A soft knock on the door of the recording studio in Chuck Eller's Charlotte home sets off his two Cairn terriers, Ruby and Bing. I flinch at the sudden disruption to a recording session inside, then instantly recognize my own naïvete. Obviously, no one can hear the barking dogs from inside a soundproof room Ñ or my knocking, for that matter.
Thankfully, Eller can spot visitors through the studio's huge bay window, which overlooks 15 acres on the La Platte River. Eller is a youngish 52-year-old who looks a bit like Eagles front man Don Henley. He exudes the Zen-like patience of someone whose expertise is the musical equivalent of assembling an onion one layer at a time.
Insulated doors lead from Eller's kitchen into a high-tech but comfy studio, which was designed by an acoustical physics lab in Athens, Georgia, and took half a year to build. My fears at having disturbed a recording are quickly assuaged when a dump truck sails past the window noiselessly, like a TV set with the sound off. "It's a rarity that we get anything extraneous in here," Eller says. Occasion-ally, though, a microphone captures an inadvertent noise inside the studio Ñ such as Bing's snoring, for which he's earned several CD credits. Still, both dogs come and go at will.
It's all part of the laid-back charm of the Charles Eller Studios, a warm, homey environment that attracts many of Vermont's most accomplished musicians, from Phish to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. A whiteboard in Eller's office titled "Hard Drive Inventory" reveals an eclectic mix of clients: the soundtrack for the film Nosey Parker, "Best of Kerrville Folk Festival" and "Richmond Middle School."
Behind a large, aquarium-like window, dozens of vintage microphones of various shapes and sizes reach skyward like sunflowers, which, incidentally, would probably thrive here. Unlike the subterranean dreariness of many recording studios, Eller's place is awash in natural light. Someone working at the console can monitor recording levels while also admiring the quiet grandeur of Camel's Hump in the distance. "When I built this place, I really wanted to incorporate windows that brought the outdoors in," Eller says. "A lot of studios have the technology. What we've gone for is a living room feel."
Not that Eller lacks gizmos. His 96-track digital console is one of only three of its kind in the country. From this sleek, high-tech cockpit, an engineer can control the entire place. To demonstrate, Eller touches a button and pulls up a project he recorded several months earlier. In seconds, dozens of fly knobs Ñ which might have taken hours to set Ñ slide back into position, as if by invisible hands.
Meanwhile, Paul Asbell, Eller's longtime friend and fellow member of The Unknown Blues Band, limbers up for his guitar overdubs Ñ instrumental tracks that will be woven into a song recorded earlier. It's for Eller's current project, a children's album called Even Kids Get the Blues. The roots-style record features various Vermont blues artists, with virtually all the vocals sung by children, some as young as 9 years old.
As Eller shows his guest around, Asbell and sound engineer Lane Gibson discuss how to reproduce the sound of Eric Clapton's guitar in the John Hiatt song, "Ridin' with the King." It's for a parody number about things that annoy children, called "Ridin' With a Sibling."
Once the desired sound is nailed down, Gibson hits a button and the music begins to play. Multi-colored squiggles crawl across his computer screen, each one a different part of the musical palette Ñ drums blue, vocals pink, keyboards green. Asbell bobs his head to the rhythm and strums a few riffs, adding another color to the acoustical portrait.
Gibson punches a button and the music stops abruptly. "I think that beginning lick can be a little tighter there in a couple of spots," he says.
Asbell agrees. "I was anticipating more on this track and that may be the problem with the first lick. Listen to this," he says, repeating the Clapton-esque riff. "Yeah, that's it! I've got to slow it down."
With the click of a mouse, Gibson marks the edit point onscreen and restarts the song. Asbell repeats the riff, this time at a slower tempo, as Gibson "punches in" the new version. The effect is a seamless fix that even a well-trained ear couldn't detect.
Without question, digital technology is infinitely faster and more versatile than its analog ancestors. And unlike magnetic tape, which would have recorded over Asbell's previous take, Eller's system saves everything to a 50-megabyte hard drive, allowing him to go back later and cut-and-paste at will. Which isn't to say that nothing gets lost in the new technology.
"The term, punching in' isn't obsolete. But the art of punching in is," Eller laments. "With tape technology, say, if the bass player hit a wrong note, we engineers used to pride ourselves at how good we could pop into and out of record,' literally on one note. It's something we spent a quarter-century learning."
He turns to Gibson and adds, "Don't you miss being the hero?"
When the first overdub is complete, Gibson and Asbell exchange more techno-babble about how to accomplish the next one Ñ which will recreate the sound of B.B. King's guitar. A door opens and in breezes Diana Winn, the owner of Re-Bop Records who conceived of Even Kids Get the Blues. Winn has gray, free-flowing hair, a lithe body and boundless energy. She and Eller have worked together for years, including on her 1998 album, Motown for Minors. Like that project, this one is meant to please not only children but also their parents, who are often subjected to the same children's record played ad nauseum.
Even Kids Get the Blues has special meaning to Winn. All the lyrics address issues that make children depressed, from homesickness to scary world affairs. "There are so many things that kids express to me when I'm working with them that are the blues," she explains. "People of all ages have their own tragedies."
For instance, Asbell wrote a song called "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" There are verses about a child hearing two parents fighting in another room, and another about having a brother in the Army in Iraq. Another song, "Chop an Onion," reminds children that it's OK to cry. "We all came out of our mothers' wombs wailing," Winn says. "If that ain't the blues, what is?"
