Arts & Literature

Fade to Gold

Zing, a small studio in Westfield, makes big records.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014
James Heflin Photo

Turn down a nondescript, half-hidden street off Route 20 in Westfield, head through a landscape of drab light industry to a worn-out parking lot near the end of the street, and you’ll find something suprising. In an unmarked spot in a low building, you’ll find Zing Studios. It doesn’t look like much of anything could be happening here except the buzzing of insects and the cracking of concrete in the sun.

Head inside from a bright day, and the atmosphere changes. It’s dark, cool and a touch crowded. There’s the usual stuff of a working recording studio—instrument cases stacked in the front room, the obligatory old couch or two, and guitars scattered in random places. But over near the bathroom, there’s a gold record on the wall. It’s an album by Valley rockers Killswitch Engage, recorded at Zing. The studio—which has other gold records to its name, and bigger name clients like Devil Wears Prada and Parkway Drive—is the hub of a particularly vital and partly local music scene.

You can find newer, more impressive-looking studios. The oddly angled wood panels on the walls in the main room are a bit worn at Zing, and the floor’s seen plenty of traffic. But all that traffic means that the ears of the studio’s Jim Fogarty and Dave Frain have in them the experience of years. Little wonder, then, that the sounds that come from Zing are so well rendered. Those sounds aren’t limited in genre, either—in the control room, Fogarty calls up some recent recordings in progress, and one minute it’s singer/songwriter softness, the next it’s vocal madness with a metal band.

Fogarty says, “I went to school for [sound] engineering, but I learned by trial and error—mostly error.”

While the songs play, Joe Urban, who heads up Zing Management and Take This To Heart Records, sits on the couch listening. It’s a spot he’s inhabited often.

“I’ve recorded every album for every band on the label here, except for one time,” Urban says. “And the one time I didn’t, I ended up fixing it here.”

Urban’s carved a niche for his label that’s largely local, but which involves bands from as far away as the West Coast. Take This To Heart represents Western Mass. bands Arrows Over Athens, Traditions, and Woodford Way, Connecticut bands, and others from as far away as Chicago and L.A. They’ve all visited Zing.

As Fogarty punches up songs on the recording console, it’s hard not to notice something that’s taped beside the VU meters. It’s an old clipping that shows Joe Strummer, listening intently as someone likewise punches up a Clash song on a recording console. Thing is, Fogarty explains, Strummer is standing beside this console. The board—a 1979 Trident Series 80—made its way here from Tennessee, and before that, it resided in a studio in Manchester, England, where the Clash and other big names recorded. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference, but it can’t hurt to think some of that Clash mojo might come through if you record here.

Zing is the joint effort of Frain and Fogarty, and the two decided almost 20 years ago to combine forces in Westfield. Frain was plying his trade in Eastern Mass., and Fogarty was trying to make a guitar-teaching gig at a music store into a recording gig. “After hours, the sales floor became a studio. The teaching room became the control room. After a few visits from the police for noise violations, I decided I needed a better place to record,” he says.

A lot has changed in the recording world since then, of course, and Frain says that’s particularly true of the last decade. There’s been a revolution in home recording. It’s possible to get surprisingly good sounds via computers, software, and microphones that cost far less than they would have 20 years ago.

You’d think that places like Zing were headed for the same kind of technology-fueled extinction that CDs and vinyl records seemed to be. In fact, studios, CDs and vinyl have moved right past extinction to a sort of second life. It all seems intertwined.

Bands used to show up at studios and do everything, start to finish. These days, Frain explains, “We co-exist with clients working at home. People can do a lot at home, but then they bring it here.”

“There are things a computer can’t reproduce,” Fogarty says. “They haven’t invented a plugin for musical sensibilities yet!”

Fogarty says that studios are often the only place, too, to scale that Everest of recording, getting good drum sounds. It’s often the most subtle, demanding, and frustrating undertaking in a recording. Decades ago, drum sounds came from simply hanging a pair of mics above the drum kit. That can be remarkably effective, but it lacks the punch, broad spectrum and consistency of the sounds most bands are after these days. Fogarty jokes that good drum sounds are an endless pursuit, and he explains that the kit currently rigged up for the just-finished All That Remains session has 14 mics on it, including one that looks like a miniature drum itself, one that picks up only the very lowest frequencies. Hard to do that at home.

It’s the better part of wisdom for many bands to bring their tracks to someone like Fogarty to put them all together in a final mix, too. His skills come from years of listening, and from a reverence for sound that’s not the norm anymore, but is clearly making a comeback. “Listening was a more sacred experience in the vinyl era,” he says.

“People used to listen to albums in sequence, too,” Frain adds. “It’s cool that kids are getting back into that.”

Urban adds that vinyl has become a huge part of his record label’s sales.

Younger listeners seem to be discovering what rock fans of years ago experienced. “When you bought a record, you didn’t put it on your earbuds instantly,” Fogarty says. “You had to take it home, to a special place for listening. It was a whole experience, down to the way it smelled. If you wanted to take it with you, you had to make a cassette copy—in real time!”

It’s that kind of vibe that still prevails in recording studios, especially places like Zing, where the walls have soaked up years of high decibels. The methods and the tools have changed, but the hard-won stuff—the experience of years of listening to and mixing music—is still hard-won, and still most readily found in places like a building on the edge of the map in Westfield.•

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