Back To The Future: An 80s Guy Builds a State-of-the-art Studio

By Todd Bolitho

Memory Lane

I have been immersed in music and technology since I was born. My father is an organist; he played in virtually every western and eastern European country long before the Berlin Wall came down. As little children, my siblings and I would play hide-and-seek under the pews for days while my father practiced on enormous pipe organs. He might as well have injected Bach directly into my bloodstream. And since organists are, by nature, technical people, my dad also taught me about tools, wood, cars and electricity. He taught me to use his 1940’s era Weber wire recorder. I still have it. It was only natural that I would gravitate to recording – a field both musical and technical.

When I was fifteen, I did my first professional recording at Uncle Dirty’s Sound Machine in Kalamazoo. After that, Bryce Robertson, the owner, took me under his wing and let me work there for hundreds of hours on spec. Just as I began to move into the world of professional recording, I hit a stroke of luck. I didn’t really understand how lucky I was at the time. There was a local band of high school musicians named Sisi Watu. I heard them play a few times, but one time in particular stands out in my mind. It was an evening dance at the high school. I walked into the cafeteria where they were playing and felt the entire room moving to the strength of their incredible rhythm section. I listened carefully and especially noticed all of the Latin and African percussion. Most important, the bass player was on fire. Every tiny motion, every nuance of his playing was critical. Somehow he just knew what the music needed and he never made a mistake. To this day, I have never encountered a rhythm section to rival what I heard (more like felt in my gut) that night.

Over the next few weeks, I made a point to sit and talk with this bass player during lunchtime when he went into the school music rooms to practice. I can’t claim any significance in his world, but he certainly influenced mine. I’ve spent my entire professional life lavishing attention on the bass because he defined for me what was possible. One day, he told me he was going to drop out of Albion High School and go to New York. He knew he was going to be a success and didn’t mind saying so. A few days later, he was gone. Everyone in our little town shook their heads, clucked their tongues and said it was such a shame, him wasting his future like that. Within four years, he did everything he said he would and more. He is still a major figure in music today. That young bassist was Bill Laswell.

In my twenties, I was again blessed as amazing talent swirled around me. And once again, I didn’t realize it at the time. I was hired by two former Motown engineers (Michael Grace and John Lewis) to work as a MIDI producer and engineer in Sound Suite, a premier Detroit recording facility. Sound Suite’s “Studio A” was a Westlake design featuring an enormous SSL series E console. It was an amazing place to work. I was exposed to incredible people; I sponged up every bit of knowledge they would share. Michael Grace taught me how to calibrate big multitrack machines and the basics of kick drum/bass management. Understand now, this was a Motown guy teaching me how to notch out frequencies and compress/limit kick drum and bass! To further my education as a young producer/engineer, he sent me over to the Winans’ private studio. I was to hand-deliver master tapes, but I had instructions to stay and watch for a while. More exposure to amazing talent and incredibly kind people. Somewhere along the way I met Cecil Franklin, who took an interest in my music and introduced me to his sister. His sister? That would be Aretha. Cecil was her manager. Looking back, I can hardly believe it, but I was in the room when Anita Baker recorded some of the vocals for her Grammy-winning album, Givin’ You The Best That I Got. Michael and John could pick up the phone and call anyone in the recording industry. The environment was totally professional, but they knew how to have fun too. Everyone kept track of the high scores on the Ms. Pacman machine in the lobby.

Later, I worked as MIDI producer for The Disc, another Detroit studio with an SSL - a series G. Once again, fantastic talent was always present. George Clinton was working out of The Disc while I was there, and it was his business manager, Rick Cioffi, who hired me to do the sound track for the Wendigo movie.

There are other great stories I could share but suffice to say that by the end of the eighties, I knew what I was doing in a recording studio. I was comfortable with SSL boards, and I had been involved with a lot of good work. I loved messing with tools, wood, motorcycles and cars. Now here’s what I am leading to: