Decked out in a Hawaiian print shirt with a gleaming bald head and dyed red beard, Nils Anders Erickson squeezes through a narrow corridor wedged between piles of vintage music gear. Wood-framed speakers, guitars and amps crowd the space, leaving Erickson barely enough room to get to an old recorder he wants to point out. “This belonged to Luigi Waites,” he says.
The late, and local, jazz legend’s name is one of many Erickson is happy to drop. At Rainbow Recording Studios, which opened in 1976, Erickson has recorded numerous notable musicians including, Omaha-born punk rockers 311, ’90s R&B stars Boyz II Men, and, most recently, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks.
The studio, which uses analog tubes to capture a “big, fat, warm sound” is one of the few historic recording spaces still standing, Erickson says. That’s why when the University of Nebraska-Omaha came knocking with eminent domain papers in 2005, Erickson gave them a “big, fat” no.
The University wanted Erickson’s land to incorporate into the multi-million dollar athletic complex currently being built up around him. He, and his fellow fighters at Amato’s Café and Catering next door, won that battle and got to keep their property. Now Rainbow is set to become an island in a sea of hockey fans and college kids.
Inside Rainbow’s vocal booth, which Erickson calls “the magic room,” the air is a vacuum of silence. It’s so quiet your brain searches for sound to fill the emptiness, Erickson says, drumming his fingers against his heart. “It raises the threshold of hearing.” The room, which was designed by the same engineers who built A&R Recording Studio in New York, Erickson says, is framed by panels that create the perfect blend of sound reflection and absorption. That’s why Rainbow couldn’t be moved, he says, and it is part of the reason, he will eagerly tell you, that the Beastie Boys called Rainbow “the coolest music store in the world.”
Now that he’s assured Rainbow is staying put, Erickson has come around to the idea of his new neighbors. “Well, 9,000 people happy at a sporting event is much better than three trailer courts,” he says with a wry grin in a nod to his former neighbors. “So I see it as a very definite improvement to the neighborhood.” Erickson says UNO’s construction in the area has already increased foot traffic, and students living in the dorms nearby have come in for guitar strings and other equipment.
Ever the entrepreneur—he built his first speaker, logo included, at age 14—Erickson says he will do what he can to appeal to the new crowd. “We’re not selling hamburgers,” he quips. “But if we have 9,000 people next door at a hockey game, maybe we’ll start selling hamburgers.”