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Interns Turned Engineers Take the Reins at SF’s Historic Different Fur Studios

Grace Coleman was fine-tuning a mix in her garage during the pandemic lockdown last year when she got an unexpected call from her boss, Patrick Brown.

“I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ Because if he calls you, it’s an emergency,” says the audio engineer.

To her surprise, Brown had good news. He explained that he had become too busy with his music label, Text Me Records, to keep up with demand at his recording space, Different Fur Studios. He wanted to see whether Coleman wanted to take over Different Fur while he focused on Text Me, and whether she wanted to co-own the business with her longtime friend and colleague Lien Do.

At first, Coleman and Do were intimidated. Though they have a combined 14 years of engineering experience, neither had ever owned a business. COVID-19 restrictions hadn’t yet lifted when Brown made the offer, and demand for studio time slowed down pretty substantially in 2020. Artists lost income from canceled tours and couldn’t afford to record, and they weren’t rehearsing new material anyway out of fear of spreading the virus. The entire studio ecosystem had been disrupted.

“I kept refusing, actually, until I knew that I was doing it with Grace,” Do says when I meet the pair at Different Fur, nestled between cocktail bars and taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District.

We sit behind a wall-length mixing console from the 1980s, with a pane of glass separating us from a vocal booth, drum kit and collection of guitars and keyboards. Warm lighting and well-worn Persian rugs give the space a homey vibe, until you notice the Gold and Platinum RIAA plaques on the walls and remember that Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire have recorded within these walls.

Lien Do and Grace Coleman admire the Gold and Platinum plaques the RIAA awarded to Different Fur Studios for The Whispers’ album ‘Just Gets Better With Time.’ (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

Different Fur has been a San Francisco institution since 1968. The magnitude of its legacy, and the chance to shape its future, prompted Do to put aside their doubt. It also helped that Brown owns the building (Different Fur is downstairs and Text Me Records’ headquarters is upstairs), and that he handed them the keys to the business without a price tag. “I thought for a while about how cool of an opportunity that could be, because I don’t really know many recording studios that are female-led and queer-led,” they say.

Although recording studios tend to be male-dominated environments (Women’s Audio Mission estimates that women and gender-nonconforming people make up less than 5% of engineers), Different Fur had always been an outlier. Longtime studio manager Susan Skaggs bought the business from founding owner Patrick Gleeson in 1986 and co-owned it with engineer Howard Johnston until 2004.

Skaggs and Johnston ushered Different Fur from the analog era into the digital. They also made the studio a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ and women artists, including disco star Sylvester, Two Tons O’ Fun (who later became the Weather Girls of “It’s Raining Men” fame) and early electronic music producer Patrick Cowley.

Patrick Brown started out as a Different Fur intern and bought the business in 2008. In 2013, Coleman came on as Brown’s intern after finishing an audio engineering program at Expression College. Do followed in 2015 after studying ethnomusicology and percussion at UC Davis. When Brown began thinking about who could become his successors, the two of them stood out.

“There’s been a lot of work ethic on their part to show up, and care a lot about the space, and care a lot about their clients, and try to do the best,” says Brown. “To kind of state the obvious thing, I think it’s good also to have a shift in the people running the space.”

In the ’80s, Different Fur studios was the first in the Bay Area to adopt the SSL console, now an industry staple. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

Though it has deep roots in jazz and soul, Different Fur now caters more to rap and indie rock, as well as voice-over and podcast work. Coleman’s engineering credits include rap-pop hybrid K.Flay, post-punks Pardoner and Australian country-folk artist Courtney Barnett. Do’s client list includes standout Bay Area rappers like G-Eazy, ALLBLACK and Rexx Life Raj, as well as bigger-name pop acts Diplo and Halsey.

Together, the two new owners are eager to create a supportive space for Bay Area locals and touring acts, regardless of genre, gender or experience level.

“Channels of communication and understanding inherently become open when all different kinds of people can come into a space and create what they want to create,” Coleman says of the duo’s inclusive vision.

Coleman and Do join a rising tide of young, non-male engineers-turned-studio owners. Karina Flonnoy, a Women’s Audio Mission alum, just opened Studio X in Oakland. And Danielle Goldsmith and Sami Perez, previously of San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone Recording, opened Wiggle World with their colleague Spencer Hartling in Los Angeles.

“With studios, you can be like, ‘This is my studio, this is my cave, these are my clients’—something weird and possessive,” Coleman says. “But it’s like, we all like the same stuff. We’re like nerds. We need to be friends and stick together and be happy for each other’s success.”

Copyright 2021 KQED