Text and images by Roger Bong
There’s no doubt that the physical landscape of our city is changing. Rapid transit’s concrete pillars and platforms stretch across O‘ahu’s horizon. Glass-paned buildings replace older structures throughout Ala Moana, Ward, and Kaka‘ako, claiming more space in our skies each year. What this means for Honolulu, we have yet to find out. But it begs us to consider what we might end up losing.
Digital technology similarly disrupted the music recording industry in the 1980s. “A million dollar studio in the ’80s is realized today within a desktop computer,” says Honolulu recording engineer Wayne Carvalho, who worked at Sinergia Recording Studios when it was on Waimanu Street in Kaka‘ako, and later, in Kāne‘ohe. Coupled with the power of the Internet, a computer eliminates the need for a shared space for people to gather to create and record music. Instead, everything can be done digitally, from the tracking of virtual instruments to collaborating with talented musicians across the globe.
This means there are no limits to the projects we can pursue. Forty years ago, you needed a budget for studio time, musicians, reels of recording tape, mastering, and manufacturing vinyl records. Now, all the digital parallels can be done on a laptop over the weekend, with the results streaming on Spotify by Monday.
Donn Tyler, owner of Commercial Recording Studio, recorded slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui’s Gabby album, known as the “brown album” by collectors because of the earthy color of its album art, at his former studio in Kakaʻako. Because Pahinui and his three sons had to see each other when playing, Tyler placed them in a circle and constructed sound baffles around each musician, so that one person’s sound would not leak into the other person’s microphone. “The baffles were just high enough so they could see each other, and they each had on one headphone so they could hear each other,” Tyler recalls. The music for the album wasn’t written in advance, so they depended on a shared space like Tyler’s to create what is now one of Hawai‘i’s most celebrated recordings of the 20th century.
Commercial Recording Studio, along with Sounds of Hawaii, Audio Media, Audissey, Sinergia Recording Studios, and Broad Recording Studio helped preserve Hawai‘i’s musical palette for future generations. Though all of these are no longer in operation today, they mark sonic landmarks of Hawai‘i’s past. Gordon Broad was once the co-owner of Broad Recording Studio in Chinatown, where contemporary artists like Lemuria, Aura, Phase 7, Momi Riley, and Mike Lundy once recorded. Though the sound is going to change, because it’s analog, Broad says that what makes a recording studio special is that “it takes skill to anticipate the end result.”
With technology comes progress, but progress can also alter who we are and how we interact. It’s difficult to say what will happen when our musical landmarks—once guards of Hawai‘i’s auditory identity—fade, but we must continually keep our eyes, and our ears, open.