I duck my head under the beam framing the narrow sidewalk to the rear of the Montrose Avenue three-flat, and climb the stairs. The stairs and the porch are slanted at an alarming angle, about to fall off the back of the house. I enter Studio Ballistico. It’s dark. I pick my way through the main performance room, filled with drumsets, keyboards, microphone stands, cables, and home-made stools, all framed by a slanted ceiling (the underside of the roof), soundproofed with great quantities of foam rubber. Timothy S. Sandusky is sitting in the adjacent master-console room, leaning back weirdly to position his head at the focal point of two large speakers above a light blue computer screen on which the interface of Adobe Audition appears. He is listening to the scratch track onto which he has mixed the work from the week before.
Baby-faced, handsome in a solid way, and intense, 26-year old Sanduksy extends his left hand to shake my right briefly and mutters “hello,” with a ghost of a smile, still concentrating on the music. I sit down on the other end of the couch, being careful not to bump my head on the slanted ceiling, and listen too, marveling as how he has stitched the best of several dozen takes and tracks from last week together seamlessly and made everything work together. He is wearing a much-used, mustard-colored jacket with “Western Electric” embroidered on the right breast, blue jeans, sneakers and mismatched socks. Today, his hair is much shorter than last week. He explains later that he cuts it himself with a contraption in which the cutting blades fit into a vacuum cleaner hose so that the individual hairs are cut at approximately the same length. When the song is finished, he clicks the mouse to stop the music and we talk about the song. I express enthusiasm for what he has done, and he deflects the praise, apologizing that it is not the “official” version yet and identifying one or two things we need to fix. We agree on what we will do in a few minutes when today’s studio musician arrives—a long-time friend of Tim’s and a new friend of mine. We exchange a few ideas on how I want the song to sound and how he thinks this recording session can advance my goals. Sipping from an enormous cup of what appears to be iced coffee, he stops in mid-sentence and asks whether I have thought about the geopolitics of Mongolia. I struggle to recall approximately where Mongolia is. He eagerly regards my quick sketch of a rough map on my yellow pad and we exchange speculation about the accuracy of the “map” and on Mongolia’s future relations with China and Russia. His thoughts are sophisticated and he raises a number of provocative questions. It’s as though he has been thinking about Mongolia all week. He hasn’t. He’s been thinking about music, interspersing recording sessions for other clients like me with rehearsals for his band, Oucho Sparks. Tim is the principal singer and writes all the songs for Oucho Sparks. God only knows what time he went to bed last night. Today’s performer enters and smiles at both of us. I shake his hand. Tim glances at him, smiles, and makes another point about Mongolia, briefly explaining to the newcomer that we are talking about Mongolia. The new musician looks bewildered for a second, but he knows Tim. So he laughs, sits down on a nearby chair and listens. After fifteen minutes or so, the conversation concludes with a mutual promise to check out some facts on geography and history. Tim jumps up and begins positioning microphones in the performance room, as the other musician warms up. The scratch track is playing in the background. After a while, Tim has the microphones where he wants them and has given each of us a pair of headphones and adjusted the sound level. “I’ll loop the first section. Why don’t you check out some ideas?” He shouts from behind the folding door. Sometimes he uses a talk-back microphone, but as often as not forgets to use it, and we hear his muffled voice through the soundproofing as he yells, “you can do it better,” and clicks the mouse to erase a recording take and replace it with a new one. Occasionally—very occasionally, he says, “that was perfect; I’ll loop the next section while you practice.” Whatever temptations the performer or I might have to say, “Well, that’s good enough,” are cut off before we express them. It would not be “good enough” for Tim. Frequently, when the talk-back is active, we can hear him click the mouse to abort the take as soon as the performer makes a mistake, even a tenth-of-a-beat time deviation. When I, a less experienced performer, perform, Tim is more forgiving in the recording session itself, planning to fix the mistake afterwards with the software. This is a supportive environment, even as Tim demands the best. “Best” is relative to talent and experience, and Tim helps me make music accordingly. As the performer and I talk about options for a section, Tim opens the folding door, listens for a few minutes and then offers ideas: “Whoo, ya, yo,” he sings, “Whoo, whoo, ya, yo,” signifiying how a harmony line might work, in what almost always is perfect pitch. Or “psst, whssh, tch, tch,” mimicking percussion sounds so evocatively we always laugh, even as we adopt them. All the while his hands are indicating the pitch differences or simulating