It’s around 9 p.m. at Studio Time and members of the local band Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites are working on rhythm tracks for their upcoming debut album.
Singer Brent “Wesley Bright” Wesley stands in the control room, swaying back and forth, singing in a relatively restrained voice into a microphone and even singing the horn parts to the band’s midtempo soul jam I Got It to help guide bassist Bob Basone and drummer Nick Fritsch on the song’s arrangement and lock into the groove.
At the mixing board of the well-lit and well-organized control room sits co-owner and operator Jason Tarulli, staring at meters, occasionally pushing buttons, bobbing his head and most importantly, listening. His partner, Kevin Coral, sits on a refreshingly unsoiled couch in the back of the room, also bobbing his head to the taut Otis Redding-inspired soul groove being laid down.
After the first of several takes, Coral and Tarulli have a brief discussion while the musicians adjust their instruments in the studio.
“A touch faster, I think,” Coral suggests, before going into the isolated drum room to check on the microphones recording Fritsch. Tarulli runs out of the gear-lined control room to work on the analog plate reverb — “no [digital] plug-in, this is the real thing,” he said, adjusting the big rectangular device, which alters sounds fed into it, adding a reverberation effect.
The trio runs through the song again — a touch faster — and afterward everyone sits in the control room to listen and approve the new tempo.
The Studio Time team hasn’t been together very long, but it has already begun to establish a successful work mode. Coral will take on the role of the “bad cop,” playfully cajoling and/or massaging and making suggestions to the artists, while Tarulli’s “good cop” listens to the musicians’ concerns and ideas, operates the board and makes sure all the gear is operating up to snuff.
“It’s broken down in a way that makes the band happy and helps our comfort level,” Coral said.
“Before and after sessions, he and I will talk about things — this mic seemed awesome, that amp seemed awesome. … The best thing is when people actually hear their [stuff] come back off of tape and they say ‘That’s really awesome,’ and they’re happy and surprised because they’ve never heard their stuff sound like that before. That’s when we’re, like, yes!” Coral said.
“For me, working with Jason and Kevin is a whole lot of fun. It’s the musical equivalent of taking a hands-on college course,” singer Wesley said. “During one sitting, I learned more about music history than I did within the last year.”
Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites’ music is a sonic re-enactment of the Northern Soul sound of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which includes the monolith that is Motown as well as many more obscure groups and labels. Consequently, the group and the production team must adhere to certain rules of the era in the music and its production.
“Their experience helps to shape the vintage sound of this record. … They can just hear things that you can’t,” Wesley said. “Their experience is why we love working with them. These guys have been listening to this stuff for a really long time. It’s like they were there and just pulled old soul out of their back pocket. All that good Motown was simple and evoked emotion, and that’s exactly what Jason and Kevin lace our tracks with.”
North Hill studio
Studio Time, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, is housed in the same building as Tangerine Studios, which is run by the duo’s friend, producer/engineer Ben Vehorn. Studio Time officially opened in December 2011 and has recorded several local bands, including knotty indie rockers Ultrasphinx, produced by Coral, and back-to-basics punk band Bad Trouble, produced by Tarulli.
The Wesley Bright album is one of the few the two have had time to work on together, as Tarulli spends about 200 days a year on the road, in his high-pressure primary gig as sound man for Akron-born rock stars the Black Keys.
Tarulli, 39, grew up in New Philadelphia with his parents, two brothers and a sister. He had an inherent penchant for taking things apart, seeing how they work and (maybe) putting them back together, which inspired him to study mechanical engineering at Kent State.
He played in bands including the heavy prog-rock trio Hell’s Information, and started doing sound at clubs such as the Avenue, the defunct Lime Spider, Thursday’s, the Matinee and Annabell’s, and at various pickup gigs.
Tarulli also worked at a guitar repair shop owned by the Black Keys’ guitar tech, Dan Johnson, and an electronic audio equipment repair shop owned by Terry Salem, drummer of metal band Winter’s Bane, which allowed him to hone his skills and indulge his fetish for metal boxes with switches, meters and indicator lights.
“I just fell into it and found it to be challenging and stimulating enough to hold my attention,” Tarulli said. “After a while, I began to get better-paying gigs and more calls for more gigs. I became totally self-employed and could make my own money on my own time. And the next thing I knew, for the first time in my life, I was kind of enjoying what I was doing for a living.”
In 2008, Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach called Tarulli “out of the blue” and asked him to run sound for a couple of shows. Tarulli had worked with the band as far back as 2003 at the Lime Spider, but this was on a much bigger scale.
“My first gig was a sold-out show of 10,000 people, opening for My Morning Jacket in Denver at Red Rocks Arena,” he said.
“I had never been more excited and terrified in my life. I couldn’t sleep for the three days before the show. Needless to say, the show went well, the band was happy, and I’ve been with them for every show and performance [including radio and television] ever since.”
Veteran of business
Coral, a native of Illinois who has lived in Ohio much of his life, doesn’t have a high-profile day gig on his resume, but his job is a vital one as the primary caregiver of his young child. The jolly, bearded forty-something was the keyboardist/songwriter of the ’90s Kent-based indie pop band Witch Hazel and later Witch Hazel Sound, which released three albums to critical praise from Billboard Magazine, England’s New Music Express, Magnet and other publications.
Coral has been recording artists since the ’90s when he was a partner in Kent’s Waterloo Studios, where he worked with Harriet the Spy and Party of Helicopters, as well as national acts including April March, the High Llamas and ex-Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt.
Like Tarulli, Coral always loved music, and while in Kent, he sought out musicians and found his way into a studio where he became “obsessed with production and sounds.” He began using his record company advances to amass a stable of gear and build a studio in his basement.
“I wanted to have my own place, to take as long as I wanted on production without worrying about a running studio clock. I became a gearhead as I learned more,” he said. “I have a love of history and a tendency to research things I love within an inch of their lives, so I learned all about old equipment used on classic recordings in both America and England.”
Tarulli and Coral barely knew each other until mutual friend Aaron Rogers, drummer in Ultrasphinx, asked for Coral’s help in constructing a new console, and the two began talking. By this time, Coral had given up the romantic notion of being a basement studio auteur (“I was just tired of it,” he said).
Serendipitously, Tarulli, who also had some gear and had done recording in his house, had taken over “The Audio Eagle Nest,” the studio space previously operated by Black Keys drummer Pat Carney; the Keys recorded much of Magic Potion there, as well as the disc for Carney’s side project Drummer. Carney moved to Nashville, taking his equipment with him and leaving Tarulli with a lot of storage and studio space and a good sounding room. With a borrowed console, he started looking for work he could do when not on the road.
“I met Kevin, it was almost synchronicity the way everything worked out,” he said.
The two found they had plenty in common, “nerding out” about gear, and their similar tastes in music and sense of humor made it an easy transition. Additionally, Coral and Tarulli have the luxury of not having to take just anyone who walks through the door, a factor that appeals to Coral, who had no such policy in his days in the basement.
“There were a lot of untalented people who came in and wasted a lot of their money and a lot of my time, and you have to give them your full attention,” he said.
“The overhead, especially being in Akron, is minimal, and splitting the rent makes sense too, and we don’t have to have things in there 24 hours a day to keep it afloat,” Tarulli said. “One small thing a month generally keeps us breaking even. That’s kind of nice. We’re not making a living off it; it is what it is and that’s nice.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.