Winn knows something about pain and anguish. Nine years ago, her husband, David "Crow" Levine, died of cancer. She recorded an album about coping with her grief called Sink or Swim in Eller's studio. Then, three years ago, tragedy struck again when she went into the hospital with a severe migraine. She was given an intravenous drug improperly and, three weeks later, doctors amputated her right hand.
That loss didn't stop Winn, a guitarist, from making music. But now, it's friends like Eller who have become her instrument. And the lessons she learned about music's recuperative powers are being incorporated into her current project. One of the child singers is Anneli Blume, a 10-year-old blues singer whose father just began serving a prison sentence in Florida.
"She's going through a major change in her life. It's really influenced how I've written this album," says Winn. "For me, the song, I Miss Daddy's Chili,' came from this place of me losing my daughter's father. But now, it totally resonates for Anneli, who has to be without her dad for five years. I'm sure it'll resonate for other kids whose dads are absentee."
Winn never doubted for a moment that she would record this album with Eller. The location is gorgeous, she says, the technology is unsurpassed, and both Eller and Gibson have decades of experience. But it's more than that. Last week, on Winn's birthday, Eller stopped everything in the middle of a session and told her to come outside. Why? To show her a double rainbow over Camel's Hump. "I like that," she says, with a broad smile. "It's professional, but it's also loose."
Another consideration was Eller's attitude about allowing children in his studio. Winn confesses that this project has seen its share of child-related mishaps, including a broken lampshade and a busted dog leash. This is Gibson's first experience working with kids. "It's a challenge because you have to keep them on task, you have to keep them from standing on speakers and hanging off door jams," he says. "Anneli will come over and sit in this chair and just spin. And I've got a patch bay full of cables and knobs galore on all these expensive pieces of gear."
"Oh, Lane! You're so anal," Asbell jokes.
Two days later, Eller and Gibson are finishing a voice overdub by 12-year-old Luke Meierdiercks. He's singing "Hug Me, Mommy, Hug Me," a song about being home with a cold. Meierdiercks is in a sound booth wearing headphones and a Superman T-shirt, while the hyperkinetic Winn dances and pantomimes through the window like a conductor. A little blond girl is splayed on the carpet with a coloring book. Ruby the terrier snoozes on the couch. A carton of carrot juice sits precariously close to some expensive components. Two more children arrive, launch themselves onto the couch and tear open a bag of chips.
In the center of the room, Gibson sits at the console, unfazed by the hubbub. He's like a NASA engineer at Houston Control, patiently watching the computer screen through his thick glasses. He's going to land this sucker without breaking a sweat.
One of the kids, David Barker, winces as Meierdiercks hits a sour note. Even through the window, it's obvious the singer is getting discouraged. He's ready to leave the booth, but Winn tells him to stay put. "Can we get a couple of nose blows?" she asks. They need sound effects for the cold. Meierdiercks blows weakly. "More," Gibson commands, eyeballing the levels. "This time, like a major elephant blow," Winn adds boisterously, until the boy sounds a real honker. The nose-blowing session brings some much-needed levity to the room.
Just then, Sandra Wright arrives. The Memphis-born blues singer, who has recorded for the likes of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Kenny Rogers and Gatemouth Brown, is the only adult vocalist on the album. She's a five-foot-four-inch fireplug, capable of unleashing a torrent of raw blues power. Sporting red fingernails as long as a hawk's talons, Wright limps into the room, explaining that she turned her ankle getting off stage several weeks earlier.
For her first song, Gibson cues up "Little Baby Blues," a slow, melodic number. "Satin bindings in her chair, all tuckered out, all tucked in, carried upstairs in her daddy's arms," Wright sings along to a mellow Hammond organ. Even with the bright sun outside, her crooning invokes a dark, smoky blues joint.
"Oh, my God! That's beautiful," says Winn. "Yes!"
Though Wright is just warming up, Gibson is already recording. "She's just one of those people that you don't want to do any run-throughs," Eller explains in a whisper. "You just want to get all the levels to tape, because she's so dynamic. Her first take is just so great and you want to be able to keep it."
"Ain't it the truth, the implications are huge," Wright wails louder, "from those little bitty baby blues." The song winds down as Wright sings, sultry and quiet, "Those little bitty, baby-back blues."
Wright stops, momentarily flustered.
"Ooh, I said, baby-back'. I'm sorry about that," she says about the reference to the Chili's restaurant jingle. The studio explodes in laughter. "What do you want from me?" she says, mock-defensively. "I like baby-back ribs!"
Otherwise, it's a near-perfect take. "So, what do you want me to change, Diana?" Wright asks.
"Not much. I'm in here crying and laughing at the same time," Winn answers, through an intercom. "You just totally killed it, it's so good."
On her next number, Wright does a voiceover to introduce the idea behind "Ridin' With a Sibling." Two kids are fighting in the backseat of a car while Wright plays the angry mother at the wheel. Eller suggests that she ad-lib it, recognizing that no one can script dialogue as authentic as what flows naturally from one's own mouth.
Wright's first take is flawless, but for some reason the sound isn't right. Her second delivery lacks the bluster of the first. "A little more edge," Eller suggests. As the music starts on the third try, Sandra opens the floodgates. "What are you knuckleheads doing back there? Don't make me stop this car!" Eller and Winn look at each other and smile. Perfect.