Acoustical Striptease: 'Radical' recording studio produces all-natural, bare-essentials music
article by Christine Montgomery
Pierre Sprey is known as an extremist in
the recording industry. "Really radical," in his own words. The
recording engineer's crime? He eschews commercial CD-making methods
for the old-fashioned, reel-to-reel, analog kind.
At Mapleshade, his studio on an old tobacco
plantation in Upper Marlboro, Mr. Sprey's manifesto appears on
T-shirts and signs: "No mixing board, no overdubs, no noise reduction,
no compression, no multitracks, no EQ, no reverb." Mr. Sprey says
no to all the gadgetry that can make bad musicians and singers
sound good. "The artist," he says, "is naked in front of God and
Lisa Williams is not exactly naked. In
fact, she's wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a clunky pair of black
ankle boots. With a guitar across her thighs, she sits on a stool
in the middle of Mr. Sprey's foyerwhich doubles as the recording
studio for singers.
Colorful posters of musicians who have
recorded here jump out in contrast to the dingy white walls. The
floor is bare and dusty. Ribbons of copper wiring hang from the
coat rack instead of coats. The windowsills could use a good dusting.
Mr. Sprey adjusts Miss Williams' microphonean
invention of his that puts a mike the size of a shirt button onto
a metal plate the size of a saucer. Blue molding clay covers the
plate's edges. "Sharp edges around a microphone create distortion,"
Mr. Sprey explains.
Miss Williams, 36, is making her second
CD, her first under the Mapleshade label. "All right, Lisa, you're
on," Mr. Sprey says, crouching in the hallway off the foyer in
a pair of earphones, working the knobs on the giant reel-to reel.
What pours from Miss Williams' vocal chords is rough and smooth
at the same timea distinct singing voice full of emotion.
What eventually will come out on her CD will sound the same. Each
catch in her throat will be captures. "It's natural," says Miss
Williams, who lives in Severn, Md. "It's like, why cover it up
if it's natural?"
Inside his mansion between ancient magnolia
trees just off Route 301, Mr. Sprey records jazz, gospel, blues
and none-of-the-above music under a separate label called Wildchild.
It's all done in a scene that makes the 60-year-old Mr. Sprey
look like a mad scientist and the house his lab. The piano in
the front room is balanced on brass cones to keep it coupled to
the floor better than wheels and feet. Foam-rubber egg crates
are taped to the walls. Ribbons of flat copper wiring hang throughout
rooms like streamers because wires on the carpet change the sound
of the music flowing through them, Mr. Sprey explains. In the
living room, 6-foot "electrostatic" speakers and two taller cylinder-shaped
subwoofers create a maze around the furniture.
Almost everything used to record runs on
batteries because electricity "subtly degrades the sound." The
result: "You get such an honest sound," says ballad singer Sunny
Sumter. She made her second CD at Mapleshade after Mr. Sprey persuaded
her to do an "unprocessed recording." "It was an idea I had not
heard of," says Miss Sumter, who grew up and lives in Washington.
"It felt good to hear myself that waywithout all the reverb
and the extra processing that goes on during recording."
Music made this way keeps more emotion
in it, Mr. Sprey says. You can hear the artist's lips touch an
instrument before they begin to play. You can hear the breath
before a singer begins to sing. "It's an 'in your lap' sound,"
As an aeronautical engineer for the Pentagon,
Mr. Sprey was considered something of a radical there, too. He
was part of the military reform movement in the 1980s and believed
that the simpler a weapon, the better. He helped design the A-10
and F-16 fighter jets before turning to consulting work and then
eventually the studio, which he began in 1986. In 1989, he moved
to the house he's in now, sensing as soon as he walked into the
mansion that this was a place where he could make pure and soulful
music. This from a man who says he has "never played a lick in
But he grew up in New York around music.
His French father played the violin, and he always gravitated
to musical types. Though the house's isolation and its acoustics
suit Mr. Sprey's needs just fine, he acknowledges that for some
of the artists who record heremany of whom are blackthe
plantation is not a welcoming icon.
Whatever happened on this estate, which
was established around 1650whatever indignities and crimes"something
very different is happening here now," Mr. Sprey says. "But, for
some musicians, they have to get over it."
One jazz artist, Hamiet Bluiett, decided
he didn't want to record inside the house. So Mr. Sprey dragged
everything out onto the mansion's porch and discovered it has
the acoustics of a band shell. Mr. Bluiett recorded a song about
his feelings about the plantation, titled "If Trees Could Talk."
When a session here folds from afternoons
into night, Mr. Sprey is in the kitchen making dinner, uncorking
the wine. Oh yeah, and the artists don't pay for their studio
time. Instead, Mapleshade studio takes a 50-50 split on CD sales
and any other money that's made from the recordings. "The original
idea was to run a weekend studioa hobby," he says. But it
became all-consuming. "This is the most satisfying thing I've