Living the dream: Alumnus makes his love of music work

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People are always telling Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Dan Uphoff how much they like the name of his business – Full Circle Recording.

He regrets to inform them there is no interesting story behind it. He just liked the sound of the name.

When Uphoff graduated from Manchester High School in 2005, the Chesterfield County native chose to attend VCU for similarly simple reasons: He wanted to stay close to home, and his girlfriend, who is now his wife, had already decided to come to the university.

Having been a musician for most of his life, and having played in nearly every kind of band that exists, in and out of school — garage, symphonic, jazz, choir, marching — Uphoff, an accomplished drummer, didn’t believe that studying music performance would lead to anything fruitful, especially since VCU’s drum-set performance courses were limited to jazz.

In the absence of an audio engineering option, he jumped into computer engineering without really understanding what it would involve — a decision he calls a mistake.

“I like to joke now that I work on a computer all day,” he said, quickly clarifying that there is no connection between sound engineering or sound producing and studying how computers work.

After two arduous years, Uphoff realized his heart wasn’t in it and, at last, upgraded his minor in music to a major. In addition, he opted for a concentration in business to expand his skill set. While Uphoff considers the curriculum he followed to be of limited use to those with their sights set on working for a label, it worked well for him as an entrepreneur.

“It ended up being pretty perfect for me,” he said. “I’m able to run my business efficiently, and I still have all my music knowledge.” Plus, Uphoff’s professors made favorable impressions on him, notably three of his drum-set instructors, Mike Boyd, Brian Jones and Tony Martucci, who accommodated Uphoff’s ranging interests as a drummer.

“If you’re a drum-set student at VCU,” Uphoff explained, “you have to play jazz. And they [Boyd, Jones and Martucci] knew I wasn’t really a jazz player. So I would talk to them and be like, ‘Look: Here’s what I do musically.’ … And they were like, ‘Let’s just work on what you want to work on; let’s work on what’s going to help you.’”

And then there was the professor who changed Uphoff’s life.

As the instructor of Uphoff’s music industry course, Antonio Garcia – associate professor and director of jazz studies – implored his class to not wait until after college to pursue their interests.

“You need to start today,” Uphoff recalled Garcia saying. “Whatever you want to do, start doing it now.”

You need to start today. Whatever you want to do, start doing it now.

The ambitious student followed this advice and dug into the recording industry, emailing and calling industry contacts, researching the field and developing his home studio in an inspired effort to learn as much as he could about what he wanted to do after college. He gradually accumulated gear and clients and gained what he called “a decent reputation.” What’s more, he made good money.

When he graduated in 2011, Uphoff was doing well enough part time that he knew he could make recording his full-time occupation. He decided to rent and renovate the bottom floor of a building owned by his father in Chester.

At the time, Uphoff was working with his friends Jamie King and Andreas Magnusson, both of whom work as audio engineers and producers. Uphoff learned a lot from both of them. In addition, Magnusson – the owner of Richmond’s Planet Red Studios – designed Uphoff’s studio.

After a full year of planning and construction, Full Circle Recording officially opened in June 2012.

From the control room, Uphoff records vocalists and instrumentalists in the tracking room. Both spaces are acoustically treated to minimize noise and increase sonic clarity. Insulation absorbs sound waves. Diffusers break up waves into smaller waves. The nonparallel walls, floor and ceiling reduce problems with audio reflection.

“Reflecting sound waves create reverb and echoes which can alter your perception of the audio,” Uphoff explained. “Everything in the control room is designed to absorb and diffuse the sound waves to a point where I'm hearing the sound out of the speakers as accurately as possible. Therefore when I'm mixing audio, I can trust that every tiny detail will translate well to a real-world listening environment.”

Uphoff’s business has had its ups and downs. One of the most challenging aspects of the industry is its sporadic sense of insecurity. Business comes and goes, and pay can be unreliable.

“Sometimes I work on a record for a year,” Uphoff said, “and the payments can be all over the place.”

While these inconsistencies have been difficult to deal with, Uphoff views them as growing pains typical of a young enterprise; he also sees signs that things are improving.

“I’ve definitely come a long way already in two-and-a-half years,” he said. “Everything’s looking good as far as where my business is at and keeping it growing. I’m booked three months in advance right now, and that’s pretty much been the case for the past year.”

Today, recording technology is so good, Uphoff said, that “kids in their bedrooms” with so-called “project studios” are able to produce good work on the cheap, thereby presenting a special challenge to professional operations such as Full Circle Recording.

Uphoff was a little worried about this when he started his business, but soon realized his advantage.

“Most people still prefer to feel like they’re in a studio,” Uphoff said. “They still recognize the difference between a project studio and a professional.”

Based on his rates and the quality of his work, Uphoff thinks his business is competitive and well-positioned to prosper. His rates are affordable, and he works with a wide variety of popular genres.

“I tend to prefer to do fully produced, mainstream-radio quality recordings, where things are edited tight and vocals are tuned,” Uphoff said.

While he provides his clients with options that can create a more raw sound, the vast majority of them want to meet the major-label standards of perfection.

“Most people,” Uphoff said, “are looking for a radio-quality product and I’m like, ‘Well, here’s what you have to do: You have to make it sound better than you actually are.’ So a lot of people want that when they come to me; they don’t want a jam-band sounding demo. I get people looking for something a little more polished.”

Uphoff loves managing different projects and usually has about a dozen on his plate at once. And that’s just at the office.

Just as he was launching Full Circle Recording in summer 2012, Uphoff joined Matthew Seay — his partner in business and in music — and three of their friends to found Silver Bullets, a rock ‘n’ roll cover band that has proven successful.

“It’s a fun way to play music professionally,” Uphoff said. “Given my background playing drums for 16 years, it’s satisfying to have that apply to something that helps me and my family now.”

Uphoff and Seay are also members of Dream Atlantic, a hardcore band whose moniker suggested a nickname that Uphoff has embraced as a professional handle — “The Dream.”

“My cover band buddies started calling me that,” Uphoff said. “But it has grown into something much bigger now.”

Among other things, the ability to make a living doing what he loves most.


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