The sheer breadth of legendary Mill Valley musician Bob Weir’s career was palpable Monday afternoon as he described the then and now bookends of his nearly 50 years in music.
At the SF MusicTech Summit in San Francisco, Weir spoke of performing with Jerry Garcia and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions in the mid-1960s, the trio gathering around a single microphone with a couple of speakers on the walls at tiny Bay Area venues.
Fast forward nearly five decades and Weir owns a San Rafael recording studio he dubs “the ultimate musician’s playpen” with “infinitely adjustable sound quality” capable of webcasting high-def live performances around the world.
Weir’s TRI (Tamalpais Research Institute) Studios hosts the San Diego rock-reggae band Slightly Stoopid for a live pay-per-view webcast Tuesday night at 6 p.m., along with guests Karl Denson, Ian Neville and Don Carlos. The $10 webcast, which repeats at 9 p.m. PT, also includes a live Q&A with the band during intermission via onscreen Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s the first webcast event hosted by TRI that doesn’t involve one of Weir’s myriad bands.
Weir appeared at the annual digital music industry summit to tout TRI, connecting the historical dots from the Grateful Dead’s decades-long infatuation with music technology, including its creation of the “Wall of Sound” in the 1970s with sound engineer and counterculture icon Owlsey “Bear” Stanley, to his latest venture.
TRI started simply as a good real estate deal and an offer too good to refuse. Two years ago, recording console maker API offered Weir a deep discount on a state-of-the-art console if he performed at the annual conference of the Audio Engineering Society.
“I rose right smartly to that bait,” he said.
He also got a call from a real estate agent about the recently foreclosed Bay Area Sound Studio in northern San Rafael. The failed rehearsal space was available at a great price, and Weir jumped on it.
From there, the idea morphed from a replacement for Weir’s studio in southern San Rafael to a full-blown technology company. The 11,500-square-foot complex includes multiple interconnected studios and rooms, including a 2,000-square-foot room built that is “virtually upholstered with speakers” and built around the Meyers Sound Constellation System, a technology that can dramatically change the acoustical properties of the room via an iPad.
“As my concept of what the place amounts to expanded, it just kept getting bigger and more expensive,” Weir said. “And then there was the realization that we could take this worldwide on the web. At that point it was, ‘well, let’s think about this - we’ve got to make it a business just to pay for it all.'”
TRI is in business development mode, hoping to attract bands wanting to perform for fans everywhere all at once in a recording space that far surpasses the boundaries of the live concert.
“We’re doing live music in a studio with gear that captures every nuance,” said Dennis “Wiz” Leonard, the Dead’s longtime audio mixer and a TRI partner. “You’d be crazy to take a $6,000 mic on the road with you, but you can do that in the studio.”
Leonard said that TRI’s immense sound quality and the Meyers system's ability to mimic the acoustic characteristics of a diverse array of spaces – from “intimate club to a giant cathedral,” Weir said – sells itself to musicians as soon as they set foot inside it.
And many of Weir’s longtime musician friends have already done so. Carlos Santana stopped by recently, and Weir’s Mill Valley neighbor is holding a free webcast concert and record release party for his band Chickenfoot’s latest release, Chickenfoot III, on Sept. 27 at TRI. Weir also suggested hosting jazz musicians for residencies, allowing them to bring in rotating musicians for a series of rehearsals and live sets.
Weir’s staff is already prodding him to decorate the spare TRI rooms with the nearly 50 years of nostalgia he’s got piled up in storage units, hoping to combine the latest modern technology with some of the guitarist’s musical treasures.
To hear Leonard and Weir tell it, bandwidth is the only limitation on TRI’s ability to put a fan anywhere in the world “right in the middle of their favorite band” performing live.
“In the future we’ll go to a system where you can cut to the (camera) shot you want,” Weir said.
If the business takes off, Weir gets his own creative den of seemingly limitless possibilities that pays for itself. He’s been performing solo sets at small venues recently, and TRI has helped him prepare for venues far too small for his various post-Garcia Dead iterations with Ross resident and bassist Phil Lesh, who's in the midst of his .
“I can set the room up so it sounds like a small theater,” Weir said. “I can get a sense of what that’s going to feel like.”
Ever the road warrior, Weir knows that TRI’s success could trim his touring schedule.
“If this starts going great guns, I’m going to be spending more time at home because you can’t do it any other way,” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing it – there’s no going back.”
The 411: Slightly Stoopid and guests perform live at 6 p.m. PT from TRI Studios in San Rafael. The pay-per-view live performance costs $10 and repeats at 9 p.m. A Q&A during intermission takes place via Facebook and Twitter feeds.