Oak Park's John Mautner, co-founder of Music Box Records in Forest Park, in his recording studio. David Pierini/Staff Photographer

The dream that has become Music Box Records started 10 years ago in a makeshift basement studio. Manases Rivera and John Mautner were using a candle for heat when they decided to start a real studio. In the face of a sour economy and increasingly sophisticated home-recording technology, they boldly launched Music Box at 7433 W. Roosevelt Road in Forest Park. Since their opening on Dec. 27, 2011, they have hosted over a hundred recording sessions.

There are several reasons for the studio’s popularity. It’s located close to downtown Chicago and convenient to public transportation. The cozy recording space is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and a grand piano. The biggest drawing card, though, would be the affordable rates. Music Box charges $100 for a three-hour recording session and $20 per hour for rehearsal time.

“We have a holistic view of how to write and record music,” said Mautner, who is from Oak Park. “The artist might have a little piece of a song in their head, and we build it into a finished, professionally-mastered CD. We’ve been building business through word-of-mouth and we’ve had many repeat artists.”

The studio has also been reaching out to schools. “We have a multimedia presentation for music teachers,” Mautner said. “We tell them the studio could be used for an after-school program, or a weekend program.” After all, Music Box is available for sessions seven days a week.

“We teach kids how to run a session,” Rivera added, “how to set up mikes and mix the music.” Two Chicago Public high schools have partnered with Music Box to produce CDs. A vocal group from Curie High School produced a YouTube video that got 40,000 hits. They also used the CD as a fundraiser and sold 500 CDs for $10 each. “Reaching inner-city kids and giving them an artistic outlet is important,” he said.

“A jazz band from Wheaton High School recorded six songs in three hours,” Mautner recalled. “Their parents came and watched. We also had a punk rock band from Downers Grove North. A lot of high school kids have never seen a professional studio. They’ve never heard their voices before. We provide really high quality recordings. It often exceeds their expectations.” He noted that musicians can use the CDs to promote the band and get bookings.

Besides hosting artists that are just getting started, Music Box has attracted some top professionals. They’ve hosted rehearsals for musicians that back R Kelly, Aretha and Beyonce. “We have front row seats for famous musicians,” Rivera noted.

“We accommodated an 18-piece big band from New York,” Mautner said. “We provide a professional environment for producing music. Plus, we’re nice people.”

That’s another part of the studio’s appeal — a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

“It’s important for the musicians to be relaxed,” Mautner continued, “We help the artist realize their dream. We had a rapper who had only a few lyrics and he walked out with a finished song. It’s an epiphany for them to hear the song just like it sounded in their head.”

Networking to connect with musicians is one part of the studio’s outreach. The partners have also built relationships with local businesses. “We got our grand piano from a church,” Mautner said. “American Music World moved it down three flights of stairs. Moving a piano is an art.” They have also purchased equipment from another neighbor on Roosevelt Road, Kagan & Gaines. Musicians from nearby Living Word Christian Center hold their rehearsals at the studio, while Andrea’s Restaurant serves as an unofficial “cafeteria.” The partners are hoping to connect with artists from Berwyn’s burgeoning “music row” on Roosevelt Road.

Their ultimate goal is to launch their own record label. “We want Chicago to regain its prominence in the music world,” Mautner said. “The Chicago sound is hard-hitting, horn-driven music. That sound has been lost, but there’s so much talent here. We want to develop musicians to reach the next level.” Giving artists exposure on a “minor-league” label might lead to a major label picking them up.

Rivera’s specialty is playing Latin jazz. He also DJs and leads a salsa band. He sees Latin music growing in popularity. Choral groups are also enjoying a renaissance. He showed a video of a group called Musicality recording at the studio. Music Box has drawn a number of rappers.

Mautner is an amateur guitarist who teaches full-time at a business school. Rivera is a professional keyboardist who comes from a musical background. His father is a pastor/musician who once made $20,000 from a CD he recorded in the family home. Rivera lives in Cicero and teaches computer classes.

The pair met a decade ago when Mautner was looking for a keyboardist. During their initial conversation, they discussed starting a recording studio. In 2011, they found a former currency exchange for rent. “We had to gut it,” Rivera recalled. “We made a six-figure investment in renovation, software and equipment.”

The currency exchange was so solidly built, it was ideal for a studio. The masonry walls are reinforced with metal plates. The partners added their own soundproofing, completely canceling out the noise of truck traffic on Roosevelt. They also installed a soundproof vocal booth that further eliminates ambient noise. Their landlord has worked with them to keep costs from being prohibitive.

The partners believe professionals and amateurs alike can benefit from recording music. “When students record, their parents and grandparents are so proud,” Mautner noted, “but anyone can leave a legacy of recorded music that future generations can listen to.”

Recording artists can contact Music Box Records at 312-371-7929, or visit www.mboxrecords.com.

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