Producer Brian Charles

Producer Brian Charles In The Zippah Control Room

by Max Bowen
Located on Corey Road in Brighton, Zippah Recording has come a long way since its inception in 1989. Bands like the Bynars, the Field Effect, and Thought Transfer have cut their albums at this location, and a new record label which was launched at Zippah this year is helping many others in the Boston area to spread their music to a whole new crop of fans.
Brian Charles joined the Zippah team when the band he was playing in recorded some demos more than 20 years ago, and he’s looking forward to working with many, many more of the musicians in the local scene.
Noise: How did you come to work with Zippah Recording?
Brian: Zippah was founded almost 25 years ago (1989) by Pete Weiss and Ken Thomas. I was a young freelance engineer at the time, assisting on sessions in some of the studios that were around then. I was also playing in a band called Sidewalk Gallery, and we ended up going to Zippah to do some demos around 1992. Being an engineer, I was able to take advantage of the engineer’s rate, which was ridiculously low, and I was able to get some nice-sounding recordings because of some select pieces of gear that they owned and the high ceilings. In its infancy, Zippah was a big open garage with only a small room to act as the control room, tucked away in the corner—the console was a pretty small, but functional desk, and the monitoring was clear enough for me to get the job done at a really affordable price. I began to bring projects into Zippah (still as a freelance engineer), and began making enough money to pay rent, go out for a beer, pay the cover at the Rat. Not a bad life for a single guy in his 20s.
Not too long after my booking frenzy, the owners approached me and they asked if I would like to become a part-owner of the studio. I didn’t really know what that entailed at the time, but I eagerly said yes. The three of us agreed to all pitch in some money to build some walls, buy a Neve console, a Neumann U47 microphone, and later, a Studer tape machine, to make the place the very best we could with our resources. Pete and I began to make records together and before we knew it, we were busy in the newly renovated space and were working with bands from all over (New York., down South, even Scandinavia). it was a blast that continued on for a little more than a decade until Pete decided to move to Vermont and build his new dream studio (Verdant). It was at that time (around 2003) that I found myself sole owner and operator— which is still the case now.
Noise: What drew you into becoming a producer?
Brian: I think I was always interested—when I was younger in high school—how the records that I loved got from being played by musicians to being recorded and sound like they do. Like, why does a drum set sound one way in my basement and sound another way on this really awesome Clash record. It was those types of things that I began experimenting with in high school. I did a lot of recording, trying things out in my basement. I was always taking things apart and trying to put them back together.
I was into songwriting and just music in general. It was all coming together in a way that made me curious how it was being recorded. I made lots of recordings in high school, and when I finally got to go to a professional studio—I was 16—and I was just blown away by the console and the gear and the guys in there operating the gear and how everything sounded massive to me in the studio.
Noise: Tell me about the rest of the Zippah team and why you wanted them to work for you.
Brian: There has only been a half-dozen or so engineers that have worked regularly at Zippah over the years. I’ve always tried to keep it a small club because I felt that too many engineers booking the one room could easily become problematic, especially if the schedule became prohibitive to me bringing the projects in that I want to work on. For the past few years the Zippah team has been me and Annie Hoffman (bassist for the Field Effect). That’s it! We’ve developed a workflow that is beyond efficient, and I am making the best recordings of my life because of it.
Noise: What are some of the new bands you’re working with?
Brian: We’ve recently had a great mix of new artists like Mister Vertigo, the Field Effect, Nikolas Metaxas, the Bynars, and Thought Transfer in to work on their new releases. On the more “not-so-new band front,” I’m really excited about the new Dear Leader full-length album. Since I joined the band in 2011, we’ve been experimenting with new instrumentation as well as utilizing recording technology and techniques from many different genres. It’s fun to push the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable in this modern age, especially with a band that is so open-minded.
There are literally thousands that I would like to work with. The bands and the artists in this town, it’s basically the only reason I can have a studio that survives. There was a time in my life when I almost moved to L.A., about 10 years ago. It was about the time that things here were starting to shift and recording budgets were waning. A few friends who moved there told me to find a good band in your corner of the world, because it’s a better bet at this point.
Noise: What are some of the newer pieces of equipment that studios are using?
