Doug Malone in the control room at Jamdek Credit: Derek Weber

Doug Malone, 33, has worked as a recording engineer since 2015, when he began interning at Humboldt Park studio Minbal while studying music composition at Columbia. In 2017 Malone bought the business, renamed it Jamdek, and took over as lead engineer. (He also plays in local trio Courtesy.) Jamdek suspended sessions for live tracking during the March shutdown, but resumed them in May.

As told to Philip Montoro

Usually taking pandemic precautions entails a phone call with the band—they definitely have questions. Being in a closed studio, we all wear masks all the time. I stay in the control room mostly; they’re in the live room. When we cut vocals, everyone leaves that room and that person does not wear a mask, because that sounds different. I do usually put them in a vocal booth, so they’re trapped in there with doors closed and it’s sealed.

Every morning I go in and I wipe down all the equipment. Every headphone box, every headphone—anything that I assume will be touched by the band and myself. Even the console, if an engineer comes in.

The bands themselves, I generally feel they’ve been very good about staying home. But then there’s me—I’m seeing lots of people. I try to at least get tested once a week. I do what I can to keep that information flow going—to let the bands know that I’ve been negative so far.

When essential businesses were allowed to stay open, that conversation with a band was like, “OK, we’re gonna record, but don’t bring anyone in here. Just the band.” The less bodies, the better. I normally have four interns. I’ve made them all stay home.

During the publicly enforced suggested shut-in, I was mostly mixing by myself—I didn’t have anyone in there. About mid-March everything closed and all my sessions canceled. You don’t necessarily have to have the band in while you’re mixing, so there was a lot of phone calls and FaceTiming, Google chats, e-mailing. If they needed to finish something with overdubs, they would actually record that at home and send it to me.

Live tracking started again in May. Two of my very close friends and myself, we all got tested. So that was a good slow entrance back into it. Not only for my own sanity, to feel how it would be having people back in the studio, but to see how I could run it smoothly while still being safe.

The last thing you wanna have happen is for someone to get infected in there and then it be traced back. So the main concern was just taking everyone’s temperature, making sure everybody’s good. And plus not letting endless anxiety funnel into their performance. You don’t want someone withholding themselves and freaking out the whole time.

Obviously bands can’t play shows—they can’t do really anything except on social media or maybe like a Twitch performance. So they’re writing songs, and they’re trying to stay safe and get together with their band, and they’re recording a lot. I get e-mails every day about somebody wanting to book time to come in and track, and then mix it right away.

A lot of bands are coming in and making records because they just want to feel that they’re still being productive. But they’re just holding onto it, like, “Well, when should we do this? How should we release this? Should we even shop it around? Is anyone even signing bands right now, or putting out records?”

They’re really thinking about the existential situation of being in a band. What does that mean? And how fragile it is at the moment. A majority of the time, I’m engineering but I’m also playing therapist. Making sure everyone’s calm and having a good time, and cathartically getting that out by recording and making music.

I definitely feel like I’m busier now than a year ago. It’s a really conflicted feeling, because you get these e-mails of people being like, “We wanna record!” And I obviously need that income—I want to record because it’s what I do. But it’s hard to balance the morality of that.

What you have to put forth is, “Hey, if anyone is just feeling slightly uncomfortable or sick, you have to tell me.” If you have four other people in the band, there’s that pressure: “Ahh, I don’t know if I can say this, because I don’t want to let the other people down.” And I have to step in and be like, “You’re not letting them down. It’s so important that you voice that.” And then we just rebook it.

Back in May, I did get a Small Business Administration loan, and that helped a lot. My income from March to May, I lost easily ten grand. It was nosediving—I just had no idea what was going to happen. Yes, I was doing mixing work, but it was just nowhere near the caliber of what I was usually taking in.

I was applying constantly for different grants. I did receive a grant from the City of Chicago—it was through the City of Chicago artist community grants. Basically, if your spot that you’re applying from has some significance in the artist community—which this studio does—then they were accepting applications, asking about the business.

Something about a recording studio, I think it’s always overlooked as a place for community. During the pandemic I’ve really felt that. Even though they weren’t recording, bands were still e-mailing me and checking in and saying really great things, like, “Hey, I know I’m not booking time there, but maybe I could book something later in the month and pay you now.” Just to make sure I stayed afloat.

Yes, I had to pay the SBA loan back, but it was a cushion: “I’ll at least make it for the next three months.” Wintertime, January and February, is always a slow time for a studio. That’s now the next hurdle.

I had my technician come in a couple weeks ago. Because he goes to all these studios to fix gear for them, he did tell me that my studio was one of the only ones that’s very busy. I talk to a lot of engineers on a weekly basis. Speaking for a lot of studios, they’re definitely struggling. Maybe they’re not having clients that are comfortable with doing it. There’s so many factors.

I’ve been very lucky, that I’ve had people just constantly booking the studio and keeping the business going. I’m super thankful for that. It’s been long hours, but I keep working, expecting the next month to be a total scary situation.  v