The Gravity of Sound
The Bubble's new studio stands as Mark Genfan's swan song
Recording studios represent more than finely tuned rooms filled with expensive microphones, racks of compressors, and consoles. They're incubators of dreams, places of eternal possibilities, where destinies become reality. The power and potential these facilities hold exists both in their dimensional details and the characters inside – often both.
In the world of recording, you'll find individuals whose patently irrational existence hinges on willing inspiration out of others. That's Chris "Frenchie" Smith, Grammy-nominated co-owner and producer at the Bubble, Austin's second-longest continually running music studio for both the acclaimed and unknown. When you record with the rock & roll evangelist, forever decked in a flat-cap and tinted shades, he becomes your spiritual advisor, bandmate, A&R rep, and life coach. He summarizes his daily existence as "seeing people at their best."
Inhabiting that same studio universe are analytical-minded masters whose deeply detailed skills bring brilliance to spaces such as the Bubble. Case in point: Mark Genfan, a preeminent acoustician, whose designs shape the local landscape of pro audio. Workman's hands, technical mind, ears of gold, Genfan's rare trait combination remains that rare triple threat of sonic dexterity. Consider both men gurus in their intersecting crafts.
Genfan lost his life last December, but his vision endures all over Austin in studios engineered under his guidance – most notably in the new Bubble, which now stands as his swan song.
Blowing a New Bubble
"There was never any question Mark would do it," Bubble co-owner Alex Lyon shrugs.
The guitarist thinks back to when he and fellow axe grinder Smith first resolved to move their studio operation from a side building into an adjacent house at Red River and 45th Street.
"He'd always been a general point of guidance for us and not just acoustic design, but studio stuff, and business stuff," says Lyon. "Our first call was, 'Hey Mark, can we make this house into a studio?' His answer was 'Yes.'"
Longtime friend of the business, Genfan designed the third version of the Bubble in 2005 and, later, its accompanying audio mastering suite.
The Bubble's origins date back to 1998, when Smith, along with his Sixteen Deluxe bandmate Steven Hall, began utilizing their practice warehouse on Slaughter Lane and South First to record friends' bands like Explosions in the Sky, Brown Whörnet, and Pong. Kim Deal also graced it, cold-calling Smith then spending a whirlwind week meddling with Breeders material. Frenchie remembers the room's acoustic design as "bare minimum," but the name proved inspired: You could hole up there and forget the outside world.
In 2002, Smith relocated the Bubble to a small concrete bunker on East Seventh and Navasota, making it – for better or worse – the first indie rock institution to populate the city's then-very-Latinx, now-very-white thoroughfare east of Downtown. Again a spartan setup, the studio nonetheless thrived as ground zero for homegrown underground rock. That same year, the Chronicle dubbed it, "The only place to record for Austin's indie elite."
Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister tracked there, but its most fruitful session may have been Smith's XL Recordings-signed group Young Heart Attack. Lyon, working as an engineer on the project, eventually married and started a family with the group's singer, Jennifer Stephens. After Lyon and Smith became business partners, the Bubble floated up to its current Hyde Park property, in a garage that Genfan architected into a legit studio.
"The Bubble had been a mobile home of rock & roll dreams," muses Smith. "That's when it felt like it had docked."
Finally equipped with a room worthy of true soul-to-stereo alchemy, Lyon and Smith cut tape with acts like the Toadies, Built to Spill, Gary Clark Jr., and the Meat Puppets. Meanwhile, they operated with old-school A&R ambitions: to help young artists find themselves; for bands to leave better than they came in; and for all to believe they could make great recordings. The operation quickly outgrew the 900-square-foot studio and, for over a decade, they'd wanted a bigger, more universal space.
"We're hopeless dreamers and we feel a responsibility to give something to the bands that's more and more an outdated concept: a large-format live tracking studio," explains Smith.
So Lyon, Smith, and Genfan began scheming on a complete remodel of the 96-year-old house where Lyons and Stephens raised their kids. On the first walk through, Genfan appraised the surroundings, banked in ancient ship planks, and envisioned an aesthetic:
"I see wood."
