the Soul Shop

The Soul Shop is an all-analog recording studio in Medford, Mass.

Scout Somerville feature article

If you're not local, or haven't picked up the latest issue of Scout Somerville from your nearby coffee shop, taqueria, or wind-swept public plaza, then check out this fine feature article. Writer Amanda Beland catches up with your two favorite opinionated, impressively-photogenic analog pundits.

“[Tape] forces you to make decisions, forces you to operate in a certain way where you’re extraordinarily in tune with the music,” [DeLuca] notes. “There’s nothing to look at — you really have to use your ears. It sounds like a trite expression, but you’d be surprised how much of modern recording doesn’t involve people using their ears, looking at waveforms. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I feel like it does lead to a certain type of mindset and working methodology which is really anathemic to the way I like to work.”

Alongside the studio’s live room, the Shop has also become known for its custom-built analog gear. “When I was a kid, my father used to always say, ‘Any idiot can do anything if they know how to read,’ so I got a tube manual,” Grenham recalls. “I had access to working with tube equipment, so I started playing around with it. You don’t learn anything from doing it right. Maybe someone did once. I don’t know who that guy is.”

“I think we associate ourselves with some of the same guys that worked here years ago [building pianos],” says DeLuca, “who were local, crotchety Italian guys building something that mattered — and building something that lasted.”

Peter Matthew Bauer - “Hold On To Someone” / “You Are The Chapel”

Out today, the beautiful new single from Peter Matthew Bauer, “Hold On To Someone” / “You Are The Chapel,” recorded live at the Shop.

This February, against the backdrop of the cruelest winter on record, Peter Matthew Bauer embarked on an unconventional solo tour of the Northeast. Performing in living rooms, basement parties, after-hours storefronts, and at least one analog recording studio, PMB gathered intimate audiences of friends & fans and set about defining his newfound role as a cosmic troubadour.

Fresh off the success of his 2014 debut solo album, Liberation!, the former Walkmen bassist/organist established a unique and compelling voice as a solo artist. Armed only with acoustic & electric guitars and a taste for classic mid-20th-century reverb, PMB used the stripped-down format of his solo tours to reinvent his recorded material and test out his new songs, including those intended for his forthcoming album.

We jumped at the chance to host him at the Shop on a snowbound Thursday in February.

Of course, Elio can’t leave well enough alone, so when pre-production plans were being made, we decided to do what we could to multi-track the proceedings. We also made sure to offer up the use of our Steinway piano. On the other dates of the tour, PMB was used to performing solely with the help of his silverface Fender Pro Reverb amp (for both guitar & vocals), and no PA system, so the discussion of PA reinforcement was left to be decided on the day. Basic piano, vocal, amplifier, & room micing was set up ahead of time. We also enlisted photographer/designer Liz McBride to help us set the mood, arrange the lighting, and document the occasion.

As a means of saving tape, while wanting to capture the entire performance, we limited ourselves to recording to only eight tracks at a time (on a 1” 16-track tape). Then, when the 33-minute reel was exhausted, we could rewind to the start and use the remaining eight tracks to record the rest of the performance. Old-school.

PMB arrived fresh on the heels of a successful show in Portland, Maine. He eschewed the use of the Steinway (“I’ve realized I can’t really play piano that well”) and decided that, although he wanted to use PA to reinforce the vocals, he wanted to stay far from the mic and keep the performance as intimate as if he were playing unamplified. This made complete sense, of course. But it meant we had less than an hour to strike our entire setup and prepare something that looked good - we didn’t want to mess with Liz’s carefully crafted aesthetic - felt right, and served both PA and recording functions.

(Elio usually tries to keep his stress hidden from the clients, when possible.)

Thirty-odd minutes later, with an almost entirely new setup, we rolled tape on the version of “Hold On To Someone” that you hear above. Meant to be the soundcheck, PMB came in to listen to the playback, regarded it carefully, then pointed to the tape machine and said: “Can you guys just upload that thing into The Cloud right now? Can’t we just release it right now, as-is?”

