It could happen to you: One minute you’re engineering at the studio that you’ve grown to love, and the next minute… you’re the studio’s owner.
That’s a leap that does take place in the studio world, and most recently at Vinegar Hill Sound (VHS) in Brooklyn. Reed Black met the facility’s founder, Justin King, five years ago and found that the two had plenty in common. A busy freelance engineer at the time, Black tuned into King’s audio outlook and eventually moved into VHS with his gear.
In March of this year King decided to move on from the NYC studio he started, and Black went from engineer in residence to the proprietor of Vinegar Hill Sound. It’s good to be making the decisions, but with great power comes great responsibility, and Black is frank about the transitions he’s dealt with since heading up VHS.
He’s got something important to oversee: Named for the neighborhood it’s situated in, Vinegar Hill Sound is part of a beautiful Brooklyn district where the city’s historic charm still can be seen and felt. Inside its walls, an exacting collection of analog gear and classic microphones, big live spaces with 16-foot ceilings, a deeply soulful 1906 Steinway O piano, and much more create new sounds in this old enclave.
In the conversation below, Black opens up on the challenges and opportunities that have opened up to him since taking the reins. But one thing is clear – Vinegar Hill Sound is in the hands of a man who is incredibly passionate about audio. Best yet, you can meet him and see the facility for yourself this Thursday, October 15th, when VHS (46 Bridge Street, Brooklyn) holds its Grand Reopening Party FROM 7-10 PM. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those who aren’t familiar with the studio’s history, get us caught up – when was it founded, and why?
Vinegar Hill Sound was founded in 2010 by musician and long-time studio owner Justin King. He came to Brooklyn from his home state of Oregon, where he had had a previous studio for years. VHS was significantly smaller at that point – about half the size that it is now.
It was just the essentials: a control room, a live room and an isobooth, with a small lounge. The larger footprint came later, which includes a large front lounge with huge windows, a kitchenette, and a mix room upstairs.
Reed, you’ve followed an interesting path towards becoming the studio’s owner. How did you first get involved with Vinegar Hill, and how did that eventually lead to you turning into its proprietor?
I first met Justin through a mutual friend in late 2010. As it turned out, we had a lot of musical history in common – significantly, we had both made records with the great producer Rob Schnapf in our youths. We also turned out to have many musical friends in common, and both had a very similar idea about what makes a studio great.
We got to talking, and I think it became clear pretty quickly that we should be working together. I was a freelancer at the time, working out of whatever studio my clients chose. Not having a home-base always makes things complicated for your bands, and once you’re actually making the record, you’re as much a guest in the space as the band you’re working with.
It’s hard to keep a firm grip on the session’s trajectory when you don’t know your way around the patchbay, or where the drum kit sounds best, or which channels on the board are a little wonky. You’re also constantly involved in three-way conversations with studio managers that get tiring. So when Justin and I met, and got into the details of both our visions for the future, I decided to jump right in, move my gear in and called it home.
It was great, because our gear fit together as well as our visions did. Justin had a set of V72s, I had a set of Manleys. Justin had a pair of 1176s, I had a pair of Chandler TG1s. He had a set of vintage Neve pres, I had a 33609 (rev A). He had a set of tube M260s, I had a set of KM184s. I don’t think we had a single piece of gear in common, so we effectively doubled our arsenals.
You and Justin also found you had some other key things about yourselves that were complementary, correct?
Yes, much more importantly, we valued two things that were somewhat unusual.
One, we both felt strongly that bands do their best work in a studio that feels like home. We both agreed that a studio should be a no-pressure workshop for creative exploration – not a corporate-feeling, personality-free office where you make sworn statements that will be held against you. I mean, look, once a record is released, you’re already going to receive a barrage of criticism based on other people’s expectations. While you’re actually creating your art, you should be responding to no one’s expectations other than your own, and those of the producer you have decided to trust as your guide and protector.
I remember one of my first times tracking as a musician in a big studio. I was in the live room at Cello Studio, which had formerly been United Western Recorders, where Pet Sounds was recorded. Now Cello was a phenomenal studio, and I have nothing but love for legendary studios like that – but I remember literally trembling as I sat down at the piano: “Could I possibly perform anything that justified brushing spirits with the legendary Brian Wilson? Could I do what he did?”
It was like I was getting crushed by an avalanche of outside expectations before the engineer even pushed “record,” or I played a single note. “This isn’t MY space,” I thought, “this is Bill Putnam’s space. This is Brian Wilson’s space.”
What Justin created with VHS was almost like a destination studio where people could go to get away from all that. No one’s vision but your own. No challenges but the ones you set out yourself. It’s a place where you remember that the studio isn’t a judge, it isn’t a cage – a studio is freedom. A studio is emancipation. It’s the freedom to dream, the freedom to truly be yourself.
That is a truly inspirational way to look at it. On the technical tip, how has the studio evolved since you first started working there?
Well, we always had a rolling turnover of gear and instruments, but when Justin left, he took his gear with him and I raced to replace the big components with the best I could pull together.
I’ve replaced the concert Baldwin piano with a breath-taking 1906 Steinway O. It’s one of the deepest, most soulful pianos I have ever played. I added a Bock 251 and a Soundelux U95 as my primary tube vocal mics. I also upgraded the converters from Lynx Auroras to a Burl Mothership, which in my opinion is the converter that has finally brought digital to adulthood. I brought in my Otari MTR-12 1/4″ master tape machine for my mixes, and a set of DynAudio BM15s that pair gorgeously with the control room. I routinely have people ask what kind of a sub I have, and they’re shocked to learn I have none!!