Call the plan crazy. Shrewd businessmen would have sold the Hyde Park property and used the return to build a new studio from scratch, but not Smith and Lyon. They felt and feel the Bubble belongs in the heart of town.
"Never did Mark say to me, 'These guys are out of their fucking minds,'" relates Marty Lester, a friend and collaborator of Genfan for 25 years. "The Bubble was kind of his pet project."
"If everybody in the Black Crowes was a single person, mixed with Sam Elliott's character in Road House, that would be Mark Genfan," offers Frenchie Smith.
Marty Lester remembers his own first impression of Genfan from 1994 when he'd tracked him down to make some custom speaker cables.
"Here's this hippie lookin' dude, hair down to his ass, with a hardcore New York accent," he laughs. "I was like, 'I get this guy,' and we were instant friends."
Two years later, Genfan designed a new iteration of Tequila Mockingbird, a studio where Lester worked, and the two became forever close. In fact, every studio Lester has worked at since then was built by Genfan.
Born in the Bronx, 1956, Genfan grew up in New York City and nearby Franklin Township, N.J. He played in school band and studied jazz and classical bass. After becoming a technical wiz in broadcast radio, he landed a role as chief engineer in Manhattan at Skyline Recording Studios, working under Chic's Nile Rodgers for six years recording Eighties hitmakers. After that, Genfan became Technical Director of Remote Recording Operations for Sony Classical Productions, a position taking him all over the globe to record symphonies and stars, including Yo-Yo Ma and John Williams, and which resulted in advanced acoustics training.
"When he left Sony, he'd wanted to settle his life down in Texas," explains McCoy Genfan, his only child. "He had friends down here and had visited several times. He thought it would be a fun place to start a sound- or music-related venture."
Genfan moved to Austin in December 1991 and began working at Production Block Studios, while also running his own business installing, modifying, and repairing equipment for recording and broadcast enterprises. In 1994, the year before he and his wife Alisin had McCoy, Mark launched Acoustic Spaces, his design company that created and implemented architectural and technical plans for audio facilities.
"His tentacles are everywhere [in Austin]," attests Lester.
Genfan built recording studios like Same Sky Productions; high-end mixing rooms like that of noted English producer Tim Palmer; and post-production facilities including Robert Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios and all eight rooms of Charlie Uniform Tango. He counted UT's Film Department and the Austin Film Society as clients, as well as the city of Austin, which hired him to diagnose and resolve sound issues between residences and businesses – including the notorious issue with the W Hotel and nearby Cedar Street Courtyard. Mark even lectured on acoustics at Texas State University.
When Matt Noveskey and C.B. Hudson – known for their work in platinum-selling band Blue October – decided to open a state-of-the-art recording facility in 2011, they reached out to producer/manager Will Hoffman, asking for a referral on sound design.
"He didn't give me a list of names," recalls Noveskey. "He gave me one name. He said, 'This is the guy. There's no one else that I could recommend.'
"I remember him being so matter-of-fact about it, like, 'If you don't use him, it's a mistake.'"
The resulting 5,600-square-foot Hill Country superstructure, Orb Recording Studios, preserves a Genfan masterstroke.
When asked to gauge Genfan's standing amongst acoustic engineers in the area, Smith echoes Noveskey:
"There's only him."
Lost in the Flood
Mark and Alisin Genfan died on Friday, December 7.
They'd left their house, amongst the farmland outside Martindale, in the evening to attend the town's Christmas tree lighting. About a mile from home, they arrived at the small concrete culvert where the road runs over Morrison Creek. Heavy rains flooded the passing, which wasn't unusual, but that night the current must have pulled deceptively strong.
According to news reports, McCoy called 911 early Saturday morning to report that his parents hadn't come home. Two hours later, Caldwell County deputies found the couple's white Nissan truck half sunk in the creek and Alisin's body nearby. Not until Sunday did searchers find Mark downriver.
"My old boss Danny Levin called and told me," Marty Lester remembers, shaking his head. "Impossible. It was just impossible and I'm still having a hard time. He was so integral. Every day something makes me think of him – some story, some band, some client – and I want to call Mark."
Noveskey says losing Genfan rattled him to his core.
