House that roared: Crystalphonic digitized, not downsized


Earlier this year, the unexpected closings of legendary facilities like Cello Studios in Los Angeles and The Hit Factory in New York sent shockwaves through the recording industry.

Blame it on cheaper home recording gear, or on piracy– or on terrorists if you want to be really creative. Either way, Crystalphonic Studio on Preston Avenue was in a precarious position, one of the last of a dying breed of exorbitant, no-holds-barred recording facilities. Crystalphonic opened in June 2003 to much fanfare and a stunned audience of local musicians, none of whom could believe the caliber of the place– the chairs cost $1,200 each– or the fact that such a venture was being launched so far from a major urban market.

That was precisely the point, though– it was all part of proprietor Kevin McNoldy's plan to bring top-notch recording capabilities to Anytown, U.S.A.

They'd still draw the larger acts, he reasoned, by offering a small-town reprieve from the adrenaline-soaked scenes in New York and Nashville. And it didn't hurt that the rent and operating costs in Charlottesville would be much lower, leaving room for sweet, gooey profit.

Having multi-artist manager Coran Capshaw's Red Light Management in town didn't hurt. Two years later, Crystalphonic has seen its share of big names– among them, Capshaw golden boys Blue Merle and jam rockers OAR, fresh from their Red Light baptism– but it hasn't been quite a steady hit parade.

And yet somehow, perhaps against all odds, McNoldy and company made it through the great studio massacre. Or did they?

To hear them tell it, they've more than held their own.

"We're one of the studios in the United States that's thriving while so many others are failing," says McNoldy.

Still, Crystalphonic is changing, perhaps preparing for exorbitant analog sonic luxury to go the way of the vinyl LP, and making way for a sleek, digital killing machine.

"I thought, 'I don't want to keep catering to this thing that's going to become a dinosaur,'" says McNoldy. Surprisingly, he's talking about his own studio in its former incarnation, which was bursting at the seams with high-end analog equipment. It sounded great, but was horribly inefficient.

"When things get low in the industry, that's when change can really happen, and you should invest in the things you believe in because it can only go up from there," McNoldy says.

Clearly, one of the things he believes in is technological development.

To that end, this spring Crystalphonic completely gutted its facility– around the same time as the sessions for OAR, their most famous recording client to date– in order to make way for a completely new paradigm.

The ultra high-end Solid State Logic audio mixing console, a hallmark of rock and roll and the studio's former pride and joy, has been sold and will be replaced by a Digidesign Icon, a digital equivalent that trades the electrical pathways of the SSL for the virtual knobs and faders of a computer program.

It seems like a natural progression for a studio that sold off several truckloads of top-notch synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines about a year ago in order to replace them with software packages.

The move to digital resonates well with local songwriter Lauren Hoffman, who predicts that it will increase recording opportunities for fledgling artists.

"Bands who have the same software at home can save a lot of money making records, because they can make the record at home and then take it to professionals who mix it and tweak the audio," says Hoffman. "It costs a lot of money to go in and track everything at a nice studio."

Her latest album includes some work that was done in a smaller home studio, and she says fans have been reacting to it with nary a suspicion.

That's money that might have otherwise gone into the studio's pocket, right?

Chris Kress of PMD Recording actually ran a recording business in the very same space now occupied by Crystalphonic before relocating and going digital.

"Starting in about 2000, I felt like things were going downhill commercially for professional studios," says Kress. "There's just too much opportunity to do great work at home. Platinum records were being made in people's houses. I'm glad I changed my business three years before this started to hit."

McNoldy sees it differently.

"A lot of studio owners think they're going to lose business to it, but I believe I can do a lot to help improve what people are doing," he says. "We all need each other."

Thus, Crystalphonic employees are given home recording rigs, in part to help them learn to make the transition from living room to studio as painless as possible. "I'd rather be viewed as someone who defines the future of this than as someone who adhered to the past model," McNoldy says.

Here's the curveball: his plan for the future also involves zipping clients' projects back and forth– by way of a specialized Internet framework– between the Virginia facility and a "private mix suite" he's setting up at his new home. In Florida.

Despite his new studio, though, McNoldy promises to remain as involved as ever in the affairs of Crystalphonic's Virginia division.

"I'm still a partner. I'm in exactly the same position I was in before. We might as well call it the Crystalphonic B Room," he says, "except that it's 800 miles away."

To McNoldy, that's just a huge buffer zone, a way to ensure that the burden of business administration doesn't reach him again.

For years, in addition to being the single big name associated with the studio and offering his services as a producer to recording clients, McNoldy also handled a hefty portion of the paperwork, which left him with little time for his chosen art.

"I wrote 500 songs before hitting college. I went from that– 50 songs a year, a song a week, minimum– to writing two songs in the five years since we started this venture. I found that I couldn't even listen to music anymore," he says. "It was like being in a gilded cage. We'd have an amazing record producer downstairs, and I'd think, 'I can't go downstairs and write a song in my own room?'

"I was getting very frustrated with not being able to produce," McNoldy continues. "Then I did the Chance Element project, and that really got my juices flowing again."

That's pretty high praise for a relatively low-profile act. Chance Element, a local rock project featuring brothers John and Mike McMahon, has been around for only a year, and has been playing shows for only a little over half that time.

Nevertheless, in that time they've become one of Crystalphonic's most loyal clients, and McNoldy has been deeply involved in the production of their album, slated for release in October.

