Feb. 2012 Feature – The Blasting Room
The Blasting Room
by Tim Wenger
Photos: Jenn Cohen
The list of bands that have recorded at the legendary Fort Collins studio, The Blasting Room, reads like a who’s who of modern punk rock. Looking through my cd collection, I noticed that the majority of the bands recorded at least one, if not multiple records there, and the names Bill Stevenson, Jason Livermore, Andrew Berlin and Jason Allen are regular fixtures in the bands’ thank you notes.
They must be doing something right. Either that, or there must be some untold perks of recording there that keep the musicians feeling at ease and begging for more. Why else would musicians from all over the world travel to the arid vastness of northern Colorado to record, when they could certainly find a place to do it in their own backyard? Are they doing it to feed off the established name of the studio and give themselves more credibility? Or are these four guys just that good?
Legions of bands that were influenced by the music of–and who many of have played with–the Descendents have all made the voyage to Fort Collins to work with Stevenson and Livermore. NOFX, Bouncing Souls, Suicide Machines, Mustard Plug, Rise Against, Less than Jake, the Ataris, No Use for a Name, Good Riddance, Propagandhi, MxPx, Lagwagon, the Casualties, Anti-Flag, the list goes on . . .
The guys love working with bands that they know personally. “I don’t want to say I have to be less professional, but I can be more like ‘Dude, that sucked!’ you know? Whereas, when they are bands that you don’t know, you have to be a little more professional,” says Livermore. “There are different personality types; some people, you know that they don’t want you to tell them anything, you might not say exactly what you want to say.”
They seem to handle it well though, and want everyone who pays for their time to have a great sounding record at the end of the day. “It depends how much of a vested interest you have in their music, and how far you are willing to go,” says Livermore.
The man and the legend at the Blasting Room is none other than Bill Stevenson, his fame outside of his recording prowess as a founding member of the Descendents and All, and drummer for Black Flag. “It’s been a pretty organic evolution,” Stevenson says. “We built it originally as a vehicle for ourselves, so we could do our own recordings. The first thing we recorded was the All album called Pummel.
Stevenson continues, “We looked at finances, and recording gear had become affordable enough to where we did a little math and thought, ‘Well, with what we would spend on about two records, we could just buy the gear and have it here and do our own records here.’”
Almost immediately, Stevenson and his crew had bands hitting them up, wanting to record with them in Fort Collins. “It seemed like, no sooner did we get the gear and build the walls here for the studio, and before we even had paint on the walls, I was getting phone calls from bands that wanted to come record here,” Stevenson says. “We were like ‘OK, yeah, I never thought of that!’ We didn’t really realize at the time that we were making a business.”
They began having bands come in, and the legend of the Blasting Room was underway. As far as a business goes, theirs is about as punk rock as it gets. “We’ve never actually done a business bank loan sort of thing,” says Stevenson. “Initially, we used the dollars that we got from Interscope Records for All to buy the initial gear. And then in the late ’90s, when we did a pretty substantial upgrade to put the SSL console in, we used money from our recording funds for Descendants on Epitaph, and also I had some money from Black Flag royalties.”
This is a large reason why so many bands like to give the Blasting Room their business. “The bands love coming here, they feel at home,” Says Stevenson. “They know it’s not corporate, they know it’s not a conventional environment. We have a long history with a lot of the bands.” Another big draw to the Blasting Room is that the crew here has about as much experience playing music as they do recording it. They have been on tour; they have spent time in the studio, and understand the mindset of a band that is coming in to make an album. “It’s a studio that was built by, and is run by, musicians, so there is comfort there. It’s not suits or businessmen running it,” says Stevenson.
Recent years have been tough for studios. Many have not survived in the industry due to the economic downturn, and the fact that a serious musician can generally afford to purchase their own recording equipment. But somehow the legend of the Blasting Room keeps them afloat, even in a tough economy. “I’m kind of surprised a little bit because there are all these studios in L.A. that have gone out of business, and somehow we are busier than ever,” says Livermore. “[But] it’s not surprising, because we’ve worked our asses off. I have worked 80-hour weeks for years on end.”
Part of the reason for their success may be the location. Fort Collins is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of a home base for a great studio, especially in the punk rock world. “The decision to be here kind of precedes the studio,” says Stevenson. “We (ALL and The Descendants), after being located in Los Angeles for a long time, decided it would be smart to live in a smaller city. When you get right down to it, for economic reasons, but for other reasons, too. L.A. is kind of a big mess, and we were living like sardines out there.”
They wanted to be somewhere where the rent was cheap and they could be a little more off the beaten path. They moved to Missouri for a few years and lived in the middle of nowhere. “After being in the middle of nowhere, we realized that we hadn’t really solved the problem because we were completely cut off from everything,” says Stevenson. “We then decided we would try and find a town that was maybe in the middle. Not nearly as large as L.A., but not Brookfield, Missouri.”
