Ken Harrison 1:30 p.m., Oct. 22
Night Sky Sound: If you look up, you might see a shooting star
“I have small pieces of some of the most famous recording studios in New York in here.” Steve Donato is on the phone, talking about his recording studio in Fallbrook: Night Sky Sound.
The gear came to Donato as fabled New York recording studios shuttered their operations one by one. He was in a position to buy up choice pieces of equipment for his own recording complex, which at the time was in Manhattan.
“A lot of stuff in here came from the Power Station (Kinks, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen,) Skyline Studios (Eric Clapton, Madonna, David Bowie,) and the Hit Factory (John Lennon, Blue Oyster Cult, and Michael Jackson.)
“I have a lot of historical pieces from those places. Great mics, great outboard processors. I’m sure some great sessions were recorded using them.”
By trade Steve Donato is a keyboardist/composer and a record producer. His credits include Tori Amos, Brian Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama, the Cover Girls, and more.
“I also did a lot of music for film and TV. I’ve licensed music to Waking Up in Reno and The Sopranos. Showtime and Hallmark Entertainment were among my biggest clients.” But that was all before 9/11.
“After, the music industry in New York shut down overnight. I mean literally overnight. They just disappeared. Telephones were disconnected. 9/11 was a horrific event, and film, TV, and record production businesses were destroyed.”
He’d been working with Linda Ellerbee, host of the Nickelodeon network’s Nick News, an account that also dried up in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. To make ends meet, Donato started an online retail business.
“By 2004, the retail business was going great, but I had this recording studio that was gathering dust.”
Many of his friends and industry contacts had since relocated to the West Coast. That year, he elected to join them. “I’m out here full time now,” he says, “trying to get established.”
On top of 9/11, file sharing platforms like Napster killed off much of what remained of the recording industry. And then, there was the whole DIY movement at label, distribution, and recording levels.
“Music production is moving to home studios. Hip hop is being made on laptops.” He says the final mix may end up in a conventional studio for mixdown, but original tracks are being laid down using Pro Tools and Apple's Logic.
“When the world famous Hit Factory shut down in 2005, I knew right then that the [recording] industry was doomed.” And he says the record business itself is not what it used to be. He’s right. Vinyl is a collector item, record stores are long gone, and CD sales have tanked in favor of downloads. Major labels continue to soldier on in a field of diminishing returns where piracy is almost perceived as a given right by Internet users.
“No one,” says Brad Lee, owner of San Diego based Loud and Clear Records, “wants to release records any more.”
The history of mom-and-pop-shop recording studios and the independent record label goes back generations in American and British pop culture. If you define a major label as one that owns its own distribution, then Sun Records in Memphis, where Elvis was first recorded was an indie label. Even Apple Records, owned by the Beatles, was at first an independent operation.
Punks were especially devoted to the whole DIY notion when it came to recording and sales and promotion. Recall Paul Collins and the Nerves in mid-‘70s San Francisco or Hugh Cornwell and The Stranglers in the U.K. booking shows, papering their respective towns with gig flyers they’d designed, fronting the cost their own pressings (or cassette tapes,) then peddling merch at their venues for gas and food money. Sound familiar?
The advent of custom software and cheap high speed processors turned the whole job of making a home recording into a much more user-friendly venture. Now, a DIY musician can be in business for as little as $1,500 dollars, or the price of a single high-quality microphone at a brick-and-mortar recording studio.
Pro Tools, possibly the most widely used recording platform at both pro and amateur levels was created by UC Berkeley grads Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks in 1984. It was first marketed as Sound Designer. The next evolution was Sound Tools in 1989. The initial version of Pro Tools retailed for thousands and was launched in 1991.
The Beach Boys are said to have been first to record an entire album using that technology in 1992. Now, tape recorders are considered boat anchors by most and computers have become the recording industry standard.
“Back when it was all analog,” Joe Walsh told the Reader in January, “we used to go in the studio, and studios had knobs. We used to turn knobs and say, let’s see what this does. Now, we have a mouse. We [the members of the Eagles] spend hours yelling at our computers.”
But there are analog holdouts, and Steve Donato is among them. “I’ve been telling people analog is the way for 20 years. I’ve always said records sound better than CDs.”
Night Sky Sound runs on classy relics including a British Allen and Heath SIGMA console, Studer A827 24 track recorders, and Dynaudio acoustics for which Mix Magazine gave the studio high marks. Then, there is the outer space aspect: “I had a planetarium built into the studio ceiling,” Donato says, "and it is a depiction of the summer sky with each star being magnitude-correct." It literally feels as if one is sitting under a night sky while recording. “It’s all done with fiber optics.” But in the final analysis, can Donato’s high-end vision survive an era of home recording done on the cheap?
“I finished construction in Fallbrook almost to the day that the stock market took a real huge plunge.” But he says even with the market collapse, the West Coast is where the music industry action is.
“I’m hoping a little perseverance will pay off and the business will re-energize.” As far as local talent goes, there is much of it and Donato likes what he sees. “There’s a lot of great rock, punk, reggae, and fusion bands here in San Diego. There’s a lot of bands here that aren’t the typical surfer-punk clones. It’s all here. It’s eclectic, and it’s a great scene.”