John McMahon likes the new Crystalphonic.

"The technology being used here also makes Kevin available as a producer to anyone who wants him... and he's a talented guy," says McMahon. "Then again, this setup works for us because we know him so well– it might be different for a newcomer."

McNoldy hopes that won't be the case.

"We're trying to mimic me being in the studio through all the technology," he says. "In the same amount of time it would take for me to send a file upstairs to downstairs, I can send a file from here to Virginia."

So why fake it, then? Why not just actually be in the studio?

"There are direct flights from Orlando to Charlottesville," McNoldy answers. "When there's a production that I'm intimately involved with, I'll be there."

And while he may have been trying to escape the administrative side of the business, his evasive maneuvers have led him to a management position at an Orlando-based professional audio supply company called Magic Audio.

"It's like a painter being in control of his paint supply," explains McNoldy. "When you control your vital resource, you control your destiny." In other words, having one foot in the door of a sales outfit could help Crystalphonic maintain the rapid rate at which it buys and sells gear.

Unfortunately, that's one of the very behaviors that spawned rumors about the company's financial health, which McNoldy says is fine and dandy.

"The same guys who are starting rumors about me because I'm moving equipment are the guys who are sitting on the same equipment for 30 years," he says with a satisfied chuckle. "This is going to be OAR's biggest album yet, and it's done with one of the biggest producers in the industry. And you're going to tell me I'm in trouble? What have you recorded this week?"

"The biggest rumor I always had to fight in marketing, was that they're going under or going bankrupt or whatever, and that's never been the case," says Sarah Johnson, who amicably parted ways with Crystalphonic in May after spending the better part of a year working on their marketing efforts.

"I know that it was well on its way to the financial situation not even being a situation anymore," she says of the underpinnings in place when she left. "I can only assume that it kept getting better. And I hope that it did, because it needed to."

Johnson is referring to, among other things, the staggering debt that Crystalphonic accumulated in the first few years. "The marketing position probably should have come at the beginning," she continues, laughing just a little.

McNoldy speaks of it like a vanquished foe: "You can't say you're profitable when you're paying off a million dollars in debt, so we have wiped it out."

According to McNoldy, a massive restructuring of assets– including the alarming equipment sales– has left Crystalphonic 2.0 completely in the black.

Gooey profits, indeed. "Like any business, we suffered casualties and made mistakes here and there," he says. "The best way to put it is that we cut off our legs to hit weight in a wrestling tournament... but the point is that we made it."

Clearly, McNoldy has already given up on the traditional recording model, and he may soon give up on the traditional music industry model as well.

"Studio owners are going to be the future of A&R," McNoldy predicts. "What I'm looking at is finding artists and recording them and taking them from start to finish.

"If I were to start this right now," he continues, "Chance Element is the one I'd start with– they're definitely a band that I'd want to take under my wing."

Two months ago, McNoldy stated in The Hook's annual music issue that he was interested in pursuing "The Motown model in a modern form." That plan may actually be coming together.

"I've always been in love with that concept; you live on the upper floors, and you record on the lower floors," he says from Orlando.

Back in Virginia, Scott Harrison is now living upstairs in Crystalphonic's former Studio D, which has been dormant ever since house mastering engineer Temple Newbold left for Florida with McNoldy, taking most of the Studio D equipment.

Harrison and fellow newcomer Jack Gray were hired as engineers to fill in. At 23, Gray is likely one of the youngest engineers ever to command a $5 million studio.

"To be honest, it's a little frightening," Gray says, "but then again, I think that if I wasn't frightened, there'd be something wrong with me."

His mild manner soon fades, however. "With Kevin as the omnipotent advisor, and us with our feet on the ground– well, I don't want to be overconfident, but I think we'll be unstoppable," Gray says.

Local jazz king John D'earth agrees.

The Thompson/D'earth band just completed an album at Crystalphonic, working with Gray from start to finish. "He was an absolute dream to work with," says D'earth. "He always enabled us."

"In order for this to survive, you have to pass it on to good people," says marketer Johnson, and she thinks Harrison and Gray are up to the task: "They're trained by Kevin. Everything they know came straight from him."

Well, maybe not everything.

Prior to his involvement with Crystalphonic, Harrison was personally hired as an audio assistant and jack-of-all-trades by Dave Mustaine, guitarist for the heavy metal band Megadeth.

"All of those speaker cabinets on stage with him on the current tour? I customized those," says Harrison, taking a break from soldering cables for the new Crystalphonic setup.

So can he carry the weight of a $5 million studio?

"In the long run," says Johnson, "it's probably the best thing for the company to move on and progress the way it should. For his own health, it was time for him to do this.

"I guarantee that this is not a permanent break, though," she continues. "This is his baby."

That's also why McNoldy's departure in early August was done slyly and with minimum fanfare– until now, that is. "I didn't want anyone to feel like I was gone," he says.

Crystalphonic's "jack-of-all-trades," Scott Harrison.

Long-time financial backer and Crystalphonic's current CEO, Dave Spence.

"Studio owners are going to be the future of A&R," McNoldy predicts. "What I'm looking at is finding artists...and taking them from start to finish."

New Crystalphonic engineer (and former go-to-guy for Megadeth guitarist Dave Mustaine), Scott Harrison

Crystalphonic's other new engineer is 23-year-old Jack Gray.

Gray & Harrison: with McNoldy as "omnipotent advisor," Crystalphonic's "unstoppable" Dream Team