Howl Street Studios’ Shane Hochstetler
Recording studio owner and self proclaimed "audio nerd" Shane Hochstetler has been one of the most in-demand studio engineers in Milwaukee for the last five years. Shane talks with TCD about the process of turning his childhood dream job into a reality.
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If you’ve paid any attention to Milwaukee music over the last ten years, you’ve probably encountered the work of Shane Hochstetler. Hochstetler has been drumming in many Milwaukee bands for more than 15 years, from the organized chaos of Hero of 100 Fights to the powerhouse guitar rock of Call Me Lightning. For the last eight years, however, Hochstetler has also served as a recording engineer for many of Milwaukee’s finest musicians. Since opening Howl Street Recordings in 2007 in Bay View, Hochstetler has worked on more than 300 releases, and both the studio and Shane have quickly become in demand for musicians both local and out of state. TCD’s Sahan Jayasuriya caught up with him at Howl Street, where he found out just exactly how Hochstetler turned his childhood dream job into a reality.
ThirdCoast Digest: You’ve been playing in bands for a good amount of time now. How did you get your start as a drummer?
Shane Hochstetler: I started playing drums when I was six. I started playing weddings with my great uncle’s country band from when I was 12 until I was about 16 when I lived in Rhinelander. But it was fun, you know? I’d make $100-200 a show playing weddings and bars, getting offered drinks as a 12-year-old kid in northern Wisconsin (laughs). I moved down here when I was 17 and started playing in a lot of bad high school bands and then eventually started Managra, Tintoretto and Hero of 100 Fights.
TCD: When did you start engineering?
Hochstetler: When I graduated from high school in 1995, I wanted to go to school for studio engineering in Madison, but then Managra put out our first record and started touring. I got bit by the touring bug and just wanted to play in bands and tour, and that’s pretty much what I did from ages 18-26. Pretty much from Managra all the way up to the last couple of years of Call Me Lightning, we pretty much toured as much as possible, so it kind of made it tough to be in school.
Almost immediately, I started recording bands. The first thing I did that wasn’t my own band was Catacombz, who were about 14 at the time and called Face for Radio. Then I did Get Rad‘s demo and Protestant’s demo. I did all these out of the basement of my house in Waukesha at the time. My “live room” was like 9′ x 11′ with a six-foot ceiling, and I’d have the drummer and guitarists in there with their amps outside of the room, like next to my washing machine (laughs).
TCD: Home recording can be quite the task. How long was it before you decided to move into your own space?
Hochstetler: I did that for about three years and then finally decided that I wanted to get an actual space to record at. Call Me Lightning mastered our second album with Trevor Sadler, who was working next door to what was at the time Bionic Studios. When the time came for me to move, I emailed him hoping to get some help with acoustical design. Turns out the guys from Bionic were moving out and he was trying to find someone who wanted to continue to use the space as a studio. Immediately after seeing it, I just saw the potential for so many things, so I moved in, and I’ve been here for the last five years, just slowly upgrading as I go.
TCD: So did you eventually end up going back to school?
Hochstetler: I never actually went to school for it, I just sort of learned how to do it along the way. So many people who engineered classic records from back in the day never went to school for it. You couldn’t go to school for it back then, you know?
I remember reading an interview with [Electrical Audio engineers] Bob Weston and Steve Albini that just kind of explained that while you could go to school to learn how to record, you could just as easily buy a four-track and start recording your friends, and if you’ve got a knack for it that you’ll just keep improving from there. I really believe that. Not that I have this huge empire or anything, but I’ve really just built this all from the ground up over the last eight or so years, starting from scratch just like that.
Hochstetler: Call Me Lightning tracked our first record with a friend of mine named Bill Skibbe in Benton Harbor, Mich., at a studio called Key Club. Around the time we finished our second record, I saw that Bill had finished his live room with logs. I got in touch with him and asked him about the logs, and apparently he got the idea from a studio that he had been to in Europe. He really loved the way it sounded and decided to do it to his live room. So he helped me figure out how to do it to my room. The bark absorbs sound while still giving it a liveliness, which is great. I contacted this sawmill in Sullivan, Wis., and they’ve saved a bunch of logs for me that they were going to just use for firewood and sold them to me for something like $8 a log. It took me about six months to complete it all. It was a giant mess and they’re insanely heavy, but when it was all said and done it was totally worth it.
TCD: A majority of the records you’ve engineered have been on the heavier side of things. Was that a conscious decision that you made or did it just end up happening that way?
Hochstetler: When I first started, because of having worked with Get Rad and Protestant, primarily, 90 percent of the things I was recording were either punk, hardcore or metal, which was fine. I just remember thinking “Man, I want to record an acoustic guitar,” so I could learn how to record other things, just because a lot of the bands I was recording at the time were all louder and more aggressive. Eventually, I started record other things, and then those bands told their friends and word eventually started to spread in different circles, which is great. I’ve met so many different people that I wouldn’t have met had I not recorded their bands, and I’ve made so many great friendships and personal connections with them as a result of that.
I know a lot of engineers who will only record music that they like, and that’s fine, but for me, I’ll record anyone who wants to record with me and can pay for recording time. At this point I’ve engineered around 300 records, I’m sure there’s a handful of them that I wasn’t super into. Given, it’s a huge bonus when I dig the music and the people who make it, but it’s not my job to like their music, you know?
TCD: How long did it take before you were able to be a full time studio engineer?
Hochstetler: I was working a 40-hour a week job, and about three years into recording, I was also doing that 40 hours a week, but I wasn’t quite ready to make the jump to just recording full time. I started recording more as word started to get out about the studio, and then finally about three years ago I quit my day job and have been recording full time since.
TCD: That’s the dream isn’t it? It must have felt great when you were able to literally just quit your day job and do what you love to do.
It actually got to the point where working a day job was cutting into recording time, and it just made financial sense. I’d be making more money just recording full time than doing the $9 hour temp job that I had at the time. But yeah, it was great because it was totally the dream I had as a kid in high school, just like “Man, wouldn’t it be great to just record bands?”
TCD: So what does the future hold for you and Howl Street?
I’m just gonna ride this out until I can’t anymore, but for now it keeps growing. I’ve got a year left on my lease here, so I’m going to finish that off and then hopefully move into a space that’s twice as big as this. When I build Howl Street Version Two, my goal is to have an even larger log room as well as an adobe brick room. Really, I’d just like to make a studio in Milwaukee that’s something of a cross between Key Club and Electrical Audio. If things keep going the way they’re going, I should be able to make it happen. I’m pretty much booked out solid for two to four months at a time year round, so I must be doing something right. I’m just grateful that people want me to be a part of their record and trust me with their babies. Really, though, I’m just a dude doing what I wanna do.
Howl Street Studios is located in Milwaukee’s gorgeous Bay View neighborhood and is currently available for booking in November. For more information, you can visit their website or like them on Facebook.