Visions are emerging at Audio for the Arts, a recording studio in the funky, colorful building at 7 S. Blair St. These aren't psychedelic experiences, but they can alter a musician's reality profoundly. They're creative visions developed with the help of studio co-founders Buzz Kemper and Steve Gotcher and sound engineer Mike Zirkel.
Kemper and Gotcher started Audio for the Arts in 1996, in a tiny room on the Capitol Square. The ceilings were so low that fiddle players had to hunch down to play. Thankfully, everyone can stand tall in the space the studio has occupied for the past 15 years. On a given day, you might find the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Piper Road Spring Band or a voiceover artist recording their work here. The space is also known for the Surrounded by Reality concert series, in which jazz ensembles from around the world record and perform in front of a live audience. Tres Hongos and Chikamorachi visited in 2012.
Surrounded by Reality has been scaled back for the time being so Audio for the Arts can keep up with its busy recording schedule. But the studio will still host concerts sporadically, and Gotcher hopes to release about 30 multitrack recordings from past gigs on a podcast, compilation CD or both. The next performance is a Sept. 6 event with the Color Field Ensemble, a chamber group that incorporates voice, piano, saxophone and electronics. They'll perform a selection of contemporary classical works.
Classical music holds a special place in Gotcher and Kemper's memories. Both men got their start recording classical material, while Zirkel, who worked at Smart Studios for many years, has more of a rock background. But by now, all three of them can handle almost any type of ensemble that walks through the door.
"I had a Cambodian classical ensemble with stringed instruments I'd never seen before," Gotcher says. "Nobody in the band spoke English except one person who translated for me, so I got the gist of who played rhythm and who played lead. They enjoyed the recording, and I like that challenge."
"When people come here and ask, 'Can you do this?' generally, we've done it at least once," he says, noting that Audio for the Arts has recorded everything from "dry ice and blowtorches" to school ensembles. After all, a diversity of musical styles keeps things interesting.
Meanwhile, the recording equipment, which ranges from preamplifiers to high-end microphones, is a big draw for clients.
"We have all the geeky stuff, plus a grand piano, which most people would not have access to in their homes," Kemper says.
But developing personal relationships with the musicians is just as important as having topnotch tools. It's essential for drawing out artists' very best work, according to Kemper.
"All three of us are good at figuring out what a client's level 10 is," he says. "Once you realize what their best performance is, then you can help them get to that without having to worry about the dynamics of a band."
There also needs to be a high level of openness and trust in the room, according to Gotcher.
"I'm always aware of the fact that I need to gain this person's trust, and find their sweet spot, but also offer perspective," he says.
Coming from a radio background, Gotcher is all too familiar with the self-scrutiny of recording.
"When you listen to a recording, it's just like getting up in the morning and standing, completely naked, in front of a full-length mirror and carefully examining your body from head to toe," he says with a laugh. "You'll see everything you hate, and what you love, but you'll also hear what's in your head."
Learning to separate what's on a recording from what's in one's mind can be a huge challenge, but it's something Audio for the Arts can help with, he says. Plus, musicians can focus on what they do best when they let an expert handle the technical details of the recording process. That's where Zirkel comes in.
"My mission is to show them how an experienced, third-person perspective can be really valuable," Zirkel says. "We've all been doing [audio work] for a really long time, but if you're new to it, there are just so many places where you can make mistakes."
This honest perspective has earned the studio many admirers and a packed calendar.
"We've had really interesting, cool clients, and many of them end up becoming our friends," Kemper says. "You won't see any of us at the Lexus dealership tomorrow, but other than that, it's pretty ideal."