Making groovy musicJuly 5th, 2012
Jimmy Hill, co-owner of the music recording studio Amplified Wax, remains at least partially plugged into a 1970s-era groove.
While equipped with top industry digital recording equipment, the 2,200-square-foot studio in the Garland District also blends in some decades-old analog recording tools to make what Hill contends is a warmer musical sound.
Hill says that mix inspired the studio's name. Wax used for recordings hails back to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison, who developed sound recordings in the grooves on the outside of hollow cylinders of wax. Amplifiedas in electric guitar amplificationimplies the modern.
"It's kind of a marriage between our new technology and older mediums of recording," Hill says. "We have older analog gear that's actually highly sought after because it has a unique sound ... but we also have one of the best digital audio workstations in the industry that allows us to edit more."
He adds, "So you marry the two, a warm sound with a high ability to edit. That's how we get Amplified Wax. My niche and expertise is, I use older analog tools, and then I edit recordings with the latest technology."
After a few years playing in a handful of Spokane-area bands and then working as a sound engineer, he first launched the studio with his wife, Mandy, in their home in 2007. They moved just over a year ago into leased space at 920 W. Garland, next to the historic Garland Theater.
Today, Hill says he often works 16-hour days, and the studio this past year has consistently stayed booked at least two months out for musician sessions that range from $35 per hour to $50 per hour, depending on whether a downstairs or upstairs studio space is used.
"We're busy," he adds. "It's almost like when there's more strife, there's more art. In this economy with so many people laid off, they have time and they can express themselves through the music."
He and his wife Mandy are the studio's only employees. Jimmy Hill says he hires one subcontractor and has three students working in the studio as part of a six-month work study through the Los Angeles-based Recording Connection, an institute offering educational programs for the recording industry.
Hill's role at the studio is mostly as sound engineer and producer, but he sometimes steps in as a session musician for drums, bass guitar, or vocals. Mandy Hill is the business's bookkeeper and graphic designer. She also handles compact disc duplications and business promotion services.
From his years working in the industry, Hill says he's built relationships with several bands and musicians. He says the move to the Garland District was prompted when the studio gained the attention of music representatives at Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., of Burbank, Calif., after Hill did a recording for the Nikki & Rich group.
"Warner Brothers called me, and it ended up being background music for a Coca-Cola commercial," Hill says. "They said, 'You should move; we'll send you more business.'"
Since the move, Hill says the studio has almost tripled its annual income from when it was home-based, bringing in about $60,000 to $70,000 compared with about $25,000, but that expenses also are much higher for rent and utilities to operate at a retail site.
Hill adds that the move to Garland's commercial core was appealing because of the district's historic and artistic vibe, with several small independent stores and at least four musical instrument businesses, including Mark's Guitar Shop next door to his studio. He says musicians going into Mark's Guitar often hear about his studio, and he refers bands to the store if they need instruments.
Hill also says he hears from some musicians on U.S. tours when they stop in Spokane for concerts.
"We hear from people," Hill says. "The artist on the road is always working on that next record."
In June, he says two singers who were openers for the LMFAO tour, Matt Koma and Eva Simons, booked time in the studio while the music show was in town for a Spokane Arena performance. A representative for country singer Scotty McCreery, who won the tenth season of "American Idol," also requested time for that artist while in Spokane, Hill says, but the logistics didn't work out.
Hill says his hours for recording mainly local artists often involve evening shifts, since many musicians are used to performing at night in clubs, bars, and coffeehouses. "Some guys don't vocally warm up until 3 p.m.," he adds. "When everyone else is off, we're working."
To make the studio ready for higher quality recordings, Hill says he and his wife did much of the remodeling of spaces themselves, investing about $8,000 on the main floor and between $5,000 and $6,000 for basement-space upgrades. They added sound absorption panels in recording rooms to make them acoustically ready, Hill says.
On the lower level, the studio has six recording isolation booths and a lone control room. Upstairs, it has a control room, one large room with drums and a piano for live recordings, and two isolations booths. Hill says an isolation booth is a small soundproof recording space where the studio can isolate and record one instrument that a musician plays, to eliminate any other noise.
"You put the singer in a separate area and you isolate the drums in the live room, so there's no bleeding of sound," Hill says. "For any session, we could have nine total rooms between the upstairs and downstairs, and have them all feed to the upstairs control room."
He adds, "That's our niche. We can handle big, full bands simultaneously tracking all the instruments at once."
Hill studied audio engineering at Spokane Falls Community College, and he previously honed his skills as an audio technician at the INB Performing Arts Center and other concert venues. He says he found his analog sound equipment online and by going to yard sales. He equates the 1970s-era equipment to classic cars that aren't manufactured any more.
"So many younger people in the industry stay more in the digital and plug-in world," he says. "It's cheaper and easier, but it doesn't sound as good to my ear."
Many of the musicians who record in the studio opt for a full menu of services, he adds, which include tracking, mixing and then production of a final master recording. That master disc is then used to make duplicate CDs for sales.
The studio also offers advertising design and production servicesfor musicians as well as for any business, regardless of any music ties.
Amplified Wax provides graphic design to clients for sandwich boards, window advertising wraps, CD covers, T-shirts, fliers, and banners.