Ali Jaafar, the engineer and owner of Uptown’s Ecstattic Studio, has been making and recording music since the eighth grade, when he plugged a microphone into his boom box to record a song he played on guitar onto a cassette. Jaafar is a self-taught musician who spent much of his early life practicing music with his siblings, and later recording these practice sessions. He became interested in tape loops and noise music in his teenage years.
After high school, Jaafar said he had a lot of friends going to school for recording, so he would just “hang out and read their books.” Eventually, he hung around long enough that he was confident he knew what he was doing, and started accumulating equipment to record at a professional level on his own. He started recording his own bands and projects, and soon friends and acquaintances who heard his finished products asked him to record their bands too. News of Jaafar’s work as an engineer spread by word of mouth, and he starting recording other local acts and bands from out of town. Eventually, he realized that he had enough recording sessions lined up that he could make it a full-time job.
Like Jaafar, the studio itself—a converted attic in the home where Jaafar currently lives—has a musical history, spanning from the personal to the professional. Jaafar explained that people in the neighborhood know the house as a place that has always had music coming from it, and local musicians are familiar with the spot. About five years ago, the same attic housed a different studio—which was never given a name—run by friends of Jaafar’s, who used it mostly to record their own music. When Jaafar heard they were moving out, he called right away.
Jaafar moved in the house three years ago and immediately started recording, but struggle to get all of the gear he needed. His studio didn’t have a name yet—most of his early recordings just say “Recorded by Ali.” Around two and a half years ago, the studio was named and Jaafar quit his job at a guitar store to focus on recording. His collection of recording gear was complete about a year and half ago, after years of slowly accumulating equipment. Musicians often paid him in equipment to record their bands: he would trade his engineering services for a nice microphone or monitor. Ecstattic’s website was designed by a friend who wanted Jaafar to mix his album.
Jaafar doesn’t just record music at Ecstattic: he also releases and distributes it. In addition to offering tracking, mixing, and mastering services, the studio is also a record label that’s published vinyl, cassettes, and digital releases. Jaafar does the mailing and promotion of these records by himself. Jaafar explained that he started a Facebook page for Ecstattic because he was a member of too many bands and didn’t want to start separate pages for all of them. He ended up posting both his own music and the other bands that he recorded, and the label started picking up bands whose music Jaafar wanted to publish and distribute. Recently, Jaafar engineered an album and released it on vinyl for the band Fire in The Northern Firs. Artists who have recorded in the attic include France Camp, Fury Things, Hollow Boys, Prissy Clerks, and many more.
The studio is equipped with tape duplicators, so Jaafar has also helped bands reissue releases on cassette tapes. He has his vinyl releases cut locally by a friend who uses a machine from the 1940s and clear poly material. Cassette and vinyl purchases come with a code for an MP3 download; Jaafar sees this as an opportunity to be more experimental with the physical format of the release. “Since you get an MP3 with a high quality digital recording of the song,” he explained, “the physical thing can be as weird-sounding or bizarre as you want.” He described an 8” vinyl Ecstattic released as a “weird antique” with a lo-fi sound, and liked that its grooves are shallow so it’s difficult to put on because “you have to interact with it…kinda baby-sit it.”
About eight years ago, Jaafar said, he started releasing his music on cassette. He found that the form was “marginal” at that time, but has grown as a niche market in the last few years. His fascination with tapes comes from their affordability and portability; they are much cheaper and easier to bring on tour than vinyl. “Even bringing 70 or 80 copies of a vinyl on tour is two huge suitcases, but a lunchbox can fit 100 cassettes,” he said, exaggerating only slightly.
Eventually, Jaafar plans to move Ecstattic to another space. The struggle, Jaafar explained, is to find the perfect place and resist the urge to settle for anything subpar. Jaafar loves recording in the current studio, but is looking to record in a place he owns instead of one he rents. “It’ll be better,” he said, “even if just because people won’t have to lug all their stuff up the stairs.”
Kyra Herning is a student at Macalester College. Also on the Local Current blog: read Kyra’s profile of RiverRock Studios.