Ed Ackerson on Flowers Studio: We let stuff come to us
Photo by Dave Hoenack
There might be as many recording studios as there are venues in the Twin Cities -- from the world famous to basement operations. In our new series, Behind the Boards, Gimme Noise will introduce you to some of the extraordinary talent that helps create the sounds that make our Cities famous.
Flowers Studio founder Ed Ackerson has a tough schedule to crack. His own band, BNLX, has been supporting their long-overdue debut LP and Ackerson recently produced a Replacements reunion EP, a benefit for Slim Dunlap. Past clients include Motion City Soundtrack, Soul Asylum, the Old 97's Rhett Miller, Clay Aiken, the Wallflowers, Pete Yorn, Juliana Hatfield, Free Energy, Brian Setzer, Joseph Arthur, and the Jayhawks.
Gimme Noise was lucky to catch Ackerson and his legendary Boston Terrier, Wiggy, sitting still for a few minutes between projects inside the anonymous south Minneapolis building where his studio is hidden.
Gimme Noise: What's keeping you busy right now?
Ed Ackerson: I'm mixing two records and in the middle of this big composition project. We have a band coming from Connecticut all next week. Every minute this month has been booked. I don't usually talk about a project until its done and in the can, unless the band is specifically publicizing it. I let them do the PR.
We maintain a low profile here. We don't advertise. We don't do a lot of social media and we don't go out and find bands. We let stuff come to us.
GN: So how do people find you?
We've done a lot of records. People see the credits and people know my reputation -- I have been making records for a long time. It's a word of mouth, osmosis process and I really like that.
GN: Brandon Allday [Big Quarters] says his business card is his latest CD.
Yeah, ultimately the proof is in the pudding. We worked on stuff that gets on the radio, stuff that people talk about and write about. So we stay pretty busy. There's a big network of people in and out of town and labels who like to bring stuff our way.
We work on different types of music so there's a wide range of connections. I try to cultivate that vibe because I like the challenge of figuring out how to translate different kinds of music.
Maybe there's something very folky and naturalistic, and the next week something very technological that uses Pro Tools and synth and drum machines. It keeps you alive to put yourself into the thinking of all these different approaches.
Ultimately production is translation. Somebody comes in with a melody or an idea, and the job of the producer is to represent that on a recording that captures the intended spirit of the artist. You have to talk to them to get into their head space and figure out what they're trying to do and how we can use the technical tools to turn that into something that can be put on a CD so people can get it.
GN: How long is that process?
I try to listen to as much as possible, demos and previous releases. I try to see bands live, a bunch of times if possible. Artists will often talk about what they want to do but sometimes you have to take into consideration what they're actually doing.
I try to do a lot of research and add a certain amount of psychology, to see what they're trying to get out. There's a lot of talking, a lot of back and forth. Sometimes the goals are very modest: Represent what we do. And if you do that it's pretty straightforward as far as the conceptual process, and your challenge is to figure out to get sounds onto tape. Other times you'll have something that's very conceptually open-ended and you'll have people who are trying to pull something out of the sky, especially things that are more psychedelic-oriented or abstract. Translating those sort of ideas into something that can be listened to in the two channels on your stereo is a really fun game.
GN: One project you recently finished was a second recording of the Replacements. Do you often get to work with artists whose music you've especially enjoyed?
That kind of thing happens all the time. I don't ever take a project if I don't believe in it. I try to play a very clean game that way. Any genre any style, if I believe in the people it's always exciting to help them get their idea onto a recording.
The Replacements stuff is great. I saw them a lot as a kid and they helped formed my idea of what rock and roll is about. They were making records at that time on a really high level, not just some local band but as a great band. It was cool to record them on sessions here because that spirit is still there and I can hear the energy. Those guys are still capable of delivering on that level. The stuff we did on the Slim [Dunlap] benefit turned out great, people are going to flip when they hear it.
You know my wife Ashley and I never went on a date, we just wound up dating somehow. That's how most of my relationships with artists are. There's no formal process of invitation, it just works out. 'We should be working together.' It's one of those more osmotic processes.
GN: What's the history of the building?
The building was a flower shop and I was in here when I was about nine or ten. We bought flowers for my aunt. I remember it clearly. Later I knew some dudes who lived upstairs, when I was around eighteen. We used to hang out there and party. Then it was bought by a music shop to use as warehouse space, and they did PA rentals and repairs out of here. I came here a bunch of time to rent equipment for shows and stuff.