A few hours later, the room was aglow in the warmth of Bauer’s devastating “You Are The Chapel,” the penultimate song of what had been a captivating and dynamic set, reverberant electric guitar cascading off the walls in front of a stunned, rapturous audience. “Chapel” is the other track available for streaming & download, above. Turn it up loud.

Technical details are as follows:

Somehow we were able to taper down our goal of eight simultaneous inputs to only six.

The only holdovers from our original setup were the guitar amp mics, an RCA 74-B ribbon mic and a Beyerdynamic M-201 dynamic. The M-201 was amplified by a 70’s-era API 312, while the 74-B ran through a Cloudlifter (impedance buffer/gain stage made by Cloud Microphones), and was amplified by our custom-built “Black Box,” an all-tube, point-to-point-wired preamp with Thordarson & UTC iron, designed by Patrick, based on the RCA BA-series circuits. Each mic was run straight to tape with no EQ.

For flexibility in the room micing, we chose a Mid/Side setup comprised of a Lawson L47 FET as the mid mic and a Lawson L251 tube as the side. Each was routed through preamps in the Neotek console, then Kush Audio Electra EQs (for high-end lift and high-pass filtering), and Aphex Compellor levelers to tape.

PMB’s vocal situation presented a particular challenge, not only in regards to the aforementioned aesthetic and PA issues, but in the fact that he usually runs his vocal mic through a phalanx of effects units, including a series of delay pedals and a Demeter spring reverb.

We chose the inimitable Coles 4038 ribbon, since PMB is a classic crooner some of the time, and knows how to work a mic at a distance the rest of the time - also since there’re few mics quite as photogenic as a 4038. But a ribbon mic in this application comes with its own set of issues. Ribbons are notoriously fragile, sensitive to vocal plosives and hard consonants. They are also exceedingly prone to feedback when used in a PA situation. In addition, they cannot easily drive long cable runs, much less be used to interface with effects units directly, without impedance problems.

We solved this by buffering the Coles with a Cloudlifter wired as close to the mic as was possible (nearly the base of the stand), powered by its own phantom supply. This enabled the mic to drive all subsequent cable runs without losing top end or weakening the output. This was followed by a transformer splitter, which allowed us to divert the signal through an impedance converter into PMB’s effects chain, which was followed by a Radial JDI direct box. The clean and effected signal paths were then each split again, providing separate feeds for both the console sends to tape, and the outputs to the PA mixer. Both the clean and effected lines were amplified by Burl Audio preamps to tape, the clean through an Inward Connections Brute limiter and the effected through an 1176. The PA system was carefully tuned with two 31-band dbx EQs to eliminate resonances and feedback. (Elio got his start and learned his frequencies working as a live sound engineer.) Working the clean and effected channels in parallel allowed us to dial in as much effect as PMB wanted in the main and monitor mixes while avoiding any problems.

The super old-school trick we used to preserve the sensitive ribbon in the 4038, while avoiding unsightly pop filters, was to take a chopstick (from the Tofu Pad Thai we ordered earlier in the night), cut it to the length of the mic capsule, and secure it to the body with an elastic, along the length of the ribbon, in the center of the capsule. This protected the ribbon from plosives or blasts of air without affecting the pickup pattern or negatively impacting the sound of the mic.

Mixed a few months later, the tracks benefited from extensive parallel compression, to preserve PMB’s explosive dynamics. Leading the way was our custom “Fed” vari-mu limiter, Patrick’s hand-built clone of the classic Federal AM-864/U circuit, which we used on a parallel vocal bus. Any remaining low-frequency rumble or unwanted subsonic content in the vocal tracks was eliminated gracefully with the incredible LowCut 24 db/octave filter from Bereich Audio. The M/S room setup allowed for variation song-to-song, whether highlighting the intimate, near-mono style of a track like “Hold On To Someone,” or the vast roominess of “You Are The Chapel.” The mix bus was left uncompressed but tailored slightly with a pair of API 550a EQs.

Look for the new album from Peter Matthew Bauer, coming soon.

