If you build it, they will come

As a recording engineer in Charlottesville with clients like Earth to Andy and Seven Mary Three, Kevin McNoldy had a big problem. “I’d be with a band, they’d get a recording contract, then they’d leave to go to L.A. to record because no studio in Virginia can compete with studios in L.A. or Nashville.”  

McNoldy, too, had gone to both Los Angeles and Nashville to do studio work. “People live there for the industry, but they hate being there,” he says. The buzz on Charlottesville was, “Man, if I could live there and do this work, I would.”

That became McNoldy’s holy grail, and it led to a high-tech, multi-million dollar recording studio, Crystalphonic, now under construction in the old Monticello Dairy.  

It turns out that the dairy, with its three-foot thick floors, isn’t a bad spot for a recording studio. McNoldy had looked at a number of locations before taking over previous tenant PMD Recording’s lease at the dairy, and then ripping the place apart.

With partners Amy and David Spence, McNoldy initially envisioned a midrange studio before deciding to compete with the best. And to compete with the best, they turned to AAA Design in England. “The European group was so much more open to doing radical stuff, and open to using brick, which is a Virginia staple,” says McNoldy.

The brick walls inside the dairy are now painted purple, and they float on a special cork-based material so that no vibration— even from the ubiquitous air conditioning— can affect recording quality. Standing outside the main control room, the “A” room, McNoldy mentions that it’s airtight and remarks, “Note to self: never fill room with water when in room.”

The studio is still in the throes of construction the day The Hook drops by, but despite concrete dust and wires everywhere, it’s obvious the facility is going to be gorgeous.  

Everything in the studio works as a recording element, says McNoldy. For example, the reception area’s high ceilings work as a natural reverb. The tracking room where musicians actually play sports 30-foot ceilings, a balcony, and an acoustical column. “There’s nothing happening in this room that will affect the sound,” McNoldy points out. And the acoustical advantage of the hickory hardwood floor? Admits McNoldy, “It looks nice.”

But looking nice is part of the job of a recording studio that hopes to draw the music industry’s biggest names. Besides four recording rooms that can handle surround sound, postproduction, and mastering (the only mastering room in Virginia, says McNoldy), Crystalphonic’s 5500 square feet offer a couple of lounges and a full kitchen. And a cottage is available for out-of-town clients.

 McNoldy won’t reveal who his clients are but assures us they’re names we’ve heard of. He does say that the first to record in the studio will be Karmen, and that the studio will be ready to start taking bookings in June or July.

So can a studio that’s “comparable to the biggest and best studios” survive in Charlottesville? “If I just recorded clients I already have,” answers McNoldy, “we’d break even.” He says that when Earth to Andy went to L.A. to record, it cost $350,000. “We’re looking for acts in the $150,000 range,” explains McNoldy. “We can turn out a lot of stuff at that level.”

That’s not to exclude the $2000 to $3000 gig to record a local band. It’s just that they won’t get the primo “A” room.  “I want recording labels,” says McNoldy, “but I want to develop Virginia bands. I’m always willing to make sure people in Virginia can afford to record here.”

Charlottesville already has one recording studio, Virginia Arts, where, in fact, McNoldy has worked. Owner Paul Brier has run the business for 16 years and doesn’t seem concerned about a new powerhouse recording studio in town. “We’re booked from 10:30am to 10pm six days a week and Sunday afternoons as well,” says Brier. He thinks Crystalphonics will have more of an impact on Dave Lowery’s Sound of Music in Richmond, which also is favored by alternative rock musicians.

McNoldy, who plans to do marketing in industry magazines, believes Charlottesville will be a huge draw. “If everyone thinks this is the best place to live, why not have a recording studio?” he asks. And if he’s right, that means the Dave Matthews Band won’t be the only opportunity for rock star sightings in town.


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