Specialty Studios: Hoboken HiFi Grows with a Reggae Focus

There’s a studio in Seacaucus, NJ that goes by the dislocated name of Hoboken HiFi.

That juxtaposition isn’t so strange when you consider the facility’s founder, a Northeasterner named Jim the Boss who was weaned on Sinatra and punk rock before falling hopelessly in love with reggae. He started a studio dedicated to the genre in Hoboken, and while the address has changed – three times now in four years – his commitment to the craft has never wavered.

Now Jim the Boss is on track with a home base that he expects to stick, and reggae around the region stands to benefit. Jim has a left-of-center outlook on audio that’s made the studio a center for artists in seek of a true vintage sound inspired by ‘60s rocksteady and ‘70s reggae.

The result is an accessible resource for the “Hudson Soul” sound, which saves artists and engineers the trouble of travelling through space and time to the Jamaican Channel One studios of the 1970’s.  Hoboken HiFi is primarily analog with some homegrown gear thrown in, but that’s not the secret sauce at all: Instead, it’s an in-house studio band — The HiFi Rockers — that rocks reggae right to its roots.

While reggae is the inspiration, HiFi has myriad other genres that it delivers on, recording and mixing jazz, soul, indie, rock, punk, Latin, blues and singer-songwriters. On top of that, Jim the Boss and his cohorts provide tape transfers, tracking, mixing, dub remix, riddim and instrumental licensing and full production.

For audio evidence of his approach, check out hobokenhifi.bandcamp.com to hear Jim the Boss – Hudson Soul, a transporting release that was nominated in the “Best Compilation Album” category for the Independent Music Awards. Other recent clients include the likes of Victor Rice & Dave Hillyard, Ian Kenselaar Trio, Jah Adam, and The Rocksteady Conspiracy.

Start talking to Jim the Boss, and you’ll understand that this is an engineer that doesn’t take the audio gospel for granted. Not when it comes to gear, not when it comes to engineering, and not when it comes to business.

Jim the Boss, founder of Hoboken HiFi, has his own way of looking at recording.

Jim the Boss, founder of Hoboken HiFi, has his own way of looking at recording.

How did you first get into audio engineering?

I started recording when I was younger – I had a tape machine my dad gave me. My whole family is pretty musical: My mom’s cousin was a big band leader/drummer that played for Frank Sinatra, and my dad used to play with Les Paul and Roy Buchanon.

Professionally, I went to SAE in Miami and then finished up in NYC. The best thing that I got out of that was connections and friends. I had a plan: I wanted to record reggae, and I knew they wouldn’t teach me any of that stuff. They have a more commercial mindset (at SAE), which is cool – I know a lot of guys doing commercial work.

I freelanced for a while, because you can’t just start a studio and hope people will call you. All the work that I do now is because people heard the work that I did, and wanted me to record their projects. But before word started getting around it wasn’t easy, because people would say, ‘Why should I pay you when I can record it somewhere else?’”

How did you get focused on reggae?

When I was a kid I played punk rock. I also wanted to do soft music, but I didn’t know exactly what. When I was in Florida, I met some Jamaican kids who said, ‘have you listened to reggae before?’ They would play me their records, and it moved me. When I moved back to NYC, I wanted to see if I could record reggae myself. I would go out and find people who were into it too, in found there was a huge scene in Brooklyn. Finding that scene was the best for me, because that’s how I found all my players.

Has it been difficult for you making three studio moves in four years?

The live room of HiFi is miniscule but mighty.

The live room of HiFi is miniscule but mighty.

I’ve learned to accept it. I got over the whole move thing. I had to move because it got too expensive. Hoboken used to be an affordable town, and now it’s this posh place.

When I left Hoboken, I was like, ‘the sound is going to change.’ But the sound didn’t change that much. It has very little to do with what gear or room you’re using, and much more to do with the band that you’re using. The backing band has stayed the same. Every singer has the same band backing – that’s why it always has a consistent sound.

So would you say Hoboken Hi-Fi is working off of the old Motown model?

I was so influenced by older music. Whenever I hear a soul song for the first time, I usually can tell where it was recorded, because those studios have their own sounds and they prided themselves on that. Reggae still holds true to that, and a lot of producers I know feel that same way.

I think that a lot of engineers today forget about the unique sound of a band playing together, and they just want the cleanest thing possible. They don’t really care about developing something that’s unique to them. But it’s hard to be unique in that classic way, because back then people built their consoles and their equipment. I build gear, but nobody else I know builds things anymore.

So would you say Hoboken HiFi is a convergence of old school gear and the band?

A lot of people pride themselves on old school gear and tape. Me, not so much – I only use it because I’m used to it. The analog stuff, even the cheapest, has a distinct sound to it, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to build analog than digital. I build reverbs and delays, but the biggest draw for us in a mostly digital climate is that we use a whole band. Its multi-tracked, but we don’t say, ‘We’ll record the drums, then the bass, etc…’ Everything is recorded all at once in one or two takes, and that’s it.

It took a long time for me to be able to say, ‘This is how the song sounds. I’ll mix it today and I’ll never come back to it,’ but that’s how I work now. It’s so easy to just get stuck in a perpetual mix that’s never correct. I’m like, if it sounds good at the time, that’s the best it’s going to be.

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