by Amanda Beland
It’s the middle of summer in 2007 and Elio DeLuca and Patrick Grenham are on their knees cleaning a console with toothbrushes. The console, constructed in March 1986, is a Pisces – just like DeLuca and Grenham. Their newly acquired ‘bro’ is about to become the centerpiece for something much bigger than the basement it once hung out in, untouched for years.
“It’s happened occasionally where people have brought in records to mix off Pro Tools and they park the computer here for a couple of days and I think it makes the tape machines kinda nervous … you walk into the control room and see that big flat screen and you think ‘man, this is not the way,'” said DeLuca.
DeLuca and Grenham, both of Somerville, are co-owners of the Soul Shop, an all analog recording studio in Medford, Massachusetts. Their console, among other analog gear, make up an almost 10-year-old business with a focus on sound quality.
“Do it right the first time,” reads a review of the studio on Facebook.
DeLuca and Grenham knew each other in high school, but lost touch after graduation. They met back up and became friends during the mid-2000’s after seeing each other at various “weird noise” shows around the Boston area. Grenham also had a regular DJing gig at The Cellar in Cambridge. DeLuca eventually started bringing records to play on the nights Grenham was DJing. It was here the two started talking seriously about music and decided to start the band Keys to the Streets of Fear.
Grenham and DeLuca wanted to record live to 2-track tape for the first Keys record, but couldn’t find a place in Boston that had the capabilities (or the desire) to enable the process. That’s when the two men turned to Marcata Recording, then in Harlem NY. Marcata was started by the band the Walkmen.
“They (the Walkmen) were like, ‘well in a studio, you need a tape machine, four or five good microphones and that’s it,'” said Grenham.
“And a decent console and that’s it,” said DeLuca.
“Yeah, so they were like let’s build our own studio so we never have to pay for another studio again,” said Grenham.
Analog vs. Digital Recording
In technical terms, the difference between analog and digital recording has to do with the distinction in signal paths and the way sound is recorded and stored. (Science!) Without inching into modern jackass territory here -almost everything done in the digital sphere can be done in the analog sphere – except it probably takes more time and more gear. Obviously in analog recording, there are no presets and nothing can be automatically applied or filtered like you can do in a digital editing program like Pro Tools.
In analog, if you want to amplify a track or add an effect, you have to physically turn a knob or press a button or adjust a setting on a real life droid. There are no drop down menus with physical hardware. Also, in digital recording, you can totally use that backspace key and undo in less than two seconds. In analog recording, you can delete something from a tape – but once you do – you can’t take it back. You have to rerecord. (Danger!)
In digital recording, you essentially have unlimited tracks – you could have 100’s of tracks of just shakers or vocals if you so dared – but in analog recording, tracks are limited based on the studio. At the Soul Shop, you have 16 tracks to fill and if you fill those 16 tracks and wanna add more stuff to a song, you gotta be creative and finagle a way to do with your resources.
The Soul Shop is an all analog recording studio simply because that’s the way DeLuca and Grenham like to work when it comes to recording. They like tubes and physically touching things – they aren’t big fans of using a mouse and a couple arrow keys to T-Pain audio tune the heck out of your voice.
“It’s because he wants to push faders on a console and run stuff through tubes and compressors or whatever,” said Grenham, talking about DeLuca. “All that kinda stuff you have to do the old fashioned way and not sit there and point click ‘mix’.”
The Marcata studio and practice space were located in a former Nash Rambler production factory in Harlem where different parts of the cars were installed on different floors of the building and the car was moved by ramps when each floor’s work was completed. The studio was located on one of the ramps.
“The walls and ceiling were curved – nothing was parallel to anything, which is the first indicator of a good acoustic space because then you don’t get weird like being in the shower, back and forth reflections,” said DeLuca.
The guys spent three days recording at Marcata before bringing those recordings back to Massachusetts to a couple other studios in the area. However, Grenham and DeLuca couldn’t shake the Marcata feeling.
