How do independent musicians in the Trenton-New Brunswick corridor record their albums? Most record on a lean ‘n’ mean budget, given that nightclubs don’t pay much more than they did back in the 1980s. For most local and regional musicians, this means anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000 to record and press anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 compact discs.
Savvy musicians like Joe Zook, Vince Martell [of Vanilla Fudge], and the Shore’s Billy Hector will have several CD release parties in different areas of the state. In addition to selling them off the bandstand to fans, discs are often given away to club owners and people looking for musicians for private or corporate events. Selling discs from the bandstand will often turn a so-so night at a club engagement into a lucrative night, as some musicians can sell upwards of 100 discs in a crowded nightclub.
For veteran Garden State musician, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Joe “Zook” Zuccarello, “Good Morning Blues,” his forthcoming album, was again recorded locally, on a budget that doesn’t break the bank.
Zook and his longtime bandmates in Blues Deluxe don’t tour like they used to in the heyday of the nightclub scene in the 1970s and early ‘80s. These days they have day jobs, families, and mortgages.
Zook was raised in Ewing, the son of an optometrist father and housewife mother. He attended Notre Dame High School in Lawrence Township and Trenton State College. He also worked for a time teaching music in Trenton public schools.
Zook’s earlier albums have gotten airplay on public and college radio stations around the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe. The band has three previous releases, all with the same core group of musicians: bassist Billy Holt and drummer Jeff Snelson.
Both musicians, like Zook, are from Ewing and have been playing with him since the 1970s. Earlier independently released albums from Joe Zook and Blues Deluxe include “Blues with a Capital ‘B’ ” in 2000; “Payin’ Dues,” in 2003 and an acoustic-electric album, “Blues Roots,” in 2009.
The recent “Good Morning Blues” was prompted by a comment from his wife, Donna, who works as a mortgage underwriter for Prudential Fox & Roach Realty in Princeton Junction. The couple discovered they had some extra dollars in their investments.
“Donna said, ‘Why don’t you record again?’ We’re trying to keep costs around $6,000 to $7,000,” he says, noting his first release cost right about seven grand and his second release was too much, about 10 grand to record, master, produce, and press 1,500 copies. “I went a little overboard with the second release, and I’ve learned I can’t do that again.”
He is using Tom Reock’s Squirrel Ranch and Ernie White’s LaBlanc Studios, both in Hamilton, to record. He is also using DiscMakers in Pennsauken, a CD pressing plant in not far from the now-closed Sony Music disc pressing plant. For years South Jersey, near Philadelphia, was a historic hub for record pressing and distribution companies, an outgrowth of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” TV show of yesteryear.
Zook will celebrate the release of “Good Morning Blues” on Saturday, May 18, at a comfortable venue: the Record Collector in Bordentown.
“The Record Collector is good because the people are there to hear the music, they sit politely and quietly,” he says. “It’s not like a sports bar. (Owners) Sue and John are two of the nicest people running a show anywhere in the area. They are sweethearts.”
Zook says he has had a spark of songwriting creativity in recent years.
“I’ve got eight or nine new originals I wanted to record that I wrote last winter and the winter before,” Zook says one Sunday morning recently at Tom Reock’s Squirrel Ranch home studio in Hamilton Township.
He plans to include a few cover songs from Louis Jordan and Don Nix. He said he has obtained the mechanical licenses to include these copyrighted songs on his new album via the Harry Fox Agency, a clearing house for the music publishing industry in lower Manhattan.
A mechanical license amounts to a one-time fee as an advance against future royalties from sales of his forthcoming disc. This fee is traditionally $250, but in this case, Zook negotiated the fees to $215 for both songs.
“I’m only pressing 1,000 discs,” he says, “So the upfront licensing fees are lower. I also got my eight original songs copyrighted,” noting that fee paid to the Library of Congress was $85. This move protects Zook’s intellectual property from being used by others without compensation.
Both Zook and studio owner Reock agree with the notion that there is a “family” of musicians and studio owners from the Trenton area who believe in helping each other out. Reock regards fellow studio owner Ernie White — who is also involved with Zook’s new disc — as an old friend. The two have collaborated before recording area musicians. Reock says he was charging Zook his standard studio rate of $45 an hour, not any special “family and friends” rate. But, he adds, since each project is unique, that rate is not cast in stone.
“I like to keep recording costs as low as possible in my home studio so that people will end up doing more of it and continue to come back here,” Reock says, who grew up in Kendall Park. His father taught political science at Rutgers and his mother was a teacher and president of the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Reock first recorded Zook at Squirrel Ranch 15 years ago. He has been part of the local scene as a keyboardist for more than two decades.
Among the area acts Reock has recorded at Squirrel Ranch include Kindred Spirit, Frank Pinto, Lisa Bouchelle and Hal Selzer, and, perhaps most prominently, Vince Martell from Vanilla Fudge. Martell has been recording with Reock for about a dozen years now.
“For the most part we all play together well in the same big sandbox,” says Reock, wanting to keep a down-home feel.
