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Third Ear Recording Studio does not look like a business in its dying days. The Minneapolis studio, housed in a dilapidated warehouse just north of University Avenue, is cluttered with instruments, recording equipment, and other musical detritus.
In the control room, for instance, several burlap potato sacks hang from the ceiling. They were installed as a sonic experiment some years ago and became permanent fixtures due to inertia. "A lot of what you see in here we did for little or no money," says Tom Herbers, who has owned and operated Third Ear for roughly 15 years. "It was done as an experiment and I just never changed it."
Then there's the massive hunk of wood that looks like a miniature city skyline propped against a wall in the main recording space. Designed to diffuse sound, it used to hang on the wall in Paisley Park. But the fixture fell victim to a redesign at Prince's fabled studio and was marked for the trash heap. "A friend of mine was working out there, pulled them out of the dumpster, and here they sit," says Herbers.
This eclectic collection won't be around for much longer, however. Third Ear, along with the building's other remaining tenants, must vacate the premises by the end of the month. The building was sold to a development company in June and is slated for demolition.
When the last amp is carried out of the building, it will mark the demise of one of the Twin Cities' most fertile recording spaces. Third Ear's main niche over the years has been as one of the busiest and most beloved recording spaces for local musicians. Seemingly every third album produced in the Twin Cities during the last decade bears Herbers's name, either as producer, mixer, or guest musician. Fog, Charlie Parr, Low, the Hang Ups, Mark Mallman, and Slim Dunlap are just a few of the renowned local acts that have laid down tracks at Third Ear.
In the process, Herbers developed a reputation as an unpretentious, old-school engineer with a keen ear and some of the finest gear in town. "He's got a pretty unique, organic sense of sound and equipment that in this day and age seems to be getting more and more rare," says local producer Jacques Wait, who's worked with Dillinger Four and Luke's Angels at the studio. "I view it as a real treasure that people still recognize the attraction in simple audio purity."
Herbers has a laconic demeanor, an attribute that can be useful amid the turbulence that often accompanies recording sessions. "If you're a socially difficult band, Tom Herbers is your man," says Alan Sparhawk, vocalist and guitarist for Low, which has recorded at Third Ear on several occasions over the years. "Tom luckily is unaffected by whatever psychosis is going on in the room at the time."
Herbers's efforts to locate an affordable new home for Third Ear have so far been unsuccessful. With musicians increasingly using home studios, and abandoned warehouses rapidly being transformed into condos, the economics of the recording business are grim. "I looked at a lot of spots, but I think I just need more time and a little break to make the right choice," says Herbers. "Things have changed with the music business and the economics of real estate." For now, he'll load most of the equipment into storage.
The development plans for the land are something of a mystery. The new owner is an entity called Us Dev-1 LLC. Since the June sale, tenants have been mailing rent checks to a San Francisco-based law firm. Pete Bianco, a local representative of the new ownership group, says that he is prohibited from speaking about the project because of a confidentiality agreement.
Herbers and others suspect that the University of Minnesota is somehow involved. He notes that the U of M is working on other projects all around the area. "They just built this new U of M parking lot less than two weeks ago that's 10 feet from our building," he says. "The U of M is just surrounding the building. To think that somebody bought this building and it's going to have nothing to do with the U is kind of absurd." The U of M denies that it's involved in the development.
The distinction is important because if the tenants are indeed being displaced by a government entity, they would be eligible for relocation assistance. Herbers has hired an attorney to research this possibility. "We're still fumbling in the dark," says the lawyer, Jon Morphew. "This is a really weird project."
Herbers consulted with a moving company about transplanting his gear to a storage space. But the quote price—roughly $25,000 to move everything—was well out of his budget. Instead he's relying primarily on the kindness of friends and his own labor.
A few items will require the delicate touch of professionals, however. One example is the studio's "EMT 140 stereo vacuum tube plate reverb"—a giant metal plate in a wood frame that weighs hundreds of pounds and won't fit into the building's elevator.
But even as Herbers gets serious about emptying out the studio, musicians continue to book sessions. Electronica artist Dosh was in on Friday, while Luke's Angels recorded some tracks on Sunday. "Some people think it's crazy that the studio's still running," says Herbers. "But at the same time, I need money."