Join us as we continue our tour of Brooklyn’s busiest recording studios. In this installment, learn where living legends of jazz and metal record their masterpieces, and find some surprisingly affordable production spaces south of Prospect Park.
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Systems Two doesn’t have a website, and to be honest, it doesn’t really need one.
When I asked founder and engineer Joe Marciano about their curious lack of web presence, he said “We’ve been blessed, literally from the first day that we opened. We just haven’t had a second to even think about putting a website together.”
When Marciano started Systems Two 37 years ago, it was a small 8-track studio, and South Brooklyn was a very different place. From these humble beginnings, the studio expanded through two recessions to become what it is today: an enormous, three-room facility in Kensington, and arguably, one of the hottest spots for jazz recording in the United States.
But it’s not only that. In addition to hosting contemporary jazz luminaries like Cassandra Wilson, Trevor Dunn, Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Holland, Tom Harrell, and Kenny Baron Systems Two has recorded pop, rock, classical and world artists for a variety of labels – even a string of iconic Brooklyn metal bands like Type O Negative, Life Of Agony, and Biohazard.
“Maybe half the people who call us want to see a website,” says Joe Marciano. But, according to him, System Two’s studio manager (his wife Nancy Marciano), is “very old school.” “She wants to get people down here: To smell this place, to see it, and to get into the vibe of it. That’s the big attraction point. As soon as we get them in here, that’s it, they’ve found a home.”
“Then there’s the other half of people who say ‘Hey man, you don’t have a website? That’s so hip. I had to find you. I had to look at records and ask around’.”
Marciano laughs. “Well, I don’t know if it’s hip or not, but between repeat clients and our relationships with the labels, we’ve been so fortunate and so swamped that we just never needed to build one. I mean, I’m still working with people that I first worked with 35 years ago.”
When Marciano says these things, it’s with a refreshing level of self-assured humility. He’s casual, friendly, and frankly, hard not to like on first meeting. To his credit, Marciano’s pride in his studio comes off as tasteful rather than boastful. It doesn’t hurt that it’s probably well-deserved.
When it opened in the 70s, Systems Two was a small room in Sheepshead Bay, and the studio effects were “literally just stompboxes.” This year, when the legendary avant-jazz saxist Anthony Braxton came in to record his ambitious opera, he fit a whopping 54 musicians into studio A’s live room – and another 12 vocalists in its isolation booth.
“We’re one of the few studios that can accommodate 80 microphones all going down live. We can handle these huge groups, and so we get a lot of them. We have, you know, 40 or 50 stations of Private Q headphones mixes.”
Also on the list of unexpected-things-that-they-have are: John Coltrane’s personal RCA ribbon microphone; a 9’1” Steinway Grand from the stage at Carnegie Hall; the custom Hammond Organ used to record “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”; Peter Gabriel’s multitrack recorder from the sessions for So, and what’s become a truly silly amount of recording equipment.
But Marciano is careful not to oversell the gear too much. “From the beginning, we would take humble equipment and try to make it sound unbelievable. Even now, people put this up against $10-million dollar rooms and still choose us.”
“Some guys wouldn’t hesitate to build a million dollar room and lease a Neve console for who knows how much money before they even have the clients to back it up. We grew gradually, and I’m glad it happened that way. We always had to know how to make things sound great with what we had. Every year we have a few more clients, and we’ll maybe add a few more microphones.”
Their longevity is testament to the wisdom in this approach. The Marcianos refused to go into a deep hole of debt by chasing gear, but still managed to accumulate a museum’s worth of top-shelf equipment over the years. And when they needed to build a bigger, better set of rooms, they took the job on themselves. “Our blood and sweat is in this place,” Marciano says. “This is us.”
If studios like these are a dying breed, no one seems to have told Joe Marciano and Systems Two’s staff engineers: brother Mike Marciano, Max Ross, and Rich Lamb. They’ve found their niche, and seem to be staying booked the old fashioned way.
Rates: $400/day (with engineer) $200/day (without engineer)
Alan Labiner was assisting and engineering at Manhattan studios like Threshold Recording when necessity forced him to devise his Secret Weapon.
“I never really intended to be a studio owner,” he says. “I was doing sessions and realized I needed a cheaper place to do overdubs.”
“There are just so many times when you don’t need a giant board and a big room, but you still need some of that level of gear. I figured that if I had a treated room and an HD system, with a really great mic, preamp and compressor for a couple channels of recording, it would allow me to do lot.”
In addition to using this South Brooklyn room for his own projects, Labiner has also opened up his Secret Weapon studio to outside producers and engineers. He says it’s geared toward anyone who needs access to a few channels of top-shelf equipment in a controlled environment for overdubs, editing and mixing.
The room is outfitted with a Pro Tools HD3 system, NS-10 monitors, a custom plate reverb and pair of Neve 1073s. Two racks are lined with a few key pieces from Pultec, API and Moog, and the booth comes equipped with a good handful of high-end mics including Neumann M149s, U87s and a vintage AKG C-414 with a brass CK12 capsule.
Although Bensonhurst may seem out of the way to musicians who aren’t used to working in South Brooklyn, Labiner has already managed to attract a few high-profile indie artists from outside the neighborhood, including Angelspit and Freelance Whales.
“It can be difficult to get people to come out here at first, but once they do, they find we’re right up the block from the D train station and a music store, and there’s plenty of good food around.” With an unusually low card rate for the quality of gear, and flexible project pricing, it might just be worth the trip.
NEWKIRK RECORDING STUDIOS
Get in touch via http://www.benriceproductions.com
$300/day or $35/hr (with owner/operator Ben Rice as engineer)
Ben Rice started working in studios as a teenager at Manhattan’s Clinton Recording. He went on to refine his chops while working on his own music with Williamsburg-based producers Gus Van Go and Werner F. Today, he records and produces indie artists from across genres – from rock groups like The Mooney Suzuki and The Wicked Tomorrow, to jazz trios and up-and-coming singer-songwriters.
South Brooklyn’s studio scene isn’t as saturated as elsewhere in the borough, but it’s growing. Rice’s Newkirk Studio is evidence of that. His room sits among the tree-lined streets and Victorian homes of Ditmas Park, and although it seems like an idyllic setting for making music now, as Rice tells it, it wasn’t always that way.