The building was always on my radar and I had been in here a bunch of times before it was up for sale again. It was on the market for a year and a half, and I'd drive by it every day. Finally I decided to look into it.
Ed Ackerson's band, BNLX
Photo by Emily Utne
GN: How did you turn a flower shop into a recording studio?
We worked with Dave Ahl, who is an acoustic contractor. I really wanted a high ceiling, after talking to mentors like my friend Paul Kolderie, who lives in Boston and works at Apache Studio, and Glyn Johns. Their advice was to create a high ceiling and get a lot of light, to make a place with some expanse to it. So we knocked out the second floor in the back half of the building to get the twenty-foot ceiling and have a real drum room.
The studio is deliberately designed so we can track live music. I really like setting up everybody in a room and having them play together, in the old school way of collaborative live music tracking, although many projects we do are isolated and multi-tracked in the modern way.
I wanted a room that was large enough and had the sight lines so we could set up a band like we did with the Replacements or in the Jayhawks' sessions. You can't beat the energy of setting up a bunch of people in a big studio, putting mikes on it and letting them go and that was on one of the main motivations between the design of the space.
I asked Glyn Johns what to do when I knock out the second floor and I have the high ceiling, because I'm not going to have the budget I need. He told me this story of a doing a remote recording for the rolling stones in this warehouse. The ceiling was too reflective so they went to a military surplus place and bought a bunch of parachutes and hung them from the ceiling filled with fiberglass insulation. So we bought some fabric and insulation and we love the sound. I swear it's the best sounding acoustic cloud I've ever heard.
That's one of those things you get with access to these old wizard dudes who have the tricks. That was our good fortune. The control room is the Fort Apache control room where they mixed the first two Pixies albums in there, and Radiohead and Dinosaur Jr. and records that were iconic to me when I was a kid. I did a bunch of work there and loved that room, so I asked if they still had the blueprints. I was able to take those to Dave Ahl and shoehorn their control room into our building.
If you don't have an accurate sounding control room you do mixes and then you put them in your car and it sounds all weird, or give them to your friends, and they say it's got to much bass or its too bright. Having a control room with known sonic characteristics let us start running immediately with good results.
GN: Have you become one of those old wizards? Is anyone asking for your help to recreate Flowers?
There's not that many large-scale pro studios being made anymore. There was a time when major labels wer supporting projects with high budgets, but you don't see $100,000 albums anymore. Most of what we do now is for indie labels and is self-financed.
GN: Are professional recording studios endangered?
Well, we can do things here you can't do in a basement. We can set up eight people playing rock and roll 24 hours a day and it sounds awesome. There's a lot of gear here, and a lot of expertise.
Some pressures exist. The old model is not there anymore. People sell a quarter as many records as they used to. You can't spend a ton of money on a record anymore because you're not going to make it back.
Combine that with forces in real estate markets where a lot of big old warehouse spaces where studios used to be are being turned into condos. In New York, LA, and London, old studio spaces are going away because you cant have a 5,000 square foot place in Midtown anymore. Having a studio that can charge $2,000 a day seems like a lot of money but not when you can turn it into five condos that can sell for millions apiece.
A terrible example is Olympic Studios in London, where many of my favorite '60s and '70s albums were done -- Who's Next?, the Small Faces records, Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed and that whole arc of Stones albums. They kind of invented modern production there, along with Abbey Road and a few studios in the States. At one time they were even talking about Abbey Road being sold because the property is worth a fortune.
Recording is a funny thing because there are genius DIY people without any background doing awesome stuff. When I was in high school I got my first four-track recorder and that changed my life in a means of production, socialistic way. I had been a passive consumer of music and all of a sudden I had the ability to generate product. It's democratizing to be able to create your own content.
I come from punk rock and I take the attitude that everyone should take a swing at it. Sometimes the best stuff comes when you don't expect it. That said, there's value to having 25 years experience and doing a ton of work. You get good at it. You have worked with so many people you know how to steer the ship, and how to work with people to understand their goals. You have a vocabulary that's developed from translating so many different things, and your equipped to help people.
We do a lot of experimenting here but there's not a lot of wheel spinning. The thing I'm interested in is what's on the artist's mind, and how to get it on tape. I hate technical stuff that becomes a hurdle, it's tedium and all footnote stuff. The important thing is the artist trying to get imagination into reality. I'm interested in that, not in the transducer.
Somebody has an orchestra in their head and they're standing there with a Telecaster. How do we get that orchestra out?
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