what drum sticks would be doing. The ideas flow as fast and are as good, whether we’re working on a ballad or rock or something with a jazz feel. They all are offered with a smile or a laugh, and an “I don’t know whether this is a good idea, but . . .” allowing us to persevere with competing ideas, if we wish. We rarely do; Tim’s ideas are usually better. While we are making music, Tim is the most demonstrative guy in the room, all signs of his earlier shyness gone. When we’re done recording, he returns to the stool he designed and fixed to the polyurethane floor behind the computer console, puts on his headphones, and selects the best tracks, welds them together, adjusting pitch and timing as necessary. He apparently is completely caught up in the process, oblivious to everything else. The performer and I sit on the couch and talk quietly, so as not to disturb him. Periodically, however, Tim pulls a headphone off one ear and interjects a comment, proving that he was following our conversation as well as working on the music. When he waits for a file to save or a CD to burn, he joins the conversation more actively, perhaps raising questions about digging deep tunnels for fast rail transportation or the acoustics of early wind instruments in the Middle East. Tim often knows the answers to questions about the history of different genres of music, or why one arrangement works better than another—or about dinosaurs. But he seeks knowledge as much as he imparts it, pulling it out of someone sitting in front of him just as he has been pulling good musical performances out of us. He is the center of the action while never seeming to want attention for himself. There’s no sense of competition; just the sense that Tim is fun to be with as well as a huge aid in expressing what you want musically. It’s like he climbs inside your head and gives voice to tunes and progressions to chords and grooves to rhythms only vaguely accessible from your own intuition. Perfectionist, he is; he won’t turn a take loose until you have done your best. But he does not know how to browbeat or embarrass. You leave a recording session with him, uplifted, knowing that he has helped you make the best out of your music. You already have talked about the goals for the next session, one in which Tim will record his own vocals, or do a clarinet, saxophone, or cello track because you don’t know anyone else as good as he is. He calls out his inevitable “Bye-for-now,” as you start down the stairs. Having learned about Tim’s early development, you reflect on the relationship between his current persona and the stories he tells about his early childhood and teenage years. Supported by parents who were both musicians and public school teachers, and who expected excellence from their children, Tim initially (from age four to age nine or so) aspired to be a paleontologist.“I was mesmerized by a book about dinosaur bones my older sister read to me (she taught me to read before I entered kindergarten).” But a visit by a recruiter for the fifth grade band cut short what otherwise might have been a brilliant career in paleontology—or any number of other things. The interest in the arcane worlds of dinosaur bones and almost every other subject outside the mainstream of public consciousness remains, but music gradually emerged as the target of Tim’s zeal. He already spent much of his leisure time in his bedroom making cassette tapes of jazz works on his boom-box radio. Choosing an instrument and joining the Edgewood Elementary School band required little thought.His sister already played the flute in school groups, and the saxophone was the obvious instrument for a wind-instrument sibling who liked jazz. Music for the remainder of his elementary- and junior-high- school career was part of Tim’s everyday life (his parents expected, in a relaxed way, that all their children would be involved with music). But it did not define him.Rather he cultivated an image as the smartest kid in the gifted program, albeit one with quirky interests and bits of knowledge and a sense of humor about himself, not overeager to be popular in the pre-teen social scene, but instead to be respected. “My parents simply assumed that all of us would be the best at whatever we did.” He was not the class clown, but smiled inwardly when he made an offbeat comment, or declared a day to be a holiday no one had ever heard of, causing his classmates to say “How did Tim ever come up with that?” Actually, they were more likely to say, “Sir Timothy,” because it was along about then that became his moniker. Sports also were a natural part of life then. A veteran of little league baseball, soccer and wrestling, he passed up the Woodridge Junior-High wrestling team because its practices conflicted with the math team meetings. His teachers loved his sparkling competence and seriousness about learning. Committed and loyal to existing friends rather than eager to graduate regularly from one set of friends to another, he maintained close ties—and still does—with neighborhood and school buddies. The studio musician on the occasion recounted at the beginning of this profile was a teenage friend. As we recorded, Tim named drum takes after his high-school bandmates. His parents bought a computer as Tim was entering