It's a sound career choice

Lined up on the shelves at Joe's Island Music in downtown Langley are compact discs recorded by a large contingent of South Whidbey recording artists.

The names are familiar -- Derek Parrott, Timothy Hull, Janie Cribbs, Local Buddha. But their recording help is not so much so. Wedged in between the latest worldwide releases from recording industry giants Sony, RCA and Warner Brothers, albums by local bands and musicians get "pressed" under much smaller labels.

Putting the tunes down on compact disc are less than a handful of South Whidbey recording engineers who, for the love of the music, are the bridge between the music of the island and its fans.

Back in the woods and at the ends of rural lanes that are all but invisible to anyone but the locals, small-scale recording engineers are hard at work this summer, doing the final edits on summer releases or getting bands into the studio to get their latest songs on tape -- or as it happens these days -- on the hard drives of computers.

Busy at the mixing boards this summer -- as they have been for years -- are Freeland recording engineers Dave Malony and Robbie Cribbs. A long way from the corporate recording studios in Los Angeles and New York, both men make a living in capturing the music of lesser-known musicians and doing other sound-oriented projects. Working out of a cabin-like structure behind his home in the woods, Malony primarily works with new music in his Blue Ewe studio.

Cribbs, who picked up his trade as a teen growing up in Ireland, has his share of bands at his Sound Trap recording studio, but is also a bit of a digital tinker. The work he enjoys the most has him working at two Macintosh computers and a mixing board putting video clips and audio tracks onto DVDs.

For both men -- even though their methods differ somewhat -- the recording business is about getting the perfect sound out of a performance or a project.

"It's all about the right vibe," said Malony.

It has to be, because South Whidbey is definitely small-time when it comes to recording music. Even so, in his soundproofed recording booth at Blue Ewe, Malony can do pretty much anything a big recording studio can, aside from churning out 5 million copies of a CD. Between his bank of mixing boards, an eight-channel VHS recorder and a bank of digital recording drives, Malony's equipment does the job that 15 years ago required a $25,000 tape recorder and thousands of dollars in other equipment.

After coming to Whidbey Island as a musician 11 years ago and getting frustrated with the cost of recording his own music, Malony dove into the engineering side of the business when he discovered that setting up his own studio would be more affordable. Since then, he has worked with both local and off-island artists to record their music.

Blue Ewe stays busy because Malony makes sure the price is right for each of the artists who record there. Hourly rates are on a sliding scale, Malony said, a scale that is nowhere near the $250 an hour he said some engineers charge.

For Puget Sound area bands like Junkyard Jane, which recorded its last album at Blue Ewe in just two and a half weeks, the price may not be so crucial. But for certain Malony favorites, like Timothy Hull, time -- lots of it -- is a necessary element.

Malony and Hull spent nine months recording Hull's last album, "Brambleland," and are currently several months into another project. During a typical day with Malony, Hull will record the same song several times over as both men search for just the right sound off the guitar and from Hull's voice.

"We go exploring," Hull said.

But only with Malony as a guide.

"The trick for me is to read people and decide what they need," Malony said.

It helps that engineer and musician are on the same team -- something that seems to be a common thread among island engineers. Over at Cribb's Sound Trap, recording projects are almost more fun for the guy in the recording booth than for the band in the studio.

"I get enthusiastic when it comes to people's projects," Cribbs said. "You've got to be doing it for the love of the music."

That enthusiasm is apparently appreciated. One regular client at Sound Trap, a New Zealand musician, happily flies half way around the world to record in Cribb's basement studio.

Cribbs said musicians need close working relationships with their recording engineers to get the sound they want.

"They find someone they're comfortable with," he said.

In his business since 1976, Cribbs spends as much time playing with sound on his own as he does working on other people's music. With the advent of DVDs -- laser optical discs that can record 1,000 times the information possible on a regular CD -- Cribbs has been able to combine video and sound on one medium. While mixing the two has its profitable side when it comes to producing wedding videos with custom soundtracks, Cribb's favorite pieces of work include a Sharon Shoemaker short film called "Audience" he set to music and samples from a poetry reading.

When considering the future of the recording industry, South Whidbey is not so much a struggling outpost as it is an alternative. While the big recording labels will continue to make the big money and the big stars, Malony said local engineers like himself, Cribbs, and a few others scattered around the island, are the "midwives" for music that might not otherwise reach a wider audience than is possible playing in local halls and bars.

While it might be fun to be a garage band, it is the studio, he said, where musicians reach their potential.

"It creates an environment in which people can create music," he said.

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