Where sweet music is made: Sonelab Studios offers bands, others a place to record

  • Mark Alan Miller, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Matt Foran with the band Plutus Hubrus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Alan Miller, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Matt Foran with the band Plutus Hubrus. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Alan Miller, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Matt Foran of the band Plutus Hubrus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Alan Miller, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Matt Foran with the band Plutus Hubrus. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A view of the mixing board at Sonelab in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Justin Pizzoferrato, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, and Henning Ohlenbusch, a guitarist with The Fawns, listen as Lesa Bezo, the vocalist, song writer and guitarist with The Fawns , works on a song. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Justin Pizzoferrato, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, and Henning Ohlenbusch, a guitarist with The Fawns, listen as Lesa Bezo, the vocalist, song writer and guitarist with The Fawns , works on a song. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Justin Pizzoferrato, right, and Henning Ohlenbusch, a guitarist with The Fawns, listen as Lesa Bezo, the vocalist, song writer and guitarist with The Fawns, works on a song. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Justin Pizzoferrato, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Henning Ohlenbusch and Lesa Bezo, of The Fawns. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Justin Pizzoferrato, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Henning Ohlenbusch and Lesa Bezo, with The Fawns. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Justin Pizzoferrato, co-owner of Sonelab in Easthampton, works on a piece with Henning Ohlenbusch and Lesa Bezo, with The Fawns. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer 
Published: 4/21/2019 11:16:49 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The year was 2011 and two recording engineers were searching for a new place to ply their craft.

Unbeknownst to one another, Mark Alan Miller and Justin Pizzoferrato were each looking for a new place to set up shop; Miller was in the process of closing Slaughterhouse Recording Studio in Westhampton and Pizzoferrato had closed up his studio, Bank Row Recording in Greenfield, the year before.

Neither knew that a chance encounter at the house of a mutual friend a few years prior would end up with the pair opening a new recording studio in The BrickYard called Sonelab. That friend’s name is J Mascis, a singer and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. Pizzoferrato was recording Dinosaur Jr.’s “Beyond” at Mascis’ home studio at the time, when Miller stopped by to drop off some recording hardware.

“We met briefly, kind of in passing,” Pizzoferrato, 36, of Northampton, recalled on a recent afternoon at Sonelab.

“He needed to build a new studio, I needed to build a new studio,” said Miller, 49, of Easthampton.

“A friend of ours said, ‘Guys, why are you building two studios. You could build one together,’” Miller said.

And they did just that in 2012.

A studio begins

Built in the backside of the mill building, the studio has a nondescript white exterior that’s hard to find unless one’s looking for it.

Sonelab Studios has two control rooms with large mixing consols with inputs for all the instruments that need recording. These long mixers control the amount of sound coming in through the live room where musicians record. They enable recording engineers to arrange how all the instruments sound together.

Miller and Pizzoferrato each have small windows from their separate control rooms facing into a large performance space, which is full of microphones, guitar amps, keyboards and guitars. Bands can record as an ensemble in the large room all together, but often times certain instruments — such as guitars, bass and drums — will be recorded in isolation rooms next to the main performance space.

Musicians in the isolation rooms are hooked up to headphones where they can still hear everything that’s being played, but they are not always in the direct line of sight of the rest of the band. The advantage of having musicians record in an isolated room is so any mistakes or blemishes on the recording can be cleaned up afterward, Miller said.

The shared performance space also means that it is used nearly every day. As Miller and Pizzoferrato work on their separate projects with clients, it is typical for one to record for a few days and then move into the mixing and mastering process while the other records a band.

“We schedule around each other and the room is used almost every day,” Miller said.

Recording, mixing and overdubbing sessions at Sonelab are $50 an hour, which includes an engineer. Mastering is a flat rate of $30 an hour. There are also 10 rehearsal spaces that the studio rents to bands. Those rooms have been full since the studio opened in 2012.

A band in action

On a recent afternoon, Northampton band The Fawns were at Sonelab on their second day of tracking for a new album. The previous day the band had recorded five songs and spent the following day cleaning up some guitar parts.

“Should we punch these sections?” asked Pizzoferrato as he looked over his shoulder to Fawns member Hanning Ohlenbusch. They sat in the control room listening to Lesa Bezo, singer and guitarist for the group, overdubbing electric guitar on a new song.

A white board on one side of the room had all the different instruments, band members, and songs written with a black marker. All the different parts for each song were divided into rows and columns. A keyboard rested on a couch in the control room. Nearly every surface was covered with magazines, CD covers, coffee mugs, and books such as “I Am Ozzy” and “The Beatles Recording Sessions.”

Pizzoferrato nodded his head along to a march-like drum beat as Bezo played a crescendoing guitar line with some light spring reverb. In front of him was a computer monitor with long and colored rectangular boxes that corresponded to each instrument recorded in the song. Wavelengths within the boxes gave Pizzoferrato a clear visual marker of where to start recording Bezo’s guitar.

“I’ll drop you right at the end of the chorus,” Pizzoferrato said to Bezo through the control room’s microphone and into a pair of headphones Bezo wore while recording.

A wish come true

By the time Miller and Pizzoferrato left high school, they each knew they wanted to have their own recording studio one day. Miller first learned how to use a four-track recorder when his brother taught him at age 4; Pizzoferrato’s father owned a music store and he was surrounded by instruments and musical equipment growing up outside Hartford, Connecticut.

“The process of recapturing sound and playing it back was the fascination for me,” Miller said about learning to use a four-track. He grew up in Amherst and he would go to the WMUA radio station at the University of Massachusetts during his years in middle and high school. There, Miller learned to use the equipment from the chief engineer who was “either really patient or kind to me, or both,” he said.

After freelancing for local recording studios for a few years, he became a partner for Slaughterhouse with Paul McNamara, who now co-owns Spirithouse Recording Studio in Northampton. From 2001 to 2012, Miller ran Slaughterhouse as the sole owner, once McNamara left to open Spirithouse with Danny Bernini in 2001.

After graduating from high school, Pizzoferrato moved to Boston and attended the Massachusetts Communication College, where he learned the fundamentals of recording and interned and later worked at Woolly Mammoth Sound in Boston.

“It was pretty mind-blowing to me,” Pizzoferrato said about working at Wooly Mammoth. “I wanted to work at a studio that had no frills. We’d record rock bands on 2-inch tape machines and I learned a lot about mic technique, different types of guitar amps and really everything — stuff that I still use every day. It was pretty formative.”

After about four years in Boston, Pizzoferrato ventured to western Massachusetts where he started Bank Row within a year. The studio occupied a bank building on Federal Street, and around the same time, he met J Mascis and began working on “one-off solo tracks” with him.

“A few months later, his manager called me and he said, ‘Dinosaur Jr. wants to make a new record and J wants you to engineer it,’ ” Pizzoferrato said. “Amazing. This is surreal. Band I’ve been listening to half my life wants to make a new record and they want me to work with them. That was pretty awesome.”

For both Pizzoferrato and Miller, Sonelab is the studio they always wanted.

“I can’t realistically imagine doing anything else,” Miller said. “I’ve always been fascinated with sound and electronics and I’ve always been a very avid music lover.”

Sonelab hosts multimedia events, called cirques, in collaboration with Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, a publication founded by Miller’s wife, Elizabeth MacDuffie. Their next event is scheduled for June 1.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong location for Sonelab. 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com




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