They settled upon Fort Collins. “We had been through on tour, and had fun here,” Stevenson says. “We knew a few people here, and it just seemed like an O.K. place to be. You know the story, the porridge is too hot, the porridge is too cold, the porridge is just right? Literally, that’s how we picked Fort Collins.”
“A lot of the local bands want to come in for a day or two and record one song, and do that every month for a year,” says Livermore. “We used to record a lot of albums, and then about four or five years ago it seemed like everyone started coming in and doing EPs.”
Livermore’s story fits perfectly into the dream that is the Blasting Room. He moved to Fort Collins specifically for the job he has now, although he didn’t quite have the job yet when he moved. “I just kind of hung out at the studio all the time. Just did whatever they wanted me to. I was a total bitch,” Livermore says. “I also did a lot of touring with these guys,” he says, pointing towards Bill.
Livermore also had a connection with Stevenson before he came to Colorado. “When I was in college, I was in a band, and we had a manager who was also the manager of the band Bill is in, All. He got those guys a record deal at Interscope. Bill and (guitar player) Stephan (Egerton) would record bands, and they decided they wanted to build a studio instead of use the money to record somewhere else,” said Livermore.
Andrew Berlin has been at the studio since 2001. “I’ve always loved recording, and when I came out here I called every studio in town,” he says. “Almost every one of them said ‘We’re too small for an intern, you might want to call the Blasting Room.’” Back then, the Blasting Room was made up of just the A room.
Berlin, who started out watching Stevenson and Livermore perform their magic in the A room, would bring in local bands in the middle of the night and apply the techniques he learned during the day while Stevenson and Livermore weren’t using the studio. “I would sit on the couch all day and watch Jason and Bill work,” he says. “The B room used to be a practice area for bands. At the point when both the bands and I got tired of going in at one in the morning, and finishing at five in the morning, I brought in my home stereo system and a couple a Dats, and started recording bands during the day.”
The studio is currently made up of three rooms: A, B, and C. Room A is the main recording room, the mother ship of epicness. It features a Solid State Logic SL6000E console with 56 inputs VCA Automation and Total Recall and the staff uses Pro Tools 10.1 to make your ears cry tears of joy. “We started out as a tape-only studio before Pro Tools existed,” says Livermore. “We got Pro Tools in 2000 or 2001. I held out for a while because tape sounds better. We use Pro Tools because that is pretty much what everyone else uses. It makes existing in the recording world easier, we can say ‘Just send me your file.’”
Studio B is, in many ways, a hand-me-down of old Studio A equipment. It features a 32 input Soundcraft 600 console and runs Pro Tools 10 HD-3 Accel. Studio B is a bit more affordable for small-time musicians than Studio A. Studio C is the ‘mixing and editing suite,’ where the guys import their studio magic into the music. To top it all off, they have a nice collection of instruments and amps. Feel like your beat up Marshall half stack isn’t going to cut it for a world-class recording? Give their Mesa/Boogie Road King amp a try instead.
Andrew Berlin records a good number of local artists in Studio B. Because it is a bit cheaper, most unsigned bands choose to record there instead of Studio A, but the process is much the same. “The way I record/mix a new or local artist changes very little compared to a well-known national artist,” Berlin says. “Time is an obvious variable, since national artists usually have a bigger budget, however the relationship and process are remarkably similar.”
Local talent may often feel intimidated by the ‘aura’ or legend of the Blasting Room, but the guys there are more down to earth than most people you will find in the music biz. They are always willing to throw in a bit of expertise when necessary. “We’ve never refused working with a band, but because new artists can be unfamiliar with recording professionally, we will sometimes need to adjust some parameters such as the amount of songs done within a given period of time,” Berlin says. “It would be a disservice to them, and their fans, to end up with a sub-standard representation of their music, and our studio is equally motivated to create something they are proud to share.”
The Blasting Room is certainly not the cheapest route when it comes to recording, but is far from unaffordable. They openly list their basic rates on the website and ensure bands that sometimes taking your time is of the essence when it comes to financing a record. “We will always work with bands to make their project possible,” says Berlin. “From experience, we are usually able to offer advice that will enable them to have their project fully financed. Because we are booked a few months in advance, this actually gives bands time to save up or raise money through projects like Kickstarter.”
No matter which studio the project is prepared in; a great result is attainable with the right guidance. According to Berlin, the rooms have different vibes. “The A room has that large room and you can get these massive tones. The B room is pretty dead and dry, and some records would prefer that. You can get a real dry, ’70s crisp drum sound in there. It’s got its own advantages in a way.”
The crew at the Blasting Room worked very hard to get to where they are, and always remember that it is the musicians that make what they do possible. They love what they do, and love being able to provide bands with something that they can display for as long as their career in music lasts. “I’m thankful and have much gratitude to the people that keep coming back to us,” says Livermore.