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Audio for the Arts

Signaling a quick "thumbs up" through a glass window, Buzz Kemper takes charge of a studio control surface as Julie, a 29-year-old pianist for the Ekaterinburg Trio, plays a joyful rendition of the spiritual hymn "Higher Ground." To the untrained ear, the piece is lovely and melodic, but moments later, upon hearing the playback, she grimaces. "This is what you call a white girl playing gospel," she laughs under her breath. "Not very convincing. I need more soul." She marches back into the studio. The second time around, she's more satisfied, and by her third go-round, she's playing just the second half of the piece.

Kemper records each take, and later will edit the two halves together to create Julie's solo number on the Trio's new CD.

This is Audio for the Arts (AFA), a professional recording studio owned by Kemper and business partner Steve Gotcher. On this day, "The Kat Trio" [thekattrio.net] is completing the last of four tracking sessions.

Minutes later, the other members of the group arrive – Viktoria, 37, and Vlad, 36, a married couple originally from Russia. Kemper has worked with the trio four times before, and his familiarity with them allows him to prepare the studio in advance of their arrival. Tape marks on the studio floor indicate where Viktoria and Vlad's music stands will be placed. Six microphones will be used – two that record the entire ensemble, two on the piano, and one each on the violin and clarinet. Each microphone goes to its own "track," Kemper explains, allowing tracks to be manipulated during the mixing phase.

"Mixing gives the listener the experience they were intended to have. It's like a writer editing their work, or tweaking a character."

The musicians quickly tune their instruments. Vlad settles in with his clarinet while Kemper double-checks the mics. Viktoria, on violin, notes that the unusually warm and humid weather has affected her violin's tone. Weather shouldn't affect the piano, however. Kemper and Gotcher purchased the Yamaha C6 grand piano in 2002 for $28,000, and it came with an affixed "damp chaser" to keep humidity inside the instrument at a constant level.

Within minutes, the trio begins a moving version of "Beautiful Saviour." Kemper listens to the melodious strains coming from the next room. "I don't look at sheet music until we get to editing," he explains, "because I can't let my eyes work harder than my ears." When the trio completes the song, Kemper plays back the recording. Vlad comments that his clarinet was too loud in some spots. They make adjustments and go back in for take two.

After this day's session, Kemper will provide the Trio with a reference CD of all the day's cuts, and later, he will edit the pieces according to the notes they make. At the end of the process, the group will receive a master recording of what will become their second spiritual CD.

Kemper worked for Wisconsin Public Radio for 15 years. As a technical producer, he recorded classical music for the Madison Symphony Orchestra as well as for Yo-Yo Ma. Possessing a deep voice clearly suited for radio, he also hosted a weekend radio show for several years, filling in occasionally on Michael Hanson's jazz program. "I'd hear myself and feel like a soprano next to him," he laughed.

In the mid-1990s, Kemper teamed up with Gotcher and formed AFA in a small studio on Mifflin Street. In 2000, they expanded to their current location on South Blair Street in Madison.

Though his resume includes recordings with Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, and Luther Allison, classical music is truly the company's forte. "We do a lot of it," he said. "The test of whether you're really loving your work is if you want the CD afterwards," he says.

AFA's clients include the Madison and Green Bay symphonies, among others. "I've worked with John DeMain since the day he came to town. He tells me what he wants, but not how to achieve it. That's my favorite kind of conductor. That's where my creative juices come in."

And nothing, in his mind, gets those juices flowing more than large-scale, remote productions. The company recently worked with the Madison Symphony on John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls" at Overture Center, which included a full adult choir, children's choir, and individual speakers. "We used 22 speakers altogether" to create the production's surround-sound effect.

AFA averages three Madison Symphony concerts a year. "When I'm there, something is being amplified or mixed somewhere," Kemper says, "but the audience typically wouldn't know." His work assures that choirs are heard over a full orchestra, for example, such as is required at the annual Christmas concert.

Of course, things don't always go as planned. Once, John DeMain had to stop a performance for several seconds because a communication lapse resulted in soloists without microphones. "I wanted to crawl into a hole and die," Kemper lamented. "John DeMain just laughed."

AFA does about 70% of its work in Madison, and most of that in-studio. The two owners also lend their voices to corporate videos, commercials, and even telephone systems, a new revenue stream that is gaining steam. Business clients have included American Family Insurance, TDS, and Promega.

At a time when some local studios have gone belly up, Kemper said AFA is holding its own. "We've had some down periods, but right now, we're as busy as ever." Two things have worked against local studios, he explains. First, and not surprisingly, when the economy is down, incomes are down. "Second, about a decade ago, the home studio market picked up, allowing people to buy cheap equipment and do home recordings. That's affected some studios."

As one Madison studio, Smart Studios, ended its Madison run, Kemper and Gotcher purchased some of its equipment, including two 350-pound speakers, and hired its former manager and lead engineer, Mike Zirkel. Kemper believes Zirkel will broaden AFA's repertoire to pop and rock projects in the near future.

Kemper's days and nights are often filled with beautiful music, but his time away from the studio is not. "You don't go home after this job and want to listen to music," he admitted. "I usually watch the news. I prefer a nice, friendly talking head."

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