Since 2006 Catherine Vericolli has run her Fivethirteen Recording in Tempe, outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Along with long-time engineer Dominic Armstrong, she's kept the studio busy and growing in a difficult market. I was curious to find out how she started up, and what she'd learned along the way, so I dropped in to visit, see the studios, and discover more about her career.
Where did you learn recording?
I went to The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences [CRAS] in 2003 and 2004. I was one of those annoying students that everybody hated who did well. Before that, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was never in band and I didn't play instruments, but I was always a super avid listener as a kid. I got into music really young; I'd buy cassette tapes and CDs. Sometimes I miss those days, because there was that wonder. I remember when I got to CRAS, I was like, "Oh, yeah!" I remember hearing a dry vocal for the first time. "Wait, there's not reverb on vocals automatically?" I went in knowing nothing at all. I was into the music scene here; friends were musicians, but I wasn't in a band. I was so obsessed with music. I decided, "I think I want to build a studio in Phoenix." I wanted to build a place for my friends who were making records. I wanted this to be a community space. The first record we did here was a great local band called Sweetbleeders. [Bandleader] Robin Vining's now the auxiliary player in Jimmy Eat World. Mike Hissong was their engineer for years. He came and made a record here. I asked, "Do you want to make more records here?" I was 23. We were working well together and he never left. Now Mike's been on staff here since. We've had the doors open and have been an active, open recording studio for 13 years, which is hard in any market. In Phoenix, it's extra hard. We're working with a lot of young bands. As a local band, it's easy to get on a bill. All these places are saying, "We need to get music in here." There are some wonderful bands here, and have been for a long time, but what we have is a lot of bands that maybe shouldn't be getting shows that are getting shows.
Maybe a little bit premature.
They have a false sense of ability, maybe. "Oh, we played a few shows, and now we want to go make a record." They come into the studio and realize, "We've never even heard each other before!" We'll get bands who aren't necessarily ready to kick that out. It's a tough market. When I built the studio in my 20s, it was, "This is going to be awesome! It's going to be tons of fun. We're going to make records." It was very music scene and music community focused. I'd been good friends with [singer/songwriter] Lonna Kelley. I wouldn't have built a studio if it hadn't been for Lonna. I went to audio engineering school and was already working with Lonna as an engineer. At the time, there wasn't a great studio to work out of. There was a crazy, giant studio in Chandler, Arizona, that was $1,000 a day. After opening I realized, "Oh, fuck; I have to make money! I have to pay bills." This can't just be a thing that's super fun. It still is fun, but I had to find different sources of revenue. Because it's such a young city, it's the chicken and the egg. You need good bands to push other bands to be better for the scene to grow. The problem is that when there's a band in a position to do that for this community, they'll say, "I'm going to move to L.A."
It's not that far away.
I don't blame them. Since I got into this in 2005, the bands are not that much better or well-known than they were 14 years ago. The focus has shifted over the years from trying to make the scene and the community better to making us better. "How are we going to become better engineers? How are we going to grow in a community that's tough to grow in?" It's tough to be a good engineer when you don't have good ingredients.
Great music, great artists, and great bands make us look good.
They do. If you have a good band and put the right mics up, at the end of the day it's not tough. When you get musicians in here like Eric Bachmann [Tape Op #128] and Jon Rauhouse, it's not hard to make a great record.
They've been in studios before.
So many times. For engineers to grow, what we need are more experiences like that. When you find that you're spending more time editing, tuning, and comping than you are tracking the record, you're not getting much out of that. We had to make this organic transition to, "Maybe we're going to say "No" to some bands." We're starting to say, "The record you want to make is not a record that's going to be cost-effective for you to make right now." I don't feel bad about saying that. I don't want to bleed local bands dry of money when I can sit with them for half an hour and say, "These are some things you could work on." If they want help with preproduction or arrangements, we're happy to do that. Have them come back in and make a great record. Putting out records that aren't good...
It doesn't do anyone any good.
Plus, you'll have the time. With a new, young band they'll say, "We want to make a full-length record and we've got $1,500." I cannot make a good record for that amount of money. There's no way.
Unless it's bashed out fast.
Yeah, but we can't bash it out fast because we'd have to do editing. When I was younger I used to have a tough time saying, "No," so we would do it. We would work 24-hours straight, and at the end we would not be totally happy with the results. We've transitioned into not doing that anymore. "Let's do a single or a couple of good tunes." To keep the doors open in this market, I try and work with each band individually. We bring new bands in for walkthroughs. I want to meet people and see if they feel comfortable in the space. I would much rather send a band to another studio to make a record than have them be here and feel uncomfortable and unhappy. It doesn't do anybody any good.
