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Beauty School Dropouts

by Ali Hibbs on March 15, 2012 · 1 comment

Audio engineers Frank Moscowitz and Seamus McNulty transition to new digs at Black Dog Recording Studio and open a new chapter for their hyperactive recording habits

“Recording scenarios are like bicycles,” waxes audio engineer Frank Moscowitz. If the analogy were taken one step further, it would make he and longtime collaborator Seamus McNulty some cross between Lance Armstrong and those guys who weld salvaged forks and frames together to make mutant double-decker bikes. “Even if you borrow your friend’s really nice bike, you can’t jam as hard as you could on your own because you’re not familiar with it, not comfortable. You can’t express your riding as well.”

Painting a bridge: Frank Moscowitz and Seamus McNulty in the control room. Photo by Joe Putrock.

The control room at Black Dog Recording Studio is littered with empty cardboard boxes and styrofoam packaging. Only some of the newly acquired gear has been housed alongside the ’70s-vintage Sphere analog mixing board, while old organs, amplifiers and dismembered drum kits sit at the ready in the hallway outside. The bicycle the two are building was started a decade ago when McNulty ran a microphone cable down a staircase to record his neighbor Moscowitz’s upright piano for an album his band, the Sifters, were creating in an apartment building on Hudson Street. Now, a few moves, a seven-year stint running Collar City Sound, and a who’s-who list of local recording projects later, the two have settled into their most permanent digs yet, a state-of-the-art studio in Stillwater that the owner has granted them full creative and operational rights to. With each day and acoustical modification, the space is becoming the bicycle each have spent their careers hoping to ride.

Except Moscowitz changes his analogy in attempting to describe the endless work that goes into customizing such a space. “It’s like painting a bridge,” he says, “because when you finally finish the thing you come back around and realize what needs help again.”

When McNulty and Moscowitz first joined forces, hanging around the Larkin in 2001with their respective bands the Sifters and the Orange, the idea to record together far preceded the notion that they might ever have a space in which to work. McNulty had studied audio engineering at Omega, a commercial studio in Maryland, learning the nuts and bolts of the industry while becoming entirely disillusioned by the prospect of a career in commercial sound production. He moved to the Capital Region with friends and started calling around to local recording studios to see if anyone needed help, a process that Moscowitz jokes should have taken all of 15 minutes. “Some of them actually laughed out loud,” McNulty admits. So he decided at that point that if he wanted to record, he’d have to create those conditions himself.

Moscowitz had better luck finding professional engineering work, putting in five years at Nevessa Production in Woodstock after graduating from the College of Saint Rose’s Music Technology and Entertainment Arts program. While McNulty shudders at the thought, much of Moscowitz’s early experience came in live recording situations, a form of guerrilla engineering that informed the duo’s early work and continues to help Moscowitz troubleshoot in the studio. In 2004, Moscowitz was hired for a summer tour with KISS and Poison. Every night, he’d sit in an empty 18-wheeler behind the stage, mixing the live show to CD burners as pyrotechnics fired outside, turning out a passable document of the show for Clear Channel’s Instant Live program to hawk as fans filed out. He never did get to actually see the show, but was treated to an unsolicited lesson on the imprtance of the “Loudness” button by Gene Simmons.

Recording at first in their apartment building, the two tackled most of their early projects as a sort of mobile studio, setting up in friend’s attics and apartments, moving all their gear wherever they could find work. “When we were doing the remote thing,” McNulty says, “we’d always say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a place where we could walk in and everything was already all set up? We could just press record.’” The first opportunity they had was in a stripped down apartment on Hamilton Street where McNulty soon moved. It only lasted six months but allowed them to turn out an early Sean Rowe recording.

At the time, McNulty had been working with the Kamikaze Hearts on their celebrated Oneida Road, and member Troy Pohl became interested in the fledgling recording outfit. Pohl found an old Knights of Columbus ballroom in an unassuming building on 3rd Street in Troy, called Halfmoon Hall, and so began Collar City Sound, the sister company of Troy label Collar City Records. They rented a balcony above the ballroom and built themselves a clubhouse. “It was an experiment,” Moscowitz admits. “We didn’t even make it through the winter,” McNulty explains. The building had no heat, and after six months, the group started looking for yet another space, but already the bicycle was getting road tested. Moscowitz acquired parts of an old console that had been at Bearsville Studio in Woodstock, and set out to build the space a propor console.

