Red Light Fever: Engineering at Esplanade

Published  April 2015

antigravity_vol12_issue6_Page_12_Image_0001When I imagine a beautiful, cutting-edge recording facility, Esplanade Studios most accurately resembles the grand fantasy conjured up by my imagination. Opened in 2013 and located in the historic Treme neighborhood, the studio resides in a gorgeously restored 1920s church, which closed in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina. Walking up the steps, I am enthralled by the Southern Gothic architecture and scenery. Upon entering the building though, I’m transported to a place that appears generations different from the outside setting. The massive live room is lined with what must be hundreds of mic stands and cables (seriously, the thought of having to set up and break down this room makes my head hurt). Looking up, you can see into the Studio A control room, a badass 1,500 square foot space (complete with a sick new Neve 5088 console) that, along with the live room, is flooded with natural light, making for a peaceful yet energy- conducive environment. The facility has two other studios, Studio B and Studio C, all with a Protools setup. I would not mind kicking it at Esplanade every week, as it’s outfitted with a crazy list of equipment and gear, and is also equipped with a super chill, laid back lounge and kitchen area.

I sit down in Studio B with Casey Contreary, a young house engineer at the studio. He spends much of his time in this studio and is currently recording Leslie Smith, a local vocalist and songwriter. Not too long ago, Contreary was a college student who, although he had played music all of his life, realized he had no idea how a song was made, thus sparking his interest in programming, production, and engineering. In 2008, he began interning at (Esplanade Chief Engineer) Misha Kachkachishvili’s old studio, Axis, where he spent two years learning the craft of recording and producing music and eventually getting hired part-time on a per- session basis. About a year later came the purchase of the church. “When we were renovating Esplanade, we were at the same time still running sessions out of Axis, so it was hectic to say the least,” says Contreary.

It was almost two years ago, in 2013, when the studios at Esplanade finally asking for.” Although there is never a typical day for an engineer, there is a consistent formula that most use when it comes to tackling a recording session. On this topic, Contreary says, “When an artist or band comes in wanting to record an album or song, you need a game plan. You have to talk about the setup, figure out the instrumentation, what kind of music they play and what kind of vibe they’re going for. Do they want everyone in the same room for some sort of big rock live-sounding thing, or do they want a more complex production (including layering parts and orchestrating and arranging things which would require some isolation)? You bring people in and find out what they are going for and then you advise. It’s like being a consultant, like, ‘Okay, so this is what you are going for and this is what I think is the best way to get you there.’”

antigravity_vol12_issue6_Page_12_Image_0002This past carnival season was a busy and exciting time at Esplanade. Snarky Puppy, a jazzy-funk instrumental fusion band based in Brooklyn, New York, spent about two weeks at the studios to record a follow-up to their 2013 record, Family Dinner, as well as hold three live audience performances. About setting up and preparing for the sessions, Contreary says, “We tried to get one clear setup for this session because everyone was recording at the same time in the same room. We put a game plan together and Snarky actually brought in an engineer, so we were assisting him.” After wrapping up the sessions and performances, opened their doors. Since then, Contreary has been living his dream and has come to realize that every day as an engineer is a learning experience. “One thing I’ve learned from working at a studio is that you can prepare all you want, and then as soon as the artist you’re working with walks in, the plans may change, so you need to be quick on your feet and able to accommodate and provide whatever your client is Snarky Puppy took to social media to share some thoughts on their time recording at Esplanade: “The recording sessions for Family Dinner 2 have come to a close. There are no words to describe the experience… it was like a temporary utopia in the middle of New Orleans. People from all over the world coming together with incredible spirits, sharing music and their lives with each other. There was so much love here.” The sessions with Snarky Puppy also included a special guest, David Crosby.

As far as equipment goes, Esplanade has a lot of it, ranging from the cheaper stuff to very expensive, top-notch gear. When asked about accumulating new equipment Contreary said, “When you’re in the recording business I feel like that is standard. You’re constantly acquiring new tools. You have to stay current with what’s happening because technology is constantly evolving. We also have a lot of vintage equipment like microphones, preamps, compressors, equalizers, etc., so we kind of blend those two areas of modern and classic together.” For Contreary, his go-to microphone is the Neumann U67. “You could record that on pretty much anything and it would always sound good.”

Having been open for less than two years, Esplanade has accrued an impressive list of clientele, which is soon to include Trombone Shorty and Jordan Gonzalez. In the case of Snarky Puppy, they vibed well with Esplanade and found a studio where they felt at home, with engineers that they meshed well with. Contreary perfectly explains why that is so crucial, and also how Esplanade stands out from other studios around town: “If you find a place that you’re comfortable with, I think that you can get a good recording out of it. That’s most important. As far as what sets Esplanade apart, we definitely have a very large and great- sounding room, which is advantageous because you can make things sound smaller, but you can’t naturally make something sound bigger. You can do it with plug-ins, but it’s great to just have a big sense of space and to be able to fit a lot of people in there and have the room be able to accommodate it.”

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