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Ben Yeager laughs a bit when asked about the differences between the setup he worked with for four years in the studio at the Last Beat Records complex on Commerce Street and the newly remodeled version, which he has been using for the past month or so. It's the kind of laugh that asks, "Are you serious?" When he finally answers the question, Yeager, the studio's longtime engineer, sounds like a kid who's just been given a Nintendo 64 after four years of playing with wooden blocks.
"The difference is huge," Yeager says. "The main difference is the room. It has a great sound now, where it didn't before. You just kind of had to ignore it before. And now we've got a great room, coupled with really, really good gear and good tape formats. We didn't have any one of those three before."
Yeager has every right to be excited. After several months of construction, the studio he presides over is now top-notch in every way, tricked out with new digital editing equipment and vintage gear. The new studio sports everything from a recording room designed by Alan Fierstein (an acoustical consultant at Carnegie Hall) to a custom-built monitor system put together by Ted Rothstein of TR Technologies, which has worked on studios around the world, including Electric Ladyland in New York.
Fierstein and Rothstein were part of the design team assembled by Nick Griffiths, who spearheaded the project from his London home, spending hours a day on the phone poring over the details with the construction crew, making sure the next day's construction went as planned, and making periodic trips to Dallas when phone calls weren't enough. However, redesigning a studio wasn't in Griffiths' original job description when he signed on almost a year ago.
Last Beat's Tami Thomsen knew that the studio was due for a serious overhaul, but that wasn't why she initially contacted Griffiths, even though he was the man responsible for redesigning Pink Floyd's famed Britannia Row Recording Studio. She was more interested in the work Griffiths had done at Britannia Row after he had rebuilt it: As senior engineer there, he had helped record Joy Division, David Bowie, and Genesis. Thomsen was simply looking for someone to produce the debut album by Astrogin, Last Beat founder Karen Barrett's band.
Thomsen and Barrett were impressed by Griffiths' tenure at Britannia Row, as well as by the time he spent helping produce John Peel's BBC radio show, working with bands such as Squeeze and Killing Joke. They had no idea that hiring one man would lead to such big changes at the Last Beat complex. But when Griffiths visited the studio and recommended major changes, Thomsen and Barrett chose to go ahead with plans already in development to expand into the empty space next door and convert it into a practice facility.
"We just decided, 'OK, if we're getting into it, let's just do it all at once and be done with it all at once,' instead of getting done with one part and starting the next part," Thomsen says. "It certainly wasn't intended originally to do that. But I'm glad it happened that way. We needed to upgrade the gear, and to do that we needed to upgrade the room as well. So it was like an all-or-nothing thing -- if it was worth doing it was worth doing it all out and doing it right. It was just making the best studio that we could, you know, and we had the resources to do it."
Griffiths will return to Dallas in September when Last Beat hosts an open house to show off its new digs. He couldn't be happier with how the project turned out, can't find one thing he would have done differently.
"I mean, the whole thing about building a studio, which I really like to stress, is the fact that it's a place where people play music," Griffiths says, calling from a hotel in Toronto, where he's been helping with the sound setup on Roger Waters' latest tour. "It must feel very comfortable for people to play music in. And [the Last Beat studio] is a place that people will do their best in, shine in. It's not some sort of architecturally fancy place that people walk in and go, 'Hey, wow, haven't you done an amazing job designing this environment?' But it's right at the top of the tree as far as musicians feeling comfortable and the studio delivering the goods."
Since the studio reopened just over a month ago, The Toadies recorded their latest batch of demos for Interscope Records there, and it has hosted sessions by Pinkston and Captain Audio, among others. But even though the studio was the catalyst for the development of the complex, Thomsen agrees that the most important part of the construction was the addition of the rehearsal spaces. The facility opened in March and counts Legendary Crystal Chandelier, Reverend Horton Heat, The Tomorrowpeople, Chomsky, and The Toadies among its residents.
"There's nothing like that here," Thomsen says. "Most of the buildings are old and not very well maintained. So, it's something really unique. And there's nothing in this area, nothing in Deep Ellum. Although a lot of the clubs are here, there are no rehearsal facilities. So it makes it so much easier for the bands loading in and loading out when it's just down the street. And we have a great group of people, which makes it a cool space."