For a mid-sized city with a music industry struggling to re-assert its national relevance, Memphis has a high number of world-class recording facilities (Ardent, Young Avenue Sound, Electraphonic, Royal, Archer) and producer/engineers — more than one would think the city's disparate music scene could support. Add to that the amount of home recording and smaller-project studios, and one finds a somewhat overcrowded local recording market.
But despite the current climate, local musician/DJ/recording engineer Andrew McCalla has quietly managed to establish himself as one of the scene's most sought-after record producers.
"I've got enough folks wanting to record right now that I could probably fill 2011," he says.
McCalla might also be one of the hardest-working men in local show business. A longtime fixture on the music scene as drummer with bands such as The Arch Rivals and The Perfect Fits, he's also a well-known DJ around town, spinning under the name Buck Wilders, the host of WEVL's weekly Memphis Beat radio program, and a part-time soundman at the Hi-Tone Café. But in-between all that, McCalla records local music, mostly out of his Midtown home.
"My latest work space is at the house I've lived in for a little over a year now," McCalla says. "I have two bedrooms that connect by a door: One is the control room; the other is the band room. Both rooms are really small, but I keep reminding myself so were Sun and Royal."
McCalla's recording odyssey began in 1997, when he bought a cassette four-track recorder and started making "experimental" bedroom recordings with friends.
"I figured out early on that it wasn't just the song itself that made a record good. It was also the production and mixing that made it stand out," McCalla says.
"The more stories I heard about how classic songs were recorded, the more I was drawn to the whole process. Since I considered myself more of a music fan than a musician, I figured recording was the direction I wanted to go in."
Over the years, both McCalla's expertise and equipment list have grown considerably. He currently works with a multi-track digital workstation, a pair of two-track reel-to-reel tape decks, and a modest collection of boutique outboard gear and microphones. His client list has also grown. McCalla's resume boasts an impressive list of local bands, including The Warble, The Dirty Streets, Girls of the Gravitron, Noise Choir, The Ultracats, True Sons of Thunder, Tanks, and The Oscars.
"We heard the stuff Andrew did for Abe White's other band, the Oscars, and it sounded great," says Eric Friedl of True Sons of Thunder. "We ended up recording there, and it turned out good also. He really knows his room well and has a few tricks for special sauce."
McCalla's recordings tend to sound purposefully raw and honest — very reflective of how the bands he works with sound live, with very little in the way of way of studio trickery. He also works very quickly and encourages his artists to keep things simple and come in prepared.
"I like to record as live as possible," McCalla says. "Nowadays, most folks track one at a time, isolating instruments, and redoing parts over and over until they consider it perfect. I feel this sucks the life out of the song. I just prefer to work with bands that are well practiced and ready to record."
McCalla plans to expand the studio, convert fully to analog tape-based recording machines (he's staunchly anti-ProTools and computer-based recording in general), and possibly launch a vinyl-only record label.
But for now, he's got his hands full with his current workload, which includes debut albums for the spacey garage-rock trio Kruxe and local indie-rock supergroup Fraysia, among other projects.
"In no way am I an expert, but none of my favorite engineers or producers were either," McCalla says. "With every project, I learn something new."