Calgary, Alberta: a premiere place to record a record? Come again. The home of the world’s most famous Stampede is not the first place one thinks of when recalling locales where great albums were made. With the opening of Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (NMC), that perception is changing fast. Artists ranging from Luke Doucet and Randy Bachman to Boston alt-rock band Guster and The Northern Pikes have all recorded projects recently at this one-of-a-kind facility.
“Sure, it’s strange to have a world-class recording facility in Calgary of all places, but the word is getting out,” says Jason Tawkin, Manager, Building Audio, Studio Bell. “The facility, and the collection housed within the facility, is world class … it’s a pretty unique place.”
Unique is an understatement. It’s a curio shop of wonder. Something new and unexpected waits around every corner. Where else can you see artifacts like k.d. lang’s stage clothing, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” sunglasses and Neil Peart’s hockey-themed drum kit during recording breaks? “It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” says Northern Pikes’ drummer Don Schmid.
This past summer, the four members of The Pikes (Schmid, Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, and Kevin Kane) gathered in downtown Calgary with only their band ethos – “art before ego” – as their guide. The group arrived at Studio Bell with only a couple song sketches prepared. As Semko says: “it was an experiment and an adventure.” Over the course of just 16 days and two separate sessions (10 days in February 2018 and another six days in July) they collaboratively built the 10 songs from the ground up – tracking seven at the first session in the spring and the remaining three when they returned to Studio Bell mid summer. Working with engineer Graham Lessard (The Barr Brothers, Basia Bulat, Kevin Drew) and NMC Audio Technician Eric Cinnamon, the foursome recorded these songs one by one live off the floor using a Trident A-Range analog console — only one of 13 built and sonically superior to anything available these days. Due out in 2019, the record (the band’s first studio effort in 16 years) remains untitled. The result is an eclectic disc unlike any the Northern Pikes have captured in the studio before. It is marked by some fairly heavy songs, a little bit of social/political commentary, some power-pop, and some acoustically-inclined numbers.
“Even though we were using modern technology with multi-track recording, we were going through a lot of vintage gear, which warms up the sound and creates a cool vibe,” explains Semko.
“It definitely sounds different,” Schmid adds. “It sounds gritty and real. Listen to how quiet everything is in the digital age … there is no hiss. At some point maybe music should have some other idiosyncrasies.”
World class, unique, and idiosyncratic are exactly how each band member described the Studio Bell setting — ranking the facility on par with historic haunts where they’ve made records in the past including Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY and London’s Abbey Road. The NMC studios include: three control rooms, three live rooms, three isolation booths and a plethora of historic gear to use.
“It’s possibly my favourite studio that I’ve ever recorded in,” says Kevin Kane, guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and the Pikes’ newest member, who joined the band for the Big Blue Sky 30th anniversary tour in 2017. “With the demise of the record industry, well, it’s not dead, but it is but a shadow of its former glory, there are fewer and fewer big studios.”
The National Music Centre living musical instrument collection includes more than 300 musical instruments (in working order) spanning 450 years of music technology: everything from a 1591 harpsichord to the legendary monster synth TONTO (a.k.a. The Original New Timbral Orchestra) that was a big part of Stevie Wonder’s sound, a grand piano that once belonged to David Foster, and a rare Novachord of which only six remain in the world. Artists record using one of three historic analog consoles in any combination of adjoining live rooms; each live room is designed to have its own sound and has a selection of historic musical instruments suited for the uniquely designed spaces. One of those rooms is the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck where iconic songs were cut, such as: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “No Woman No Cry (live).”
“Unique to our living musical instrument philosophy is that we are not collecting just for prosperity sake,” Tawkin explains. “We feel those objects are better appreciated when they are actually used as they were intended such as the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck. It would be a shame if another record were never made with that truck.
“A great deal of inspiration comes from working with such historic pieces,” he adds. “That positive energy and that creative spirit of working with such important pieces of music technology translates into amazing things.”
One of the most recent donations to the NMC collection, which The Pikes took advantage of, was a 1958 Fender Pro Amp, owned and used by Neil Young. Bryan Potvin had not recorded through an amp in the last 15 years, but he and Kane both plugged into this vintage amplifier during the second session for the record. The Pike’s guitarist christened it “Old Nasty!”
“Imagine what this amplifier sounded like to break that 15-year streak!” says Tawkin.
One of Kane’s favourite memories from the NMC sessions occurred when the band had only one day left in the studio and they felt they were still short one song.
“That night Bryan [Potvin] presented an idea he had for a verse with a few lyrics,” he concludes. “The four of us sat around the hotel room and, as I listened to Bryan and Jay talk about the song conceptually and play around with some melodies and chords, I scribbled down a few lyrics based on what they were saying. The next morning, Don sent us all a text with the final lines of the song and we had ‘Don’t You Give Up’ completed by the time we walked into the NMC.”
Learn more about recording at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, here.