"Mark wasn't just a great acoustic engineer, he was a wonderful person – the kind you admired and respected and wanted to be like," he says. "He reminded you to chill the fuck out and relax, and enjoy things. When he died, I felt robbed of that."
Equally lost, a community standard.
"Genfan was 'the guy' and the guy is gone," sighs Noveskey. "The music industry isn't filled with people like Mark. It's filled with people who are only out for themselves. Because of his abilities and the kind of person he was, he's irreplaceable."
Celebrating his father's 70th birthday, Alex Lyon got a call from the head contractor at Acoustic Spaces, and a message from Marty, notifying him of Genfan's passing. He relayed the tragic news to Frenchie.
"I was in the Bubble with an artist," Smith recalls. "She got the best work out of me any human's gotten in my career. I just said to myself, 'We're going to make some great music right now,' because it was the only thing I could do to stabilize."
Best Laid Plans
Mark Genfan began construction on the new Bubble in September 2018. The extensive renovation notched about 40% done when he died.
"We'd been talking to Mark about the new studio in great detail for a year and a half, so we all knew the plan," says Lyons. "We were fortunate to have his crew. They knew Mark's secrets and ways he would've wanted it finished. Mark was kind of famous for his 50 percent plans and then doing a lot off the top of his dome."
Over the ensuing five months, Genfan's team implemented his remaining architectural designs to construct the new Bubble. A mantra, "What would Mark do?," persisted throughout the process and thereafter. Lyon had to step up and tune the room himself – a final equalization process – blasting pink noise and using graphic analyzers as he'd seen Genfan do twice before at the previous studio and the mastering suite, which both persist as part of the Bubble's increasingly campuslike footprint.
What had once been a bedroom and a living room became a big cutting room with a sound-friendly, 25-foot-high ceiling where an upstairs used to be. Behind heavy soundproof doors lies the new mixing room, with enviable UREI 813B vintage monitors inset into the wall over a sweet API 1608EX console. The north side of the house contains an amp room with multiple isolation booths.
All around, old raw wood boards transmit a timeless quality. It feels welcoming – totally pro – but with loads of character. And the sound ...
"It sounds titties!" quips Smith, laughing. "It wasn't just that we couldn't have done this without Mark, we wouldn't have done it without him. After we had him design our last location, he spent years following the music that came out of there. If a band we recorded put a song out, he was the first person to like it online and truly give himself to listen to it.
"That made it a fluid conversation, because it gave him ideas on how the space could develop."
Smith looks around the studio.
"His vision is present, we just didn't get to party with him."
Revenge of the Nerds
"I got more comprehension of exactly how impactful my father was after he passed away," reveals McCoy Genfan.
After enduring the unthinkable tragedy of losing both of his parents at once, the 23-year-old has had to sort out their assets through probate, which means spending hours combing through his father's life via files, keepsakes, and possessions. Meanwhile, friends and strangers reach out to him to tell him how special Mark was or share stories "about an acid trip they had together in 1982 or something like that."
"He was pretty humble and never one to brag about anything he'd ever done, but now I see the scale and enormity of what he achieved, how talented he was, and that a lot of people in the sound scene in Austin relied on him," reflects McCoy.
With his final project, Genfan brought Smith and Lyon's dream into reality, not just in terms of size, sound, and professionalism, but crafting a truly insightful environment. Smith notes a very human element to Genfan's work on the studio.
"He wasn't just a science, sound waves type of person. He thought dimensionally, perceiving how spaces could enhance how music is created based on the kind of characters that come through there. It's almost sociological."
Standing outside the studio on a smoke break from a Saturday session, Smith contextualizes how Genfan's redesign demonstrated his vision for the Bubble growing outside of any particular niche.
"When a recording space is appealing to a larger scale of people, it becomes less elitist," he muses. "That's how it should be. The people who make art were never really the cool kids in high school. We all escaped the tyranny of jocks and were nerds because we loved creativity, but we all want to belong. Any person who is brave enough to say their art matters and be vulnerable and share their ideas belongs here.
"To me, having a location that you can walk in and be confident and demanding about the quality of music you're making, that's a high sense of belonging."