Michael Tiemann came into the music industry with an unlikely backstory: In 1989, with $6,000 and no business experience, he cofounded Cygnus Solutions, the first company to provide commercial support for free, open-source software.
"Everyone said it was silly," he remembers, "because while obviously the open-source software was better than the proprietary, nobody would pay money for free software. But I believed that if everyone saw it was better, they would value it, and I would have no competition."
A decade later, the open-source giant Red Hat bought Cygnus for $687 million and hired Tiemann. He remains Vice President of Open Source Affairs. And now, with his wife, Amy, he co-owns the music and video production studio Manifold Recording, a place he hopes is part of a larger revolution in the entertainment industry.
The Tiemanns moved from Silicon Valley to Chapel Hill to be near Red Hat's Raleigh headquarters, unwittingly taking a crucial step toward another big gamble—though from a considerably better financial position. "Many people quote Field of Dreams," Tiemann says. "The difference is that it was all on the line for him. For us, it's not."
When they bought 17 acres of decommissioned farmland for an unspecified new venture, they had no inkling of building a high-end recording studio. But the pieces were falling into place. Tiemann was a choirboy in Manhattan's St. Thomas Church, where professional recording obligations sparked his early interest in how albums were made. But as an adult, he grew dissatisfied with the production values of much recorded music. Due to lack of funds, advances in technology or a combination of both, bands thought they could do it on their own, in bedrooms and with cheap equipment. And in professional studios, the rampant compression of the "loudness wars"—that is, my album is louder than yours—frustrated Tiemann. Then he read the books of Michael Pollan and Carlo Petrini and got interested in the slow food movement.
"Thinking about slow food and the music industry," Tiemann says, "I wanted to create an organic space where people could connect with the immediacy of the experience. It's not just about the ultimate audio quality but about capturing and sharing as much as possible. The entrepreneurial gambit is that we can restore people's excitement in ways that may be getting lost in overemphasis on the media product."
Tiemann searched online for "Frank Lloyd Wright recording studio," turning up Wes Lachot, an architect and renowned studio designer living in Chapel Hill. An idea conceived in 2006 became real when Manifold opened in the fall of 2011.
North Carolina musicians have plenty of options for where to record. They can book time in Durham's Sound Pure and Overdub Lane, Asheville's Echo Mountain or Chapel Hill's Warrior Sound. They can hire a freelance engineer who has a quality setup at home. Or they shell out for software and microphones to try it themselves. Why does North Carolina need another studio, then, especially one whose facilities and rates are commensurate with London's Abbey Road and Nashville's Blackbird Studio, far outstripping the modest budgets of the indie bands who are such a strong area force?
"The gear is as good as it gets," explains Ian Schreier, a Grammy-nominated chief engineer cherry-picked from Raleigh's Osceola Studios. "But it only makes sense in the right space."
Anyone with half a million dollars and 12 feet of empty floor could buy an API Vision analog mixing and recording console, as Tiemann has done, but more astounding is the care lavished on the buildings. Aesthetic, architectural and technological elements converge seamlessly on principles of nature and mathematics.
Manifold comprises a close-set pair of earth-toned buildings clad in rhomboid planes and sits low on a meadow a few miles from downtown Pittsboro. If you've come for a tour, Tiemann greets you outside. A tall, lanky 48-year-old with pale center-parted hair, he's garrulous and self-assured, with a congenial grin made mischievous by angled incisors. Part laidback California tech evangelist and part Old Europe aesthete, he describes things as "groovy" but pronounces "salon" with an accented first syllable.
Tiemann stands on a walkway that's the same color as the red clay below. Grooves cut it into a diamond grid, a Frank Lloyd Wright signature that underpins the design. He points out a door with five diamond elements on one side and three on the other, expressing a 5:3 ratio. These are Fibonacci numbers, which connects the studio's design to the Golden Mean, a proportion revered for millennia by artists, mathematicians, musicians and architects, including Wright.
"We pay attention to ratios," Tiemann explains, "because music is built from harmonic relationships. The most obvious is the octave, but the overtones give you the integral ratios that ultimately give us the Western scale. So the ratios embedded in the building are musical as well as architectural."
The walkway leads to a northern patio where a planted patch of zoysia changes color with the meadow. The diamond grid blurs into hexagons in three koi ponds that provide unintentional sacrifices to the herons and a drainage strip that leads back to the front. "That's telling you what's inside the building," Tiemann says, opening the heavy steel door that leads into the sound lock and then into the main Music Room. It's breathtaking, with parquet hexagons on the floor echoed high above in an absorptive and diffusive array.
"Wes is a huge proponent of organic architecture, where the building grows out from the middle rather than in from the perimeter," Tiemann says. "When you find it difficult to hear the person across the table at a restaurant, all the sound is collecting at common frequencies. The worst possible room for music is one where all dimensions are equal." At 32 by 52 feet, Manifold's centerpiece approximates Fibonacci numbers and mirrors the traditional size of palatial European music salons.
"It's an extension of any instrument you play in it," Schreier offers, "just like the top of a guitar."
Indeed, the room is optimized for acoustic instruments, a request Tiemann made of Lachot early in the process. Thanks to Tiemann's enthusiasm, word of the studio spread early, so another well-funded startup, Zenph Sound Innovations, approached the studio with a project long before it was open.
