Story by Tom Ingram
Images by Carrie Beth Wallace
Matthew McCabe, Schwob professor and sound engineer, at the control room work station of The Loft Recording Studios.
You’ll find it upstairs at The Loft, and yes, music plays. Some of the best music around. But there’s no bar here, and typically no beer or cocktails. Local music luminaries teach and write here. It has hosted big-budget film productions and living legends of popular music.
“There are a lot of artists in Columbus who don’t even know this space exists,” chief engineer Wyndhem Ennaemba told us one afternoon in the control room. “But why go to Atlanta where you don’t have the convenience and laid-back environment you have here?”
On the evening of February 26, local musicians and media will arrive at the recently-renovated Loft Recording Studios for an intimate opening of what Schwob music professor Matthew McCabe says is “acoustically, the best-sounding room for 200 miles.”
The space itself isn’t new. The Loft Recording Studios first opened some 20 years ago. Even then, a phenomenal space, meticulously engineered for recording, the studio was immediately hailed as a recording destination. But the timing was inauspicious. Its opening coincided with the rise in popularity of home recording, a phenomenon fueled by newly-available software that allowed creators to record at home with greater fidelity and flexibility than ever before. Smaller studios all over struggled against the convenience of at-home rigs, but spaces like The Loft persisted. However far technology advances, no basement or garage or spare bedroom can match the quality and dynamism of a room built and treated for recording.
Maple shell drum set with Zildjian K cymbals sits miced and ready to play in the studio. In the background, a sound diffuser custom-built for the space.
Quality brought country music icon Willie Nelson here in 2011. He added his voice to tracks first laid in the 1970s, a process that required considerable technical expertise, exactly the kind possessed by Ennaemba, McCabe and the other engineers. In 2017, the Fun Academy brought part of its $25 million budget to record most of the dialogue for “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero.” And every True Blood fan has heard vibrations first sounded in The Loft Recording Studio, where part of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning HBO series’ soundtrack was cut.
In 20 years, The Loft Recording Studios has consistently punched well above its weight class. It has jabbed with stellar local groups and landed heavy haymakers with national figures and productions. However, as with all things, time and use take their toll. Technology advances and wires fray. And as Columbus grows--as more and more national acts work across our stages, as more and more students matriculate to phenomenal careers out of Columbus State--so too the opportunities for The Loft Recording Studios to make an even more vital impact on the community it serves. Ennaemba and McCabe wanted to get the space ready to work in the new decade. It was time for a refresh.
The work wasn’t easy. Thousands of feet of copper cable had to be pulled from the walls and rerun with category 6 ethernet cable. Imagine McCabe jerking cable lose in the lobby while Neal Lucas, who teaches guitar students in the studio, pulls those thousands of feet out in control, two rooms away. Meanwhile, Ennaemba, who stands a solid 6’ 3”, is crawling through cramped ceilings and claustrophobic ventilation ducts to run cable from control to the studio room. The sweat equity was immense, and even greater the technical wizardry guiding the project.
Some of the audio interface equipment customized by McCabe.
The result of their labor is beauty throughout. The space itself is outwardly beautiful, with warm wood features, both inviting and utilitarian. Except for tables and counters, right angles are hard to find. Elaborate sound diffusers, massive wooden sculptures specifically engineered to diffuse sound waves, hang on the walls. The entire space is designed to make sound more precise. In addition to new cable throughout, upgraded tech permeates the entire production. The older, out-dated gear was sold off and replaced with new computers, playbacks and an array of audio interface equipment, and music of that hand-built by McCabe. In the outward details, the studio feels like a Prairie School cabin, warm and clean with energetic lines; the studio’s guts, however, the whole circuit of electrical gizmos and gadgets, are as contemporary as a Tesla.
The vocal booth shows the studio's angular architecture, engineered for sonic fidelity.
Ennaemba and McCabe have still more work ahead of them, plans to make the studio an important part of the community’s blossoming film business. Even before Georgia’s Yallywood boom, the Need for Speed franchise and “We Were Soldiers” Paramount Pictures teams saw the incredible film making opportunity in Columbus. Both Columbus State University and The Springer Opera House have vibrant film programs, training students to lead in Georgia’s heavyweight film industry. And now that Georgia is home year-round to hundreds of millions of dollars in movie production activity, Columbus continues to attract crew. The Loft Recording Studio has already proven its prowess recording dialogue, and the next step, an important part of any film production, is Foley. That’s where the everyday sound effects are added to media in post-production, to create accurate, quality recordings. From the glaring grinding of car against car as they speed down a highway to the subtle crunch of heavy boots in fresh snow, Foley artists create the elaborate soundscape that gives film so much of its true-to-life depth. Once Ennaemba and McCabe finish the Foley studio space, it will be the only one in town, thus perfectly positioned for any film project working in the area.
The Loft Recording Studio offers considerable opportunities for commercial projects. But the larger mission is community building. McCabe is a Schwob professor, and Ennaemba was only a few years ago his student. One of the most important roles the studio plays is giving music students the hands-on experience in a top-notch recording studio they need to advance their careers after graduation. The revamped studio will be available to students to work on their projects, with no direct out-of-pocket expenses. Want to work on an EP? Book time with one of the studio’s engineers. This student access, combined with the array of project types the studio can accommodate, has the added benefit of putting people with diverse backgrounds and experiences in the same room. On any given day, you could find CSU string players mixing with the guys from local jam band, Mango Strange, who write in the studio. You might find film crews rubbing elbows with vocal majors. When you bring diverse people together, when you build a broad community, magic happens. They find new projects to pursue, they learn new ways of thinking about and doing things. And out of this elaborate swirl of new people and new ideas comes exactly what a space like The Loft Recording Studio is meant to produce: art.
The sofa in the control room is great for naps between sessions. Above it hangs a custom sound diffuser. The poster advertises "Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero," an animated film whose dialogue was recorded mostly at the studio. The lamp was built by McCabe from leftover guitar parts provided by local luthier Frank Schley.
Ennaemba, McCabe and all of the people who have helped them refresh The Loft Recording Studio for the new decade are part of a project that will pay dividends for years to come. A rejuvenated recording studio promises to deliver a creative space, a space of innovation and discovery, a rare and precise echo chamber in which a broad spray of ideas and experiments can yield results that reverberate throughout the community. The space and the people who move through it are destined to be heard for decades to come.