“These experiences (in Boston) were expensive and then we were like – maybe the Walkmen were right,” said Grenham.
“They were expensive and they were indicative,” said DeLuca.
“Maybe we should just stop paying other people to borrow their stuff and just buy it,” said Grenham.
“We were also kind of foolish at the time, so we bought a bunch of gear,” said DeLuca.
DeLuca and Grenham bought gear with the intention of using it to initially record live sets and then eventually, to open up their own space. In the winter of 2007, Keys had a week residency at PA’s Lounge in Somerville for this purpose.
“Sunday through Monday, we played every night of the week, different sets, one was all covers, one was all jazz tunes, one was new stuff and then we got other bands to play,” said DeLuca.
Grenham and DeLuca recorded every set of the residency.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2007, however, until the gear found a permanent home when DeLuca found the current location of the Shop in Medford.
“Luckiest I’ve ever been on Craigslist,” said DeLuca.
The building was separated into three spaces – a bridal shop in the front, a piano restoration shop owned by the landlord in the back and the space that would become the Soul Shop on the side. At first, the building’s landlord was hesitant to allow a recording studio to rent the space. After repeated attempts, he finally conceded.
“It took meeting him in person,” said Grenham.
“We all had the same weird crazy Italian vibe going around,” said DeLuca.
With the space acquired, Grenham and DeLuca began construction on the space, which was one room when construction began. Grenham has been a professional builder for years, so he brought people in to help separate out the control and live rooms, as well as to help with sound proofing.
“That was wicked fun because I know how to build houses,” said Grenham. “Learning how to build all of the sound stuff was kind of awesome. If I was smart, I would make a lot of money doing that.”
The Shop’s live room has a couple unique aspects that aren’t immediately noticeable. First – drawing inspiration from Marcata – the walls were installed crooked on purpose. Second, none of the walls are actually touching each other.
“None of these walls are parallel – this one tilts back, they all have very little angles,” said Grenham. “You don’t notice it when you walk in, you’re not like ‘oh my God, this is a crazy house.'”
“You know, not like many degrees of an angle difference, just a tiny shimmy, just enough to make it sound the way it sounds,” said DeLuca.
The space wasn’t entirely finished until October 2007, though the first record was made in the uncompleted space in August 2007.
“I remember we had holes in the ceiling and no tape machine,” said DeLuca. “We didn’t have the endless money of being able to throw it together at once, with the gear and everything else. You know, piece by piece.”
DeLuca and Grenham acquired the gear the studio through careful Craigslist and eBay searching. Grenham has also built (and is still building) many of the amplifiers in the studio, which the Shop either keeps in house or sells.
Before, during and after construction, the two men continued to collect equipment, including the Shop’s tape machine, Neotek console and Steinway piano, which belonged to DeLuca from childhood.
“That was one of the main things – live room sound, have to have real pianos,” said Grenham.
Grenham and DeLuca are co-owners of the studio. DeLuca is also the head (and only) engineer. DeLuca is a conservatory-trained pianist who’s been working on both sides of a console in various forms since college. He plays guitar, bass, piano, organ and sings in various projects including Blinders, Faces on Film and Titus Andronicus. Grenham and DeLuca also both play in the New Lights.
Titus Andronicus Live at the Soul Shop
The Shop is used as a recording space the majority of the time. However, the live room has also been used as a low-key show venue. DeLuca plays keyboard for the band Titus Andronicus and the Shop has hosted the band twice for secret shows for family and friends. The most recent show occurred in August 2014 while Titus was on their most recent Northeast tour. Blinders and Wicked Kind (members of Titus Andronicus) also played.
Since the Shop opened, it’s been witness to dozens of different artists and bands from a slew of genres.
Guitarist Will Graefe, of Brooklyn, recorded at the Shop for the first time in 2008 with his guitar, saxophone and drums trio Dikembe’s Mutombo. The trio recorded live to 2-track tape in four hours. Since then, Graefe estimates he’s recorded at the Shop between 10 and 20 times on various projects including Wilder Maker, Katie Von Schleicher, the Soul Shop’s 2013 Christmas Record and his own solo project. Graefe also currently plays guitar with his main project Star Rover.
