By Vincent PollardComputer software allows music producers, especially of the electronic variety, to have a portable, virtual studio on a laptop, but Juno-nominated house collective Azari & III prefer to keep it analogue. Their cosy studio, close to Toronto's trendy Parkdale neighbourhood, consists of a live room with a drum kit and amps, and a control room packed with mostly vintage gear. The centrepiece is an Otari Series 54 36-track mixing board that faces racks of outboard gear, including Neve compressors and various reverb units. Every surrounding surface is packed full of modular synths, banks of keyboards and Roland drum machines including a 303, an 808 and a 909.
"It's little-known, some of this stuff," says Alixander III, gesturing around the studio. "A lot of it comes from these film companies that went out of business when the industry switched to digital and the old analogue houses shut down. This board was actually used to mix movies like Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg and Exotica by Atom Egoyan."
Alixander bought the Otari for a still considerable fraction of its original cost from Monumental Sound & Production, a Toronto recording studio. But getting the board into their space wasn't so easy. The producers had to hire six piano movers. "I thought it would fit but the angle [in the corridor] didn't work so we had to take out a whole piece of drywall to get it around the corner."
You don't accumulate this amount of vintage gear overnight and Alixander says he mostly accumulated it at garage sales over the years. It started off with a couple of pieces of kit from his musician uncle, who was in the Kings, including his first guitar and amp. It was seeing Depeche Mode on the Violator tour that piqued Alixander's interest in Roland drum machines. "Nitzer Ebb were the middle band on that tour and they were doing this crazy drum stuff. I was 11 or 12, and when I asked my uncle for a drum machine he gave me this 707, but I couldn't do what they were doing."
The studio's Roland 909 was also donated by his musical uncle. "You could get this shit at a garage sale for $100," says Alixander, "but as soon as eBay came out it was worth $2,000 in the UK so there was a lot of flipping. I pawned a lot of shit. Pawn guitar to get turntables, sell turntables at the height of [turntablism] and get other things. Constantly flipping, like houses."
As well as their use of live instrumentation and analogue gear, the boys often prefer recording to quarter-inch tape or sometimes straight to digital, depending on the track. "That's the beauty of it," says Dinamo Azari. "You do a bit on both and there's analogue gear that will synch it up. The old stuff and the new stuff, it can all work together."
Alixander III and Dinamo Azari say they like the hands-on aspect of the physical gear. "Do you wanna play with a real knob or a virtual knob? That's the question," ask Alixander, adding "This system is from 2002. We're running Pro Tools and Logic. It's a hybrid, open system. We sometimes like to use an old Daniel Lanois trick ― you're done mixing a song and you load up a new song with the settings of the last song. Good luck doing that on the computer!" With digital set-ups it can be tricky, sometimes close to impossible, to apply the exact settings in one track to a completely different project. And as Alixander adds "There's way more room for human error that leads to experimentation."
It's clearly far more work and expense to build an analogue studio with a full mixing board as opposed to going completely digital. "It's like having a child," laughs Azari, but he remarks that a digital solution also has its own problems. "Computer technology is moving so fast right now, and trying to combine your Mac updates with your disc to your Logic updates and all of a sudden you're recording and it just shuts down on you and you can't figure it out so you're updating all your software. That can get pretty frustrating."
Sadly a relocation is on the cards for Azari & III, as the building their studio is housed in will be the next victim in Toronto's ever-growing condo expansion. "It's sold to developers so I'll be out of here soon," says Alixander "Moving this mixing board takes six piano movers and you have to have somewhere to put it, so you have to have that shit planned in advance."