100 Mile Microphone: Michael Chambers, Catherine North Studio

originally published at 100 Mile Microphone

The neighborhood is quiet, residential. A friendly indoor-outdoor cat flouts city of Hamilton bylaw and suns his belly beside the organic garden in the side yard. Mid-morning sun glints off the stained glass windows of the little red brick church. From the outside, you might not even suspect you were walking past one of the most influential and well-loved recording studios in Hamilton. But Catherine North has a way of doing that–being humble and unassuming, keeping calm and carrying on quietly making awesome music. So it was a real treat to be ushered in to the sanctuary space, to sit down across a coffee table from Michael Chambers (aka moon:and:6) and to have a conversation not just about music, but about acoustic architecture, city planning, organic gardening, and so much more.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here—I was surprised to see a garden outside!

That’s new this year! My wife Kathleen and Tristan (Miller) are project people. They decided that this year a garden would be nice. We had this wasted space beside the building—for as long as I can remember, it’s been overgrown, just wild. So about a month ago we cut it all back and put in some raised beds to grow veggies. It’s on the north side of the building, but in the summer it still gets a lot of full sun—it gets light from the East, up until mid-afternoon. So we’re growing things like chard, beets, onions and radishes…

…things that don’t need full sun—no tomatoes or hot peppers…

…exactly; we have those growing on the flat roof out back! We started that last summer, but we never got up to water it so it cooked. We had a few sun-dried tomatoes, and that was about it. It’s container gardening, so it needs a lot of watering. Our super-hot peppers did okay, too. They were too hot to actually eat, but it was cool to have them. We’re hoping this summer to use some of the produce in our cooking, when we have a session going. At dinner break people are welcome to have what we’re having if they don’t want to run out to B&T, or any of the usual spots.

Cool! Is cooking for the musicians a regular part of the service here?

If there’s somebody around cooking—like in the winter I might put on a big pot of chilli that can sit on the stove all afternoon—then people are welcome to go down and help themselves. That’s part of what we do sometimes, but it all depends on who’s here and what’s going on.

If a band is in here, nothing’s off limits. While you’re here, you are our guest, and nothing is off limits, including our food. And if we’re growing fresh stuff, who knows? We’ll share it with musicians, neighbours, and certainly staff.

Speaking of neighbours, I notice there’s a big condo development going up right across the street—does that affect what’s going on here?

The good news is, they generally stop by four. If they’re banging away on metal, it’ll cause problems for tracking. With the windows closed, mixing in the basement is fine; there’s work we can get done. But if we were tracking an acoustic guitar or a vocal, no. But we do most of our stuff in the evenings anyhow. And it’s fine on weekends. Besides, once they’re done the structure, it’ll be fine. In the fall when they first started, I went to chat with them about schedules, and they’re very friendly, very reasonable.

The other day they dug up the whole street for water and sewers, which was a bit awkward. But it’s awesome to see all this happening in our neighbourhood. I only moved to Hamilton five years ago—I live just around the corner, so close I can probably walk to work faster than I could bike—and then this area was turning around, but now it’s really going. All the changes on James Street, even in the last year, with the Mulberry and Jack and Lois opening, it’s great to have so many places to go.

So this is just the cost of doing business in a vibrant neighbourhood?

Exactly! And the flip side of it is, it’s a residential neighbourhood. And this is not a soundproof building. So sound comes in, but it also goes out. So we’re always trying to be considerate of our neighbours, trying to keep the loud stuff from going too late. You can do acoustic guitars until 3 a.m., but we’re not going to mic up a Marshall stack then. So a typical day here is 11 am to 9 pm. It’s great; we don’t have to get up too early, but we’re still done in time that if we want to get out to This Ain’t Hollywood or the Artbar, there’s time for that. And those are two more great examples of the way this neighbourhood is growing up.

Tell us how you came to Hamilton those five years ago, how you got involved with Catherine North–which has a much longer history than that.

