Getting the Sound Down
Music studios in this city have heard it all
From left: Dr. Edmond Souchon, Harry Souchon, Bill Crais, Andy Lockhart, Mina Lea Crais and Cosimo Matassa (back to camera) in Cosimo Matassa’s Recording Studio.
Misha Kachkachishvili was apologetic about being late returning a call. “I’m at the Grammy’s,” he explains. Kachkachishvili, whose Esplanade Studios opened in June 2013, was hopeful that the Hot 8 Brass Band would win the Regional Roots Music category award, since he had mastered their record. (Louisiana Zydeco performer Terrance Simien won that category, and producer Leo Sacks tied for an award for a locally re-mastered Bill Withers collection historic album.)
This wasn’t their best Grammy year, but New Orleans music artists and production engineers are definitely on Grammy’s wavelength (an added bonus being that Louisiana’s tax benefits for creative endeavors reward not only the film industry, but also sound recording).
Musicians in New Orleans have been recorded all over the city through the years. Recording companies might set up a studio, or other locations would be used. E.A. Zatarain, whose family’s grocery was on Rampart Street, even recorded a brass band at his Magazine Street home around 1900, he recalled in a letter to The Times-Picayune in 1941. Fraternal organization’s halls regularly hosted bands for dances, and San Jacinto Hall at 1422 Dumaine St. was the setting for Bunk Johnson’s ’40s recording sessions when the early jazzman came back from retirement.
The best-known local studio from the mid-20th century was Cosimo Matassa’s.
According to his biography on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website (RockRoll.com) “Cosmo” left his chemistry studies at Tulane University and bought J & M Services, a jukebox business. He opened a small studio behind his appliance store (838-840 Rampart St.), and that corner of Rampart and Dumaine would become a cornerstone of rock history.
Shirley and Lee, Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard, Huey “Piano” Smith, Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Doctor John (Mac Rebennack) – the list of performers who found their way to one of Matassa’s studios is incredibly long. He would change locations, but “Cosmo” continued recording music up into the 1980s.
While his records were cut for different record companies (often to the financial detriment of the musicians and songwriters) “Cosmo” managed to keep his artists and calendar in order in a numbering system. The website with all the data can be found at CosimoCode.com. New Orleans music aficionados are in for a treat: not only can you learn who recorded what and when, you can also listen to some of the music.
Matassa, toward the end of his career, worked at another legendary local recording spot, Sea-Saint Studios (3809 Clematis Ave.) in Gentilly, founded by Allen Toussaint and Marshall Seahorn. Hurricane Katrina would devastate the building, where Paul McCartney and his band Wings recorded, as did the Meters and Patti LaBelle along with other hit-generating stars.
Today, the New Orleans recording scene encompasses studios of all sizes. Warehouses, family homes, even two churches have all been converted into spaces for recording
And, studios may not last forever. Piety Street Studio (728 Piety St.), a former post office, featured Mark Bingham as producer. Hip-hop artists from Cash Money Records recorded there. Piety was responsible for a number of hits, but it closed last year.
The smallest studio in town, according to WhereTheyAtNola.com, once belonged to DJ Ice Mike who, as Closet Castle Productions, kept his recording equipment in a closet.
Largest of the new facilities is Esplanade Studio. The former Third Presbyterian Church (2540 Esplanade Ave.), was renovated by Misha Kachkachishvili, a native of the Republic of Georgia, a mechanical engineer and conservatory graduate bass player who arrived in town to study at Loyola University. Kachkachishvili previously operated Axistudio, off Clearview Parkway in Metairie. In his new venture he has room for scoring movies. Tyler Perry’s film A Madea Christmas, with music by Chris Young, had its score recorded there with a 54-piece orchestra. Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister) is recording there now, as is Dr. John.
As author and music journalist Jason Berry noted, “the revolution in digital recording” made studios more affordable, so more artists pay now for their own albums.
Chris Edmonds is leader of the traditional jazz group The New Orleans Moonshiners, and his fiancée is singer Cristina Perez. She cut her own album at Piety Street Studio, and it’s being mixed now at Nola Recording Studios (624 N. Alexander St.). He cut an album (voted Best Traditional Jazz Album by readers of Offbeat magazine) at Word of Mouth Studios (400 Belleville St.) in Algiers. Edmonds says “a CD can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 – it costs about $1,000 just to print the CDs themselves.”
Word of Mouth Studios is run by Tim Stambaugh, himself a musician with a band, Diabolo’s Horns. Artists are funding their own albums because “musicians can make a bigger percentage of the profit,” he says.
“It’s difficult to go on the road these days. Gas prices are high, Hotels aren’t cheap. The CD and T-shirt sales help make up the difference for artists,” Stambaugh explains.
The Music Shed (929 Euterpe St.), located in a Lower Garden District warehouse is managed by Ruby Rendrag, herself a musician. “Whether you’re REM (who recorded their Collapse Into Now album there) or a local musician, you’re treated the same here, “ she says.
New Orleans’ musicians and the local support structure make this an attractive city for outside artists, but the music business is tough. Studio work is demanding: “Engineers are trying to build careers, too, and they can’t really commit to another job. When the musicians go on tour there may not be a lot of work,” says Rendrag.
As Rendrag explains, “It’s a constant financial struggle: get the bills paid, make something that sounds good, and try to support the local music scene at the same time.”
Listeners and fans are grateful for their efforts.
For more on “Recording in New Orleans,” see Biz, pg. 32
Recording Buddy Bolden
Was legendary jazzman Buddy Bolden ever recorded? Bolden, born in 1878, played until he became mentally ill around 1906. (He was hospitalized, died in ’31, and was buried in Holt Cemetery near Delgado Community College). According to author Tim Brooks in Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919, the Louisiana Phonograph Company began recording local musicians by 1891 (one being black minstrel performer Louis “Bebe” Vasnier). New Orleans recordings were made from that time on. Yes, Buddy Bolden could have been recorded, and members of his band insisted he was. But, so far, no recordings have been found.