Brian: If anything, I notice studios using less equipment these days. Computer recording and plugins have replaced (for many) the coveted analog pieces of gear with virtual emulations of the technology. This however is not the case at Zippah. We do utilize and embrace the newest digital technology, but use it in conjunction with our vast collection of vintage analog equipment to achieve a higher standard. The fact that audio converters sound better now than they did five years ago, only strengthens the signal chain for us. It allows our analog gear to be better represented in the final outcome.
Noise: How has the technology of the music recording process changed? Is there anything about the older equipment that you miss?
Brian: I am a lover of technology from all ages. I like the convenience that Pro Tools offers as well as the sound. I’m not one of those engineers that stubbornly only likes the old way of doing things. I do, however, feel lucky to have come up in engineering at a time when tape was all we had—it gives me a perspective that broadens my approach to recording in a profound way. We still have a 24-track Studer tape machine that does get used here. We are able (by way of a syncing device) to lock the tape machine and Pro Tools together, so that they run in tandem if we like, sort of like the mother and daughter of all recording machines.
That being said, most of our sessions do begin and end in the computer. On the rare occasion that we are recording solely to tape, I do love the fact that there is no computer screen involved. It forces everyone to listen to music without the visual aid of a screen, and it’s liberating. Your mind becomes the visual aid. I highly recommend that experience at least once in every musician’s life—it stays with you.
I think the fact that on a laptop computer you can interface it with some better pieces of hardware like Firewire converters and Thunderbolt converters is opening the doors to people who couldn’t previously achieve a certain level of quality—now they can.
Noise: Is there a certain genre or age bracket of musicians recording more often right now?
Brian: We’ve of course worked with all different styles of music over the past 24 years, but we have become known for our indie rock recordings. That as well as singer/songwriters that need backup bands. We have accumulated an incredible network of musicians for hire that we utilize on a regular basis. Many of the musicians in our network are professional touring musicians that we call in to play on recording projects.
Noise: Some musicians go the DIY method when making CDs. Does this change the recording process?
Brian: I like many things about the DIY musical lifestyle. I remember when there were more record labels around, and we would spend a bunch of weeks in a row in the studio making a record. Although this was very productive time-wise, it was challenging at times to maintain perspective. These days artists are mostly funding their recordings themselves. They tend to work on their records in their spare time—on weekends and after work—around their life schedule. They are able to pay over the course of months. It’s fun for me, because in addition to perspective from bits of time away, I find myself working on multiple records within the same timeframe.
Noise: What questions should bands be asking when deciding what studio to go with?
Brian: I think it’s most important to make sure that the producers and engineers connect with your style of music and understand your goals. I suggest making time to visit the studio and speak to the staff about your specific needs. Another benefit of a visit is that you can get the feel of the place that you might be creating in. Beyond getting technical, these are the most important things in my opinion.
Noise: You’ve worked with dozens of bands. Do any stand out, and why?
Brian: I’ve been lucky enough to work with a dozen or so bands a year—for many years. I feel truly blessed. Many bands stand out in my mind, from the very first recordings of The Sheila Divine, to the Scandinavian surge in the ’90s (Cords and Eggstone). I also remember carting an entire analog studio’s worth of gear to Saunders Theater-Harvard in the middle of a blizzard to record Bright Eyes. That was insane!
Noise: You’re a part-time guitarist with the Sheila Divine. How does this experience influence your work as a producer?
Brian: Being in a band has a huge influence on my producing life, it always has. I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the glass in the studio. Empathy is a great gift when you are working with others in an intensely creative environment.
Noise: You mentioned that Zippah now has a record label. How did it get started?
Brian: We started a record label this year and it was inspired by, I think, a need for record labels. There aren’t a lot of record labels around here anymore and we’re working with all these great bands and artists in this town that don’t have an outlet to release their music.
We decided to take an approach like Motown, that old model of working with artists and producing them, that producer/engineer relationship with the artist. We’re releasing these records that aren’t just kitschy and cool because they’re on vinyl, we make sure they sound good. It’s going back to the old days, that pioneer feeling of breaking through and finding really cool artists, making really great records and making sure they’re heard online and on the radio.