“Which is why he’s the tech he is today,” says McNulty.

Moscowitz hadn’t studied electronics in school, but a fascination/frustration with the way gear quality affected sound quality opened a door to real technological know-how. “I was unemployed for a while and just stared at schematics for hours,” Moscowitz says. “I had a few cheap projects, and now I’m gainfully employed at Parkway Music fixing guitar amps.” Now, when something breaks or buzzes at Black Dog—such as the modular analog mixing board, once owned by the Judd family—Moscowitz doesn’t hesitate to crack open the hood for a look-see.

In 2005, Collar City Sound made its official home in a defunct beauty school in Troy, where they would remain for the next seven years. Before they could build the studio up, they had to strip out the ’60s-era salon chairs and beauty supplies, making what modifications they could under the landlord’s annual warning that someday he’d have to turn the space into apartments. That day did eventually come last year, but only after Moscowitz and McNulty had used the space to fully assert themselves as Troy’s (if not the Capital Region’s) most in-demand recording engineers. Take a close look at any local record that came out within that span of years and you’re liable to find one of them in the production credits.

Through other channels, Moscowitz had become acquainted with Jon Kerley, the owner of Black Dog, and had helped with some of the studio’s construction before and after a fire destroyed the place about two years ago. Moscowitz asked Kerley if he and McNulty could transplant their operation to the second version of the space, and Kerley, a contractor, bar owner and music fan, gave them full run of the place. While the beauty school was a terminal proposition, in that the two were limited in their ability to build on the building’s sonic capabilities, Black Dog represented an infinite canvas.

“The reason I like to record is the infinite,” says Moscowitz. “All the possibility that’s there when you make a document, when you record something. We wanted a space that was comfortable, not sterile, conducive to creativity. Jon’s resources got to make this place what it is and we got to come in and put an edge on it. If there’s anything slightly magical about this, it’s that.”

Prior to their taking over the studio’s operation, it had already developed something of a reputation as a sonic sanctuary nestled in gorgeous country, with Ra Ra Riot recording The Orchard over six weeks with producer Andrew Maury. Black Dog continues to encourage outside producers to rent the space and have had larger national acts like Phish’s Mike Gordon and Foster the People “kick the tires” a bit. The modifications the two are making to the facility are part to court more of this clientele. Yet Moscowitz and McNulty continue to make regional acts their focus. In the past few months, Moscowitz has finished up work with Barons in the Attic, Alta Mira, the Parlor, Sean Rowe, Railbird and Swamp Baby (not to mention live sound gigs at the WCDB anniversary show and Restoration Festival). McNulty worked on a recent Sea of Trees record and has been chipping away over weekends on a long-term project. Tom McWaters, Molly Durnin, I Was a Hero and the Mysteios all have upcoming sessions.

Despite their advances, there’s something a bit quaint about McNulty and Moscowitz’s project. These days, a band wouldn’t need to run a mic down a flight of stairs to capture some acoustic piano; they’d walk downstairs with their laptop and ProTools and mix the whole thing down right there. Meanwhile, Black Dog plans on getting a two-inch tape machine to be able to record all-analog. The reason the two spend so much time outside of their day jobs on these recording projects is not so dissimilar to the reason a band would choose to use such a facility rather than record at home. There’s always the next level of grandeur that a project can be taken—must be taken. Moscowitz got to work on a session at the legendary Dreamland Recording Studios and describes the experience as “exhilarating” to know that there is no other limitation than your own vision and know-how. It’s the ultimate 21-speed racing cycle. But that in itself is not the objective. As McNulty says, “No one walks down the street humming a compressor.” Any production flourish has to be in service to the song, and it’s the collaboration with each musician that the two most value. All the two have ever been able to offer is the extra 5-percent touch that will enhance a record, and the trust that this requires is what keeps them going.

“Nothing’s really changed,” McNulty says, in this regard. “Just the building and stuff. We’re still doing it for the same reason. We can’t not do it.”

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