The Vortis Diaries: A weekend at Wall to Wall

July 26, 2010

The recording studio is a magical place. From the first time I entered one 27 years ago -- a cramped eight-track facility in the basement of a house in suburban New Jersey run by a guy who went on to record Christina Aguilera -- through about four dozen projects since, up to the 19 hours that Vortis spent at Chicago's Wall to Wall Recording last weekend, I've always felt like a kid in a candy store whenever I've been within the studio's mysterious, buzzing, and womb-like walls.

The sense of privilege, wonder, and bountiful riches open to endless exploration is a feeling that many musicians share. English record producer Stephen Street, who's worked with the Smiths, Morrissey, and Blur, among others, was our guest on "Sound Opinions" last week, and he put it like this: "What I love about it is that at the start of the day, there's this blank piece of tape and these musicians, and you put up these microphones and things around them and then you record it, and balance it, and it goes onto this tape, and at the end of the day, this recording exists, and it's something that can never be taken away." But not every rock musician is quite so enchanted by the process.

For some, recording is a drudgery to be endured only by necessity, since it's the only way to capture the sounds you need to make a record. Chris Vortis genuinely hates the process: Breaking down every element of the band's wall of noise and putting them under an intense aural microscope runs counter to the chaotic, energetic, "live in the moment" immediacy that he values most about the rock 'n' roll experience. Tony Vortis is closer to my Enoesque way of thinking, and Louie Vortis still is too new to all of this to be jaded about anything, but we certainly see Chris's point: Time has a way of becoming more elastic and moving even more slowly in the studio than it does in the hours preceding a gig or crossing the country in a van while touring. So, over the course of four albums, we've tried to bring a measure of what Vortis does onstage to what Vortis does in the recording studio, striving to keep things as direct, immediate, and in-your-face as possible.

Wall to Wall has been especially conducive to this goal, and part of it is the place itself. As with almost every aspect of the music business, recording studios have been under assault in the years since the digital revolution: Every schmuck with Garage Band on their laptop has come to think that they can do anything a professional recording engineer can do, even if they're trying to record a drum set in a closet with one SM57 microphone. (The best studios have a choice of rooms with different sounds and dozens of mikes, each best suited for a particular task, and some costing thousands of dollars each, to say nothing of the years of training required to properly use them in the first place.)

Though we've lost some fine ones in recent years -- Kingsize, Warzone, Idful, Trax, and ƒÅ“ber Studio among them -- Chicago still is blessed with a long list of extraordinary recording facilities. Far fewer music lovers interact with them directly, but every one of them is as vital a part of the local music community as the clubs, independent record labels, community radio stations, blogs, and record stores, from the state of the art (and commensurately expensive) Chicago Recording Company, to Steve Albini's infamous Electrical Audio, to workhorses such as Engine, Gravity, Soma, Clava, and Million Yen. But even in this distinguished company, Wall to Wall is unique.

Occupying a never-ending 9,000 square feet in the basement of a six-story brick building raised in 1911 at the corner of LaSalle and Huron, Wall to Wall has an aura of the bomb shelter about it -- or maybe an outdated Cold War missile complex housed deep underground somewhere in Omaha, since its warrens of twisting hallways, myriad heavy metal doors, and strange hidden rooms that open up to other, even weirder rooms that you'd never suspect are there create a vibe of slightly sinister and super-secret endeavors. The studio itself was opened as Sonart in 1972 by two Chicago music-scene characters named Chuck Lishon, a tireless wheeler-dealer whose father owned the renowned Frank's Drum Shop, and Hans Wurman, a classical musician who tried to cash in on the success of "Switched-On Bach" by Wendy Carlos with unimaginatively titled albums such as "The Moog Strikes Bach" and "Chopin a la Moog." (John Dugan recounted a lot of this fascinating back story when he wrote about Wall to Wall's opening for The Reader in 2004.)

Part of its charm is that very little at Wall to Wall seems to have changed since '71. The hallways are adorned with a number of antique tape machines the size of industrial refrigerators, and they share space with a collection of vintage Farfisa, Hammond, and Vox keyboards, as well as a Mellotron (shades of the Moody Blues!). The main recording room is resplendent with old mauve sound baffles and painfully bright red and blue shag carpeting, while the smaller Gold Room acquired its name from shiny faux-metal paneling that would bring a smile to the face of any denizen of Studio 54. The lounge has a massive TV set that was positively futuristic, three decades ago, as was the Atari video game console that's hooked into it. And with its wood paneling, enveloping leather couch, black velvet draperies, glowing ambient lighting, and massive double-pane glass wall looking down on the main recording space, the central control room is the sort of place where you'd expect to find an exceedingly disheveled Stevie Nicks after a four-day coke binge, crashed out under the old 60-input Neve V51 recording console.


Dan Dietrich, man of mystery
 

As with any studio, however, the biggest part of its appeal is the proprietor, who invariably infuses the place with his own soul and personality. A native of Springfield, Illinois, Dan Dietrich used to play in a surf/garage band called the Aquavelvets with his brother Matt, a newspaper reporter who was a competitor of mine when I was at The Jersey Journal and he was at The Hudson Dispatch at the start of both of our careers (small world, eh?). Dan started out recording his own group in a home studio, and graduated to working at Kingsize. After Sonart closed, the River North space was run by a few other studio operators over the years, until it finally wound up as Columbia College's teaching facility. When the school opened its own studio in the South Loop in 2003, Dietrich, who was left without a home after the demise of Kingsize, seized the opportunity, invested a butt-load of cash, and opened Wall to Wall pretty much at the worst time in the history of the recording business.

