North Tampa's University Square Mall is pretty light on consumers for such a sunny late-spring afternoon. Everybody must be at the beach, or perhaps holding a group make-out session on a giant sandspur-infested blanket at nearby Lettuce Lake Park. Few Hot Topic punks or faux-gangstaz stroll the indoor promenade in endless, lackadaisical window perusal. The early rush to have one's tot photographed with the Easter Bunny is long over; the storied 6-foot mammal himself (7-foot-1-inch with ears) leans idly against a line-forms-here stanchion, daydreaming of carrots, or a shot of rye, or something.At the mall's north end, to the right of the Sears entrance, SonictraX occupies a mall-store slot of the usual size. The slogan "Studio and Sound Experiment" runs underneath its logo. On the left-front window reads this legend in an ultramodern font:
"We have: bass, reverb, delay, distortion, singing, scratching, mixing, jamming, recording, video making, lessons, performances, practicing, bands, competitions, prizes, creating, thinking, sharing ... and more."
That about sums it up.
The space itself is warm and contemporary, giving off an undeniable "mall vibe," but that's probably just because it's, you know, in one. With its framed posters, inner-lit cubicles and small couched waiting area, SonictraX might be misperceived as a really cool salon, if not for the half-dozen guitars displayed in front of the glass counter. The posters are an encouragingly disparate display of musical artists from Bob Marley and The Beatles to Bjork and Radiohead, and the cubicles aren't beauty stations, but rather isolation booths stocked with various instruments.
SonictraX is a sort of music-oriented hands-on museum, a unique idea that combines everything from instruction and practice to recording and video production. It could be seen as a contemporary take on the "Make A Record Here" kiosks that popped up in record stores and on boardwalks and fair midways during the '50s. For a few cents, the automated booths would press a vinyl copy of a person singing and playing guitar; Elvis Presley first heard his recorded voice after popping into one to do a song for his mama.
"We're kind of trying to foster a creative movement," explains co-owner Kelly Ann King. "We get everyone from people who've never picked up an instrument to professional musicians who stop in and show off a bit."
Customers of any age and skill level can buy some time in one of the up-front booths to mess around with guitars, drums, keyboards — even a professional turntable setup or the weirdly intriguing theremin, which translates electrical field fluctuations into musical tones. There's also a vocal booth where aspiring celebrities can add a well-recorded vocal track to any CD of music they bring in, from a burned karaoke tune to a fully-produced hip-hop instrumental, or play a single instrument while singing along.
"The one example that blows my mind is this guy who came walking down the mall carrying a boom-box blasting some popular rap CD," says King. "He brought in (another) CD, recorded a vocal over it, and popped it into the boom-box as he was leaving. He came in playing somebody else, and left playing his own stuff."
Now, all of this may conjure frightening images of a sort of musical Chuck E. Cheese's, where hyperactive pre-teens and woefully untalented MCs amuse and embarrass themselves while indulgent parents and smirking friends look on. The thought certainly occurred to me — I am, after all, in a mall. While today's sparse consumer attendance leaves SonictraX ominously empty, I'm sure King and partner Ben Greene endure their share of customers more interested in diversion than expression.
But babysitting bored kids while their parents try on shoes isn't really part of King and Greene's bigger picture. The store's rear half is an audio and video studio of surprisingly high quality and functionality.
"It's both," says Greene. "The front is a kind of playland — you can learn an instrument, then work your way back here."
Digital cameras are aimed at a green screen, awaiting actors and any number of post-shoot effects. A soundproofed isolation booth in one corner accommodates drums first for live recording, then a vocalist for overdubs. We're not talking Electric Ladyland here or anything, but the equipment I see in the room is quite capable of rendering both adequate video production and a mixed and mastered CD of higher-than-demo caliber. Greene, who spent a decade playing in bands in the pair's hometown of Chicago, has assembled a viable middle-ground alternative for non-professional expressionists who'd like a decently produced representation of their talents but have neither access to someone with a kick-ass home setup nor the cash to shell out for hours on end at an established studio — a standard practice SonictraX neatly runs around (as do several smaller Bay area studios) by charging by the song, not the hour.
"The whole idea is accessibility. It's for people who have never had a chance to do stuff like this before," Greene says. He plays me a clean and amazing performance by a gospel group recorded in the up-front vocal booth and accompanied only by acoustic guitar. It certainly doesn't sound like it was recorded in a mall storefront.
Community is also a part of it. SonictraX put on a five-week competition for local hip-hop artists earlier this year; they garnered just short of 20 participants whose styles varied from thuggish southern bounce to politically aware Latin. A particularly talented 17-year-old took the prize. Greene, King and their cohorts intend to continue sponsoring contests, as well as spotlighting artists by letting them play low-key shows in front of their space, and selling and distributing discs by unsigned local groups.
Their enthusiasm is contagious. I can't help worrying, however, that their abilities and goals may be undercut by the fact that they're trying to do some serious stuff ... in an effin' mall. But as some representatives for a local modeling agency arrive with an effervescent young girl of maybe eight to do some video work, King restates SonictraX's refreshingly populist position — and what could be more populist than an effin' mall?
"We want to convey that anybody is welcome to come in and try something they've never tried before," she says. "We're not music snobs."
"I'd like to get some punk bands in here, too," adds Greene. "They can load in through the back door — we won't tell anybody they cut their demo here."