If they have other expectations or needs...
Agreed. And we've done that. I think it's not the best way to make money, but I find that being honest and upfront with bands has kept 90 percent of our clients returning, which is pretty crazy. We're doing something right. We've had bands that have made three, four, or five records here, which is awesome. Dom and I will bring bands in and ask them, "Okay, what's your goal? Give us some examples." We talk to them about what they're trying to achieve.
It's good to have that discussion and do that properly. We all need to find a way to be invested.
You have to be. This is a people business. All of this gear is cool and shit, but at the end of the day the relationships you have with your clients are way, way more important. You're providing a service to somebody who, regardless of that talent level, is vulnerable. Someone going into a studio has to be comfortable. They're singing, and it's a vulnerable thing for them. It's art. I'm going to make a much better record with a musician who's comfortable using shit gear and shit mics than I am with a musician who is watching the clock or feels the lighting is off. That's another reason why I've always felt weird about making records on the computer. I'm not looking at my client at all. They have no idea what I'm doing!
You could be checking Facebook.
Yeah. If I hit play on a 24-track, 2-inch tape machine, they're saying, "Oh, fuck! The tape is moving!" There's this weird thing now; two vocal takes [into the computer] and you're done. "I'm going to go make a vocal take." I hate making records that way.
I like coaching singers.
I love coaching. The best part of making records is when you hit that stride with a musician in the studio where you don't really have to communicate, and you know what they need. I have this fear that we're going to lose that in this industry. We won't, but... When kids can grow up watching YouTube videos, there's a sense of wonder missing. Anything that they're looking to access, they can access immediately. There is no wait time anymore. We don't have to wait for the tape to rewind. Everybody wants things "right now."
I will tell people in sessions, "Let me set the pace. I've done this for years. Follow my lead."
Totally. I think that's a thing we end up doing organically. Every studio's going to have a different pace. Everybody works differently.
There are 24-track tape decks and consoles in both rooms here. I would think, in this climate these days, you might set up one room that's just a computer?
Oh, in this climate these days we don't need a tape machine at all! I don't want to say, "Oh, it's all about tape, and analog's better than digital." It's not about that. It's just that I miss that connection I had to the experience of making records. At this place, everything's hybrid. I don't have to turn computers on to make records in this room, which is awesome. I don't know if I would have a studio that would be any other way. But that's just me personally. A lot of bands can't make records on tape because they're not that good. You have to be good to make records on tape. I can't make those punches that I can make in Pro Tools. I can't edit the way that they need things edited. When the record-making process went in-the-box is when I stopped working as much. I started managing the studio more, and we built the B Room. I was also doing a lot of tech work and soldering. But, at the end of the day, I got into doing this because I wanted to make records, not because I wanted to build rooms. I had a client, a lead guy in a band, who changed the way I thought about making records. He inspired me in a way that pushed me into seeing, hearing, and experiencing things differently. He passed away, and that sucks. You almost don't want to make records for a while after that.
I know that exact feeling.
I know you know that feeling. I went through that. I needed to take a step back and let other people run some shit for a while. I didn't work for a year.
What are the ways you can stay busy and diversified with business here?
We do tape transfers, which I've been trying to push. There's nothing that makes me happier nowadays than getting some weird tapes in the mail and hitting play on something that nobody's heard in 30 years. Sometimes it's speed metal. We got some crazy ‘80s reggae tapes from Tuff Gong. I hit play, and I'm archiving something for somebody. That means they're excited about it. A sense of wonder happens when you hit play. I've been getting into doing tape transfers and learning about it. It's another source of revenue.
Do you do tape baking? Do you have the food dehydrator?
We do. The "industry secret." I love that kind of shit.
And you teach recording?
Yeah. I teach four days a month at The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. Actually I should say, "I taught." I recently put in my notice. I'm too busy. I taught a couple of commercial production classes. I did teach a soldering class, which I fucking loved. It's one thing I feel I know how to do well. When I teach, I'm no different. I'm just as weird and awkward, and I'm sure I cuss just as much! I did a cable wrapping class, and a tape machine remote class. I know way more than I ever wanted to know about the Otari MTR-90.
What were the main things you were able to design with the newer B Room that you regret not doing before in the A Room?
The A Room was a preexisting house, so we had to work within the walls that we had. To knock the ceiling out was way over our budget. We did the absolute best we could with what we had. But with the B Room we had unlimited space, height, and depth, until the city said, "No."
