every Rubik’s Cube, microphone, console and guitar stand is sterilized and no human roams without a mask.

These measures and others -- all designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus -- have introduced a rigid quality to a setting that many once viewed as a free-flowing creative space and brought a whiff of paranoia to day-to-day interactions between artists, engineers, session musicians and others involved in the craft of recording music. That has left studio owners to balance the creative needs of their clients with the desire to keep them safe, resulting in an uneasy mix of priorities.

Now, many in the industry are trying to bring a semblance of uniformity to reopening protocols. One of them is Same Sky owner David Messier, who opted for a DIY approach in May after he found state and local reopening guidelines lacking in terms of recording studios, which, with their dependence on recycled air, create an environment with a high potential for viral transmission.

"It was tricky to figure out, where do we fit?" says Messier, who notes he was able to continue performing some remote work during the lockdown. "No one really addressed the environment of a studio specifically."

Lacking proper guidance from government and health authorities, Messier and his employees proceeded to cobble together a list of guidelines -- what he cheekily termed "The F.U.-COVID Plan" -- based on the best available scientific information available at the time.

What they arrived at was an extensive list of health and safety protocols, which include mandatory face masks, unless someone is singing or playing a wind instrument (in which case they’re placed in an isolation booth away from others); at least six feet of physical distance between players; temperature checks on arrival; the use of high-powered ultraviolet lights to disinfect rooms after sessions are complete; limiting visitors to essential personnel; and the removal of sofas and other furniture that would encourage guests to gather in close proximity to one another. Before arriving, all guests are additionally required to fill out a questionnaire detailing their recent health and travel histories, and leave addresses and phone numbers to facilitate contact tracing in case a studio visitor comes down with the virus.

"Obviously, this is a creative environment, so I had a huge concern about, 'Is this just gonna be a total vibe crush?’" Messier says. "So far we haven't felt that way. People get it and [they’ve] been happy that we have these things in place."

Messier subsequently contacted Maureen Droney, managing director at the Recording Academy’s producers & engineers wing, to gauge her interest in utilizing his recommendations for an industry-wide document. That kickstarted what eventually became the Safe Studios Project, a list of official recommendations released by the P&E wing late last month that integrates suggestions from a variety of studio owners, engineers and others.

Though it is designed to be a sort of cheat sheet for studios, the safe studios document is not meant to be prescriptive, says Recording Academy interim president/CEO Harvey Mason Jr. While Mason says he’s following every recommendation listed in the guide at his own recording studio in Burbank, Harvey Mason Media -- which has been hosting limited sessions -- he understands that some studios don’t enjoy many of the same luxuries.

"I don't want it to sound like I'm telling you what I’m doing in my studio and that's what we expect everyone to do, because that's not realistic," Mason says. "We appreciate the fact that some people have studios in their house, some people have studios in their garage. We're just trying to make sure that wherever our music community is creating, they're as safe as possible."

Among those who contributed to the academy’s Safe Studios document was recording engineer and former Nashville P&E co-chair Leslie Richter, who collaborated with Droney and Messier early on. At the time of the lockdown, Richter was in the middle of working on an album by alt-country/Americana singer Josh Martin, a process that continued remotely once studios closed. After The Sound Emporium -- the Nashville studio that hosted the project’s initial tracking sessions -- reopened, Richter set the tone for their first day back.

"I reached out to the players and said, 'I will not judge you for not wearing a mask, but I'm going to be wearing a mask,’" she says, noting neither the studio itself nor the state require them. "I put that out there for them, like, just so you know, this is where we're standing on this." To her relief, each of them showed up with face coverings on the first day.

As cautious as she is, Richter admits it was difficult adhering to social distancing guidelines once inside. "There are so many things that you do in the studio that just aren't distance," she says. "We were in a studio with a fairly large control room, but there are lots of parts of the day where we were within six feet of each other." A familiarity with Martin and his "mindful" habits during the lockdown did make her more comfortable, she says, though she admits to a level of blind faith. "I didn't not speak to my artist while we were listening to playback because I [wasn’t supposed to] get close to him," she says. "I just sort of made that choice like, ‘This is the risk I'm taking today.’"

Producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli, who has been working on projects for Jagwar Twin, Didirri, Little Dragon and others since the pandemic began and also contributed suggestions to the P&E document, says the studio dynamic is inevitably transformed in the age of COVID-19

"We’re all kind of now walking in with our test result emails and presenting them to people like it's a diploma," says Chiccarelli, who has his own space at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles and also works out of its main commercial studios, where masks, temperature checks and other strict measures are enforced. "When an artist walked in the room [before the pandemic], [they would] talk about whatever music gossip they read the morning before they came to the studio," he adds. "Now the morning conversation is, 'Oh boy, did you see that New York just had a spike?'"

One inevitable complication of in-person sessions during the pandemic is the varying risk tolerances of the individuals involved, particularly in situations where fewer mandates are in place. Los Angeles-based drummer Darren Weiss, who has recorded at both a commercial studio and a home studio since the outbreak of the virus, says going into the home studio session -- his first since the pandemic -- was a source of some anxiety.

"I just didn't know how it was gonna go and I didn't know the artists or anything, so I couldn't really get a feel for everything," Weiss says, noting he performed in a room alone for the whole session while the artists and producer -- all of whom had tested negative for COVID-19 the day before -- congregated in the control room without masks.

Nerves aside, Weiss says returning to the studio has been invigorating.

"The experiences that I've had, I think people are excited to be working on something in one place with a group of people -- and I know I feel that," he says. "That excitement and joy is bigger than whatever fear or nervousness I might feel."

And the pandemic has built up demand, with some studios saying they are now fielding a slew of booking requests. "Now that we're back, we've had a lot of requests, because everybody's anxious to get back and get in production," says Jeff Greenberg, who owns The Village in West LA and contributed suggestions to the P&E document.

By his own admission, Greenberg is running one of the stricter operations in town. In addition to requiring all guests to wear face masks, fill out questionnaires and social distance once inside, they must submit to a thermal scanner and have their shoes and phones sanitized upon entering the facility. Greenberg has also mandated plastic coverings on the studio floors, the constant disinfecting of touchable surfaces throughout the building and heavy use of UV lights -- including inside air conditioning vents -- to prevent the virus from circulating. He has additionally retained the services of a doctor located down the street to test his staff on a regular basis, and is staggering sessions for the time being to avoid traffic in common areas.

In Las Vegas, Studio at the Palms director Zoe Thrall -- who also contributed to the P&E document -- says she’s unable to mandate face masks due to the facility’s location inside a casino that doesn’t itself require them. She is, however, requiring her own employees to wear them and is still encouraging guests to bring their own or borrow one from the studio before coming inside.

"I am one of those people that thinks the virus is prevalent and believes that everyone should be wearing a mask," she says, pointing to the success of high face mask usage in Asian countries like South Korea and Vietnam. "This seems like a very mild inconvenience to follow that and care about other people." ‘

Thrall says she’s also implementing a number of other strict protocols, including physical distancing, constant sanitization using electrostatic sprayers and "hospital grade" disinfectant, limiting the use of common areas and banning cash payments.

Aside from the potential human cost of infection, there are business considerations to take into account, and not just for individual shops. As Messier points out, coronavirus transmission at one studio could create a ripple effect through the entire ecosystem. And for a business that’s already struggling thanks to the virus -- not to mention competition from home studio setups -- that could have dire implications on a much wider scale.

"An outbreak that starts at a studio anywhere," says Messier, "is probably bad for all of us."

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