Near the corner of Nicollet Avenue and 26th Street in south Minneapolis, there's a nondescript, unmarked building. Step inside and you'll see walls lined with framed platinum records. Among them, Paula Abdul's "Forever Your Girl," which sold more than seven million copies.
That particular framed album belongs to St. Paul Peterson, who has a studio in the building. He got the nickname "St. Paul" from Prince.
Steve Wiese, owner of Creation Audio, the largest of three studios in the building, recalls working with Abdul as an engineer on that debut album. He still vividly recalls scenes from those late 1980s sessions, "her coming out of the studio, just totally frustrated saying, 'I'm a dancer I'm not a singer.'"
She was a dancer, and Janet Jackson's choreographer. And Wiese had to work some magic to get a perfect vocal track. It meant re-recording individual words, or syllables or even just the "s" on the end of a word. And each time he did that, he was risking a fatal injury to the whole track.
"You got so good at it, that you could tell when the beginning of her 's,' or her 'n,' or her 'd,' on the end of a word was going to start and literally go in and out of record [mode] in milliseconds," Wiese recalled.
"Forever Your Girl" was seen as another win for Twin Cities studios, reinforcing the region's reputation as one of the best destinations off the coasts to find the production talent and technology required to succeed in the traditional recording and music industries.
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That business structure, though, now feels light years gone. Digital technology has revolutionized the business and dramatically dropped the entry costs to produce high-quality music. And the big studios that drove so much music success here and across the country are under immense competitive pressure.
The ranks of big traditional studios are thinning as the number of higher quality, lower cost options grow, said Scott LeGere, head of the music business department at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.
"You've probably seen 50 small home operations open within the last year," LeGere said. "You're easily looking at under $4,000 to have extremely high quality sound recording."
That trend, he added, is pressuring those legacy studios to lower rates and lessened the importance of the equipment and technical skills those studios provide. To stay competitive, producers in those studios are emphasizing the creative value and artistic sensibilities of their people.
"People are booking studios now to work with the individuals that own them. You don't go to Bellows [studio in St. Paul] because of a particular microphone. You go because [Twin Cities producer] Adam Krinsky is the one working there."
John Fields is a destination producer for national acts. His clients include the Jonas Brothers, Har Mar Superstar and Miley Cyrus. And he felt safe enough about his business to leave his Los Angeles studio and return to rented space in Minneapolis.
"I believe that people seek me out to work with me because of my musical background, my producer talents, in terms of making a great-sounding recording," Fields said.
And perhaps soak up some history in a studio where Janet Jackson recorded "Pleasure Principle" and the Jets recorded "Crush on You."
Fields is not optimistic about the future of studios, since musicians can record themselves on the cheap so readily these days and do it well. He said that means less business for studios and some lean times.
"The person who is financially responsible for them has to be willing to cover for the down times," he said. "And that's hard because it's not like there's a huge music economy, recording economy in Minneapolis. It's not that big."
The historic Twin Cities studios come in all sizes. Wiese's Creation Audio is about a quarter the size of a basketball court, with 15-foot ceilings. It contains a Yamaha conservatory grand piano, a Hammond organ and an isolation booth that keeps the sound of a drum set from reaching vocal and other mics. The angled walls, wooden sound deflectors, ceiling and mix of glass, concrete, wood and fabric-covered surfaces shape the room's sound.
Then there's The Hideaway Studios in northeast Minneapolis, serving clients such as Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Its three studios fill some 4,200 square feet.
"We fly a little bit under the radar," said Joe Mabbott, who runs The Hideaway and believes the local studios deserve more recognition nationally. "You know, when people think about the music industry, they think about New York, L.A. and Nashville. But pound for pound, I feel like Minnesota itself has some of the greatest studios."
There's an affection for big recording studios and the music history made in them. Some recording sessions also require big spaces. And some musicians crave the ambiance and environment of a larger studio and the camaraderie and creativity it can inspire.
"I worship the studios. They're like the womb," said Kevin Bowe, a Twin Cities singer, songwriter, engineer and producer. He's written songs on three platinum records and two Grammy-winning albums, and worked with acts ranging from the Replacements to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Bowe's home has a professionally designed studio but said he often works in the big local studios.
"Terrarium really is a big favorite of mine, and then there's Flowers studio, a great one. Pachyderm, if you want to go to Cannon Falls, is just a wonderful, world-class facility. So, we have tons of great studios here," said Bowe, who worked on album recently with Krinsky from Bellow studio.
Perhaps no one knows Twin Cities recording studios better than Dave Ahl. He's built, designed or consulted on scores of studios.
Ahl said big studios can still produce a better recording than is possible at home. That's why he and fellow members of the punk band The Suicide Commandos went into a professional studio to record much of their recent album.
"If you've got a little tiny room, you might not be able to get a very good drum sound, for instance," he said. "You need a big room. You need the proper mikes."
One of his band mates, Chris Osgood, said musicians who really want to sound their best will want to work in a top-flight studio.
"If you have the resources to spend to make it good," he said, "you usually want to make it good."