This was new construction added onto the house.
It was. We wanted a bigger, deeper room. It was an opportunity to not have as many of the same frustrations. If you're in a situation where you can go get material, you're handy, and you've got tools, it's a different monster than telling a construction company – who's never built absorption traps on the ceiling at a 38 degree angle – that that's what you want, and it needs to look good. They're saying, "What? This is insane!" It's about finding the right people. Consumers have access to such great room technology now. I was able to find the right guys to soffit mount those giant ADAM [S4X-V] monitors.
How do you utilize the two rooms? Does the B Room have an isolation booth?
It doesn't, but we've got tie lines, which are cool. I love tracking drums in there.
In the control room?
Yeah. We'll move the chairs and push the rack back a little bit. It sounds good. We can utilize that room for pretty much anything we want. The B Room started out as a mixing suite. It was exclusively that for years when we were busy. That was the first time where I was thinking, "We're growing up now, and we need to find different avenues of revenue." That was going to be a freelance rental room. No way was anybody going to come in and mix a record in the A Room, unless they knew the 700 weird, fucked up bugs in our broken Neotek console; an old Series IIIc. With rental/freelance clients, the A Room would have been tough. For the B Room, we built it super plug-and-play. "Bring your own gear? Sweet. Here's a bunch of shit you can plug into." I wired it that way. We also have headphone and tie lines that go [between the rooms]. When we're doing the Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra, there are 18 of them and we're tracking live to 2-inch tape. We'll have horns in the living room and an amp in the shower in the bathroom; there are headphone outs and an XLR input in there. We've got singers in the B Room. We've got a whole Skype system so everybody can see everybody, and we've got two headphone systems because we can't run that many boxes off one amp. We make it work. Those records are weird and cool.
I was listening to some of that. Living in this space with sessions going on that you're frequently not helming, does that ever create problems with it being your living space?
That's an awesome question. After so many years of doing it, it just is. That's the best way for me to describe it. If it's a bad band or a loud guitar – which definitely happens – there are moments of, "Oh, my god, I cannot hear this guitar riff again." But I've gotten used to it.
Do you take off and go work out of coffee shops?
I got good at tuning it out. I'm kind of a kid at heart, and I love music. If I'm taking a shower and it's like there's a drummer in the shower, it's awesome! This is a weird, awesome life. But not everybody feels that way. Partners or roommates; that can be tough.
Have you had roommates here?
Dominic lived and worked here for a while. At first it was a good idea, and then he decided to get out of here. For me, it's a lot different because this is something I've built. I don't always live here. I'm here half the year nowadays.
You've been in a relationship with mastering engineer Piper Payne for a few years now.
I've never dated somebody who was in the industry, ever. Now I date a well-known mastering engineer.
Do you ever send her work?
All the time. But then, very rarely, do I like the first master. She gets it. She's working all the time. She's probably working while she's sleeping! I don't ever want to be a mastering engineer. Here's the cool thing: The rooms here are up to par enough that she can work when she's here. We're both in the business. It's kinda weird being with somebody who's well-known in the industry. People mistake us for each other, even though she's way taller.
Sometimes I get mistaken for Piper Payne, and I'll answer mastering questions, even though I shouldn't! We have a lot of mutual friends. It's also cool because we don't live in the same city. A lot of the time we spend together is at NAMM Shows! I travel a lot, and do a lot of panels. We're taking on the industry from two different sides. For us I think it's a learning experience.
How does that fit into being a studio owner, your growth, and keeping you interested in all of this?
There's not a big engineering community here. I have a lot of wonderful friends in these great communities in Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York. I feel at home there, and can have these conversations and geek out about gear, or even talk about life. It's awesome to be part of that community. I grew up in Phoenix and opened a studio here. I figured out how to do all this on my own. When you're in a market like Phoenix, what you don't have is a shit ton of mentors. There was never a mentor opportunity for me. That's the biggest regret I have in my career. It's something I crave now, but I'm 37. I've had these conversations with some of my friends in Nashville. "Let me get some coffee and come sit in." They look at me like I'm fucking nuts!
"You already run sessions!"
But this is what I need! I've done enough to not be an assistant. Give me a studio to run and I can do that, no problem. I've been trying to travel, figure out where my heart sits, and pursue that. Now the studio kind of runs itself. It's given my staff an opportunity to take the reins. Dominic Armstrong has done a great job at that. We have some great guest engineers. We're one of those places that is super "the door is open" to guests.