This series has focused on music venues that have been unable to host performances due to the closures for COVID-19. But there’s one “venue” that’s actually been able to remotely continue its work, and that’s Big Sky Recordings. Geoff Michael is the owner/founder of this renowned recording space, located just a few clicks south of Michigan Stadium. “We’ve been able to do a fair amount of sessions over ZOOM,” said Michael. “And the studio’s also big enough to have allowed for a few recent recordings with social distancing. But I do miss the feeling of accomplishment that you can have with (bands) when you’re finishing something together (in person). Musicians get a rush from performing, but I do miss that satisfaction of helping people realize something that’s super important to them.”
Michael has been running Big Sky for nearly 20 years. Some of the notable artists he’s worked with include The Electric Six, the Verve Pipe, and, most recently, singer/songwriter Nick Piunti. As chief audio engineer for Big Sky, he’s helped produce recordings for hundreds of live studio sessions for Michigan Radio’s Acoustic Café, which has featured Kasey Musgraves, Iron & Wine, Suzanne Vega, and many more world-famous recording artists. Currently at Big Sky, Michael is joined by a team of talented audio engineers such as Marty Gray, Josef Deas, and Nelson Gast, each of whom are also musicians in their own right.
Michael works primarily at the soundboard but, as a lifelong musician, he was once in a few bands similar to many of his clients. “I was lucky enough to play with some really good musicians. But I just thought it was much more interesting to be working on a recording project — sculpting everything about a song — rather than just performing. I wasn’t a deep enough or good enough musician to actually find new things through my own solo playing — but there were always a lot of new discoveries for me in recording and getting to certain sounds and putting a whole song together. That’s always been very satisfying. You feel like you’ve got something you can hold on to!”
Michael had worked inside of several studios in the 90’s, including Pearl Sound in Canton. He also worked at studios in Detroit, including a brief stint at Dave Feeny’s spot in Ferndale, Tempermill Studios, where he actually had some input into the construction and acoustical designing of the space. “And after that I started a tiny studio out here in partnership with Rob Martens (current owner of Solid Sound), which — we had that for quite a while. But eventually I just wanted to move into a place with more daylight! When you’re indoors all day working on recordings, it’s nice to let a little light into the control room. So I started renting Big Sky on South Industrial and wound up carrying over a lot of clients from that first studio.”
We don’t want to overwhelm you with all of the minutiae of audio engineering, but Michael would emphasize that a lot of it comes down to “making musicians comfortable” and a willingness to “let things happen.” It comes down to “getting good takes, but then very gently steering things in the right direction. The most exciting thing for me can be when you start off with a song that you know has potential but maybe isn’t working really well at first. But you work it around with the musician, or the band, and musicians shift their parts around and we work together to get the song to where it’s realizing that potential.”
Michael said that over the years, it’s become more commonplace for Big Sky clients to likely have done quite a bit of home-recording or demoing of their material prior to entering the studio. There has also been advances in recording technology that can save time. And, frankly, when you’re in a studio, time literally does equal money.
“The ability to tune things, and to adjust the timing of things has changed with technology. It can be hard for people to reach a perfect vocal performance — maybe it’s just a little bit out of tune. But (with technology) you can adjust that. It isn’t the sound you’d associate with ‘auto-tuning,’ it’s something that’s used all the time now. Not everyone has the luxury to spend an unlimited amount of time on recording these days. So, as long as it’s a really good performance, you can always make some adjustments, now, on the computer.”
Michael thinks that, in a post-COVID world, this trajectory of musicians completing a lot of home-recordings with the aforementioned software typically available with audio interfaces is only going to continue and will likely increase. “But I don’t know… When I started the studio, it would be common for full time musicians and even part-time musicians to spend money on a recording because it would make sense for them to get CDs that they could sell at their shows. But that’s another thing that’s gone. Just think how different this would all be for musicians if music wasn’t free!”
Michael said that he has missed having musicians inside the studio at a regular clip. He’s missed the interaction and that sense of achievement when he’s able to play a role in creating an album — a product — for a band or a songwriter. As this series comes to an end, the impetus remains: that local music and local music venues should never be taken for granted. When there’s an opportunity to purchase an album created by a local musician — consider supporting them. When the opportunity to actually return, safely, to a local venue to see a live local music concert — consider going!
For Michael, it’s likely he’ll still be keeping himself and his fellow Big Sky engineers fairly busy this summer. With so many songwriters quarantined, it’s likely that many of them will have a surplus of songs that they’ve written over the last 3 months stored up and ready to record. The only uncertainty, says Michael, is will the infrastructure for local musicians, many of whom rely not only on day jobs, but also the reliability of a gig, be at risk of being irreparably diminished by the shutdown. We here at the Current Magazine can offer no answers as of yet, but we can say we’re looking forward, with hope, to the next album by a local artist that comes to fruition within the walls of Big Sky.