Ryan Paquette (Right), owner of MuGen Music, hopes to promote the state’s thriving hip-hop scene on a national level. Photo by Dan Morgan.
Ryan Paquette (Right), owner of MuGen Music, hopes to promote the state’s thriving hip-hop scene on a national level. Photo by Dan Morgan.

Concerns over technology play a lesser role in hip-hop recording, where nearly everything is done via computer. Given the radically different nature of hip-hop, this reliance on digital technology makes sense. Very rarely do hip-hop songs – especially those recorded on a local level – contain actual instruments played by musicians. Instead, the tracks consist of a rapper laying lyrics on top of a beat constructed out of computer-generated rhythms and preexisting songs. Producers gain an extra level of importance in this process, since they take responsibility for bringing everything together on the musical end. Since many hip-hop songs contain snippets of other music, a legal obstacle also arises: the need to clear copyright. Though smaller operations sometimes sample without legal permission, professional outfits like MuGen must pay for the rights to various songs used in the recording process.

Once the music gets recorded, studios get to work on mixing and finishing the sound. If the song must be assembled from various recordings, the mixing process can become quite complex, with overdubs being used to bring everything together. Regardless of how the song gets assembled, post-production involves evening out and polishing the sound. Techniques such as reverberation (adding extra resonance) and compression (evening out the volume balance of the various instruments) smooth out the rough patches and create sonic harmony. The hope is that, with the right skill, a producer can elicit what Boaz calls “that goosebumpy feeling” from any recording, no matter how rough the initial sound.

Side Projects

Even with the Oklahoma music scene blossoming as it is, and with national acts more and more considering Oklahoma recording studios as viable options, it can be tough to foot the large expense of all that recording equipment through album cutting alone. Many Oklahoma studios engage in the common practice of lending out their services to companies looking to record things other than music.

The alternate uses for recording studios come in a variety of flavors, though much of it involves working for television. 115 Recordings collaborates frequently with Fox Sports and ESPN on sporting events; Studio Two has recorded for the Golf Channel, ESPN and A&E; and Breathing Rhythm has worked in the past with the HGTV channel. Voiceover for video games can also provide a revenue stream, as witnessed by 115’s large body of work with 2k Sports on its WWE line of games.

[pullquote]The music scene in Oklahoma keeps me constantly on my toes and challenges me to be better all the time,” he says. “There’s something really special about the musicians and how we grow them here.[/pullquote]Sometimes these extracurricular activities arise not from financial need but from individual passion. As a young studio, MuGen Music has yet to record any spots for television or video games, but it parlayed its passion for culture into a different sort of project: sponsoring a podcast. Paquette notes that this podcast airs uncensored on SoundCloud and reflects the studio’s bold approach. Covering music, film, art and anything else that strikes their fancy, the podcast tackles “hot topics with a no holds barred attitude,” Paquette says.

Oklahoma Proud

Whatever side projects these studios pursue, the focus always swivels back to music in the end, and with good reason, since more and more, Oklahoma offers a treasure trove of undiscovered talent waiting to be shared with the world. Oklahoma recording studios play a vital role in bringing this music to the public ear, and not only through the actual process of recording. In fact, these studios act as some of the primary champions of new and exciting musicians.

MuGen Music, for example, works to break down barriers to the world of hip-hop and bring new audiences in contact with its vital message. Paquette and company hope to chip away at the still pervasive stereotype of rap as a violent style of music, instead showing it as a force for positive social change. MuGen also aims to make a mark on the national hip-hop scene by proving that Oklahoma acts can hold their own against the best in the business. The Oklahoma hip-hop scene has long been saturated with talent, according to Paquette, but what has been missing is a professional structure in place to bring that music to the public. By combining recording with management and promotion, MuGen seeks to unleash a new wave of Oklahoma hip-hop on the world.

Boaz notes that he discovers most of his new talent through a network of friends and connections in the existing music business. As more Oklahoma acts gain exposure, Breathing Rhythm and other studios can expect their businesses to keep booming. This prospect excites Boaz, who finds opportunity for growth in the ever-expanding pool of talent.

“The music scene in Oklahoma keeps me constantly on my toes and challenges me to be better all the time,” he says. “There’s something really special about the musicians and how we grow them here.”

For Sharon, part of Oklahoma’s uniqueness consists in the nature of the recording studios themselves. According to him, an even higher number of studios than usual in Oklahoma are run by owner/operators such as himself. Though many studio operators receive official training at places like ACM, a large percentage, like Sharon, have taught themselves through years of hands-on experience. This leads to an individualized workflow that opens up chances for experimentation not found in more corporate settings.

In some ways, the boom in Oklahoma’s live music scene has not transferred over to the recording studios. Lollar notes that, as opportunities have increased for musicians to play full time for a living, there has been a corresponding jump in musicians without a home band. Instead of acts practicing and playing exclusively as a single band, it is common in Oklahoma for a musician to float from live performance to live performance as needed. This lets musicians grab multiple gigs a week and make more money, but it also means that bands have less time to cohere, which can effect their willingness to record albums. Still, as the music business evolves in Oklahoma, there are plenty of reasons to hope that it will benefit everyone involved, including recording studios.

Despite only being a few years old, ACM has already graduated several sound engineers who have set up independent studios in Oklahoma.

Of course, the owner/operator model also means that the people running Oklahoma’s studios have a financial investment that hits close to home. Their livelihood depends on producing distinct work, and this means that personality is an asset. It also means that recording studios want not just individual success, but the increased flourishing of Oklahoma music as a whole. This leads to a certain collegiality among the studios. Sharon, one of the old hands of the business by now, has decades of shared experience alongside other studios in the area, like Bell Labs Recording. Collaboration, more than competition, insures a high standard of quality for Oklahoma’s studios.

Then, of course, there’s the tricky matter of terroir. Is there just something special about Oklahoma that permeates its music scene, from the garages where bands rehearse to the studios where they record? Sharon, for one, seems to think so. In particular, he pinpoints a long tradition of Midwest uniqueness and local pride, an unwillingness to be defined by trends in New York or Los Angeles.

“Our filter is different. You’re not going to get that kind of filter on the East Coast or the West Coast,” he says.

Since the 1980s, Sharon contends, there has been a do-it-yourself aesthetic to many local acts that eschew influence even from nearby states like Texas. As an example, Sharon points to Oklahoma’s most famous home-grown band.

“The Flaming Lips could come from no place else, other than Oklahoma,” he says.

In many ways, Oklahoma music still struggles to emerge from the shadow of its towering acts, from The Flaming Lips back through Leon Russell to Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie. Having such monumental musicians as a part of Oklahoma history is inspiring, but it also creates a weight of expectation when so few groups achieve the same success. More and more, whether in the world of Americana or hip-hop or anything in between, Oklahoma musical acts seem intent on creating a thriving local culture of performance and recording. As the musicians themselves engage in this endeavor, Oklahoma’s recording studios are right alongside them, helping to press the record of the state’s musical ingenuity onto the public’s memory.

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