On Saturday, May 13, a steady stream of Toronto music-scene-makers filtered through the acoustically treated, beautifully lit rooms of Union Sound Company for over eight hours. We were celebrating the east-end recording studio’s second birthday.
“I’m starting to get a pain in my back from smiling so much,” Chris Stringer admits toward the end of the night before moving on to greet another group of guests.
Owned and operated by producer/engineers Ian Gomes, Stringer and Leon Taheny, the Sackville Street studio has been doing brisk business since opening, thanks in part to its coveted 70s Neve console, arsenal of other tried-and-true classic equipment and warm aesthetic, which was inspired by the clean and simple look of a yoga ashram.
The trio gutted the former photography studio and built the new three-studio space from the ground up with help from dozens of local musicians, who bartered their trade skills and labour for future recording time.
It’s since become the go-to spot for Toronto’s biggest acts, including METZ, Austra, Weaves, Biblical, PUP, Dilly Dally, Fucked Up and Broken Social Scene. Sessions for PUP’s 2013 self-titled album and Broken Social Scene’s hotly anticipated Hug Of Thunder were especially notable for the studio, as the bands brought big-time international producers – Dave Schiffman (Rick Rubin’s main engineer) and Joe Chiccarelli respectively – through the doors.
“Both of them responded really well to the place and loved the sound of the room,” Stringer says, noting that Chiccarelli’s CV alone reads like the history of popular music, including production work with everyone from Frank Zappa to Alanis Morissette to the Strokes to Bruno Mars. “So that’s been very validating for us and also a huge thrill.”
The trio’s varied connections and experience help diversify the clientele. Stringer, who’s been in the recording business for 20-plus years, describes his clients as “more mature.” Taheny, who also runs Candle Recording with Josh Korody, draws in larger Canadian indie acts, while relative newbie Gomes brings in younger musicians.
Stringer swore he’d never work in commercial studios again after his last place of work closed down 10 years ago. But he couldn’t say no when Gomes and Taheny approached him with their idea for Union, with its high-quality gear, spacious size (15-foot ceilings) and base rate of $600 a day.
“I realized quickly that this was the studio I’d been waiting for as a freelancer for a long time,” he explains. “In the Toronto studio industry, there’s a mid-range price point of between $400 and $700 a day that almost didn’t exist for decades. There were big $1,000-a-day studios and smaller $400-a-day ones but few in between. Plus we have a good amount of space and the same kind of gear as the big studios. Not as much of it, but the quality is the same.”
Has the rise of the home recording studio affected business?
“Around 10 years ago was actually when the home recording studio boom hurt studios the most. Right now, as technology grows greater, the pendulum is actually swinging back to more musicians in studios,” Stringer says, explaining that the improving quality of delivery mediums like MP3s are allowing us to hear fidelity again.
“It also took four or five years for musicians to realize that, you know, we need certain things to make a quality-sounding recording like our heroes made. So much can’t be done at home. You need proper space, proper ceiling height for drums. Old vintage Neumann mics sound way better than cheaper microphones, and trained engineers and producers working on your record make it better. So the pendulum has swung a long way back to the point where home recording is thriving more than ever, but so are commercial studios. It’s a healthier balance now.”
And with constant doomsday news about closing live venues and the near-impossibility of being a full-time working musician these days, it’s nice to hear that at least one aspect of the industry is on the up and up.
“We’ve met a bunch of engineers opening rooms,” says Stringer. “There are studios opening around Toronto all the time now and creating a scene again. Toronto has been one of the biggest studio markets in the world for decades, and it’s back.”
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