For more info & photos, check out this great PMB profile piece over at Spiral Bound.

All above photos by Liz McBride

Ryan Lee Crosby - "Winter Hill Blues"

Our good buddy Ryan Lee Crosby came to us last Autumn with an interesting proposition: shoot a music video in the Shop that was also a live audio recording, capturing the moment of performance in both media at once. Most "performance" videos involve an artist lip-syncing to a previously-recorded track, in an obviously artificial, scripted environment. That’s fine sometimes ... but not for everyone.

RLC is no stranger to the Shop. We recorded his breakthrough songwriter album, Out To Dry (2009) and the subsequent singles, the hard-hitting guitar freakout "The War", and the gorgeous pop masterpiece "Summer's Come (You Are Gone)," both from the summer of 2011. After the Cros started recording his own material at home (to 1/2" 8-track tape, like a boss), playing all the instruments himself, we were privileged to help him mix his acclaimed 2012 self-titled album, an absolute tour-de-force of compelling songcraft, laced with dub, soul, hip-hop, and funk influences, glued together by Ryan's unmistakably original, dynamic guitar playing.

In recent years, RLC has expanded his long-time love for American music into a devastating solo delivery of new and traditional folk blues, on acoustic, electric, and 12-string guitars. Explorations that have taken him as far as Clarksdale, Mississippi and through several tours of Europe also resulted in the stark, beautiful album Institution Blues (2013). His latest release, Busker on the Broad Highway (2014), besides being his most fully-realized collection of original & traditional recordings yet, is also his debut for the German label Jellyfant Records.

Following the celebrated release of that album, RLC wanted to shoot a music video for the track "Winter Hill Blues" - one that involved recording the song anew, live in the moment, not wanting to lip-sync to (and, therefore, artificialize) such a loose, immediate performance. We were proud that he chose the Shop for this setting, and set about creating the right environment.

One Sunday evening in October, we arranged our most photogenic amps along the back wall of the live room. Thanks to cinematographer/editor Reuben Bettsak and cameraman Pete Garron, we had plenty of light, and a wide frame in which to stage RLC, seated and playing his signature 12-string acoustic guitar.

We chose the RCA 74-B Junior Velocity ribbon mic for Ryan's vocal for both its impeccable sound and timeless look, and the Coles 4038 ribbon on guitar for the same reasons. (Ribbons also being the most appropriate choice for capturing music strongly influenced by early-20th century American recordings.) The 4038 was positioned almost directly at Ryan's picking hand, to capture the nuances of his playing, with the null of its pickup pattern pointing up, to minimize bleed from the vocal. This worked like a charm. Both mics were supplemented by the excellent Cloudlifter from Cloud Microphones, which provided proper impedance matching and additional gain for these low-output, sensitive ribbons, allowing them to drive the long cable runs to the control room.

Although the Cloudlifters solved gain & impedance issues, we still had yet to confront one of the most basic problems when using ribbons in this application: capturing sufficient high-frequency content. The 74-B was amplified by a Vintech 573 preamp, requiring nearly 60db of gain, even with the Cloudlifter, and the inherent noise of the signal path was quite apparent. Elio reached back to a truly old-school technique (with origins in the RIAA equalization standard for record pressing, as well as FM broadcasting) to deal with this - the concept of pre-emphasis/de-emphasis. Simply put, this is an alteration of the frequency characteristics of a signal so as to reduce noise, enhance clarity, and aid in capturing the natural sound of the signal being recorded.

We used the Electra, an awesome new 500-series EQ from Kush Audio, to provide both high-pass filtering (to reduce rumble from RLC's toe-tapping) and high-frequency emphasis, lifting the entire top end of the vocal signal with smooth, unencumbered air. This was followed by gentle limiting from the Fed, our custom-built vari-mu limiter (see the post below for more info on Patrick's killer all-tube designs), and then additional EQ from a Manley Pultec EQ, boosting the weight in Ryan's voice at 120hz and the clarity at 8khz, with the necessary high-frequency de-emphasis in the form of a broad shelving cut at 12khz and up. The combination of the Electra and Pultec brought out RLC's haunting falsetto without creating any additional mud or causing audible phase distortion. (The original Pultec design has its roots in broadcasting, and allows for versatile high-frequency boosting & cutting shelves for exactly the purpose of reducing noise while retaining clarity.) The 4038 was amplified by the righteous B1 mic preamp from Burl Audio, one of our favorites, followed by another Kush Electra for high-pass filtering and subtle high-frequency boost. Both signals were mixed live to mono as RLC performed the song. Three takes later, we were done. The result?