Well, it’s not just me here; it’s myself and Duke Foster, who’s been involved for quite some time. Duke recorded with Glen (Marshall) and Dan (Achen) when they were in the actual house on Catherine Street. Duke and his brother Steve are staples on the scene. My wife and I moved to Hamilton, well, because we could afford a house. I’m from Midland. I moved to Toronto after high school for college, and ended up staying there. I wasn’t too much of a Toronto snob, but it’s where I planned to stay, until a friend told me I could get a house in Hamilton for a hundred thousand dollars. I thought “Really? Hamilton seems okay; I’ve played there a couple times.” I’d been in bands and seen the city, so my wife and I took the GO train in, and wandered around on foot—that way, we’d see areas that were in walking distance of the GO station. We knew we wanted to be downtown, not in the suburbs. After a couple days we agreed we could live here. Fast forward a year; we bought a house.

I didn’t know anybody on the scene, so I spent a year basically cold-calling people here and trying to convince my Toronto friends that they should move too. I wasn’t looking for jobs as such, just trying to make connections. So I called Brodie at the Casbah, Adam Nichol, did a little sound there, but mostly just to hang out. I called Bob Doige at Grant Avenue, everyone at Mastermind, just made contacts; and Catherine North was one of the places I called, although I had no idea it was literally 500 feet from my house. And if I’d know where it was, known I’d be working here, I probably would have totally overbid when I bought the house! (laughs)

Finally I had a chance to visit the studio. I thought I’d be here for half an hour, but I’m a talker, and Dan was a talker, so I stayed for four or five hours.

I had a similar experience—when Dan saw us come in, he took us downstairs and tapped a keg of Wellington Dark.

That still goes on—we still have the keg fridge.

Is it still Wellington Dark?

Always. (laughs) Well, we sometimes stray and try a different beer, but we always come back to the County Dark Ale. It just tastes like home! Anyways, Dan and I met downstairs, because Rob Lamothe was recording upstairs with Jacob Moon.

Jacob just came back, didn’t he?

Yes—a couple weeks ago! He did two shows. We cleared out the couches, set up as a venue. Since it’s a solo act, it wasn’t too loud. Anyways, once those guys were done upstairs, Dan brought me up and showed me this wonderful, inspiring environment. We kept in touch, I did a bunch of work for free for a while, and a band from Toronto—Ministry of the Environment—came down and asked me to do bed tracks. That was the first time I ran a session here. After that, I got called more often. Which was good. Kathleen is the most supportive partner in the world, but I was ready to make some money. I ended up working on The Rest’s second record, Everything All At Once. Things went well, and if there was budget enough in a project, I was Dan’s regular assistant.

We got pretty close in the three years I worked with him, and when Dan passed away, I was shocked. Everybody was. Somebody asked me what was going to happen to the studio. So I talked to Duke. We decided we had to keep it going. Duke does a lot of work on the road, so he isn’t around as much, but about a third of the equipment is his stuff that he’s added to the arsenal. We set up an agreement with Dan’s family to lease everything, and the family has been super supportive in making this a viable business. It’s Dan’s legacy. I learned so much from him; he really opened my eyes, the way he could coax a performance out of an artist. It was so educational, watching him work with musicians.

What sorts of things did you learn from Dan?

All sorts of little recording tricks, but the most important thing is that he understood this is a people business. I mean, yes, we have all this equipment, but if you’re not working with the right people, you’re not going to get a good result. Which is why when a band comes in, if they don’t have a particular person in mind, we discuss whether I’ll take the gig, or Duke. We always want to meet with people. We don’t just quote an hourly rate, we ask “What do you want to get out of this?” It’s not like a hotel—you come here not just for the space, but to work with one of us; me, Duke, Marcone, who is an awesome engineer and piano player, Dan Hosh is another great engineer. Dan lives in Cambridge, but is often here. It’s all about personalities. Everybody knows how to make it sound good, so it’s a question of who’s going to get along best, who’s going to match the personalities of the band. It’s much more personality-driven than genre-driven.

Then you don’t have a particular musical specialization here, as such?

If you look at the credits over the past few years, we haven’t done much death metal, hip-hop, or country (laughs) but we never draw the line. After we did the City and Colour thing it attracted a lot of singer-songwriters, and a lot of attention, so we’ve gotten known for that kind of thing. And we’re good at it, and we like to do it, but—just for example—right now we’re working with a band from Caledonia, called Weightless and Waiting. They’re a post-hardcore band—screamo.

