When he crosses his arms, the words in black ink read from left to right: “Concept. Implementation. Execution.”
Rick Carson is posing in front of his new SSL, essentially a mixing board, but he doesn’t describe it that way. He calls it the best birthday present imaginable, and it’s just one of a handful of recent additions to Make Believe, the recording studio and label Carson works at as record producer and mixing engineer.
About 20 people gathered on Carson’s birthday Thursday, July 19, to carry the massive piece of equipment to its temporary spot, among the many house instruments in the studio space itself. Through the door, past the studio’s glass, down a hallway and diagonally across the first room you see when walking in, there's evidence of more renovation. The kitchen is full of displaced audio technology as concrete sets in an adjoining room.
Almost immediately, Make Believe feels more like a house than a business. Sitting on a corner at 805 Hickory St. in Omaha, the exterior looks like it could have once been sold as real estate in Mario Puzo’s head. When I ring the doorbell, Keith Rodger, aka Kethro, opens the front door and what catches my eye first is a series of black-and-white television sets, apparently keeping watch on the building’s many rooms.
A couple guys are hunched over their computers. Looking back through the glass, Threat from Block Movement and a few others sit together, talking shop and an upcoming recording. Carson says the Make Believe crew that often comes by "just to hang out" makes up a family of sorts, one in which every member plays a specific role: Among other duties, for example, Daniel Thompson III takes the photos, Rodger plans to run the vinyl press — the first for Omaha, Carson says, now set up to duplicate records. All in all, for a young studio and record label, Carson’s tattoo helps define an effective workflow that Make Believe completes: Concept. Implementation. Execution.
Despite his minimalist motto, though, Carson is verbose when expressing his thoughts on preproduction: “Ron St. Germain (a 13-time Grammy-winning engineer who grew up in Benson) drilled the importance of preproduction into my head. Bands need to learn how to practice.
“Sometimes drummers will say, ‘Oh, I started playing that part of the song an hour and a half after we got here, so that hour and a half doesn’t count toward our recording time.’ And I gotta tell them, ‘No, dude. I tuned your drums, I set up the microphones, and we moved on with our day. You paid the second you walked in the door, ‘cause that’s how it goes.”
On the other hand, Carson commends his recent work with Capgun Coup's Sam Martin, saying everything is much more efficient when the musicians are well prepared. What Carson is most effusive about, though, is the new vinyl press, which will allow him to make compilations and scratch records at the studio. “Those are the things that make us happy, and that’s what it’s really about.”
Carson brings up another idol, Gabriel Roth, who started Daptone Records and plays bass with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
“He never wanted to get famous as an engineer or band leader or record producer," he says. "He was just making records for friends, then started putting them out on vinyl just to listen to them.”
He then cites Robb Nansel of Saddle Creek Records as another example of how recording studios and labels begin.
“What it’s really about is putting out records with your friends and being happy," he says. "I will never lose sight of that when it comes to what Make Believe does. I will sell my share and move to an island to mix records if I have to because that’s what makes me truly happy.”
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. He wrote this story at 35,000 feet while intermittently watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Reach Michael at email@example.com.