The legendary Columbus recording studio and pressing plant keeps making sweet music.
Down through the maze of cheap carpet and plywood hallways in a dank room called the “lower-level mastering suite”—lies a jewel, a Scully lathe, a gleaming instrument that cuts grooves into a disc that will be pressed into a record. That lathe was made in 1944, and it's still as precise a tool now as it was 74 years ago. It's a fixture at Musicol, but it's not the oldest fixture at Musicol.
That would be John Hull, who at 89 still plays that Scully lathe like a virtuoso. He's been doing this kind of work for more than 70 years, the last 52 of them at Musicol, which has been a fixture on the Columbus music scene since Hull started it in 1966 but still remains something of a hidden jewel. Near the imposing concrete wall that separates the North Linden neighborhood from I-71, Musicol has survived decades of recording industry turmoil and is still one of the few one-stop shops in the country where an artist can record, mix, master and press vinyl discs.
Except for the sign out front, it looks like most of the other small, neat houses in this post-war neighborhood. A few blocks east lies troubled Linden, but around here, “it's pretty stable,” Hull says.
Unlike the business he's in. “In my lifetime, I've seen so much change in the trade—records, cassettes, CDs and now this new digital format. When I got into it, there was no such thing as tape. When we recorded a band, we had to take all this big heavy equipment and record on disc.”
Hull is not one to resist new technology. You can find digital equipment at Musicol. But the hand-operated presses in the basement that are the core of Musicol's business were built almost 50 years ago by the mechanical engineer father of his then-partner. “We have to repair it and keep it up, but this is still his work. You have to give it to Karl. We're still using what he built in 1970.”
Musicol, with just six employees, makes the most from the least. Like the old pizza oven where Musicol dries its record labels. “This pizza oven, I remember this as a kid running around here,” says Warren, John's son and Musicol office manager. Musicol recycles vinyl in an old John Deere feed grinder. The Scully lathe was a castoff from an Indianapolis radio station. Musicol's recording consoles and most of the studio gizmos were built by Hull himself. If it all looks a little ramshackle, well, people come to Musicol for the sound, not the décor.
“If John lived in Japan, he'd be considered a Zen-Buddhist master,” says veteran Columbus rocker Mike Hummel, who's been availing himself of Musicol's services since 1980. “I can't exaggerate his talent. When you watch him working on a master, you're watching an artist.”
Hull tinkered with recording as a teen, then studied electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University before going to work at North American Aviation in the early '50s. The company had a concert band that asked Hull to record them, and his recording career was born. He started recording high school bands and church choirs and the like and eventually built a studio in his Westerville home where he started recording rock bands, which did not please the neighbors. The property on Oakland Park was zoned commercial so Hull was able to transfer his gear, and Musicol was born.
The secret to Musicol's longevity is its size, or lack thereof. Musicol has long occupied the same niche: limited press runs of 300, 500 and 1,000 copies. The demand has been consistent over the years, Hull says, even as CDs replaced vinyl and the bottom dropped out of the recording industry with the digital revolution. The Columbus music scene and labels like Anyway Records kept Musicol viable. “Those guys still put out material. We never did stop pressing records. We kept pressing through the whole thing. We were geared to do the small orders. That's what we still do.”
Jeff Long is a freelance writer.