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Sound Education

John Weber was spending another summer day working in the basement of Daniels Hall, and he couldn’t have seemed more content. Weber, a senior music business major from Park Ridge, is an aspiring recording engineer, and in the Gretsch Recording Studio in Daniels Hall he has found a subterranean playground for audiophiles, a place to practice his craft.

“I’d be down here all the time if I could,” Weber said as he showed a visitor around the studio one recent morning. “I love trying different ways of capturing a performance, seeing what different microphones sound like set up at different angles. When I think about how much I’ve learned here over the last couple of years, it’s amazing.”

Weber is just one of a quarter-century’s worth of Elmhurst students who learned their first lessons in sound recording in this studio. The Gretsch Recording Studio is celebrating its 25th birthday this year. The equipment inside the studio has changed over the years, to keep up with every advance in audio technology, but the one thing that has remained constant is that students have come to the studio to twist dials, to slide faders, and to learn in the process.

“This is a teaching facility, and what we do here is experiential learning,” said John Towner, the studio’s manager. “I liken it to playing an instrument. I can show you a book, but the way you really learn is by getting your hands on the equipment and turning the knobs. That’s when it clicks.”

Towner knows. He is a graduate of Elmhurst’s music department (class of ’86), but in his student days the setup was decidedly more modest. The only recording facility was a small booth at the back of Buik Recital Hall. It held a breadbox-sized reel-to-reel tape recorder, a deeply distant ancestor to the sleek digital gear on which current students like Weber work.

“It was vastly different back then,” Towner said.

The studio—and the upgrades that have kept it stocked with the latest technology—was funded by the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation. Sylvia and William Gretsch’s son, Fred, is a 1971 Elmhurst graduate and the president of the Gretsch Company, the Georgia-based family business that has produced some of the most iconic guitars and drums in American music history. (For more on Fred Gretsch and “That Great Gretsch Sound,” check out this 2005 profile from the College’s Prospect magazine.)

When the Gretsch Recording Studio opened in 1987, it gave Elmhurst students their first opportunities to work with multi-track equipment. Today, Weber and his classmates control a state-of-the art console and work in Pro Tools, the recording software that Towner calls the industry standard.

The gear is impressive, but Towner said that studio craft involves more than just mastering the most current high-tech tools. The people in the studio can be even more confounding. Towner has seen professional studio sessions derailed by miscommunications and lost tempers.

“You’re working with performers in a high-pressure environment. It can get intense. But you have to maintain a calm, professional atmosphere. Learning to twirl the knobs is the easy part,” Towner said. “Working with people to achieve something stellar, that’s tough.”

He and Weber were applying the final edits and mixes to a recording Weber had made two weeks earlier with the Gretsch Guitar Ensemble, a student group. The recording was a kind of command performance for Fred Gretsch, a chance for him to hear the band he sponsors perform in the studio he funds. Weber and Towner were pleased with the results, but were still going over and over one guitar part, looking to coax out of it just the right sound.

“It was a real collaboration,” Weber said of the session. “You have to know what the performer wants, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what will work. ”

Then he was back to the console, to give the performance one more listen.

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