Fire Hyena Recording Studio • The Best Kept Secret in the Great Lakes Bay Region

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, , Artist Feature,   From Issue 933   By: Robert E Martin

04th August, 2022     0

As we continue with profiles on some of the top winners at this year’s 36th Annual REVIEW Music Awards, this issue we turn the spotlight upon Christopher Lewis and Fire Hyena Studio, who was selected by the voting public with the honor of Best Recording Studio of 2022.

As a full-service recording, mixing and mastering facility that is owned and operated by Lewis and located at 2707 Cecilia Street in Saginaw, since its inception Chris has recorded, mixed, and engineered music for artists as divergent and respected as David Asher & The Process, Sharrie Williams, Carrie Westbay, and Larry McCray.

Whether it’s a Jazz, Indy, Death Metal, Pop, Gospel, Classical, EDM, Rock, or just a voice over project, Lewis has cultivated his talents through decades of experience and dedicated himself to capturing the sound of each artist he works with through adopting a unique approach that he takes with each artist that walks into his studio, which he opened back in 2005.

“Over the past 17 years I’ve recorded something like 1,200 albums and worked with approximately 500 acts over that period,” he explains. “I’ve also done some work for Warner Brothers, but I like to keep it low and humble when it comes to my other outside professional recording work.”

For Lewis it all began when he first started playing guitar and bass around the age of 12, forming his first band when he was 14-years old.  “I played in a couple bands back in high school and was a huge supporter of the music scene, dating back to the James Town Hall, Lincoln Town Hall, and Capitol Theatre shows in Flint,” he recalls. “I played all those different places when I was kid and turned my focus into recording live sound later in life.”

“As a kid I would listen to things and pull out whatever particular sound was happening on snare drum, for example, and learn what reverbs and delays were doing to various instruments,” he continues. “The first band who captured my interest in the way they sounded was Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ album. It had lots of really good layering going on and that record was way ahead of its time.”

While his curiosity quickly translated into countess hours of self-taught methods towards recording, Chris says his talents evolved thanks to engineer Randy Bowen, who had a studio in Bay City and eventually moved to Nashville. “I interned under him and he gave me access to tape machines and late hours, so he would let me record stuff when he wasn’t working with other bands, and taught me a bit about compression and equalizing.”

Although a debate has waged since the advent of digital recording over whether analog tape methods and vinyl recordings sound warmer and more natural than digital methods, the way Chris sees it, “Basically digital took analog and made it into a screen. You still have to look at gain staging on the way in; and good pre-amps, microphones, and good players always help the cause.  If you get good sounds coming in you’ll get good sounds coming out, no matter whether using digital or analog gear.”

“I’m a hybrid studio and use a lot of analog gear and a computer,” he continues. “For me equalization needs to be precise and I use a lot of EQ’s, 1073 Pre-Amps and BAE transformer amplification, which is on a par with NEVE analog boards. (Editor’s Note: NEVE boards were used at Sound City in Los Angeles, where numerous artists from Neil Young to Tom Petty recorded much of their best work). BAE own diagrams for the actual NEVE circuitry, so if you want a cap or a transformer for a NEVE board, you have to go through BAE to get it - they’re a good company.”

When asked what he feels distinguishes his approach to engineering, Chris says for him it’s his clients how he deals with his clients once they step into his studio.

“I’m a musician so want to bring out the best of what they have to offer,” he reflects. “I encourage people to find their own way and am not heavy-handed with my own ideas, but am not adverse to encouraging different approaches and trying something to see if it works. Sometimes this leads to rabbit holes that need to happen, but I want the best that I can get out of an artist..”

“I also hear music differently,” he continues. “I don’t like to record a band until I’ve had an opportunity to see them live first. This gives me an insight into the energy they have and ultimately when recording, helps to make a better recording. Most bands and artists like the rawness of a live performance but want to sound commercial, which is more like a ‘radio friendly sound’; but I don’t want to lose the sound of the band by needlessly layering things and changing their sound so it’s not the same band anymore.”

