Sweetwater inSync Spotlight: Mystery Street Recording
Our President and Lead Engineer, Joe Tessone, was featured in Sweetwater’s Insync Customer Studio Spotlight! Joe answered questions about his audio upbringing and what makes Mystery Street great! As a long-time customer with Sweetwater, we are thrilled to have worked with them on this. Check out the interview below…
Customer Studio Spotlight: Mystery Street Recording Company
By Mac McDonough on Apr 23, 2019, 8:00 AM
Packed to the gills with top-shelf gear, Mystery Street Recording Company is one of Chicago’s premier recording destinations. Besides recording, mixing, and mastering, Mystery Street also offers an around-the-clock rehearsal space and a state-of-the-art audio preservation lab. Company president/lead engineer Joe Tessone was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself and his studio, as well as his place in the greater global community.
I am president and lead audio engineer at Mystery Street Recording Company in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve had an interest in music since I was a kid. Having an older brother and sister helped with that, since they introduced me to some really cool music early in life. I was obsessed with my brother’s CD collection filled with the Pixies, Goldfinger, Nirvana, and NOFX albums. I vividly recall my sister refusing to let me leave her bedroom until I memorized all of the lyrics to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.” I couldn’t have been older than nine then.
Do you play any instruments yourself? What inspired you to get into music?
Like most audio engineers I’ve met, I first wanted to be some kind of rock star, and I got my first guitar when I was 13. My best friend also played, and he had way better chops than I had, so when we eventually formed a band, I became the vocalist. I mostly used my guitar for songwriting. In a later band, I picked up a little bass, keys, and percussion. Then I got really into playing banjo in my 20s. I like to say that I can play a lot of different instruments, but none of them very well, which is why I had to be an engineer. I became very good at editing music while trying to fix my own performances!
How long have you been into recording and audio engineering? What kind of gear did you use when you were first starting out? How did your interest evolve into a full-time vocation? How long has your current studio been in business?
Mystery Street Recording has been in business since 2007 and has been constantly growing in size and services ever since.
I’ve had an interest in recording since I was about 11 years old and my family got our first home computer. I would play on Windows 95’s Sound Recorder for hours and hours, making little one-minute audio stories from sound bites of The Simpsons, South Park, and just random sound effects.
I got my first taste of music production when I was 15 and my band at the time recorded our first EP at our friend Eddie’s home studio, which was a dark basement with a couple of “isolation booths” that were just a bunch of old mattresses acting as walls. We recorded live to cassette. A couple years later, I spent some time recording hip-hop tracks for a coworker using his sampler, beat machine, and a TASCAM 4-track cassette recorder. I ended up buying that little rig from him for cheap when he was short on his car payment one month, and that became my first recording setup. Soon after, I went back to my friend Eddie’s place for a few demo tracks, and he had upgraded to a Pro Tools system, and my whole world changed. That year, I went out and bought my first system that I could use to multitrack record a full band, a Digidesign Digi 002 with an 8-channel Behringer ADA8000. My band was using it to record and play backing tracks for our live performance, and that evolved into live recording some of the bands I was sharing the stage with. I continued to put all of the money I made from these gigs into purchasing more and more gear, especially microphones. That helped me to get enough gear together to start a little home studio.
I really started to build my client base there, since at that point I had moved into the city and just started attending Columbia College Chicago. I was meeting new people all the time, including my soon-to-be business partner, Mickey Cushing (currently a Sweetwater Sales Engineer). In my senior year at Columbia, I took an audio archiving internship at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Those early relationships were integral for building my current business, Mystery Street Recording Company.
Your credits include Steven Tyler, the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Lisa Loeb, Wayne Kramer, John Feldmann, Chance the Rapper, Thom Yorke, the Lumineers, and David Crosby, and your work has been featured on MTV, Q101, WGN-TV, and in Mix magazine. That’s a pretty diverse list — what other kinds of projects have you worked on?
After 15 years in the business, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented people in a lot of different ways. For about half of my professional career, I have been an audio engineering consultant for Sensaphonics Musicians Earplugs and In-Ear Monitors. With them, I have worked with countless touring artists, advising them on in-ear monitor gear, and more importantly, ways to use that gear to help save their hearing. That’s something I’m very proud of.