junior high school. “When I was not taking it apart to modify the motherboard or to install new memory or peripherals, I was helping my father assemble upgrades from power supply and mother-board components purchased separately.” Early-stage music software drew Tim into rudimentary composition and stimulated his interest in tonality and rhythm. For a time, music and wrestling competed for his attention; music won. When Tim reached high school, he decided to go out for the wrestling team. He was a good wrestler and wrestling was a sport in which Tim could take full responsibility for the outcome rather than being dependent on teammate seriousness and competence. Of far greater significance, however, was the mandate that band members must also be part of the marching band. A compulsory band camp before freshman year in high school embedded Tim in a reference group of some 200 teenage musicians in the Downers Grove South Marching Band. Popular with the juniors and seniors because of his musical ability and task-oriented seriousness, he let music begin to define his identity and his future. The band offered structure: learn to play your instrument accurately and sweetly, according to the notes on the score, learn to march while playing, and memorize the formations and shows. Before long, however, his private saxophone teachers were adding music theory and improvisation technique. During this time, he was in his first rock band—a casual group of friends from junior high school, and played experimental sax. A consolidated group of friends—old and new—spent much of their time driving around, listening to music. They were an island in a sea of 4,000 high school students: the “band crowd,” cooler than the dorks and the serious ones in the honors classes, but not as cool as the jocks. Tim was the resident skeptic, determined to be different. “I was sure that I was pretty smart, wanting to get a good job, but not obsessed with money or status—it all was pretty vague. Music was a part of who I was; I took that for granted; it did not define my career vision.” By the end of high school, Tim was disciplined financially and—paradoxically, some might think—beginning to think of music as a career. “My parents instilled financial self-reliance. I had worked in an ice-cream shop since I was 15; I never got an allowance. It was gratifying to ‘kill the deer and then to eat it;’ too many of my friends just drifted around with their parents’ credit cards.” But Tim fought to relieve boredom with institutionalized approaches to his interests after he graduated from high school. College was too easy. He could get A’s without going to class. He took on a newspaper delivery route to make money, which left his daytime hours free. For a time he was also serious about trading and financial engineering. He got his Series 3 license after passing the National Commodities Futures Exam, and brought his interest and talent in mathematics and technology to bear on developing computerized trading strategies. It was one of the few everyday uses he had found for the calculus he had begun to learn in high school. Music began to expand to fill all the free time left by not going to class. The college jazz band and wind ensemble, were like a high school band, and he had already done that; he wanted to mix with people who took music seriously. He build a drumset for his little brother, sat in on some recording sessions, and started writing songs in his dorm room. In 1999, he joined Oucho Sparks, then a year old, to play funk jazz sax, and things began to come into focus. He began to produce recordings for other bands as well. As more people heard his work, his customer base grew. He decided to move into Chicago and build a recording studio to organize his work more effectively. “This is my thing,” he says, “I never felt the need to be famous; I don’t need to be constantly reassured by an audience; what I seek is validation from my friends and my peers for making good, interesting music. The business part is gratifying because it’s a challenge to formulate and execute a strategy, not because of a desire to strike it rich some day.” Tim fidgets when I ask him about the traits that define him. He accepts “inner-directed,” “perfectionist,” “risk taker,” and “self-confident.” He resists “talented.” “Everyone is talented; you have to develop your talents.” Then he gets an idea, and the discomfort at being pigeonholed vanishes. “I have a long attention span. That’s what really makes me different. I’m not going to give up even if I don’t sell a bunch of records immediately. I enjoy sustained creative effort. I’m in it for the long haul.” Tim Sandusky has a well-thought and coherent vision of the future of music and his role in it. He designed Oucho Sparks and its business model to accommodate multiple involvements by its eight members: Sandusky himself, Jamie Gallaher (drums), who also is a member of Andreas Kapsalis Trio and teaches music; Laura Grey (backup vocals), who tours with the Second City comedy troup; Dave Bowers (guitar); Dave Gallagher (guitar); Aaron Allietta (keyboard); Bob Salihar (bass); and Ryan “Catfish” Chindlund (live director and percussionist). The band, with varying membership, has been performing since 1998. Oucho Sparks relies mainly on its own