Walking into Eric Lichter's Dirt Floor Studio in Chester, Connecticut, is what I imagine it must have been like to walk into The Band's Big Pink or Shangri La recording spaces in the '60s and '70s. His vision for the space is immediately clear: a home for creation — not a sterile facility. After years of traveling the country as a singer-songwriter, Eric opened Dirt Floor in 2007 to help other artists avoid the same mediocre recording experiences he had gone through. His work as a producer and engineer has gained Dirt Floor a reputation for being one of the best studios in the Northeast for roots-based music.
How did Dirt Floor come about?
By accident. I was a singer-songwriter in New York City, struggling while recording in various studios that weren't quite giving me what I wanted. It was very uptight and very intimidating to be in those spaces. There was never a recording experience that I felt good about, and I never got anything musically that I felt represented me. So, in 2003, I amassed some equipment, like a [Tascam] DA-38 machine and a little Mackie [mixer] board. I just wanted to record some of my own stuff. I borrowed a friend's drum set, I found a cheap organ, and put it all in my apartment. I started to learn how to play them by listening to '70s-era singer- songwriter, folk-rock albums.
I know you studied music, but you trust your ears and the feel...
More than I do the mathematics of it. I didn't study music enough for it to make a difference. When I turn a knob on the mixing board, or on the preamp, I feel it more than I can see it. I know what it does to me inside. It's like when you're tuning a guitar with harmonics. When they're perfectly in tune, you get that feeling of ahhh.
How many Dirt Floor locations have there been?
This would be the fourth spot within a two-mile radius. I'm still trying to find the spot that will be home for the rest of Dirt Floor's existence, which I hope is a long time.
It's interesting that all four locations have revolved around the town of Chester. Why here as opposed to Boston or New York, which are both two hours away?
I feel like I'd get swallowed up in any of those towns. There are so many studios; by having some distance from those places, I can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Chester is a very artistic place. I get a lot of artists from Boston, New York City, and Providence [Rhode Island] who want to get out of the city and come here.
Is there a way to sum up what you call "the Dirt Floor sound," other than just hearing it? Can you describe it?
It's honest. I don't want to leave a mistake in just because it's a mistake, but I like the imperfections. I remember those records as a kid, like [Neil Young's] Harvest, where there were these moments of imperfection — a reversed, screwed-up drumbeat or a really bad note. When you listen to those songs, you wait for those parts — those little stops along the way. I really wanted to keep that tradition. I realized that using tape and using old instruments are ways of getting that sound. Also, I like helping artists to be themselves. I want them to be completely comfortable with the imperfections, without wanting to correct everything and polish themselves until they're boring.
Do you have a gut-meter for when an imperfection is going to add character versus when you need to do another take?
Yeah, I wince! A bad note is a bad note. A lot of times it has to get fixed. But there are other elements, like the way something is picked — maybe picked a little too hard — or if the voice breaks. To me, that's emotion. A lot of times I'll argue with the artist, and I'll say, "Listen, sit with it overnight. If you don't like it tomorrow we'll fix it." Very seldom do I have to go in and fix it. I'm not the first person to do this — it's been going on for decades. I just want the artists to be entirely themselves. I feel that if you let people see and hear who you really are, it does something to them. The music isn't perfect, but it is perfect because it comes from a real place.
How do you approach a session?
Before a client comes in I'll schedule a meeting. We'll get coffee before we book a session. When an artist or band comes in I don't want to feel awkward, and I don't want them to feel awkward. This way we're buddies by the time...