Published Jul 01, 2012There's no disputing that the invention of Pro Tools in the '90s levelled a serious blow to established recording studios, leading to the proliferation of smaller, more indie-friendly spaces. But that "new normal" never sat well with the team behind Revolution Recording, Canadian music industry veterans Joe Dunphy, Joao Carvalho, Kim Cooke and John MacDonald.
Introducing independent artists to a high-end studio environment has been their guiding principle, and those efforts have transformed an abandoned warehouse in Toronto's east end, just steps from Carvalho's mastering studio, into an 8,500-square-foot testament to sonic innovation. The aptly named Revolution Recording is indeed flying in the face of recent history, as evidenced by the steady disappearance of long-standing studios in Toronto, such as Eastern Sound, Manta Sound, McClear Place Studios, and Reaction Studios, which once dominated record production in Canada. While a handful of Toronto studios that first opened in the 1970s and '80s, like Phase One and Metalworks, continue to offer competitive rates on top of their mix of major-label clients and film soundtrack jobs, the rise of affordable and easy-to-use digital recording technology caused a radical shift in studio culture.
For the Revolution-aries, the only blueprint for success has been a quest for perfection. Since the idea to build the studio was hatched over five years ago, it has been a labour of love for everyone involved, from award-winning designer Martin Pilchner, to the construction crew, and the group of dedicated young engineers who put in long hours every day retooling vintage equipment in Revolution's in-house workshop. Among them is Anthony Kazub, whose pet project is to meticulously refurbish a 32-track Ward-Beck board that will soon complement Revolution's prized jewel, a 1974 Neve desk once housed in RCA's Manhattan studio. Its restorer, famed Neve guru Fred Hill, has deemed it second in quality only to his own.
"My goal has always been to have a studio that's in the top one percent," Carvalho explains. "We spent two years searching for the right building. When a deal we had in place fell through at that time, we started to feel like this was never going to happen. Then that afternoon we were standing out front of my [mastering] studio looking at the building across the street and it suddenly hit us ― that was the place we needed."
Cooke, a co-founder of MapleMusic and current head of Pheromone Recordings, adds, "It was more space than we originally thought was necessary, but that really motivated us to swing for the fences, to use a baseball analogy. We put three great rooms in there, and I feel the Neve room [Studio A] is one of the best in the world."
Carvalho hints that if there was any model, it was Abbey Road Studios, and Revolution's capacity to live up to that ideal was tested at the outset, with the heavy orchestration employed on Sarah Slean's current release Land and Sea. Following those sessions, Great Lake Swimmers's New Wild Everywhere marked the folk-rock collective's first studio recording after four albums made at various non-traditional locations.
But it's a certain Toronto power trio that has put Revolution on the international map. Rush has, for the most part, stuck close to home when it's come time to make an album, although with so many sites of the band's past glories ― such as Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec ― now long gone, few studios remain in Canada suitable for their needs. That is, until friends and associates began mentioning Revolution, where Rush and producer Nick Raskulinecz ultimately knocked out the bulk of Clockwork Angels last fall. The band's 20th studio offering is a late-career peak, thanks in no small measure to what drummer Neil Peart has said is, "the best sounding room we've ever recorded in."
According to Revolution co-owner Dunphy, who cut his teeth as an engineer and mixer within the '90s Toronto indie scene, "For me, the reception that Clockwork Angels has been getting validates everything we set out to do. [Guitarist] Alex [Lifeson] came by while we were still under construction, and from what I gather he made the decision right then that he wanted to record here. But with the producer in Nashville and Neil in California, it wasn't a sure thing. I give [Alex] so much credit for having the foresight to see those possibilities in the midst of all the work going on, because what I was seeing at that moment was just a nightmare."
Projects like Clockwork Angels don't come along every day, however, and no one at Revolution is forgetting their roots. Royal Wood's just-released We Were Born To Glory and an upcoming Jason Collett album are further proof that, along with attracting world-renowned talent, Revolution is poised to be a viable option for any musician ready to take the next step up the recording budget ladder. With rates starting at $85 per hour, along with a ten-hour block for $650, the last thing the Revolution team wants to do is discourage someone from considering such a move.
"As a mastering engineer, I have been noticing a backlash against the Pro Tools approach," Carvalho says. "I think more artists today just want to record themselves as purely as possible, and that's certainly what I feel is one of our advantages. We can get those sounds quickly and potentially finish an album in five days, like we did with Jason. It probably comes out cheaper in the end, because there's often so much back-and-forth working in someone's basement that can drag out the process for months. If you plan it correctly, it's amazing how much you can get done in a short amount of time."