SubCat Studios Dominates the Central New York Sound

Subcat Studios | 219 S West Street, Syracuse, NY 13202                                      Photo by Kristin O’Grady

From basement to big time, Ron Keck has turned his love for music, technology, and education into a world-class audio recording studio in quiet Central New York.

TJ James sits comfortably in his basement office. He looks too young – maybe 24 or 25 – to be a studio manager, but he looks like he belongs. SubCat Studios was developed by one of his own kind: a drummer who was so impassioned by music that he created something bigger than himself. James doesn’t express his fervor for the studio in so many words, but his sheer knowledge of the company history speaks volumes of his passion for his work.

Founder and owner Ron Keck is a world-renowned snare drummer who garnered recognition teaching the most talented percussionists in Central New York for 25 years. Being an educator, Keck was always tuned in to the latest industry trends, so it was no surprise that he was one of the first to embrace the evolution of hard disk-based recording (T. James, Personal Communication, September 14, 2017).

In 1988, Keck started running a home recording studio, called KDA Productions, out of his basement in Eastwood, a neighborhood in Syracuse, NY. After 13 years of editing and mastering audio, KDA morphed into SubCat Studios. In 2001, the SubCat team began its venture with a location upgrade: the basement of a doctor’s office in Skaneateles, NY (T. James, 2017) (SubCat Studios).

TJ James hard at work in his office. Photo by Kristin O’Grady

Finally, in 2010, Keck gathered the company’s earnings and moved SubCat to its current home in Armory Square, a neighborhood in downtown Syracuse. Today, SubCat Studios boasts a state-of-the-art facility that simultaneously retains a quaint, small-town feel. The staff consists of only five people: Ron Keck, three on-staff engineers (Jeremy Johnston, Patrick MacDougall, and Stephen Brown), and Studio Manager TJ James. They work with freelancers to produce the kind of high-quality content that an artist might otherwise obtain in New York or Los Angeles (T. James, 2017) (SubCat Studios).

Of SubCat’s three studios, Studios A and B are modeled after studios found in NY and LA, and Studio C is a basement home studio that harkens to the origins of the company. A and B are floating rooms; they do not make contact with any rooms around them. This design allows for perfect studio isolation that prevents unwanted sound from penetrating the space during recording. Clients can rent Studios A and B for $65 per hour, and Studio C for $45 per hour (T. James, 2017) (SubCat Studios).

From initial recording to album duplication, the SubCat team covers every step of the creative process in-house.

Studio A, SubCat Studios. Photo by Kristin O’Grady

The recording of a full-length studio album begins “with a six- to nine-hour day to lay down those base tracks,” James says. The artists run through take after take, overlaying different instruments and harmonies to create chord progressions and enhance the overall quality of the songs. Occasionally, a videographer joins these recording sessions to capture behind-the-scenes footage of the artists at work (T. James, 2017).

After all the takes are set, the tracks are ready to be mixed. Mixing ensures that all the voices and instruments, and all the melodies and harmonies, blend well together and do not “fight” each other. It is during this step that the editors work with the artists to create a sound that matches the vision inside their heads (T. James, 2017).

Mastering is the final leg of the mixing process. Each track now has its own unique sound, but it is important that all the tracks fit together in the context of the album. Engineers use each track as a reference for the others and mix the sound so that the album plays fluidly and has the same tone from start to finish. The engineers also raise the overall volume of each track so that the songs are ready to be played on the radio just as they are heard in the studio. The master copy of an album is the standard from which all duplicates are generated (T. James, 2017).

James is the head of the Duplication Department at SubCat. He oversees the replication of the master copy, the creation of CD and DVD cover art, and the production of promotional materials. At the end of the creative process, he presents the artists with the physical validation of their hard work (T. James, 2017).

SubCat does not limit itself with musical recordings; it caters to every musical genre and every entertainment medium. “Right now, there’s a singer-songwriter in one studio doing pop-country, and after that there’s a rapper in one studio, and a commercial voice-over in another studio. It’s always changing, and we have our hand in all different genres,” James says.

Guy Fieri visits for an automated dialogue replacement (ADR) on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” Photo by SubCat Studios

Regional and national acts come through SubCat Studios because of the professionalism of the staff and the experience that is offered to the artists. The studios are equipped with the latest technology from industry giants such as Sony, Universal Audio, Yamaha, and Wurlitzer. However, SubCat keeps its prices competitive because the cost of operation in Syracuse is so much lower than that in a major city. SubCat heavily services regional bands, but has also serviced more notable acts such as Switchfoot, A Day to Remember, and Future (SubCat Studios).

Smaller, privately-owned studios in the area cannot compete with SubCat. Specifically, the Editing and Duplication Departments set SubCat apart; local studios will often send their recordings to SubCat to be mastered and duplicated. “[Other studios] get great sound, but [they do not] get that ‘wow’ factor. It’s not like the multi-million-dollar studio that we have here,” James says.

Studio B, Subcat Studios. Photo by Kristin O’Grady

As the digital music market expands, the duplication of CDs and DVDs seems to grow ever closer to obsolescence. But James is not worried: “We still sell a surprisingly high number of CDs. I think people want to go to shows and leave with something physical… [like an] autographed copy,” he says. The SubCat Duplication Department still churns out hundreds of copies of CDs, in addition to promotional materials, for each artist. Even if the artists plan to have their work primarily available in a digital format, they require SubCat to produce digital download cards in bulk (T. James, 2017).

The SubCat brand is the company’s most valuable asset. The SubCat logo is featured on the CD cases and duplication cards which the studio distributes, but it is important for the studio to continue to evolve and to fashion new ways to promote its name in today’s dynamic market. SubCat has plans to add its own video department that will produce and live-stream multi-camera footage of the entire creative process (T. James, 2017).

With a small-town essence and a big-city sound, SubCat has made itself the nucleus of the Central New York music scene. Artists are excited to work with SubCat, and the SubCat team is just as excited to be there. Says James, “It’s a great space – it never gets boring. It never feels like work.”


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