This time last year, Mark Nikolich and his recording studio Atomic Audio were already well-entrenched in the Bay area original-music scene. Nikolich was ten years into a side career tracking more than 100 acts, from obscure, short-lived locals to nationally recognized names like Kylesa and Pseudo Heroes. He'd taken Atomic Audio from a seedy storage-rental facility off East Hillsborough Avenue to its own comfortable headquarters in West Tampa's Drew Park, and was known by punk vets and singer-songwriters alike as a mellow and accommodating yet passionate engineer who simply loved recording music — any music.
But he was also working full-time as a parts and service director for a local auto dealership in order to support his family, spending his workdays looking forward to the next session, and putting money away here and there in anticipation of a time when he might make a living doing what he loved.
That time came in March of this year, when Nikolich rented 4,100 square feet of warehouse space on 40th Street — not far from the storage place where Atomic Audio got its start — and began building out his dream.
"I thought, 'Either I'm going to die early from stress, or I'm gonna go ahead and do something I really enjoy,'" he says of the decision.
Atomic Audio has all the accouterments of the standard recording studio: digital control room, large "live" recording space, isolation booths, plus the divided "floating" walls, Plexiglas observation window and faux-leather couch so many local musicians will find familiar. But the studio is only part of the story. The large, modern complex also features comfortable rehearsal and educational facilities — the kind that can be hard to find for players without a detached garage, extra bedroom or understanding neighbors.
Down the hall from the studio proper are three private rooms loaded with instrument speaker cabinets and P.A. gear. Two are for rent for practice at $12 an hour; the third is reserved for music lessons.
"This is what I'm calling our learning center," says Nikolich with a grin as he flips the light switch.
Nikolich is planning on offering all sorts of lessons by accredited intructors, from the usual guitar, bass and drums to strings, piano and voice. He's already got himself an eminently qualified director of music education — The Tim Version drummer Shawn Watkins, who has experience as both trainer and trainee.
Nikolich sees the "learning center" as an opportunity to help enrich Tampa's cultural climate. He hopes to reach the point where the studio can help facilitate scholarships and other incentives for young musicians.
"The gift of music," he says. "That's something you've gotta keep in your community."
Beyond the hourly rental rooms and hallway fridge, a secure door leads to the back of the warehouse and an air-conditioned warren of corridors that snake between custom-built 12' x 16' and 14' x 16' rehearsal rooms bands can lease on a monthly basis, and not have to lug their gear to and from every practice session. This section of Atomic Audio has its own entrance with a state-of-the-art digital lock that notifies Nikolich via his BlackBerry every time a code is entered and the door is opened; each room is given its own distinct entry code, and video surveillance should be up and running shortly.
Unlike some other monthly rehearsal-studio landlords, Nikolich — who says he did about 90 percent of the build-out with his own hands — allows groups to piggyback, with more than one band to a room, to help defray the cost, which runs from $275 for the smaller rooms to $325 for the bigger ones.
"I let 'em share rooms, it doesn't matter to me," he says. "If you want to set up a pool table, I don't care. Do whatever you want, as long as you're not storing hazardous waste or growing pot or something."
The pleasure Nikolich receives from music and the creative souls who make it comes naturally to him. Even before relocating to Tampa from Chicago nearly three decades ago, he was a musician, and put in more than his fair share of time playing in bands. It was recording demos of his own group, in fact, that first revealed his love for recording.
"I was always drawn to the recording end," he says. "I liked the magic of what could be done in the studio. My band actually wound up breaking up because I was so busy recording."
Not that he wouldn't like to see Atomic Audio become a staggering financial success, but for now Nikolich just hopes the studio and rehearsal facility begins to bring in enough to justify walking away from a lucrative, if uninspiring, career in automotive customer service. A business that keeps its head above water, and knowing he is contributing to the creation and preservation of Tampa Bay tunes, would be enough to make him happy.
"If I can't get this thing going enough, then I'll go back to the auto dealership," he says. "I'll know I've built something that I always wanted to do."
Atomic Audio Recording is located at 3212 N. 40th Street, Suite 302 in Tampa. For more information or to book rehearsal or studio time, call 813-245-7195 or visit www.atomicaudiorecording.com.