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Mike Onufrak Finds a Real Studio.

June 3, 2011

Photo of Ryan Moys at The Studio by Julia Hoff. Text by Mike Onufrak.

Throughout my life, I have been on a mission to find a way to record my music without breaking the bank. I started with a Tascam 4-track Portastudio and continued on until the birth of the MBox and the modern-day home studio. Since the beginning of my obsession with recording on-the-cheap, I’ve also learned a great deal about microphones, microphone placement, recording software, audio editing and plug-ins. But I have never really been able to achieve a sound I could stand proudly behind.

After I realized all of my efforts were only going to help me make a demo – which in today’s world, has absolutely no value – I decided it was time to seek out some better options.  One day, a friend offered to let me record in his basement studio for a good price. I was cautious but once he told me about all the gear – a 60’s Fender Bassman, Neumann mics, tons of digital plug-ins, some nice pre-amps and an actual mixing console – I figured it was worth a shot.

After spending a few months working on some of my songs, I finished two or three and was happy enough to post them online and e-mail them out to people who I thought might be able to help me. With these recordings I was easily able to form a band and get gigs around town. But whenever I tried to compare the production quality to anything I grew up listening to, it always fell short. 

I spent the next year chasing that professional sound in a budget environment, hoping I could capture something to sonically rival the best recordings of the 90s and early 2000s. It never happened. Everything that resulted from this period proved to be nothing more than a great demo.

While visiting family in Florida, some of my relatives asked to hear my new recordings and I let them hear the latest basement project.

“It sounds great,” my uncle said, “but when are you going to get into a real studio?”

I never thought about that before.  A real studio?  Do real studios even exist anymore?

The day I got back from the trip, I decided to check out studios in the area and see if I could be totally convinced about spending more money than I could afford. The first, and only studio I visited was Larry Gold’s on 7th street. While trying to figure out if I was at the right building, I ran into Jeremy Grenhart who assured me I was in the right place and led me to the elevator. I asked him what he did at the studio.

“I play keys,” he said. “A little bass too.”

Cool. Then I asked what was his most recent project.

“Just finishing up a few tracks on the Roots’ new record,” he said.

Cool. I kept walking, following Jeremy.

Once we reached the third floor, I found myself facing a wall covered by gold and platinum records. I tried not to look too enamored but I couldn’t hide it even as 8-foot tall session musicians stepped over me to get to the coffee pot. Then I was greeted by Ryan Moys, one of the studio’s engineers. He showed me around and told me about all the top-notch gear he had the privilege of working with. I nodded at most of the names he rattled off and when he got to items he was particularly impressed with, I would mirror his excitement by saying something that would convince him I knew what the hell he was talking about. It was time to book a session.

I took my entire tax return and met Ryan there a few weeks later to put down basic tracks on two songs that I wanted to turn into quality recordings. Surprisingly, set-up was no big deal and most of the stuff we needed for the session was already in place. After pressing a few takes of bass and drums to my 2” tape reel, it was time to head to the control room and give a listen.  What happened next blew me away. Yeah, it sounded incredible but that’s not what convinced me I was in the right place and working with the right people.

I saw a notepad next to Ryan’s workspace and was amazed at what I saw: a full page of notes describing keeper and throw-away takes and random critiques about the session. It felt good to be working in such a high-end studio and be given this kind of respect.

We moved smoothly and efficiently from instrument to instrument at a rate of productivity that I never thought achievable. After finishing up the last guitar part of the day, I went in for another listen and realized why he had been taking notes. Ryan was comping (taking the best pieces of certain takes and combining them to make one solid take) in Pro Tools without any instruction to do so. This session was the first time in my life that I had ever actually finished exactly what I had set out to without compromising the integrity of any part, important or not.

After writing the check, I realized that the amount of money I spent that day was equal to two ten-hour sessions in less-expensive studios. I thought about that for a second and was full of regret – not for spending my entire tax return, but for all of the time I wasted worrying about my budget.

Were all the basement recordings a waste of time? Maybe all those hours of working with less-than-professional grade gear got me to the level I needed to be at in order to work as efficiently as possible in a real studio.

One thing was clear after leaving the studio that day: I had begun a recording that I could be confident in.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Help support Mike and his music via his Kickstarter campaign.

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