Catherine North Studio The Miniatures / Martin Tielli / Feist / Josh Ritter

Catherine North Studio The Miniatures / Martin Tielli / Feist / Josh Ritter
It's never been a stretch to link music with the spiritual world, but standing inside Catherine North Studio, the connection is overwhelming. The old church in downtown Hamilton, Ontario had already had its pews removed when Glen Marshall and Dan Achen took it over five years ago, but as they conceived their new studio space, it was clear that the soul of the building had to be preserved.

"The minute we walked in, we were blown away by this place," Achen says. "A friend of ours was using it as a hobby studio, so we made him an offer for it. Glen's got a great sense of aesthetics, so he could see right away how much potential this place had."

Marshall explains, "We did things like build the stage where the altar was and incorporate it into the design of the archway. A lot of things were intended to stay consistent with the history of the building. But mainly everything was built around the fact that this is the most dynamic room I've ever worked in."

Indeed, it's easy to be in awe of the open concept of Catherine North, which is augmented by the church's original stained glass windows, and other items like the requisite pipe organ, and a vocal booth that ironically resembles a confessional. But as conversations reverberate around the high ceiling, even an untrained ear can discern what sorts of amazing sounds can be generated.

Achen and Marshall are no strangers to innovative recording techniques, having both been part of the Hamilton scene centred on Daniel Lanois in the 1980s — Achen as the guitarist in Junkhouse, and Marshall as an engineer at Lanois' Grant Ave. Studios, where he assisted on such projects as Eno and Lanois' Apollo Atmospheres And Soundtracks.

Upon the demise of his band, Achen began doing production work at Marshall's home studio. "He would keep bringing more gear over," Marshall says, "until one day we wanted to bring in a mellotron and realised we didn't have space for it." It led to the discovery of Catherine North, and things moved quickly.

"We brought in Bob Lanois, who is a genius when it comes to ergonomics and studio design," Marshall says. "He and Daniel basically invented open concept recording, so the most important thing was having Bob lay out the room in order to take full advantage of the sound."

Yet despite the studio's obvious attractiveness, it has remained a hidden gem as far as the music industry at large. The partners do not take any commercial work; instead they focus their time on projects of personal interest — Marshall mostly with artists connected with the New York folk scene, where he spends much of his time, and Achen with up-and-coming Canadian artists. Catherine North's highest profile releases to date have been the Miniatures' Coma Kid, and Rheostatic Martin Tielli's solo debut, but word of the studio is getting around; it is now booked solid several months in advance.

"Studios like this have always worked on a word-of-mouth basis," Achen says. "This isn't the kind of place where we wanted to put an ad in the phone book. We both want to limit our work to projects that we totally believe in, and that translates to the artists having complete confidence not only in what we're doing, but in what they're doing."

Creating that atmosphere is also easily done simply by the studio's stunning array of vintage gear, and the surprising flexibility they have in terms of manipulating the room. "The beauty of this space is that it can be the loudest room you've ever been in, and also the quietest," Marshall says. "The first band we recorded here had a horn section. We were a little nervous, because horns are really the test of how loud you can get, but it turned out great. I think we knew for sure that we had it right when [producer] Michael Philip-Wojewoda came in to do Tielli's album and said how impressed he was."

Achen adds, "When people hear that this place used to be a church, they immediately think of the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session, but that was a really unorthodox recording. We can get that vibe, but we can also make the room sound like anything else too."

Of course, this is a result of the digital age, but Achen and Marshall retain an allegiance to old school techniques whenever possible. "We just got a two-inch tape machine, and I'm really looking forward to getting re-acquainted with it," Achen says. "It's obviously a lot more work using it, but you can't beat that sound. It was funny how the singer from one of the young bands I'm working with saw me pull out a roll of tape and actually asked, ‘What is that?'"

Although it has been five years that the studio has been up and running, both Achen and Marshall say there has yet to be a defined "Catherine North sound." Instead, Achen especially is enjoying working with a host of as-yet unsigned artists and bringing out the best in them. "All of these bands are great live, and that's how I like to work because that's how the room sounds best. But even with overdubs, we try not to isolate things much. We basically just want the artists to feel like they aren't really recording at all."