Every musician experiences a similar combination of excitement and fear when entering a studio for the first time. Massive ambitions are met with the time consuming details of professional music production. Bellingham is such a breeding ground for musicianship that you can almost guarantee that every day someone is venturing into a studio for the first time to put their piece into a reproducible format.
In our community, interested parties are lucky to find a variety of audio engineering options ranging from DIY bedroom recordings to high-quality, professional studios. In the latter group, one studio stands out for its quality, accessibility, community contribution and its ability to foster an environment conducive to the growth of new generations of audio engineers and the musicians they record.
Champion St Sound Studios has been an anchor for countless musical acts. As Russ Fish puts it, you could go to, “any local show, ask around, and someone will have probably recorded here.”
If there is anyone who can speak to the influence and volume of work the studio performs, it is Russ Fish. Russ manages Champion Street Studios for WWU as well as the school’s on-campus Fairhaven College recording studio and mixing suite. Russ has seen the growth of the audio engineering program, offered through Fairhaven College at WWU and was instrumental in the school’s 2016 expansion into Champion Street to deal with the increasing demand for the program. As well as teaching several classes in the program and maintaining the current studio systems and upgrades, Russ works freelance out of Studio B, a separate facility at Champion Street under the name Starfish Audio.
Russ is not alone in this endeavor. Assistant professor and program advisor Mark Miyake, who joined Fairhaven College in 2015, provides a high level of expertise as an ethnomusicologist in the cultural side of music, helping musicians think about the way in which they perform and how it is related to larger social and cultural systems. These two are joined by countless of faculty and staff not only within Fairhaven College, but throughout WWU, who all work together to bring the greatest music education they can to every student.
“Our expertise, scholarship and professional experience really complement each other,” Russ said in reference to his fellow teachers and professors. It was a Thursday afternoon when I sat down with Russ in Studio B at Champion Street. This is where Russ works on most of his freelance jobs while in the slightly larger Studio A, students take audio courses and are free to work on their own projects. Russ filled me in on the accomplishments of the audio engineering program.
The goal of the program is to empower students to become familiar with working in an analog/digital hybrid studio environment and to help them build unique connections while expanding a portfolio that they can use after graduation to start their own careers. If you’re in a band, the main way to get into the studio is by knowing a student in the program, although there is a sign-up sheet so that musicians without student connections can find someone to work with.
The program keeps their doors as open as possible despite exceptionally high demand which can make classes fill quickly. Russ describes it as, “a good problem to have,” and hopes that the program can continue to grow to accommodate student interest.
Within the program, many of the students collaborate with other students on their assignments. Sometimes it’s a friend’s band that ends up in the studio for the student to record. Often other students in the program are willing to help out so they can grow and feed off of each other’s knowledge.
By all accounts the program is an amazing opportunity for young musicians and audio-engineers to expand their technical skills while gaining valuable professional studio experience. The program already has several success stories like Michael Erickson (WMD) and Hans Watkins (Arbour) both of whom have gained significant followings. The number of bands that have utilized Champion Street is endless, as is the impact it is having on Bellingham’s increasingly influential music scene.
For some though, professional studio work is out of reach for any number of reasons. I, for one, work on doing home recordings because even though I have a great love for audio engineering, the time for school in my life has passed and my budget cannot quite cover the expenses of a professional studio.
I asked Russ for some advice on how to find inspiration in recording because inspiration can drive us to succeed against any odds. “You should record the things you love, the sounds that inspire you,” he offered. For people caught up by the financial aspect, “The gear is not where the life comes from,” he explained. “It’s the people.”
Music is about dedication to something you love. It is creating something that moves you first, and others later. If you are an aspiring musician or audio engineer with limited recourse, keep doing what you love to the best of your abilities and keep your eye out for amazing opportunities like Champion Street.