The path to Brian Merrill’s Superbee Recording Studio is dotted with toys, bicycles and other family life accoutrements. That’s because to get there you have to cross the front porch of Merrill’s house, where his wife, Barbie, and their kids are carrying on with their evening. They’re accustomed to creatively inclined foot traffic en route to the studio, which is located in a formerly ramshackle 1928 garage in the Merrills’ backyard.
Merrill, of Barely Pink and the Ditchflowers, made his first foray into home recording in 1999 after a $1,200 session at Morrisound left him looking for ways to save money and gain flexibility. Lucky for Merrill, Pro Tools was just months away from releasing its groundbreaking home digital recorder, the Digi 001, priced at just $900. “I was rushing through demo mixes at home one day, and accidentally picked up my mix and played that in the car instead.” Then Merrill noticed the home recordings didn’t sound too bad. “At least, I couldn’t hear a $1,000 difference between the basic tracks at Morrisound and what I was doing at home.”
Beginning with a front-room setup in the house, he moved the studio into the garage in 2001. Cats roam the vicinity, and a large can of Deep Woods Off sits by the entrance. The cow skull that hangs on the wall was bequeathed to him by his late uncle, who told him the bony totem was “his soul.” There’s a large drum kit, microphones, and cables all oriented around a sprawling Star Trek-esque recording console that Merrill loads himself into à la Captain James T. Kirk.
It took him years of bartering, buying b-stock equipment or “dent-and-scratches” from Sweetwater to build up Superbee. “I do a lot of trading,” he says. “Drew [Anthony, of Sonic Graffiti] fixed my Electric Mistress pedal in exchange for working on the album.” There’s a large knob piece he purchased from the Nine Inch Nails keyboard player and two dbx boxes that were used on the Letterman show.
He pulls up the mix for “Haircut,” a song off the forthcoming EP from Pretty Voices, which was recorded at the band’s home studio and mixed by Merrill. Good ol’ trashy, dirty punk rock pours from the speakers. He and fellow Ditchflowers compatriot Ed Woltil “drink too much Starbucks and just sit, listen, and start tweaking something here or there.”
Superbee is “sound-deadened,” not soundproofed, he says. “The low end does travel, but I don’t do bass or kickdrum after 11 p.m. to respect the neighborhood.”
Sonic Graffiti, the voodoo blues and punk-soul trio from St. Petersburg, recorded its latest album with Merrill. “They get loud,” says Merrill with a nod and smile. “Luckily you can scream and play electric guitar out here and no one can hear you at all.”
There’s no clock in here, and that’s kind of the point; Superbee is a space for getting carried away.