An oral history of 89.3 the Current's in-studio performances

Categories: Radio
Photo by Nate Ryan, courtesy of MPR
One oft-overlooked aspect of 89.3 the Current is that it has access to one of the best recording studios in the region. Since the station began in 2005, Minnesota Public Radio's Studio M and Studio P (technical specs here) have hosted between 1,400 and 1,500 sessions with local and national talent like Phoenix, Lana Del Rey, Adele, Miguel, Broken Social Scene, and so many more that can be found in the in-studio archives.

With the insights of technical director Michael DeMark, who oversees most of them, and the stories of other present and past staff, here's an oral history of the in-studios at the Current.

See Also: 89.3 the Current: An Oral History

Michael DeMark, technical director: I've worked in public radio since the early '80s. If you're gonna do music in public radio it's classical, folk, and jazz primarily. My heart has always been in rock 'n' roll. I was doing mainly classical here, and then when the Current started, I said to Thorn and to Steve Nelson, "Pick me, pick me! I'm ready to engineer." At first there was not a position for a staff engineer for the Current. I was committed to the classical show St. Paul Sunday, which was a weekly nationally syndicated live performance. So I didn't get to do as many sessions as I would have liked for the first probably two years on the Current.

At first, the Current usually used the much-smaller Studio P room because Studio M was prioritized for classical use.

Lindsay Kimball, assistant program director: When we first launched there was a lot of difficulty trying to convince bands to come in, and even convince the company to be like, yeah, rock 'n' roll can be in this fancy studio. So we were always in the other studio.

Sarah Lutman, former senior vice president of content and media at MPR:
There were some things that nobody had thought through very well. One of them was how many bands would want to be in the studio, and how often it would be. That takes engineers, that takes studio space. Other guests, when they say they'll be here at 3 p.m. would be here at 3 p.m. -- whereas Current guests maybe 3 p.m. or thereabouts. There was this whole figuring out, how is this actually going to work if people are ten hours late because the bus from Chicago broke down or whatever. There were some cultural shifts that were needed. We did have to figure out how we were going to do it all with the studios we had.

Derrick Stevens, production manager: A lot of them were live. And we started pre-recording more just to keep things a little bit tighter. We were trying to figure out how we could get those listeners to stay tuned for that, because that was something that we thought was original, and it was something that other radio stations in the market weren't doing. We thought that could be our niche.

Studio P is the less well-equipped studio. I mean, by radio station standards, it's a great studio, but we're spoiled here, you know, so its kind of like, "Oh no, Studio P!" People are kind of thrilled to actually see that studio if they don't see Studio M. Many, many of the early sessions were done in that room.

One of the more disastrous ones I've had, unfortunately, was Patti Smith, which was in Studio P. The headphone mix was screwed up, and I just couldn't figure out why. She kept saying, "I need more of my voice." She got really impatient, and I just couldn't figure it out. It was very frustrating, and I think I blasted her with feedback at one point. That was years ago. She was here a few months ago and I wouldn't even go. Everybody was hanging out and getting pictures taken, and I was like, "I'm not going over there, she might remember me."

Photo by Nate Ryan, courtesy of MPR
Michael DeMark, with music assistant Jon Schober
As time passed and the Live Current albums proved popular, Studio M became the standard spot for in-studio sessions.

Ali Lozoff, marketing director for the Current, now for MPR: Studio M, just having access to that board and the space and the sound that is created when bands play, is like a dream come true. When bands walked in, and especially when we were just getting started, we were competing with Cities 97 and other stations. We were convincing bands to come over here, and we'd say, "But you can play in this studio, where this was recorded," and they'd be like, "Oh, okay, we do know who you are."

DeMark: Most radio stations have a very small performance space, or they just put people in their on-air studio, so bands are a little stunned when they come in here and see this space. It's a great-sounding room, it's a great-looking room, it's huge by any recording studio standards -- except for the huge rooms in L.A. or New York. The studio was built for classical music, in the '80s, and I guess the goal was to make a room that was big enough to put the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra -- just barely -- but it is big enough for that. Classical music really needs space and air for the sound to develop and to breathe. Rock musicians can spread out a little bit.

Jim McGuinn, program director: DeMark's great, and he connects really well with the bands. And what I love is that we can enable listeners to connect with the bands too. I'm bummed out that sometimes it's just us five feet from that artist.

DeMark: I call a manager or an engineer and find out what the set-up is, what we're gonna do. I try to be at least 90 percent set up when they arrive. We do things professionally here and people really appreciate that. Typically for a full band session, they'll arrive at a given time, load them in, set it up, sound check, record three songs, two interview segments, maybe a retake if they need it, and pack them up and get them out in less than two hours, usually.

Most of them click pretty well, you know? They'll come in and listen and say it sounds great. By and large we do a pretty good job, and stuff sounds the way they want it to. The Avett Brothers worked really well.

If Yo Yo Ma is going to come in to do a national radio show, you've got to have a tuned Steinway in the 'hood. When an indie rock band comes in they're like, "Whoa you've got a tuned Steinway." Most radio stations cant afford that, so we're very fortunate as far as I'm concerned.

David Safar, music director: It has a new 88 RS. It's like the same mixing board that they have at the Capitol Records building.

DeMark: We have back line gear, guitar amps, bass amp, piano and drum kit, so especially for touring bands, it makes it pretty easy for them to come in and not have to unload their whole truck, just bring their instruments. If they want to bring their amps, they're welcome to, but we just kind of make it easy. Local bands will tend to want to bring their own gear more often because for many of them its their big chance to record in a nice studio and they have more time. The touring bands are a little road-weary and they usually have to get to a sound check and they're just happy to not have to schlep their stuff up here.

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