Zenph convened cellist Zuill Bailey and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian to record The Spanish Masters, a "re-performance" of music by the likes of Manuel de Falla, accompanied by a player-piano programmed to replicate a performance by the long-dead composer. The project's technological sophistication and high-level musicianship gave the studio a chance to prove itself, and the CD climbed onto Amazon's Top 10 list for classical music.
"The great news for us is that some of the pickiest people are the classical people, and our first project was one of the pickiest classical labels," Tiemann says. "We proved we could do it, and now we've had folks come from New York, the West Coast, Europe. Doing a great job for classical clientele is a big gold star for us—if we can do that, of course we can do jazz, of course we can do rock."
The space is certainly equipped for multiple modes. In the Music Room, Tiemann says, "if you let a 100-watt Marshall stack rip, it's going to sound as bad as any club, though if you lower the volume it sounds great."
But three smaller recording booths provide more options. Booth A, the "livest" room, features an all-original 1964 Hammond B3 organ that Tiemann found on consignment at Sullivan Music in Pittsboro. The more absorptive Booth B currently houses a grand piano, a marimba and a theremin. Opening the door between them and carefully placing musicians and microphones create unique recording zones and resonance palettes. The idea is to work with the space rather than against it. If the Music Room is all about organic acoustics, Booth C is the opposite. It houses a gigantic Buchla 200E modular analog synthesizer, complete with period lava lamp. A connection with the electronic music community is something Tiemann wants, but the Buchla has yet to see action.
Other Manifold credits include Yamaha-sponsored pianist Frederic Chiu, Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring and Lost in the Trees, who recorded some strings for A Church That Fits Our Needs here. Schreier brought his clients from the hip-hop world, mixing Obie Trice and 9th Wonder.
But recording music isn't Manifold's only goal or capability, and these added features could prove to be its most vital: Last year, for instance, the studio hosted a collaboration between the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the banjo master Béla Fleck to benefit Carolina Performing Arts. Audience members paid to attend the private concert in the Music Room; the performance was captured in full audio and video. After studio costs were netted out, the night raised more than $10,000 for the organization.
"For the artist who wants to take an entrepreneurial approach," Tiemann says, "this is not unlike when the Fearrington Inn offers people the chef's table."
With a digital Harrison Trion audio and video mixing console in its annex building, Manifold also offers fully integrated video production and pro-quality lights. Schreier says Manifold has as much in common with a broadcast facility as a recording studio, and that the ultimate aim is to start thinking of audio and video as one rather than as separate documents. The studio courts filmmakers as well as musicians, an effort driven by Amy Tiemann. She brought in Manifold's first video project and its most recent, the final dialogue and music mix for anti-fracking documentary Dear Governor Cuomo, which was selected as the best new film on climate change at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in January.
"We believe that people increasingly don't just record albums, but record experiences and tell stories," Michael Tiemann says. "You don't have to fight the studio to get great video—you use it. This was the plan from the start, as opposed to older studios that weren't designed with video production in mind."
All of this comes at enormous cost, and one hardly needs to list great albums or films that have been made for little to no money. For bands uninterested in video or wary of large sums, it's simply not viable. But Manifold offers promising crowd-funding opportunities for the enterprising indie rocker, which goes to the heart of Tiemann's intuition about the changing music industry. "If a band is pulling money from their own pocket," he says, "then this studio is very hard to afford. But we give them the ability to do more than produce a CD that can be signed and hand-delivered with kisses."
The story of Matt Phillips supports this theory, though he admittedly had a leg up: Phillips leads the Greenville band Matt Phillips & The Philharmonic—all current or former music majors at East Carolina University, none yet 21. In the summer of 2011, shortly before Manifold opened, Phillips worked an unpaid internship at Manifold, earning 10 hours of studio time.
He smartly had the session filmed and subsequently used the video for a Kickstarter page, raising more than $2,000 to pay for the physical production of what had become the Bones EP. With a second Kickstarter campaign in progress, he's now trying to raise over $12,000 for a full-band album at Manifold. He'll let donors do everything from sing backups to sit in with Schreier.
"It doesn't even really compare," Phillips says of Manifold versus the bedroom setups and small studios to which most 20-year-old songwriters are accustomed. "The biggest differences are working with Ian and the room itself. The building just has a presence that inspires great performance. I know bringing my guys into a place like this will give us a record that could put us on the map. Ian says it best: You can pay anybody $50 to stab you in the chest, but you're going to pay thousands to get open-heart surgery from someone who knows what they're doing."
Schreier thought he would eventually have to move to New York, Nashville or L.A. to work with the kinds of elite artists Manifold naturally attracts, but he was even more drawn to Tiemann's ideas about the music business.
"When we first met," Schreier remembers, "Michael was going around an industry meet-and-greet showing everybody these giant rolls of plans, and everybody was like, 'Yeeeah, sure.' I was looking at him like, 'I wonder if he knows how much that costs?' But it quickly became clear he was serious as could be. This is a guy who started the world's first open-source software company, and now it's a billion dollar corporation. If he thinks he's got some new ideas for the music industry, I'm listening."
Manifold feels keenly contemporary, but to Schreier, it also harks back to an earlier model.
"This is about reconnecting the artist-patron model," he says, "selling experiences rather than just pieces of plastic. It's about people performing music together in the same building. Too much music is created as a one-way conversation. This is more like the way records were made 40 years ago, where it might take a month, but it's because you're preparing for that perfect take."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Some assembly required."