KRISTINA STYKOS: A MUSICIAN CREATES HER OWN RECORDING STUDIO: PEPPERBOX STUDIO
(Art Edelstein, arts correspondent)
Kristina stykos understands the need for a musician making a recording to feel comfortable in his or her surroundings. There are pressures to get the proper sound from instruments, to feel relaxed in the recording studio, and to avoid the subliminal ticking of the expense clock, for indeed, in the recording studio, time is money.
Stykos, who lives and works out of her home in Chelsea, works to make the recording experience a positive one as a producer and recording engineer. She learned about the recording needs of musicians personally.
As a result of going through the recording process as a performer, needing to relax and keep costs down, stykos eventually decided to start her own studio and production business. The result is Pepperbox Studio, which began in 2005.
“I have a studio so I can record myself, that’s how it evolved,” says Stykos. “I wanted to work without any time pressure, and develop my producing techniques.”
As a result, Stykos has transformed the third floor of her home, which she shares with husband Michael Millard, a guitar builder and owner of Froggy Bottom Guitars, into a recording studio. What makes this recording facility unique, perhaps the only one of its kind, is that the house is off the grid, powered by solar, wind and generators.
Currently Stykos averages a handful of albums a year but also records smaller projects such as single songs, demo albums and promotional work.
Costs vary depending on the amount of recording time, whether Stykos also does studio musician work, and how much artwork and the number of CDs are ordered. Costs can vary widely from as little as $1,000 to as much as $15,000.
The recording industry has changed mightily since the 1960s when large rooms and banks of tape machines and mixing panels were required. Back then, the recording engineer worked in tandem with the producer and the performer.
If a musician wanted to record they most often had to get a contract from a record label. There were few independent records and they were pressed on vinyl and then cassette tape.
That has all changed since the advent of digital recording. Today, the independent recording studio can be relatively small, perhaps the size of a living room or basement. The recording engineer can also produce the recording, from beginning to end. Many albums now released have no record label backing and the cost is borne by the performer.
Stykos, one of very few women recording engineers/producers, said her basic setup includes a digital work station (DAW), which is the recording box, good microphones and a computer with Pro Tools digital recording software.
Today’s engineer has to learn software, says Stykos, who took online courses at Berklee College of Music in Boston and earned a certificate of studio production. Her course work included Pro Tools software, critical listening, and mixing.
Stykos’s reputation is growing. She says a recording engineer-producer-musician has advantages.
“You can hear things,” With a sensitive ear she can hear “if they are on pitch when singing or tuning up. I can hear harmonies, rhythm.” She admits to being “a real taskmaster at getting people to play consistently and to get people to do another take when needed.”
Primarily, Stykos notes, “the more important thing is that I’m sensitive to people’s feelings, and know what it’s like to be in a self-critical situation under the time clock.”
Working as a mentor, Stykos says, “people who come to me are often struggling to find their own voice and some have not been in a studio before. The studio experience will help them understand their own self-expression.”
“It’s a very relaxed atmosphere,” she adds.
And, indeed, there is a relaxed atmosphere here as visitors look out upon the hills around Chelsea, Perhaps the only distraction from the view is the nearby wind turbine whose whirring sound can distract from the stillness.
Inside the studio the musician find comfortable chairs, skylight windows overlooking pasture and, should the mood be right, a home cooked meal from Stykos’ kitchen. “It’s kind of therapy and recording for the less experienced,” she explained.
In a room of approximately 16 feet square, Stykos sets up microphones and moves musicians into place. She knows whih of several microphones will work for specific instruments or vocals. She specializes in getting the sound just right for acoustic guitars.
“The way I record,” she explained, “tends to favor the natural acoustic sounds. I don’t embellish with a lot of bells and whistles. “
Stykos doesn’t worry about being one of few women in a generally male domain.
“I think the people who come to me have a sense they will be comfortable with me. For many they want to feel comfortable and welcomed. People feel vulnerable when they walk in here, I can help them get the best performance.”
The Pepperbox Studio list of clients is growing. Robert Resnik, the folk musician and VPR folk music programmer, has recently completed a solo album. Bluegrass guitarist Doug Perkins, along with mandolinist Jamie Masefield and bassist Tyler Bolles have a project in the works and others are in the discussion phase.
All in all says Stykos, “this is fulfilling work.” For a musician who doesn’t enjoy solo performance, she said operating a recording studio has been a dream come true.
“I discovered that I’m really good at it, good with people, a good editor and I’m musical.”