Published May 01, 2005Sitting atop a million stairs in downtown Halifax's historic Khyber building is the unassuming Ultramagnetic recording studio. With its carpets on the walls, sagging couch in the back, and gear and instruments piled in every available corner, it could easily be the coolest apartment you never got to live in.
Charles Austin knows this. He believes an easygoing, relaxed atmosphere is key to making musicians happy, so they can make the best records possible. "I think the fact that this place kinda looks like someone's rec room helps them relax," he says, perched on a rickety chair. "It's not intimidating in that sense. Maybe there are people who thrive on intimidation, but I find if you can get someone relaxed it's better. You can tell if someone had a good time making it or if it was a shitty experience just by the feel of the record."
Austin's been feeling his way around the music industry for decades now; first as a musician in the early '90s with the Super Friendz and Neuseiland; more recently as co-owner, with Kevin Lewis, of Ultramagnetic, affectionately nicknamed the Mullet. ("That's a really old joke," he says. "A lot of sound-men had mullets, so we thought it would give us more credibility among musicians. For awhile I had one too, which was just stupid.")
The laid-back Austin started recording in the sixth grade when he played in a metal parody duo called Iron Egg, "which was ripping off AC/DC songs not well and singing songs about eggs over that. We did overdubs with two ghetto-blasters. We'd do drums and guitar in one, and then we'd play that and sing along to it into the other one."
By 1997, the Super Friendz had split and Austin was left with just a few choice skills to utilise. He and Lewis opened Ultramagnetic with a youth business loan, "And we bought a bunch of stuff that ultimately turned out to be not what we needed," says Austin. "Everything we have now, except for one or two things, is stuff we got later, buying from CBC auctions or other people, kind of scrounging up gear."
One of the CBC finds is the studio's centrepiece, a mammoth MCI 636 36-channel console, which Austin estimates would've cost $60,000 new. (The Mullet scored it for $4,000.) "It sounds good, but now, where everything is done on computers, it's not really feasible to have something like that anymore." Although, he notes with a touch of pride, "this producer Gus Dudgeon, who did records with Elton John, said it was the best-sounding console he's ever heard. Because it's so accurate."
Though the studio didn't open until after Halifax's mythical New Seattle era collapsed, Ultramagnetic quickly established itself as the place where new legends were made. Halifax musicians Al Tuck (The New High Road of Song), Joel Plaskett (not coincidentally, Down at the Khyber) and Matt Mays made their breakthrough albums at the studio. Buck 65's hip-hop breakthrough, Square, and the map-making follow-up, Talkin' Honky Blues, were recorded here.
But if Austin whose studio team is rounded out officially by Graeme Campbell and unofficially by J. LaPointe is pretending not to see Ultramagnetic's integral role in shaping the music that comes from this part of the country, his sincerity is convincing.
"There's a certain point where people come to the Mullet," he says, "and my goal is that you'll never have to come back here again, hopefully, if it works out for you. This is essentially a project studio, a small studio. I wouldn't want Joel Plaskett to come back unless it was for fun. I don't resent people moving on. That's one of the goals, to get them to the next step.
"Coming at something from the perspective of a musician I feel pretentious calling myself a recording engineer or a producer it's a different kind of thing. I didn't go to school; I'm not trained as an engineer. A lot of it's intuitive but a lot of it's scientific. I read about it, try to comprehend how sound waves travel, but it's pretty esoteric stuff. You have to be inclined that way."