“Unfortunately, with all the plug-ins and technology on the market you can make everybody sound the same nowadays, which to my mind makes music sterile and is what happens when you let commercial engineers take over,” reflects Chris. “I give The Beatles a lot of credit for pushing their engineers to be engineers so they could create things as a band and capture what’s in their head. Nowadays anybody can get a Macintosh and make their music sound more generic. I go for energy and shoot for a signature sound that can still hang strong with what the big commercial guys are putting out.”

One of the biggest complaints about studio recordings is how for many artists they tend to sound more sterile or lost in terms of the immediacy and energy of a live performance, so how does Chris go about translating the sound of a band in the studio without making them sound sterile?

“It depends upon the approach of the producer,” responds Chris. “I try to reel in the reigns on a band trying to oversell it, but ultimately it’s the artist or band I’m working with who I have to make pleased with the product they put out.  90% of what happens in the studio is acting in the sense to get that live energy the artist has to put themselves in the mindset they’re playing before thousands of people. If the performance isn’t there I don’t care how perfect the take sounds, the goal is make sure the performance doesn’t fall flat, because they will know it and won’t like the recording.”

“I want them to like the recording and feel it stands up to their peers, or can be put into any play list and feel like it belongs there because it has that energy.  Half my job as an engineer is psychology: how to put them into that sweet spot and get them there. With seasoned professionals its easier, but with the more green acts that haven’t spent a ton of time in the studio or don’t understand the push and pull involved, you have to work with them.”

“If it’s a singer I like to record a warm up take so I can set the levels properly, and sometimes they will give me their all and can nail it with one take; but I try to get a few takes and then put all the links together to create the best vocal track. That’s the beauty of some of the digital equipment - if the vocals are a little off you can blend the takes together.”

“Without doubt the most challenging component for any engineer is trying to give their clientele what they are looking for and bridging the gap between what they hear in their head and what I’m hearing; and if the two aren’t aligning, successfully explaining to them the difference so they understand what you mean.”

“Translating a band’s sound on a recording is the part of the job I like,” stresses Chris. “Because I like to watch bands and study them the studio allows me the opportunity to understand people and learn what their needs are and meet them from a recording perspective.”

When asked what artists he’s worked with recently who have created material that he’s most proud of, Chris points to several. “Sharrie Williams last record that she hasn’t released yet is amazing. She’s a fantastic person with a beautiful voice that carries so much power. Another group is Basic Fire out of Mt. Pleasant who are this trio into heavy bass, drums, and keyboards with a Rage Against the Machine type of vibe but are also creating something completely new.”

In terms of rates for his services, Chris says he prices everything at $30.00 per hour because it keeps him and his clients honest. “I’m way under market for the work I do locally,” he states, “because when I work out in Los Angeles I usually get $1200 to $1500 per day.”

When asked what advice he would give to bands or artists interested in taking their work and ideas into the studio, Chris shares some cogent points.  “Technology has changed recording drastically and it’s easy to record at home so everybody thinks they can,” he notes. “I was guilty of that too, which is how I got started. I spent two years not releasing anything because I didn’t like anything and didn’t realize how much goes into proper recording. Home recording is good for scratching things out, getting one’s parts correct, or signature changes figured out, which will save you a tremendous amount of time when you do record; but I recommend bands not to record themselves because they will spend too much time obsessing about the sound and are too close to the project.”

“It’s also good to have a budget in mind because you never know what’s going to happen in the studio,” he continues. “Usually you can do a full song from recording, mixing, and mastering anywhere from 8 to 15 hours per song, depending upon how good the band is and how prepared they are.”

“Regardless of whether you use my studio or Andy Reed’s studio, we both use really good gear,” notes Chris. “That’s the biggest difference you will hear. You’re not paying for the engineer so much as all the gear the engineer has. Andy has about $100,000 invested and so do I, and I think we’re both as professional as you get around this region. Some bands find it hard to understand that mentality because they might have $3,000 in gear invested in their entire home studio, whereas I have that amount invested in one microphone alone.”

“I’m never done learning,” concludes Chris. “Like with guitar playing, or songwriting, or any artistic craft, the day I stop learning is the day that I quit.”

For more information about Fire Hyena Recording Studio you can phone Chris at 989-450-6529 or visit their website at www.firehyena.com

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