People ask “Why are they recording there?” Well, why not? We had a meeting, discussed their goals and what they want to get out of it, and they didn’t want to go through drum replacement and all that—they wanted something more organic than is typical of the genre. We could do all that editing, replacing things with samples, but that’s not what they’re after. So we’re sort of pulling it back more towards Rage Against the Machine, say Evil Empire, which is a really organic album. A friend of mine heard some of the individual tracks from that album, and you can hear guitars in the overhead mics on the drums—the reason the album sounds so live, so raw is because they just played! That’s one of the things we were trying to do with these guys. So there are no genre limits or barriers, likes or dislikes. It all comes down to who comes through the door, and who’s in the network. This would be a great place to record small classical ensembles, I think.

How important is the space? I’ve been reading Studio Stories: How the Great New York Records Were Made–it’s this book about the great old studios of New York, and the rooms they worked with, and how the engineers learned to use the space to make the records sound as good as they did, even in the era before multi-tracking and digital reverbs. You have this distinctive room…

It does have a distinctive sound. I didn’t really realize it until somebody gave me some tracks to mix that weren’t recorded here. I put them on, and went “Whoa!” It’s not that they were bad, but it’s because they didn’t have the sound I was used to hearing, especially on drums.

You get this cool echo off the high ceiling.

Yes. But it’s very short; it’s not a cavern. It’s a lively room, and with a drum kit you can either close mic for that punchy sound, or put up overheads and hear the whole kit in the room instead of the individual sounds. Because a drum kit is an instrument—it is what it is; it’s not just a kick, and a snare, a tom…. This is a great room for capturing that. Things sound lifelike; drums and acoustic guitars in particular sound like you’re actually there, not just listening to a recording.

Right! I think of that great recording of Martin Tielli playing “I’ll Never Tear You Apart.” The video is clearly one take, he’s right there in the middle of the room under those awesome bird sculptures, and you can feel it all happening.

Sure! That was before I got here, but I know what you mean—it feels like you’re there, and that’s really important for acoustic instruments. Now, for electric guitars, everybody mics an amp with an SM57 a couple inches from the cone, no matter what room you’re in. You find the sweet spot, and worry about effects after. We also have these two small isolation rooms behind the stage, and we’ve done things like put the amp in there, but leave a mic on out here, and you’ll get a reverb you’d never get from a box or a plug in. You get interesting sounds when you work with a room.

Is that philosophical? Is that an extension of what Glen Marshall used to be doing?

Well, Glen was involved in the recent Jacob Moon shows, and that’s the way we went with that. But as far as a philosophy, no, we’re focused on the artist. There are some techniques that we’ve learned, and some involve the space. But how we use it, and how much we use it, totally depends on the artist. We have no agenda.

We like to listen to demos before artists come in, and discuss their direction. I often end up acting as a producer even if I’m not hired as one, because artists have to leave happy. I can’t let them make mistakes or waste their time or money. It’s not about pushing my agenda, though—it’s about finding out what they want, and helping them get there. Our business cards say “Artist-Oriented Recording,” which I think is a phrase Glen coined a bazillion years ago, but it’s been our philosophy ever since. They have to walk out the door smiling, wanting to show it to everybody. You don’t want customers feeling they wasted their investment, especially with something as personal as their art, their music.

So we have instruments, amps, whatever helps an artist. But I tell them, “Bring in your amp; bring in your drums.” Maybe ours is better on paper, maybe it’s a “classic,” but if you’ve got a tone, that’s your tone, and you know how to work your system. If you’re totally unhappy, we’ll work with it, but we try to start where you are. We’ll maybe swap out a snare or something, or suggest a different guitar for an overdub to expand the tonal palette of the song, but that’s it.

For example, a singer-songwriter named Paul Federici just released an album he recorded here. Most of the guitar on that album is his beat up old $250 Norman. We tried a couple others, but none of them sounded right. He uses interesting tunings, so his guitar has been sitting in that tuning; he wrote the song on that guitar with that tone, and as a player, he responds to the tone. If you switch the instrument, the whole dynamic changes. If you look at the recording process, the most important thing in the chain is the musician. That’s got to be working. But then you have the instrument. Farther down the chain you can look at microphone and room choices, then preamps, recording medium…but by the time you’re debating ProTools or tape, it’s almost inconsequential, as long as you have a good performance. Paul’s recording is the combination of his hands and his guitar. We pulled out a Martin, and it didn’t improve anything—his cheap Norman sounded better.

