Oliver DiCicco barely hesitates when asked about a common point of confusion among those who have never worked in a recording studio: what is the difference between a producer and an engineer?
“Let's make an analogy to the film world,” DiCicco suggests. “The producer in the music world is a film director. The recording engineer is the cinematographer. The producer is the liaison between the musicians and the music and the technology. So if he has a vision -- hopefully! -- of what they want to accomplish, he's there to be an objective ear for the musicians. He's got to be able to communicate with me the kind of sound they want to get.”
DiCicco, a man who has engineered countless numbers of recordings himself, speaks with a crisply earnest manner about his past, sitting in an airy, comfortable living room on an upper floor of the building he’s owned since the mid-'70s in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. These days his main artistic work lies in kinetic sound sculptures, while other pursuits include longtime participation in the Embarcadero Rowing Club’s competitive whaleboat rowing teams.
But for almost three decades in this same building, on its lower floor, DiCicco ran Mobius Music Recording, one of a number of smaller but often busy studios throughout the city. Recording everything from punk rock legends like the Dead Kennedys to sessions that would make up a smash-hit new age holiday album for the Windham Hill label, A Winter’s Solstice, DiCicco’s work at Mobius was part of a San Francisco era that now seems distant as the city relentlessly shifts its business and social focus.
Though Mobius is no more, a new studio operates in its place called Decibelle Recording Studio. Founded by J.J. Wiesler, who rents the location from DiCicco, Decibelle gives the impression of quiet, easy professionalism, starting with the wall of carefully mounted guitars in the main room, isolation booths in the back and a state-of-the-art control room. It's the latest incarnation of a space that initially existed just so DiCicco and friends could make some loud, creative noise.
Accidentally falling into music
A New York City native, DiCicco didn’t have an immediate interest in music as a professional pursuit. But a car accident while attending college in Buffalo placed him in traction for a number of months, giving him both time to think about future options and, along the way, come into some money via a settlement. Some of the funds went towards purchasing a small Moog modular synthesizer from the company's nearby factory, leading to a series of positions there. He eventually returned to NYC, where a studio owner in White Plains let him store his Moog in exchange for the opportunity to observe how to run such a studio, gathering technical tips and experience along the way.
He came to California through a similar stroke of luck. “Friends of mine had moved out to California after college and said 'Hey, why don't you come out, bring your synthesizer, we'll put a band together.' This was the winter of 1974 -- it was when Patty Hearst had been kidnapped and there was a free food giveaway," DiCicco says. "I moved permanently in the summer, lived in the Haight for four months and then found this building. I was with my girlfriend and we were living downstairs in the storefront, and there was this building in the back.
“I set it up as a jam space, had a couple of tape machines, and even then I was trying to build instruments. I had heard about [American avant-garde composer] Harry Partch and thought, 'Well that's the coolest thing, here's this guy creating an orchestra of his own invention.' Meanwhile I got a job with the ADT alarm company, going around and servicing their Muzak systems. I lasted there about a year and got laid off, and right around that time these guys paid me to record them, and I thought, 'Maybe I should try having a studio.'”
DiCicco soon began to formally do business under the Mobius name. In many ways, his timing couldn’t have been better: besides the connections he'd already built, a burst of energy was around the corner thanks to punk rock and a swath of new bands looking to record. As DiCicco notes, though, there were further challenges as a result -- lack of money and time, or in the case of the Dead Kennedys, singer Jello Biafra’s own particular standards.
“That was pretty much seat-of-the-pants, recording that stuff,” remembers DiCicco about the band. “Biafra would always be like, 'It sounds wimpy. It's not fast enough!' Once the guitars were turned up in the mix, the drums just got buried behind this wall of distortion. And then comping his vocal parts -- he'd sing five times, five tracks of vocals, and he's having me switch from line to line. I'd have these sessions with just him, we'd make switches, comp vocals. They were all his performances, so there was a sort of authenticity to it, but it got very tedious -- and he'd hear if I missed something! He'd close his eyes, and if I missed a switch he'd go, 'No!'”
As time went on, DiCicco worked to improve Mobius, buying higher-end recording gear and remodeling the studio. A pride-of-place moment came when he bought and installed a full 24-track Neve console (seen in the photo at the top of this piece). However, DiCicco isn’t misty-eyed when it comes to the board’s shortcomings.
“It was like owning a British car. You were constantly working on it," DiCicco says. "It sounded great! It really is an awesome sounding board. But the amount of work that went into keeping that thing working, all the modules working, it was very time-consuming. Periodically I'd pull out all the EQ modules, open them up, spray all the switches, clean the connectors, put 'em back in, make sure everything worked. Invariably some outside engineer would come to the studio and go to the one module across the board and go, 'Ah, dirty switches!'"
DiCicco’s memories of the many generations of performers and acts that recorded at Mobius cover a range of talent and notoriety.
“Ten percent of the sessions I did were really fun, ten percent were awful, and the remaining eighty percent fell somewhere in that bell curve,” he says.
DiCicco rattles off some sessions that fit into that top ten percent category, in particular praising the work of Bill Frisell, Bay Area experimental guitar legend Henry Kaiser, and Fairport Convention veteran Richard Thompson. Then there was a notable 1990s encounter featuring a famous redheaded Texan who was in town to shoot an episode of Nash Bridges.
“Willie Nelson came in for an early morning session, 8am," DiCicco says. "Willie got stoned, they cut the track and he goes ‘Let's keep playing!’ He was a really sweetheart guy. He's exactly how he is -- there's nothing about him that's phony. It seemed like the best musicians were the easiest ones to work with.”
DiCicco identifies the turn of the millennium as the point when things started to change for the studio, not only with the business but his own relationship with it. Ten years prior, DiCicco had founded a new side pursuit with the experimental music ensemble Mobius Operandi, reawakening his earlier interest in Partch and the composer's approach.
“I got the studio to pretty much where I want it to be, and I'm starting to get bored,” DiCicco recalls. “I went to see a therapist because I wasn't satisfied with my life. She goes, 'Well, what do you like to do?' I said, 'I like to make things.' She goes, 'Why don't you do that?'”
As his instrumental creations grew more complex, he found his interests further shifting away from Mobius, leading him to close down the original space and sell much of his gear in 2004. DiCicco’s home base for his kinetic sound sculpture work now is in Bayview, while what remains of Mobius as it was are photos, some pieces of equipment and memories. While Mobius helped shape both his life and that of a number of acts in the city and beyond, and while Decibelle flies the flag for a newer generation, DiCicco ultimately is content with having moved on.
“I never want to hang out in a recording studio again. It's a different chapter," he says. "After a while, working 12 hours a day in a studio, I didn't want to hear any music. I couldn't just put on a piece of music and enjoy it. Now I've been away from it for so long, I put something on now and go, ‘Oh, yeah!’”
DiCicco’s kinetic sound sculptures can be viewed and heard at his website, oliverdicicco.com.