Williamson Magnetic brings analog-only recording to Willy Street

The new studio will celebrate with an open house on Saturday, November 14.

Tessa Reina de Echeverria (left) and Mark Haines in the Williamson Magnetic control booth.

Tessa Reina de Echeverria (left) and Mark Haines in the Williamson Magnetic control booth.

Madison’s newest recording studio, Williamson Magnetic Recording Company, is a cross-generational collaboration between two members of the local music community.

Audio version produced by Dylan Brogan for WORT-FM. Get our podcast on iTunes and hear us every Thursday night on WORT's In Our Backyard local news show.

Tessa Reina de Echeverria and Mark Haines met a few years ago while working at Nature’s Bakery. Echeverria plays drums in the punk trio Gonzo Rongs, part of an exploding gaggle of young rock-n-roll bands in Madison, and was interested in learning the process of analog recording. Haines worked as an engineer at Madison’s beloved Smart Studios from 1989 until it closed in 2010 (in the process working on records from artists including Rainer Maria, Son Volt, Archers Of Loaf, and Braid), and is also a longtime musician, playing drums with outfits including the Cash Box Kings.

They decided to open a recording studio together, and in September Williamson Magnetic finally began taking shape in the basement of the 101-year-old Nature’s Bakery building at 1019 Williamson St. After the new studio officially celebrates its opening with a November 14 open house, it won’t be the only recording studio in Madison that can record bands on analog tape. But it will be Madison’s only exclusively analog recording operation. Williamson Magnetic has one eight-track tape machine for tracking and a two-track machine for mixing down, and that’s it. Haines and Echeverria are equal partners in the business. Haines will serve as the main engineer for now, but Echeverria will be taking a greater role in the recording process as she gains experience. They’re also open to occasionally hosting small shows at the space.

“When I think about recording, I want a certain feel that I remember from rock records growing up and listening to them,” Echeverria says. "I really love well-done live records, the feeling you can get from musicians playing with each other. I wanted to have that not just for my band, but have a space for it that feels like an accessible thing. Oftentimes small bands don’t have the money to go to a recording studio and spend several hundred dollars a day to make a record like that. So the option is, ‘I recorded this in my basement.’ I did that a few times and I wasn’t happy with what I got."

The space feels pointedly low-key for a recording studio, consisting mostly of one big live room and a small control booth, with a few spaces off the main room that can eventually function as isolation rooms. The studio space has some natural soundproofing—it’s mostly below ground and its windows are thick glass bricks—which helps to explain how they can get away with playing music in a building on a mostly residential block. Echeverria and Haines have some final sound-treatment and repairs left to do before they’re officially ready, but they’re keeping the space’s beautifully worn old wood floor and open feel. It already has a built-in stage that can serve as a drum riser. This creates an environment that’s especially conducive to a band recording live-in-studio.

“It just seems to make people more comfortable when they have sight lines and they can hear what’s actually happening rather than having to wear headphones all the time,” Haines says.

Compared with most recording studios, Williamson Magnetic is damn near spartan when it comes to gear. But what Echeverria and Haines do have is well-chosen. The two tape machines are vintage MCI units restored to like-new condition, and since the main tape machine is only 8 tracks, the mixing consoles aren’t huge. Haines said his time at Smart helped him select solid analog gear that wouldn’t break the bank.

“A lot of the really coveted things are so expensive,” he says. "With my experience working at a studio that had essentially no fiscal limitations to gear purchase, I learned about what’s great and what I liked, and then how to find a good deal and how to get as close to the best things that I’ve ever used without spending a vast fortune.”

There is one big intimidating piece of gear in the room, though: the German-built EMT 140 plate reverb unit, which uses an 8-by-4-foot sheet of steel to generate what Haines calls "the gold standard for reverb, back in the day before digital reverb was invented and used.” As a backup, he adds, “We bought a digital reverb, which will remain nameless.”

Although Williamson Magnetic hasn’t started actually booking recording clients yet, it has one session under its belt. Madison trio Tarpaulin tracked a new EP there in October, and plan to release it soon through local tape label Rare Plant. Tarpaulin will also be playing the studio’s open house, along with blues from harmonica player Jim Liban and Madison-raised guitarist Joel Paterson (with Haines on drums), a solo set from Matt Joyce of The Midwest Beat, and new Madison rock trio Pollinators. You pretty much never see someone like Joel Paterson on a bill with someone like Tarpaulin, but for Williamson Magnetic’s owners, that’s exactly the point.

“It’s part of a mix of my music scene and Mark's music scene,” Echeverria says. "Mark plays blues music and I play garage-rock. That’s something I want to get across at the open house and hopefully for the space in general, is that it’s open to any type of music.”