When Todd Stotler was 13, he had a life-changing experience. It started with a documentary of his favorite band.
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"I was greatly influenced to get into recording by The Beatles," Stotler said recently, standing in Echoes Recording Studio in Sharpsburg. "I'm watching 'The Compleat Beatles' and listening to George Martin talk about how they made their music. I'm thinking, 'That's what I want to do.' As a 13-year-old."
Now 38, Stotler has been a recording engineer since he graduated from Boonsboro High School. The thrill has not left him.
"I'm working in music. All different styles. I love crossing over the genres," he said.
Stotler never went to college. He learned the ropes by acquiring gear and practicing. He also went to California and interned at two studios.
"I started out self-taught. I recorded my band, bands of friends and friends' friends," he said. "Then I went out to L.A. and interned in studios. There was a small studio where I learned a lot. Then I went to a huge studio with an indoor swimming pool and a massage parlor. I met Eric Clapton."
When he returned home to Sharpsburg, he wanted to set up a smaller studio with a down-home, informal vibe. Echoes Recording Studio is in a farmhouse outside Sharpsburg. The decor is retro. Walls are decorated with tie-dyed banners and old concert posters. Promo photos and recently released CDs line the stairwell.
Stotler has achieved a certain level of professional respect, especially among acoustic musicians. Most of his clients come from the Mid-Atlantic region, but he's also worked on projects with national acts — Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter John Mayer, R&B singer Arturo Castro, bluegrass musicians Darren Beachley and Barry Scott of the Beachley & Scott Band and bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent.
To an outsider, the concept of recording music seems simple: A band or soloist goes to a sound studio, performs while the engineer records the music and then works with a producer to create the finished album.
Simple. But complicated, Stotler said. For one thing, different bands want different sounds.
"We do all kinds of music here. We do a lot of rock, we do a lot of bluegrass. We do country. You name it," he said. "I think I would go nuts only working with one style."
For another thing, different performers prefer different work schedules. Some bands reserve a solid week or two at Echoes. Other bands stretch out their recording sessions — a couple days a month for a year or two.
Scheduling musicians can be challenging. Some bands have internal issues or creative disagreements.
"Rock bands don't really stick together. They break up all the time," Stotler said. "Bluegrass bands stay together."
Stotler said he's produced more than one rock album that was not formally released. One project took three years, he said, bankrolled by a father of a band member. On the verge of releasing the ambitious album, the band broke up. That album, Stotler said, "will never see the light of day."
Keep it clean
Then there's the matter of capturing sounds. Microphones are designed for specialized purposes. Some capture voice better. Others capture amplified sounds. Still others work better for acoustic instruments. Stotler has dozens of mics to meet his clients' needs.
Normally, he said, music is recorded one instrument or voice at a time. Stotler has a lively, bright-sounding studio for recording drums, a sound-deadened studio for recording voice and a third studio that's in between the others. This approach gives the recording engineer better control over the quality of the final product.