The big room is almost silent. Maggie Lander stands at the microphone swaying, softly piercing the quiet with her singing — "Nothing lasts" — stretching the phrase and varying it, seemingly at random, unless you put on headphones.
Slip them over your ears, and the band is all there, Patrick McNeese singing in a raspy baritone, Tom Martin's fingers flowing across the keyboards, Tripp Bratton's canny percussion and Jesse Pena's anchoring bass, with Lander's live backing vocal mixed in by producer Duane Lundy.
Work on the Patrick McNeese Band's forthcoming album is starting to wind down at Lundy's Shangri-La Productions on National Avenue. It's the first collaboration between the studio and McNeese, who has recorded three previous albums starting with 1989's The Singing Bridge.
"We found our home," McNeese said of the collaboration.
Recording in the open
For a band or solo artist looking to record its music, finding the right producer and studio are key. Like any marriage, not every studio is for every band, and vice versa.
McNeese jokes that he found Lundy's name on a matchbook cover. In reality, he had heard other musicians singing the producer's praises. Soon, he was doing the same.
"When Tom and I were driving away from meeting with Duane, we said, 'Duane's the kind of guy you'd go to L.A. and spend a year looking for," McNeese said. "You'd spend $10,000, and then end up with Duane."
One thing that particularly attracted McNeese and his band to Shangri-la was the studio's open-room format.
While the classic image of a recording studio is soundproof booths with a microphone hanging from the ceiling, so each musician's work can be isolated, Shangri-la's is an open room. It is lined with keyboards and amplifiers, and drawn together with carpets and string lights, creating a mood that suits the studio's name.
For the songs' primary recordings, the band played together, spread out in the room to avoid microphone bleed-over as much as possible, though they show up in each other's tracks at times. That's the trade-off for a live sound.
McNeese says his most recent album, 2005's Any Day Now, was recorded the opposite way, piecing together individual tracks.
"This collaborative process is what I'm really interested in," he says.
That's what Lundy says his studio is built to accommodate.
"When a band gets into another room, it's like a different universe," Lundy says. "The dialogue changes.
"Here, if I want to have a conversation with Pat, then I just lean over and say, 'Hey, what do you think of this?' and Maggie can be talking to Tripp, and there's a lot more eye contact and communication going on."
Lundy's controls, including a couple of monitors he watches closely, are set at the far end of the room, surrounded by seats and couches where musicians relax while not playing. The center of the room is open space, with microphones and instruments standing by.
Another area along the side has spaces where, say, Martin's keyboards are set up, or McNeese will sit and watch musicians as they perform additional tracks.
McNeese says, "This is really live recording, with the ability to do the fixes and the overdubs."
Knowing when it's done
Some of the new album already is available online. The CD is expected to be released in September.
The band has been recording the album through the year, coming in for several-day sessions to do three or four songs at a pop.
The sessions start, McNeese says, laying down rhythm tracks, then they come back to record backing vocals, percussion parts and other ingredients that give the music texture. Mid-afternoon on a Monday in late May, Bratton stood in front of a microphone with an array of instruments around him including a rattlelike thing he calls "goat's toenails."
"Tripp could go pick something up out of the parking lot, play it, and make it sound brilliant," McNeese says.
But in the studio, time is money. Martin, who also is a contributing columnist to the Herald-Leader, notes the session needs to be moving along. While it is important to get great performances, Lundy says, he also works to keep projects on track.
"A lot of people aren't sure when something's done ... and then three years go by, and it's still not done," Lundy says. "With me, I'm going to tell you when we're done.
"I have a certain sound and certain aesthetic I can work really well in, and quickly in."
That is to say Lundy knows his studio and arrangement isn't for everyone, and he works with artists who generally are going to benefit from his style and technique. That's why he gets the bulk of his business from outside Central Kentucky.
At one point in his producing career, he was looking at moving to an American music capital such as Los Angeles or Nashville. But thanks to the Internet and increasingly affordable technology, he was able to set up shop in his hometown.
"In the late '80s and the '90s, through the early 2000s, to get the quality, you had to use certain pieces of gear that only existed in a sort of stratospheric economic realm," Lundy said later over lunch with McNeese at National Provisions, just down the road from Shangri-La. "When I first started, I would have to work on automated consoles that were a quarter-of-a-million, half-million dollars to manufacture. Now, I can have my digital work station and my analog side, and use that hybrid fashion, and it's pennies on the dollar to put that sort of studio together compared to commercial studios of the last couple decades.
"And quite frankly, I much prefer working this way."
So does McNeese. He says he appreciates the opportunity to record a few blocks from his home and get a quality track he can take everywhere.
"To record a fresh, live album, and there's no frayed edges, there's no apologies for craftsmanship, everything's recorded beautifully, that's El Dorado," McNeese says.
El Dorado in Shangri-La.
"It's always my desire to get into the studio," McNeese says. "As a song writer, that's what I live for. Performance is fine ... but for me, recording is the finish line. When I hear something I created a long time ago, and the band contributes to it, does the arrangement ... when I hear something come out of that speaker, mixed and final, that's when I rejoice."