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"Ah, Edison's lab," the late pianist Walter Davis, Jr. remarked upon first entering Pierre Sprey's Mapleshade Studio, where he would arguably make his greatest recording, In Walked Thelonious (Mapleshade 56312). Mapleshade's seemingly makeshift appearance is the antithesis of high-tech, big bucks recording studios. Sprey practices a maverick minimalism in what used to be the front parlor of his 100-year-old mansion in the Maryland countryside, upending the conventional wisdom by using just two or three microphones, forgoing a mixer for battery-powered preamps weighed down with lead, and recording onto an out-of-production 1/4-inch two-track deck. According to orthodoxy and given that Sprey gets his reverb by sliding open the doors to the entrance hall, moves musicians around to balance instruments, and rolls the tape practically on the lap of the musicians, monitoring only with earphones, he's lucky to get anything that resembles decent sound.

"In general, I don't care about measurements at all," Sprey said during a break in a recent session for pioneering third-stream pianist Ran Blake's Ellington's Attic. "I could care less about frequency response, signal-to-noise ratios, and so on. What I care about is how it sounds."

"I record as hot as I can get without distortion in order to avoid having to use any noise reduction. This technique is so important because there's such a loss of quality, particularly transient impact, when you use noise reduction. You lose so much pluck in the bass, and so much of the percussive sound of a piano hammer, that I'd rather take the risk of recording very hot and avoiding noise reduction. So far, it's worked: even on CDs, where tape hiss is very evident, I've had no complaints about tape hiss on my recordings."

"Separate from this technical perfectionism is a vastly more important set of qualities at Mapleshade - that's how people feel in the studio," explains Sprey. "The first and most important thing about the room is that musicians are able to see and hear each other. It's not a dead room lined with Sonex and isolation booths. The second most important thing in the room is the windows. It's amazing how many musicians like to look out the windows, because a black, foam-like room without windows can be an extremely hostile environment. The third most important thing here is that musicians set the schedule here. There's no producer watching the clock, muttering about "time is money" and asking for three more takes before midnight."

August 1992