Thanks to Reuben & Pete for their excellent work, and to our friend RLC for letting us be involved in yet another step on his incredible musical journey.

Photos #1, #3, #5, & #6 taken from the video, other photos by Elio.

new custom tube gear in the works

In addition to our proud family of homemade guitar amps, Patrick's been working hard on all-tube outboard gear, mostly variations on classic American designs of the 1940's. First up was a clone of the legendary "Federal" AM-864/U vari-mu limiter.

After using it in the Shop for a little while, there was no better opportunity to field-test it than when Elio went on tour through New England playing piano with Titus Andronicus for a couple of weeks in August, culminating with a show at NYC's stunning Webster Hall, with none other than The Buzzcocks! Here's our Fed making friends with Steve Diggle's Marshall half stack:

Another reason for the tour was to get the band road-tight, to begin recording Titus' new album (their fourth overall) at the beginning of September. Elio brought the Fed to Excello Recording in Brooklyn for the sessions, where longtime Titus producer/engineer, our good buddy Kevin McMahon, gave it a go on piano tracks. Ribbon mics through the preamps in Excello's gorgeous Calrec console, into the Fed. Killer.

Kevin & the boys will be coming up to the Shop this Fall, to record more piano, electric piano, & organ tracks, and there's no doubt we'll have the Fed close at hand!

There are other pieces in the works, like a two-channel, line-level rack version of our famous Baxandall tube preamp/EQ, as well as a clone of the Altec 436c limiter, featuring the EMI "RS-124" mods, made famous on so many 1960's recordings from Abbey Road. As well as a guitar amp or two.... *cough* Standel! *cough*

Stay tuned for more info, follow us on Facebook for news, and be sure to check out Elio's Instagram feed for more photos like these.

the devastating new album from guitarist Will Graefe

Will Graefe has been in the Shop before: tearing the roof off (live to 2-track!) with his power trio Dikembe's Mutombo, as well as ornamenting the gorgeous songwriting of Wilder Maker with his stunning lead playing. Now we're very proud to announce his forthcoming solo guitar record, Alos.

Recorded in March live to multitrack, the instrumental album (nearly entirely acoustic, with one electric number) showcases Will's songwriting as much as his staggering chops. Sometimes all you need to do is put the right guy in front of the right microphones, chiefly among which were two AKG classics: the C-451E (veteran of a thousand acoustic guitar records) and the D-19 (a dynamic mic on acoustic guitar lends weight and "wood" to the sound, especially with some gentle limiting from our 1176). The rest of our guitar & room micing will have to remain a mystery…

Performed on an inexpensive, borrowed flattop guitar, the palpable focus and tenacity of these performances echo the circumstances of their composition, as most were written on the road. As Graefe says: "On tours, I found myself playing constantly, and usually alone; in sound-checks, in the van, in hotel bathrooms, in parks. I would find almost mantra-like melodies or sets of chords and play them over and over again until they developed naturally."

Eschewing overdubs, and mixed with minimal processing by Graefe and Dan Arnes in Brooklyn, the album ranges from the reverent, simple beauty of Graefe's reading of "Solitude" by Duke Ellington, to the raucous, joyful melodic Americana of "Special," linked here for your listening pleasure:

Only the most technically proficient musicians realize the power of melody, and the awesome responsibility it takes to harness your prowess to great songwriting. With this recording, Graefe proves himself a master of all sides of his craft, and opens the door to an incredibly promising future. Here's hoping he keeps coming back to the Shop to put those ideas to tape.

buy the album here!