Oakland Local and Oaktown Indie Mayhem present The Studio Series. One Oakland band, recorded in a local studio, highlighting the thriving local music community in our city. 

Most of the time when you hear the word “entrepreneurship” in the Bay Area, it’s often followed by “app” or “tech” or “startup.” But when you talk with the owners of local recording studio owners, it’s clear that their career paths follow a very similar route: passion, suppression of risk aversion, and trial and error learning. And like other entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, their field was changed with the advent of personal computers.

“Computers are so powerful. You don’t really need a huge expensive console and tape machine and all that outboard gear. You can get a really good product with a powerful computer and software and some key pieces of nice gear,” said Aaron Hellam, owner and engineer at Hellam Sound in Jack London Square.

“I guess it’s kind of like a tech startup, except no one’s throwing money at things,” he said.

While there are schools that teach sound engineering, including Ex’pression College in Emeryville where Hellam studied, many engineers start recording on their own at a young age. For Hellam, he started playing in bands when he was 12 and recorded with a good friend, Zach Ohren, with whom he eventually started a recording business, Castle Ultimate Productions. They ultimately parted ways to maximize their personal studio times.

Hellam says his entrance into the field boils down to love of music, which is arguably why almost all engineers also have bands of their own.

“I don’t think it’s coincidence at all that everyone started out as a musician and then got into recording,” he said. “They wanted to record their own band and make themselves sound good,” said Hellam. “I’m sure all these other engineers don’t want to get into [recording] because they like microphones.”

And while engineers can make it seem easy to navigate the knobs of a mixing board, there’s a lot of moving parts at every moment of setup and recording. “It’s hard. Recording is really difficult, you have to really enjoy it,” said Hellam.

The same is true of the bands recording. The recording process can bring a band’s struggles to the forefront, after recording for hours on end, playing the same riffs over and over, and sometimes forgetting to take breaks for caffeine and food.

It’s why engineers are as important for their recording skills as their people skills.

“For us, we want an engineer that we can vibe with both in studio and out,” said Ash Maynor of Ghost & The City. “The type of engineer that knows when to pull you back from the edge, and at the same time keep pushing you closer.”

In the case of Hellam recording Ghost & The City, that vibe comes naturally, since he used to play in the band.

For the Studio Series, Ghost & The City chose to record their song titled “Steady Tripping.”

“As with most GATC tunes, it’s written from my personal experiences,” said Maynor, “but it’s easily relatable to other members. Lyrically it questions my creative pursuits and my perception of industry mobility. At times it just feels like I’m ‘steady tripping’: haven’t hit the ground yet, but the creative process is always an uphill battle. ‘Steady Tripping’ is a way to express these insecurities and move forward.”

Hellam generally finds musicians through word of mouth, but he has advertised in the past.

“I ran one Craigslist ad a long time ago and it actually did work out. I totally did it thinking like, this is just gonna get some random weirdo, like some dad who just started playing guitar wanting to record. Like that’s not what I want to do. I want to record bands. But it actually yielded a pretty cool band.”

Hellam notes that passion brought him into the industry, and the instant gratification of hearing a great take of a band and getting a recording to sound just right keeps him going. There are definitely tedious aspects of the job, he said, such as hours spent editing on a computer, clicking away at vocal or drum edits.

“I could be in an office somewhere, having a job that I hate,” he said, whereas with recording “it still feels special after the 13 years.”

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