Despite the challenges, Wall to Wall has found its footing, balancing commercial jingle work and tape transfer projects with recording an impressive roster of local artists, including Andrew Bird, Mucca Pazza, and Chris Mills; one specialty is that the sheer size of the place makes it ideal for big, ambitious orchestral-pop sessions. But Dietrich also teaches audio engineering for Columbia, and it's with these classes that his personality really shines. Laidback almost to the point of laconic, he has a way of getting things done fast, efficiently, and flawlessly without ever looking as if he's working. Razor sharp and bitingly funny in a dry and low-key way, he teaches with an approach that Louie Vortis calls a slightly perverse take on the Socratic method. Two students may spend an hour placing overhead mikes on the drum set or a direct line and a mike on the bass amp only for Dietrich to come in, take one look, and ask, "Are you sure you want to record the cymbals that way?" or "Have you listened to the way the bass sounds in the room? Do you think you're going to get that the way you've set this up?" Then he fixes things and illustrates the right way to do them in about five minutes flat.

Since the recording students always need bands to record, Vortis has been a test case for four of these classes in the last three years. Most volunteer bands come in and cut a track or two during one five-hour session; the first time Vortis came in, we laid down more than 20 songs for a grand total of 35 minutes of music, and still had time for a rough mix. In addition to enjoying our company and maybe even liking our music -- it's hard to be sure, and in any event, that's never really required of a professional audio engineer -- I think Dietrich views our band as a distinct challenge to whatever crew of twenty-something slacker students comes in thinking that this recording thing has got to be a cakewalk, and maybe they'll just kick back tonight and dig some power-pop group or jam band.


Tony Vortis, waiting to rock
 

During our last three visits to his class, we've kept the agenda to a more reasonable five or six songs each time -- which means we now have a backlog of 13 tunes to consider for a new album, once we mix them properly with Dietrich. (The students' rough mixes can range from sounding like Korn, to sounding like the Dave Matthews Band, to just plain sounding like ass, as Tony Vortis would say. But what do you expect for free?) We also had four new songs we were dying to record, and one cover we wanted to lay down. There never was any way that we were going to get all of that done in one weekend -- Anxiety High, our next-door neighbors at the Superior Street rehearsal spaces, were hoping just to track four songs when they went into Million Yen last weekend -- but it didn't stop us from trying.


Tony Vortis, tracking vocals
 

Setting up and getting the basic sounds is the worst part of recording -- and the part that Chris Vortis understandably likes the least -- but we've learned through experience that rather than, say, sitting and monotonously hitting the bass drum for half an hour, and then the snare drum, and so on through every instrument one by one, it's better to use that time to warm up as a band and rehearse the songs a few more times as Dietrich and his students -- there were three interns this time, plus regular studio assistant Frank -- tweak the mikes, set the levels, and adjust the EQ's.


Tony Vortis, liking what he hears

The advent of Pro Tools and digital recording and mixing have given studios some wonderful advantages -- not the least of which are the abilities to continually hone the mixes as things progress; to cut and paste with the click of a mouse, and to literally see the wave forms on the computer screen in addition to hearing the music -- but for us the ideal way to record still is to capture the basic songs plus a few guitar and vocal overdubs on two-inch tape, and then dump the music into the computer to mix. Unfortunately, a few days earlier, Wall to Wall's big old reel to reel recorder had started to spew some weird smoke that Doug the Intern said smelled like grape soda, so this was going to be an all-digital session. And, though the computer is supposed to be immune from such mechanical problems, it assuredly is not: First, a weird glitch that Dietrich calls an "IO problem" (it has something to do with "input, output") sidelined us for a while and had Frank scurrying for manuals -- never a good sign -- and then, once that was fixed, there was a recurring "Assertion Problem" error message that set us back a while longer.

Finally, four hours after we arrived, we were ready to roll. We came. We rocked. And in 45 minutes, we'd recorded our four originals and a cover of "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" by X-Ray Spex. A few hours more, and we'd laid down the vocals for everything except the latter, and it was a fine time to stop for the night and adjourn to the Blue Frog, one of Chicago's most lovable dive bars, and most conveniently located directly above the studio.

One disadvantage of Wall to Wall's subterranean missile control architecture became apparent when we arrived again on Saturday to find Dietrich, Frank, and Doug the Intern trying to clear out an inch of water from the recording room; that was a hell of a storm Friday night and Saturday morning, but things could have been worse: The studio could have been in Westchester. The purpose of the lounge and that Atari console becomes obvious at times like these or during one of those IO debacles, though Vortis just whiled away the hours smoking and drinking. Chris Vortis had thoughtfully brought a couple of bottles of Italian Chianti to make things more pleasant in the studio, and all that was missing were the meatballs.


Watching Radio Santoni--a real rock star--
singing from the control room

 

In any event, Saturday's session didn't really get rolling until late afternoon when our friend, Raedy Ping, a.k.a. Radio Santoni of the Cathy Santonies, came by to lend her dulcet tones to the X-Ray Spex cover, outdoing even the ferocious Poly Styrene with her impassioned yelps and bleats. We did manage to mix all five of the new songs by 9:30 or so -- though Tony Vortis insisted on Sunday morning that the bass is too hot in the mix, so there's that to fix -- which means we still have those other 13 songs from the three sessions with Dietrich's classes still untouched.

The very prospect makes Chris miserable, but I couldn't be happier: It just means we get to spend more time in the studio.

Photos by Chris Martiniano and Louie Calvano