Local Studio's Attention to Detail Gains National Reputation
The furnace has been shut
down, the refrigerator unplugged, and the computer upstairs turned
off; Pierre Sprey (rhymes with hair spray) is ready to record.
Sitting before a tiny pre-amp unit and a modified Sony reel-to-reel
tape recorder, he adjusts dials and headphones, then points and
says evenly, "You got it."
The four band members and
their instruments completely fill the front room of Sprey's century-old
mansion in Upper Marlboro. Mapleshade recording studio resembles
a combined musicians' gym and a stage for performance art. Patches
of foam rubber decorate the walls. A plywood canopy angles over
the head of the drummer, whose traps are surrounded by joint-compound
buckets filled with lead. Next to a rebuilt 1911 Model O Steinway
grand piano -- the room's centerpiece -- a tubular aluminum frame
supports a wedge of Plexiglas holding two tiny microphones. The
soloist in the adjoining front hall has another miniature microphone
and not much more space than the quartet. And that's it.
"Look at this setup,"
says Hamiet Bluiett, baritone saxophonist with the World Saxophone
Quartet and an independent producer at Mapleshade. "It looks like
The Flintstones, but Pierre gets a real good sound." Indeed. Downbeat
magazine gave five stars to In Walked Thelonious, the late
pianist Walter Davis, Jr.'s tribute to Thelonious Monk, recorded
at Mapleshade and released on the namesake label. (Davis took
his first look at the studio and said, "Ah, Edison's lab.") Under
the guidance of owner/sound engineer Sprey, Mapleshade is quickly
getting a reputation in national jazz circles, both for quality
recordings and for Sprey's idiosyncratic methods of obtaining
are laid out one track at a time and then mixed -- they are nowhere
and no time," says Dick Turner, a salesman at the sound-equipment
store Soundscape. Turner says Mapleshade's CDs are excellent tools
for selling audio equipment. "At Mapleshade, people perform together
at a particular time and place. When the flute player opens his
mouth to begin a solo, you can hear him open his mouth. Listeners
find that fascinating."
The Mapleshade label specializes
in jazz recordings, but the studio also has a blues label (Wildchild!),
and is expanding into gospel. "Music without compromise" is the
company's motto, and in all its CDs' liner notes Sprey writes,
"No mixing board, filtering, compression, equalization, noise
reduction, or overdubbing."
"I hate mixing boards,"
says Sprey, who records everything live to two-track on analog
tape. "With a mixing board, if there was a problem with the way
[the soloist] sounded, they would adjust it with the mixing board.
Here we adjust it with the microphone itself in front of the musician."
This session's soloist is
C. I. Williams, 64, an alto saxophonist from New York. A retired
schoolteacher, Williams is thin, dapper, and soft-spoken. He recorded
three albums in the early 1970s, has played with Clark Terry's
big band, and has accompanied Ruth Brown, but he is hardly a household
name, even to the jazz cognoscenti. Nevertheless, he is an accomplished
player with a mellow tone and impeccable taste in musical quotation.
Williams is accompanied by
a quartet that includes Washington, DC, bassist Keter Betts and
drummer Jimmy Cobb, formerly Miles Davis' timekeeper. The session
moves quickly, then bogs down on Williams' Catfish Sammich,
a deceptively simple tune that causes the pianist to miscue repeatedly.
"It's not a blues," somebody says helpfully, "it's 16 bars." Someone
else wants to know if it has a bridge. "No, that's it," Williams
Bluiett and Sprey soon halt
the proceedings and everybody goes out to dinner. The next day
the session is quickly concluded. "There is no recording schedule
-- the musicians set the schedule," Sprey says. Part of this flexibility
comes from the people at Mapleshade, a small and artist-sympathetic
group. Producer Bluiett serves as a talent scout. Pianist Larry
Willis, the artist-in-residence and musical director, also brings
his share of artists to the label.
Bluiett has half-lidded eyes,
an omnipresent porkpie hat, and sensitive antennae. He discovered
Mapleshade three years ago, when he came down with Willis to do
a trio recording. The bass player didn't show up, so they did
a duo. "We were here for three days," Bluiett recalls. "I stayed
upstairs and wrote music, and came down and played it." The recording
with Willis, still to be released is called I If Trees Could
Mapleshade's current Explorations
series features talented but under-recognized players such as
altoist Williams. Bluiett describes his role in finding such musicians
simply and directly: "I know them, I know they're good, and I
know they've been ignored."
It is up to Sprey to capture
that talent on tape, a knack he has been perfecting for the better
part of two decades. Sprey brings a less-is-more approach to recording,
a style that he developed as one of then-Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara's "whiz kids" at the Pentagon in the 1960s. An
engineer and statistician, he was one of the developers of the
highly successful F-16 fighter in the 70s; in the following decade,
he was part of the military-reform movement. (James Fallows devotes
several pages to Sprey's accomplishments in his 1982 book National
After a period as a private
consultant, Sprey, a New Yorker of French and German ancestry,
decided to pursue as a career what he began as an avocation in
the 1970s, when he recorded musicians in small African American
clubs in Washington, DC, with Radio Shack equipment. Now he designs
and builds his own pressure-zone microphones and connects them
with the shortest possible wires (long wires weaken the signal)
to "the black box," the small, six-dial, battery-powered pre-amp
unit that he has weighted down with lead blocks that rest on inverted
brass cones, to dampen vibrations. Sprey's custom-made copper
wires are contained in a silver-plated copper tube that leads
from the pre-amp unit to the tape recorder; he claims they are
so thin that if he removed them and held them up, they would be
invisible. "The thinner the wire, the better the sound," he says.
But having the right equipment
isn't enough. Sprey turns off the furnace and all appliances in
the house when he records -- the Sony tape recorder is the only
thing that uses standard AC current -- because they generate radio
frequencies that interfere with the process. Such fanaticism pays
off in crisp, seat-at-the-bar-next-to-the-band-stand realism.
"He produces recordings of photographic quality," Soundscape's
Turner says. "You can take a time trip with Mapleshade."