Kristina Stykos is hoping that a good number of musicians make it to her newly reopened recording studio in Lincoln today (May 27). After a two-year hiatus and a move across the state from its previous location in Chelsea, Pepperbox Studio is ready to take on new clients.
Perhaps the only freelance female recording engineer in Vermont, Stykos relocated her studio to larger quarters with amenities for clients that include an Airbnb cottage that is available to musicians when not rented.
Stykos hopes that the new studio will attract clients with its sound qualities and relaxed rural location. She started her career as an engineer in 2005 by recording her own album and has since recorded nine albums of her own music and more than 30 for clients.
Stykos said she was “pleased and confident that our efforts during the past two years will make this studio a premier destination point for recording in Vermont, providing a welcome twist to the local recording scene.”
In discussing the new location, Stykos emphasized her love of acoustic music, but stressed that she is prepared to “take the controls for almost any kind of session: non-conforming, loud, soft, self-conscious, boldly improvised or carefully orchestrated.”
In relocating to Lincoln, where she had lived in the 1990s and where two of her three children were born, Stykos said that while the new studio is close to Burlington, it still retains a lot of the rural atmosphere that she developed in her previous Chelsea location, perhaps the only Vermont recording studio that operated off the grid. In the new location, which is fully on the grid with a backup power system just in case, there could be days when clients may “have to check with me as to whether your vehicle will make it up the road. Can be muddy, can be slick. Fluctuating between bucolic and fiercely unpredictable.”
The pandemic was hard on a lot of businesses, including recording studios. Stykos moved during COVID because of the lack of work. “People were staying home, and I lost clients,” she said. As a typical Vermonter, she said her other business, landscaping, had to sustain her financially when studio work was hard to come by.
Recording studios also have faced a change in the music industry turning away from the production of compact discs. “Music doesn’t sell, it streams unless you are a touring group,” said Stykos.
While the new Pepperbox Studio is not in an urban area, she said her location is “not in the middle of nowhere.” She is an hour from Burlington and near Middlebury and Bristol. In her business plan, being closer to the Burlington music scene and other nearby communities will mean “new interactions with musicians over here.”
While to the casual visitor, the new studio space seems very high-tech with wires, connectors and an army of microphone stands, Stykos claims this is “not a super high-tech studio.” Because she is a musician-engineer, she said she keeps the gear at a professional but somewhat subdued level. “I have a small setup that’s high quality,” she explained.
While Pepperbox can accommodate a full rock band, and she has previously recorded bands, Stykos’ reputation is based on her specialty. “My stamp acoustically is very acoustic guitar-centric. I tend to keep the guitars up front in the mix.” She described her engineering style as “roots-rock quality.” The sound Stykos aims for “is more acoustic rock ’n’ roll in the vein of Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, and the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
While recording engineers often don’t get their due when it comes to the final product, Stykos said there are definite ways to get the most out of a recording session. “People who come prepared are the easiest to work with,” she explained. “I don’t like to reconstruct a recording with editing or pitch control.” She also focuses on the final mix of all the tracks. “Mixing is incredibly influential. That defines my sound a lot.”
Throughout the 18 years she has been recording, Stykos found certain abilities most important to a recording engineer. “You have to be meticulous, detail-oriented and be relentless and discerning,” she said. Recording “takes a lot of mental acuity and can be mentally taxing.” As some who enter a recording studio for the first time are nervous, an important part of her job is, “to be able to make the performer relaxed and comfortable.”
Stykos said she would like to see more women in the business. “There’s definitely a push to get women into the industry.,” she said. Part of the problem for her and other women may be the “lack of collegiality in the industry. The guys don’t reach out to share info.”
As she restarts her recording studio, Stykos said she doesn’t think competition will hurt her. “There’s not many studios in this area, but more in Burlington.” Urban America is seeing “a burgeoning industry,” she observed, while “in Vermont it’s kind of static.”
Stykos is counting on word of mouth and social media and her website and blog to attract perspective clients. “People will become familiar with me in this part of the state, through social media,” she predicted.
With her résumé of recordings available, Stykos said she hopes to continue to attract singer-songwriters who make up the core of her clients. She said her style of recording and new location should appeal to “people tired of the traditional recording studio experience, which can be tense.” Being female may also help, “some people feel more comfortable with a woman behind the controls.”
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