Tiny Telephone is a recording studio in San Francisco’s Mission District committed to making analog recordings on tape, maintaining affordable rates, and welcoming a diverse range of local and international musicians into its colorful, creative, and caffeine-enhanced world.
Musician and producer John Vanderslice followed a girl to San Francisco more than twenty years ago, and when he arrived, he “strongly disliked California.”
The relationship didn’t work out, he concedes, “and in some ways, I never got over it.”
The only reason he stayed in what he felt was “the ritziest place on the West Coast” was because he rented an affordable space in the Mission with some friends. It started as a rehearsal co-op and slowly transformed into a legendary recording studio.
Something in the middle
Vanderslice didn’t initially set out to become a studio owner, but he did see a market need that had yet to be filled.
“There were recording studios in San Francisco at the time, but they seemed to be completely stratified, either at the very bottom serving punk and poor bands without any money, or on the other side, studios with hardwood floors and uptight owners. I really thought there might be something in the middle,” he says.
Tiny Telephone is a successful realization of his vision. It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and expanded to a second location in Oakland.
Helmed with great vigor by Vanderslice, its colorful walls, narrow hallways, and fully equipped studio spaces are home to a close-knit community of recording engineers and session musicians. And they’re open to everyone in the wider community.
“We really want to make records with people, and we want to make it affordable,” says Vanderslice.
With studio rates ranging from $275 to $325 a day — the lower end of market rate — Tiny Telephone serves a diverse range of both local and international musicians, from acclaimed indie acts such as Deerhoof and tUnE-yArDs, to just about anybody who’s saved up some hard-earned money and wants to commit their music to tape.
And at Tiny Telephone, recording to tape is not a metaphor.
Crazy about tape
The shiny, ribbon-like material that wound through childhood cassettes and the reel-to-reels of yore is still an integral part of everyday life at the studio.
Almost every time a band comes into the studio, a refrigerator-sized Studer tape machine is loaded up with a reel of two-inch tape, ready to hiss into action.
“Maybe 80 percent of the records that come out of here are recorded on tape and mixed on tape, and there's no editing on a computer,” says Vanderslice, who gets excited when expressing his disdain for making music using digital audio workstations such as Pro Tools.
“I'll get resumes, and they'll be like, ‘Pro Tools certification’, and I'm very honest with people. I'll be like, ‘Listen, you being really good at Pro Tools is worth $1.70 an hour,’” he says.
“Everyone has a computer,” he adds. “Who cares? Everyone has a microwave oven. That's not like going to a restaurant. This should be a rarified and unusual experience. A heightened, elevated experience, or what are we doing?”
Vanderslice is so committed to analog recording that he provides free tape to clients. “Otherwise, we really couldn't muscle bands into recording on tape. That's how crazy I am about recording on tape. I actually buy tape for people.”
The commitment factor
Maryam Qudus is equally committed to recording on tape.
She first came to Tiny Telephone to make an album with her indie rock project Doe Eye, and for the past three years, she’s been on the studio staff as a producer and engineer.
While Qudus is more open to making music on a computer than Vanderslice, she prefers recording on tape and recognizes the singularity of Tiny Telephone’s focus on analog recording.
“This is why this studio is successful,” she says. “Tape adds this warmth to the sound, and it's very instinct-based. You have to decide on full takes. I love the commitment factor.”
Gone are the endless adjustments enabled by a computer. “All of that time is creative time that is being wasted,” says Qudus. Instead, you go through a few takes, “and then you get to move on, and you get to make more songs.”
This is exactly what Qudus does when she gets in the studio with The Mutilations, a four-piece rock band from San Leandro. They have two days to track and mix two songs — instinct-based with no time to waste.
They start with a song called “Greg, Greg, Greg,” and five takes later, they call it.
“Jesus, I messed up that one note at the end,” says bassist Antonio Villegas as the band piles into the console room to listen back to their final take.
“Where?” says lead singer Eric Escobedo, “I didn’t hear that.”
“No man, it’s good” says guitar player Darian Costa.
“Yeah, it was fine,” agrees drummer Jordan Macapagal.
Escobedo and Macapagal have known each other since fourth grade. “We've been making music, making videos, since sixth grade. Just creating stuff,” says Escobedo.
In high school, they formed The Mutilations with Villegas, and Costa joined them a few years later.
When asked to describe their music, Macapagal takes a moment to reflect and says, “With emojis, it would be like the wave emoji and the skull emoji. Yeah. Death surf.”
“We always play shows with a bunch of metal bands,” Macapagal adds, “and they think we're a metal band.”
Instead, their name comes from the song “Wave of Mutilation” by one of Macapagal’s favorite bands, The Pixies.
“It’s an homage to The Pixies,” says Escobedo. “We're also huge Beatles fans, we're huge Beach Boys fans, and we're heavily influenced by the current surf rock and garage-rock scene that's happening on the West Coast. We mashed that all together to make this signature sound of ours.”
On the song that brought them to Tiny Telephone, their signature sound is in full effect. It’s a two-minute burst of bright guitars, driving drums, and crooning backing vocals undercut by dark lyrics.
Greg, Greg, Greg
Dreamed up by Macapagal and put to song by Escobedo, “Greg, Greg, Greg” tells the story of a guy who kidnaps his girlfriend and her secret lover only to be shot in the head by her.
“All our music tends to have a dark side to it. Even when it’s a more upbeat song using major chords, we still have something gritty in there,” says Villegas.
Although he and his bandmates are still in their early twenties and living with their parents, they’re working hard to bring their gritty sound to a wider East Bay audience.
“There's a lot of bands here. We're not in a scene or anything. We have no following at all,” says Macapagal. “The only people who come to our shows are friends and family. And our moms.”
Villegas is more optimistic. “I feel like there's a scene here,” he says. “We just have to find it. We have to find our niche.”
When the band returns from their lunch break, Qudus is back at the console and ready to record.
Instruments may fall out of tune, machinery may act up, and the recording session may extend well into the evening, but Qudus is likely to remain unfazed.
“Surviving and thriving as an artist requires hard work,” she says. “Then to pair with that, you have to be surrounded by people who believe in you, who want to help you thrive.”
Qudus receives this kind of mentorship from Vanderslice, or JV, as she calls him. “That’s who JV is for me, someone who thinks what I’m doing is good and believes in me.”
With his support, the hard work becomes fun.
“I love it here,” she says. “I love being at Tiny.”
Vanderslice is equally appreciative of the engineers on his staff and their role in helping their clients make great music.
“There's six full-time engineers here, and they could take over the studio tomorrow, and it would thrive. They're all cherry-picked, totally smart, completely engaged. They want to help people make art and they're really good at it.”
Things are going so well at TIny Telephone’s San Francisco and Oakland locations, that Vanderslice is considering opening a third studio in L.A.
Regardless of what’s next, he’s glad he decided to stay in California after all.
“I totally changed my mind about California,” he says. “I love California.”
And he’s proud of the creative community he built at Tiny Telephone.
“If I die tomorrow,” he reflects, “I made a lot of records, I toured, I had great relationships, great friendships. But the thing I did that was the hardest and that feels like the biggest accomplishment was running a profitable arts business.”
The artists who have already benefited from Tiny Telephone — and the many more to come — would agree.