website and on MySpace to promote and distribute its music, disdaining intermediaries such as record labels, CDBaby, Amazon or iTunes. Oucho Sparks has 45,000 MySpace “friends.” His experience recording other artists and bands causes Sandusky to conclude that “It’s really hard to make money by playing music. People want to be stars all of a sudden because they are too lazy to do music in a serious way over a sustained period of time. The more they try to ‘make it,’ the more they’re digging a hole for themselves—either through bad financial deals with record labels or because of disappointed expectations, or both. Even for the few that make it big, rarely do they have significant income for more than 3-5 years. Popular music stars are shooting stars.” He has a different philosophy: “There’s more to playing music than making money off of it. If I want to make money from music, I should write popular songs and recruit a really attractive young singer to sing them and an investor to finance marketing and promotion. That’s not what I want to do. I would be happy to spend money to make Oucho Sparks what it should be.” For Oucho Sparks, the objectives are to write and play good music, to become well known and respected, and to make a living. Different members would rank these objectives differently, and Sandusky is determined to maintain a mode of operating that helps each band member fulfill his or her own goals according to his or her own priorities. That means flexibility in scheduling practice sessions, minimizing “democratic” discussions of business policy and artistic direction, and reliance on Sandusky to be the manager and the linchpin who keeps each member involved through frequent one-to-one communication. It’s not a significant setback when Grey is unavailable for a period because she is on tour with Second City or Jamie Gallaher is on a three-month tour with Andreas Kapsalis Trio. Despite other involvements, each band member finds the Oucho Sparks philosophy credible and believes that the group can help each performer fulfil his or her goals for music. They always make time available for their Oucho Sparks obligations. “For a modern musician to make a living, you have to be diverse: you perform live; you record; you give lessons; you produce; you work as a webmaster; you promote MySpace exposure; you do interviews; you may have a job in a completely different field,” Sandusky says. This defines the Oucho Sparks philosophy for its performers. The business model reflects Sandusky’s understanding of how the demand for music has changed. The forces that skewed demand to a handful of music superstars have shifted to a broader set of music creators. It has become easier to be “medium big”—to have 1,000 loyal fans; it is harder to be Red Hot Chili Peppers. The skew to the top may remain for pop, rap, hip-hop, but not for rock. There no longer is such a thing as the top 40 for rock music. And being signed with a record label does not matter any more. Everyone has a label, and the consumers don’t know the difference; they want to find music they like, and its easier to find it by ignoring the big labels. “We’ve had 125,000 plays of our music—that means that someone listened to some of our music for at least a second or two 125,000 times. It would have cost a fortune to achieve that twenty years ago,” Sandusky says, “and you could not have done it without a major label’s validation and marketing and distribution resources. Now it costs very little with downloading websites and MySpace. The club and old boys network that the industry stalwarts provide is largely irrelevant now; we can form our own club through MySpace. The major labels are just investors, and we can get better terms from a bank.” Moreover, according to Sandusky, it is not just a matter of splitting existing market share differently. The total demand for music has increased dramatically because music has become more portable through the combination of downloading digital files and portable music players such as iPod. “Now consumers can use more of their work, leisure, and travel time, listening to music, often doing something else at the same time. Before the advent of the new technologies, you could enjoy music only during blocks of leisure time; now you can listen to it during all the time you are awake—if you want to.” The result is more opportunities for more musicians to sustain serious music careers, even though prices have fallen and will continue to fall. “What I like best about running a recording studio is that I can help unknown musicians with interesting artistic ideas realize their dreams,” he says. “They get to define their dreams.” “Some percentage of everyone’s day must be devoted to surviving,” says Tim. “Only a few lucky ones get to spend a large percentage of their days doing exactly what they want. I am one of the lucky ones. Some people don’t know what they want. I do. If music is in your soul it will come out. If it’s not coming out, then it either was not in your soul in the first place, or something is terribly wrong with the structure of your life.” He pauses. “When you go to sleep at night, it’s nice to be able to say, ‘Wow! I did a lot of things I wanted to do, today.’ I say that almost every night.” Henry H. Perritt, Jr. May, 2007