On the studio production side, my focus is local, independent musicians and bands. Coming up in a small, close-knit punk and indie community, supporting DIY music is important to me. It is our primary mission at Mystery Street.
Your studio is loaded with great gear — a 32-channel Amek console, Pro Tools HD system, and a bunch of high-end gear from API, UA, Manley, Neve, and more. What are your favorite pieces of gear? What mics do you reach for first? What plug-ins do you use?
I like getting things right on the input side of things. In my opinion, microphone choice and placement, plus the right preamp, is the most critical part of capturing the sound you want. That being said, I love weird effects and doing unconventional production. We have a little neon sign in the studio that reads “Let’s Get Weird.” That is what keeps music fresh and interesting.
Some specific microphones that I reach for a lot are the Neumann U 87 or Shure KSM32, both are just total workhorse mics that capture a performance in an honest way. I also use our Placid Audio carbon-diaphragm mics as a lo-fi/coloration mic on almost every music production session. On the preamp side, our John Hardy M-1 and API pres always find a way into my productions. For compression, the Universal Audio 1176 is classic and always works. They are a great company to do business with, too.
For plug-ins, again, Universal Audio. Their EMT 140 plate is the only plug-in reverb I will dare put on my mixes. I also really like what I can do with Soundtoys, especially Devil-Loc. That plug-in is just insanely useful.
You’ve got four tracking rooms with a really relaxed, musician-friendly layout. Did you design your studio yourself?
When we were searching for a space for Mystery Street, we were originally planning to do our own build-out, but this space landed in front of us and it was a turnkey location. We had very little opening equity, so finding a place that we didn’t need to invest $100k into a build-out gave us a better budget for gear.
The rooms in the studio were designed and built by Andy Sickle, a former audio professor at Columbia College. We changed a few things around to accommodate our workflow, but kept the original design of the main rooms. The biggest change was moving the control room and adding more windows in the studios for complete line of sight from the control room through Studio A and B. We find that when musicians are able to play from their bandmates visual cues and see their energy, we can capture a better performance.
In addition to recording, mixing, and mastering, one of the highlights of your studio is your audio preservation lab — it’s even recommended by the Library of Congress. What got you into audio restoration?
Building our audio preservation lab has been a labor of love. While I was still in high school, I bought the Woody Guthrie 4-disc collection of the Asch Recordings and got really into the history of Moses Asch’s field recordings and his purpose as a record producer. I studied his life and recordings quite a bit. Then, in my senior year at Columbia, I was offered an audio archiving internship at the Old Town School of Folk Music. It was a perfect way for me to put my interest into practice. Upon graduation, I was offered a staff position at Old Town, and I spent around four years there preserving their incredible collection of homegrown recordings. In the meantime, I was slowing building our own audio preservation lab at Mystery Street. By 2012, the Mystery Street’s lab became larger and could handle far more format types than we could in-house at Old Town School, and we moved the bulk of the remaining audio preservation work to Mystery Street’s lab.
At this point, Mystery Street has worked with hundreds of amazing audio collections, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, WFMT, and NPR. There is almost no format that we can’t transfer and restore. Everything from cassettes and open-reel tapes to wire recordings, transcription records, and those pesky DATs.
Mystery Street Recording is reputed to be Chicago’s most vegan-friendly recording studio. What’s that all about?
Mystery Street Recording has a strong mission statement that extends beyond just offering excellent customer service and high-quality sound. Part of our mission is refusing to turn a blind eye to oppression and confronting bigotry and hatred across our industry and community.
Aside from being an audio engineer, my wife, Kristen, and I are both long-time vegans and animal rights activists. With the company being such a big part of our lives, it is impossible for me to operate the business purely for personal economic reasons. That’s why we have a greater mission and policies that ensure our company will always do what it can to make the world a kinder place for people, the environment, and all other inhabitants of our planet.
What’s your favorite part about being a Sweetwater customer?
The thing I love about buying from Sweetwater is the personal relationships that we have with the company’s sales team. They are always looking out for us and introducing us to new products that can help our business. As a multifaceted audio engineer, I need to meet my clients’ needs at a moment’s notice. Sweetwater helps us by providing super-fast turnaround and trustworthy advice.
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