American life is contradictory. It’s cheaper to consume music more than any time in history, and technology has given listeners access to a truly limitless amount of recordings. Yet vinyl record sales have increased for the ninth consecutive year. It’s as if — just spitballing here — something about the mass digitization and availability of cultural commodities leaves some people with a diminished sense of meaning and connection.
According to Nick Johnson, the engineer set to launch Portland’s first non-profit studio devoted to analog recording in lower East Bayside, it’s all about getting back to tangible, authentic living.
In a landscape bursting with cultural phenomena and distraction — plus the inescapable presence of the Internet — Johnson believes the return to analog is in lockstep with slow-process trends in the food world and elsewhere. He points to the surge of local brew and coffee, plentiful resources in East Bayside, which upstart breweries Rising Tide, Lone Pine and Urban Farm Fermentory call home and which coffee shops Tandem and Coffee By Design roast their beans.
“I very much want to transport people back to a different way of doing things,” says Johnson, the 42-year-old recording engineer at the center of Prism Analog. “Just as much as a different sound.”
Prism Analog is set to begin production this spring, at a facility Johnson and friends have been building within Zero Station, the art gallery and framing studio in the neighborhood. At Prism, artists record directly to tape, a sound and process many find warmer, richer, and more resonant than digital recording, for artist and listener both. Using a range of vintage recording devices (and their own equipment), musicians record straight to tape in a single take, a process intended to get closer to a band’s authentic sound.
Photo by Wayne Treadwell.
Johnson moved to Portland from New York City in 2007. As he tells The Phoenix, some of his favorite records are recorded in analog, and the difference is easily recognizable. He cites “Coming Home” by Leon Bridges, Daptone recording artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, “My World” by Lee Fields. “But really, every album before the mid-’90s was [recorded] to tape, so there are so many.”
The aim is for Prism to be truly rooted in community, an intention Johnson hopes to reflect in the grand opening fundraising party and open mic on Saturday, March 25, at nearby Urban Farm Fermentory. Johnson believes Prism’s foundational connection to Zero Station, a trusted bunker for off-kilter art events, will help advance the goal. He’s received plenty of community help — over 30 musicians, he says — since the end of 2016, volunteering time and resources to build and install the massive and antique recording equipment studio inside Zero Station.
“I believe in Nick and his studio,” says local musician Will Wysowski. “And after helping him build it, I feel like a part of it.”
Wysowski met Johnson a few years back when he purchased a turntable from him. “He showed me his speaker setup, including some electronic components that he had personally worked on, and I was very impressed with his knowledge. The process of analog recording will be new to me. I like analog because of the warmth of tone. Most of my favorite music was recorded in this style, and I’m certainly wanting my influences to be heard in my recordings.”
Prism Analog and Zero Station are natural fits. Johnson established a working relationship with Keith Fitzgerald, who took out a lease on the lower East Bayside space in 2002, when he moved to town 10 years ago. (“I’m his Mac guy,” Johnson says.) And the spacious room fits the precise environmental needs for Johnson’s operation. “It’s a natural live room with great reverb and a good feeling to it,” he says.
One of the oldest tenants to lease space in the area, Fitzgerald is ambivalent about the narratives Bayside’s storied “resurgence,” seeming to acknowledge that efforts like Prism are often seen as complicit in the gentrification of cities. He sees it as yet another example of age-old urban renewal tied to the whims of the so-called creative economy. “We all know the formula,” he told The Phoenix. “The artists come in, fix up a place that’s decrepit, and then everyone else follows and the rents go up.”
“The area resides exactly at sea level,” says Fitzgerald. “That’s where everything collects. We are literally on the site where everything toxic was dumped.”
But despite encouraging cultural signs and plenty of help from the community, Johnson’s ambitious undertaking represents a risk.
Prism was funded in part by a fortuitous discovery at Johnson’s old apartment at Deering Center, where he unearthed a trove of vintage beer cans underneath the floor, a bundle he sold for $15k in start-up funds. According to Johnson, Prism’s tape machine took up half of that money. Enlisting a similarly analog-obsessed friend, he flew to Los Angeles to pick it up. The unit weighed about 900 pounds. They rented a minivan and drove it back across the country, an anxious task considering the delicate condition of the machine. When they returned home, Johnson soon discovered a certain part wasn’t working, so he shipped it to a specialist in Boston, where it sat for a few weeks before being sent back to Los Angeles where the piece was finally repaired — for $700.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot of time and mental bandwidth, as well as the opportunity cost of a $15,000 investment into something profitable,” he says.
Johnson operated a recording studio at the college he worked in the 1990s in Minnesota, which is where he first developed a love for tape. Over time, he developed a knack for repairing vintage electronic recording equipment (he also refurbished PixelVision cameras for clients around the world).
But while he expects to turn Prism into a fully functional Portland business and employ a set of engineers, Johnson’s ultimate goal is to build community.
“For the 60-year-old Army electrical engineer who helps [me] out evenings, for the 13-year-old Vermont-based YouTube guitar sensation who convinced his dad to drive him to Portland so he could visit because he’s in love with analog, and for everyone in between. I do this because of the great vibes from the community who find something in this idea to be excited about.”
“Even Electric Lady” — the mythic New York recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix — “contacted me saying ‘feel free to get in touch with our electrician since we use the same type of machine…’”
As for the sound booth itself, Johnson says; “It’s been tough moving stuff around. Both the mixing board and console will be wedged in there, leaving very little room.”
But that’s part of the intimacy of recording straight to tape. Jenny Lou Drew, whose band Trouble Girl will be performing at the March 25 benefit, is among those who’ve been drawn back to vinyl lately. “It’s more organic,” she says. “It’s almost like having someone in the room.”
Drew doesn’t rule out recording at Prism herself someday, either with the band or her solo musical project, Raggedy. But the cost might be prohibitive. “It’s a very live process, so it would be expensive. We have a home studio; coming up with an excuse to forego that and go record analog is kinda hard to do. But we’d love to.”
If anything, Prism Analog will model for Portland musicians a careful, hands-on approach to recording. If he’s successful — basically, if he stays afloat — it could add another layer of richness and distinction, perhaps even a signature sound, to the city’s vibrant music scene. In a city where food and coffee drives the decisions, building a little culture around sound would be welcome.
This story features additional reporting by Joe Harrington.
“Prism Analog Fundraising Party,” with performances by El Grande + John Hughes Radio + Lyokha + Troubled Girl + Chris Nucci | March 25, 8 pm | Urban Farm Fermentory, 200 Anderson St., Portland | prismanalog.com
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