“It doesn’t look like a studio. It looks like your living room. I will walk people through the whole recording process here,” he says.
About his years as a musician, he says, “It was all about getting the songs down and getting a good take, and not worrying so much about quality. Now, as a studio owner, my focus is on trying to make things sound as good as possible.”
Since he is a piano player by training Reock gives Squirrel Ranch the added benefit of several portable keyboards and one big classic Hammond B-3 organ.
Financing all of his state-of-the-art recording equipment has been a slow process. “The room where the drum kit is located now used to be the whole studio. I had a lot of equipment to begin with and then I put an addition onto the house. That was an expense, and equipment came little by little. I have a brand new console and I got a great deal on it, and I was told this board was at McCarter Theater. Even though I record with a digital recorder, my process is still the old analog [tape-based] approach. Eventually I will have the computer studio in another room here. When you do something the same way for 45 years it’s really difficult to change the whole process,” he says, admitting he is still not much of a gearhead.
“I do my own taxes,” he adds, noting he turned 60 in April, “and I never made that much money with the studio, so on my tax form I list my occupation as musician.”
How does Squirrel Ranch weather the inevitable slow periods? Reock supplements these times with shows with his various bands in area nightclubs. His wife, Fiona Barrett, works with the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University, so he has the advantage of being on her health insurance program.
“At the moment I’m not so worried about [slower periods] as I was maybe a year or two ago. I’ve got about 20 hours of studio time booked here week in and week out.”
After laying down basic guitar, bass, and drum tracks and adding keyboard tracks from James Cheadle and John Sopko at Squirrel Ranch, Zook then took his project to Ernie White’s LeBlanc Studios to record the all-important horn section and harmonica parts in mid-winter.
There Zook used other area musicians to fill out the sounds on “Good Morning Blues,” including Steve Kaplan on saxophones, Angelo DiBraccio on alto saxophone, Danny Tobias on trumpet, and Tony Buford on harmonica.
Buford is also the webmaster for the Joe Zook and Blues Deluxe website. And Zook says Buford gets paid extra for updating the website with news from the band. He also is handling the graphic design for the disc.
The new recording is being mastered by Suha Gur, another Trenton-area local who won a Grammy Award for a Motown boxed set he mastered a number of years back.
Zook says he wasn’t thinking about doing a vinyl pressing for his new album, even though he is aware of the vinyl pressing plant in Bordentown.
And since he isn’t interested in working with any of the known blues producers, that is another way to save money. “There’s no sense screwing with success. Ernie White did a great job helping me produce my first two discs.”
Zook trusts White’s instincts as a guitar player and guitar teacher. Earlier in his career White was signed to two major record company deals — RCA and Casablanca Records — and he says he has learned a lot about how to record in some of the finest studios in New York, including the Record Plant and Electric Lady Studios, as well as Caribou Ranch in Colorado. All three facilities are famous for albums recorded there by John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Chicago.
With nearly the same per-hour recording rates as Squirrel Ranch Studios in another part of Hamilton, what does White offer to musicians that other studios don’t?
“Given that we’re going to get into overdubs on guitars with Joe’s new record, me being a guitar player, hopefully I can help him get the sounds he wants on guitar parts,” White says.
When White was signed to his major label deals with Aviator and Sam the Band, he says, “I worked in all the major studios in New York back in the day. I got a chance to work with A-list engineers and producers. You can go to school for that stuff, but if you’re sitting in Electric Lady Studios and recording there for months, there’s no substitute for that kind of experience.”
White says his rate for artists “depends on the project and how much time they’re spending here. Tommy Reock and I have a system set up where we can use each other’s services. There are times when I need a keyboard track and he’s got the Hammond B-3 right there, so it’s a real easy fix working with him that way.”
Pressed about the frustrating and satisfying aspects of running his LeBlanc Studios and guitar school out of his home in Hamilton the last two decades, White says he regularly records a mix of veterans like Zook as well as neophytes.
“For me it works well because I can fit things around my teaching schedule and my performance schedule, as I still play out quite a bit,” White says.
“It’s a different kind of creativity when you can have input into what’s being recorded. The thing I enjoy most is cutting the raw tracks. Mixing can get a bit tedious, but I love the recording process and putting tracks on top of other tracks and layering things.”
White said he does take on the occasional project by musicians who don’t have much experience in the recording studio. He tells them all, “The more you rehearse, the more you know what you want to do, the more we can keep costs down. There are always changes later on, but it never hurts to be as prepared as possible.”
For Joe Zook, another factor in his favor in eventually recovering most of his recording, mastering, and pressing costs with “Good Morning Blues” is the advent and continuing growth of the internet.
“I end up selling a lot of discs from my website,” Zook says. “In the past we’ve gotten airplay on Sirius / XM Satellite radio, on Italian radio, but mostly I get e-mails from people around the lower 48 states. People hear it on a college or public radio station blues show, then they go to the website and they buy it.”
Joe Zook & Blues Deluxe CD Release Party, The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, May 18, 8 p.m. $15 advance, door price may apply. www.the-record-collector.com.