News Column

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. Lib at Large column

October 18, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 18--JOEL JAFFE THINKS of himself as "the man behind the curtain." For 30 years, he's turned the dials and slid the faders in the control room of Studio D in Sausalito, content to work behind the scenes for major rock stars and local musicians alike.

But as he celebrates Studio D's 30th anniversary, the 61-year-old one-time med student is stepping into the spotlight, taking some well-deserved credit for being a big part of Marin music history, an important player in the county's once thriving recording industry.

One morning this week he took me on a tour of Studio D, hidden away in a nondescript light industrial park in Sausalito. Inside the unmarked front door, he proudly showed me a wall of framed photos of some of the big names he's worked with since he built the place from the ground up three decades ago. There's bluesman Robert Cray, white-haired Leon Russell, a youthful Anita Pointer, Dr. John and J.J. Cale with their arms around each other's shoulders, the Four Tops, a tacked up snap of Mick Jagger.

"And here's me," Jaffe said, chuckling as he pointed to a smiling photo of his younger self, "a lot skinnier."

He led me down a hallway lined with gold and platinum albums -- Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is," Faith No More's "The Real Thing," Maria Muldaur's Bob Dylan tribute album "Heart of Mine," and a number of gleaming others.

"And here's the control room," he announced, swinging open the door to a work space where he's spent a great deal of his adult life. "We've gone through four consoles since we opened, which is kind of amazing, and now we're using a digital controller."

Impressively, Jaffe has kept pace with the industry's breakneck changes in technology and equipment, shifting from analog to digital while still keeping analog available for those who prefer to record old school.

"It's a brutal business in that regard," he sighed. "You have to keep up if you want to compete in the world today."

With partner Dan Godfrey and two others, he boldly opened Studio D during the heyday of the famed Plant Studios, originally the Record Plant, the glamorous rock star haven on the Sausalito waterfront that closed in 2008.

The Plant is now a redwood-sided relic, a famous casualty of the digital revolution, meeting the same fate as the moribund major record labels that used to pay big bucks for its services. It hasn't been easy, but Studio D has survived, one of a handful of Bay Area recording facilities from the golden era still in operation.

While he's working at the mixing board, Jaffe looks through tall glass windows into what he proudly calls "the big room," a capacious space with a 20-foot-high ceiling that is renowned for its "live" sound, especially for recording drums.

"The reason I built this place is that I was a guitar player and a composer and I was frustrated working in 'dead' rooms," he explained, standing on the large oriental rug where drummers set up their kits. "All the Plant rooms and all the Fantasy's rooms in the early '80s were very dead sounding. I wanted a live, ambient room that sounded like a club. We were really the first big, live room in the Bay Area."

The Plant had three studios, A, B and C, so Jaffe says it was logical for him to name his place Studio D.

"We were within blocks of each other, but at that time there was more than enough work for everybody," he recalled.

At the height of their fame, Huey Lewis and the News recorded three albums in Studio D, preferring it over the Plant.

"We wanted to make records in our backyard, and at the time the Plant felt a bit like a clearing house," said News co-founder Johnny Colla. "We virtually lived at Studio D for a good stretch in the '80s. It was truly our home away from home."

It all started going south in the late '90s, when downloading and file-sharing spelled doom for the music industry. With musicians recording themselves with Pro Tools software, recording projects from Los Angeles and New York dried up. Jaffe had to reinvent himself, cutting rates, diversifying and focusing on local bands and musicians.

In a fiasco over sinking a small fortune into one of the first digital mixing boards, only to find that it didn't work, he lost his Novato house and struggled mightily financially, but still kept Studio D open, working on DVDs by Night Ranger, Carlos Santana and Wayne Shorter. Slide guitarist Roy Rogers recorded three albums there, and Bonnie Raitt chose Studio D to re-record her classic hits for release on iTunes only.

"Of course, the Bay Area has a lot of wonderful musicians and artists and we were lucky in that we had clients who were very loyal," he said. "We had to stand on our own and create our own work."

With Godfrey and partners Jeff Shea, Jason Victorine and Roger Hatchett, he recently formed Mad Music, a record label and music publisher with 10 live albums ready for release.

"It's challenging, but I'm very busy," he said, turning reflective as he looked back at his career. "Thirty years went by pretty fast. I was thinking the other day about all of the wonderful artists who have come through our doors and all the amazing talent I've produced and engineered over the years. Every day I question my sanity, but I'm blessed. I'm pretty happy."

Contact Paul Liberatore via email at liberatore@marinij.com; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.

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(c)2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

Visit The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) at www.marinij.com

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