by Mark Bingham

For those of you who have never been to New Orleans, Piety Street Recording is in the downtown New Orleans neighborhood known as the Bywater. This area is also called “the ninth ward”. It’s is home to many odd specimens of humanity: “hipsters”, fearless late night bike riders, geezers who drank too much to make it out with the 80’s white flight crowd, families of all varieties, and a smattering of celebrities. It’s a truly diverse place beyond cliché. There are guesthouses, resturants, coffee shops and bars where the bartenders will know you after one visit. The Mississippi River borders Bywater and the boat horns can be heard all through the day and night. (The studio is quite soundproof so you need to go outside if you actually want to hear the boats.) The studio is on the corner of Piety and Dauphine Streets on the original route of the Desire streetcar line, now the bus named Desire.

Piety Street Recording is housed in one of the many Leonhard buildings scattered around the Bywater, this one being a former US Post Office and more recently, the Louisiana Center for Retarded Citizens. We still get mail for them. 3240 Dauphine/728 Piety/ (we have 2 actual postal addresses with doors facing Piety St.: our new main entrance and therefore our main address: 728 Piety) was built in 1927. There’s now a “dog park” across the street (which we have affectionately termed Mickey Markey "Poo" Park), and vintage furniture shops around the corner. The neighborhood, like so many across the coutry, has gone through gayification and artsification and is now becoming officially gentrified. This means that if you want to buy a house it’s twice as much as it was 3 years ago.

We’ve tried to combine the best of all possible audio worlds so as to have a great place to work without leaving town: doing this in 2001 might have pleased Pangloss, but that’s what we did. What we have is a huge A playing room with 8 large windows providing natural light. Both playing and control rooms have natural light. You can pull the thick beautiful curtains over the windows if you like it dark. The windows are thick, too, and only f-15 fighters flying low over the Bywater looking for terrorists will break the sound barrier and get into the room. We’re capable of recording an entire orchestra or more typically, being able to get mics 60’ away from the drums if so desired.

I’d describe the décor as a cross between an elegant Cajun fishing camp mixed with a turn of the century Storyville bordello or maybe your favorite grandmother’s living room. Comfort combined with sound quality was the goal. The superb acoustics of the 26’ x 65’ x 17’ playing room are complemented by four adjacent iso booths. Each iso room large enough to handle a drum set, with two iso rooms capable of housing either in- house Yamaha grand piano. Acoustically, the iso rooms can be live, dead or neutral depending upon what you like.

We put rough cypress on the playing room walls, added chandeliers that were thrown out of an old Masonic Temple, and found lots of vintage furniture. We left the rusted tin ceilings in the big playing room because they looked great and sounded good, too. We have lots of packing blankets and rolling bass traps and gobos.

Both control rooms are comfortable and accurate, with lots of room for visitors without bugging the engineers. There's lots of room to roam around and get away from the session, too. There's also a computer i the lounge with DSL open for use, and plenty of DSL ports around the building to plug a lap top into.

Beyond amenities, this is simply a great space to play and record music, with variable acoustics and flexibility from session to session. Piety Street has all the power of the best studios anywhere, but it feels so much less threatening and costs less, too.

We keep the studio open ended, rarely leaving the same set-up from one session to the next. Both rooms have consoles that are simple to recall. We try to deal with each session individually, so the technology can serve the musicians, not force them to serve our habits. We also have a deep engineer/producer pool with people like John Fischbach and me who learned on analog and
young engineers such as Wesley Fontenot and Drew Vonderhaar who learned to record digitally without consoles before they ever worked on analog. There has been much in-house schooling to teach the old dogs the new tricks and give the young engineers a feel for recording actual instruments.

The patch bays are such that there are few format combinations that can’t be dealt with in house. With that being said, it is now apparent that nearly every session we do involves digital in some way shape or form, although analog will always sound great and is often the 1st choice of formats even with high bit digital available. (The current session is Dr. John and they spent 2 weeks on the 2” analog before hooking up the Pro Tools for back-ups and edits.)

The musical and recording aesthetics at Piety Street will certainly vary wildly depending upon the artist and the producer. I still use old analog guitar boxes, spring reverbs, 2” tape, plate reverbs, 70’s drum machines and even overdriven cassette decks, along with the Pro tools.

I will say this about John Fischbach: he is a meticulous engineer who uses microphones, mic placement, acoustics and mic pre amps to make some of the most open and natural recordings you are likely to hear anywhere. John has actually gotten better since his seminal 70’s work on Songs In The Key of Life with Stevie Wonder. His experience is priceless. These days he is largely a mastering engineer, where his great ear has helped many the mix in need.

For basic discography information on any of the Piety Street producers or engineers, please go to allmusic.com or to ENGINEERS heading of this web site and click on individuals. Much of the stuff John and I did in the 70’s is not even listed, and stuff on our younger guys is slow to be listed, but it’s still a good reference to check on anyone in the music biz.

What we really offer the working band or producer is a sonically upscale environment where they can work as quickly or as deliberately as they want, have everything they need, and not spend a fortune. We encourage people to come into the studio and record with the best mics and processing in a great sounding room with an experienced engineer and THEN take the results home on Pro Tools or DP3 or MDM and do overdubs and pre mixes and edits. When it’s time to mix, you can use Piety Street with its massive processing power that no amount of plug- ins or home gear can compete with. Even bringing in your finished session on your own hard disc set up or rack of Adats (as so many people do regularly) and “bumping up” to a better sounding format is now a standard use of a modern recording facility. The Sony and SSL consoles will do wonders for your “no console” mouse mixes. Mixing to 1/2” analog will certainly add the last bit of ooomph to any digital or analog multi-track format. You will be shocked at the difference between inside Pro Tools mixing vs using any inch analog tape as your final destination. I myself use tape with the machine set to repro and send it directly to 24/96 digital via a good convertor, thus getting the best of both worlds minus tape cost.

Then again, I know people who get good results on any medium and others who can have the best gear in the world and make terrible sounds. Such is life.

In this day and age, when I can get on a plane and compose and sequence in flight with a lap top, it does beg the question ­ why have a studio when you can do so much at home or anywhere?

The answer is simple. Having the means and the equipment to record does not equal having the skills to record and it is not an easy task. When word processing came into the world, it did not increase the number of great novelists, it just made things easier for writers. To attempt to be the artist, the producer, the engineer, the arranger, the PR person, the label, the designer and the roadie may be tempting to some people. Multi-tasking is no more efficient, creative or cost effective than making good decisions about people who can help you realize your dreams. A Selmer sax does not make you John Coltrane nor does an Akai sampler make you Dr. Dre either. Reality still dictates, despite what equipment manufacturers and software designers may have you believe. While we all love the great new equipment that is generally less expensive than equipment has been, working with other talented people is generally a far better investment than trying to buy cheap and do everything yourself.

If you are combining acoustic music with the modern technologies of sequencing, sampling, locking formats, importing audio from the Internet or basic hard disc recording/editing then Piety Street is an ideal environment. Plus, there is an incredible talent pool in New Orleans.
We try to bring an intuitive quality to every project we do, walking the fine line between rudiments and improvising. We hope to make a place where people can move ahead artistically and add to the language of popular music. When you just try to keep up, you are always behind.

Thank you for your time.