Soul Shop Christmas Records
For the past two years, the Soul Shop has produced and released a Christmas record. The 2014 record, titled “Christmas Alone With You” featured originals and covers from a number of Boston bands including Parks, Abadabad, Blinders, Quarterly, Faces on Film and the Low In Between.
Take a listen to this year’s production process:
Graefe says recording at the Shop is unique because it offers a transparent and comfortable process for recording.
“Elio eliminates a lot of the typical barriers that can inhibit spontaneity and risk,” said Graefe. “Often times, (there’s) no isolation, no head phones, no computers- just capturing the people in the room with warmth and honesty and grit and cuts and bruises, too. There’s an accountability about that.”
Musician Katie Von Schleicher is also a regular client and friend at the Shop. She’s recorded there with Wilder Maker, Sleepy Very Sleepy, and her own solo work, among other projects.
Von Schleicher says the vibe of the Shop is a huge part of the experience of recording there.
“Whenever I go into the shop, it’s hopefully for five days at least – whenever I leave the Shop, I have some sort of postpartum depression because its a full experience,” said Von Schleicher. “It’s a fantastic place where one by product of Elio and Patrick both being picky opinionated guys is that everyone who comes in when you’re there is someone you trust and someone that you want to work with. So it’s really a fully immersive experience – a lot of the time is spent on the couch listening to overdubs while someone else is in the live room and a whole lot of it is down time, so its exhausting and somehow even the downtime where you’re sitting on the couch is riveting though. It’s like Wayne (Whittaker) cracking a joke, or in the case of Wilder Maker – or my solo stuff, Will Graefe cracking a joke, and the chemistry between everyone who’s there is a huge part – at least to me – of what the Soul Shop embodies.”
Dan Webb, of Dan Webb and the Spiders, recorded five tracks from his newest LP Perfect Problem.at the Shop. Webb, who also plays drums in Blinders with DeLuca, said the Shop’s focus on sound quality, among other things, made the recording process more comfortable and more worthwhile for him and his band,
“My favorite part was that when we tracked there was no headphones involved,” said Webb. “At the Shop, Elio had us set up in such a way that we were able to track our parts live and without headphones so it sounded awesome as we were recording it, which only added to the comfort level of the experience. and in my experience, the more comfortable you are, the better the recording goes.”
The experience of recording live in an immediate atmosphere is a major focus at the Shop. According to Grenham and DeLuca, often times musicians head to a studio and record each instrument or part of a track separately and at different moments. The idea of working at the same time and in the same space while recording is part of what makes the sound and recording methodology unique to the Shop.
“People still come in and are surprised that it’s just one big room,” said Grenham.
DeLuca references this methodology as a cornerstone to the recording process for the band Eternals (formally Stephen Konrads and the Eternals when they recorded at the Shop).
“It also needed to be built up in a careful fashion where when they played the initial tracks, they played live, looking at each other, as opposed to everyone in a separate room with closed circuit tv camera action going on,” said DeLuca.
Musicians typically find out about the Shop through word of mouth, Facebook or through their website. Details for booking – price, dates etcs. – are typically discussed and determined based on need once you make initial contact.
“No one wants a ringing phone in a recording studio,” said DeLuca.
One of DeLuca and Grenham’s favorite parts of the Shop is the community that surrounds it – not just immediately with friends or friends of friends, but with anyone who comes into the space.
“It’s nice to give people the opportunity to check out the work and the methodology and see if it’s right for them – or right for something they’re involved with,” said DeLuca. “And it is great for us to be able to recommend – like Patrick’s saying – other players for certain things. If someone comes in and they want strings on their record, it’s not them playing a string part on a MIDI keyboard. It’s four or five musicians simultaneously set up in a circle reading off a piece of paper, the way it should be – you know?”