As a lefty, I never have these problems, because I never have these options. (laughs)

Sure—that means you have to work a little harder. But that’s good; you can’t just jump from instrument to instrument; you have to get the tone from your hands, from the materials available to you.

Exactly. A lot of my own growth as an artist in the past couple years has been in subtracting gear, figuring out how to get it out of my hands. I remember as a kid reading an interview with David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, and he said something like “If my whole rig got stolen, I could walk into any guitar shop in any city, and for $500 I could get enough gear to sound like David Gilmour.” I didn’t believe him at the time—I thought there was some secret magic pedal for that singing tone—but I get it now.

I agree, 100%. When City and Colour come through, or Whitehorse (Luke Doucet and Melissa McLelland) it’s so easy to work with them. They’re such strong musicians, and have such a clear sense of what they want and how to get it, that I’d almost have to be an idiot to screw things up. They just sound good, all the time. They brought in some amazing sidemen, too. I’d set up the mics and record a bit; listening back, I’d think “Wow—that sounds awesome: what did I do differently?” The answer? Nothing. They just make amazing sounds, and I record them.

In many ways, your job as an engineer is to be transparent—like a window-washer. You just try to clear things out of the way so people can hear the artist.

Yes! I mean, sometimes artists say “do this,” or “do this,” and then it’s my job to try to colour the sound the way they want it. But I guess even then I’m being transparent–letting the artist shine through. Sometimes I make suggestions, throw out ideas of my own because I think it’ll be helpful; but I have no ego about it: I just think it might be right for the artist. I don’t want artists coming out not knowing they had an option, or not taking a chance because it didn’t occur to them to try.

And since Catherine North doesn’t charge by the hour, it’s a much better atmosphere for risk taking and exploring options.

On our web site we don’t even list rates per se. We have a meeting with a prospective client, discuss process, how many overdubs it’s likely to require, and figure out how long it’ll probably take, and then just charge a flat rate.

Which has the effect of turning off the clock, before the session even starts.

Right. We say “it’ll be X amount to make you EP—50% now, 50% when it’s done,” and other than those two times, we don’t need to talk about money. I’ve done a lot of recording, but I got into this because I was a musician; thinking about money and worrying that a missed take is wasted money can be really demoralizing. You play safe, you accept good enough, instead of being yourself and letting things go freely. Flat rates turn the clock off.

I mean, there’s a certain amount of experimenting that has to happen in the studio. That being said, don’t come in here and say “All right! Let’s figure out this song!” No, no—you want to come in knowing what you’re doing. If your goal is simply to explore, then maybe we are talking about a flat rate. But if you have goals and demos, and a good sketch, we can fill in the sketch and then try different things when we’re coloring.

So people come in with finished song ideas, but might try a different harmony, or a different guitar tone?

Or they might have it all planned. And the more you have planned, the easier it is for everyone. It’s like anything else. Even if you deviate from your plan, your experiments aren’t blind. You can say “Is this better, or worse, than what I had planned?” If it’s better, you go that way. If not, you stick with the plan. You probably don’t want to go into the studio and try to knock it off note for note like the demo. You want to be open to the possibility of a cool mistake, where somebody says “that was awesome—do it again!” Happy accidents can be amazing. But again, it depends on how the musician wants to work.

It’s different for bands than it is for solo artists. I have higher expectations for preparation from bands. There are more parts to coordinate, everybody has to agree on the chord changes and riffs, the overall structures. But with a singer-songwriter, like Paul Federici for example, he came in with some ideas for which songs would have drums and bass and which wouldn’t, and we discussed options. We had Nick Skalkos in to play drums on some tracks, Kirk Starkey played cello—he’s a phenomenal player and arranger—and we sent demos off to these guys so they could come in with ideas prepared. Sometimes they come in with one part they feel strongly about, sometimes with some options.

By contrast, Ophelia Syndrome came in, and they had done a phenomenal job with their demos, just using a little handheld recorder like yours. (ed. note: it’s a Zoom H4n–super cool!) They record all their rehearsals, pick them apart. It was amazing. I had worked with them on their first EP in 2008 and they hadn’t done that homework. So back then, although every part sounded cool on its own, they hadn’t thought about the big picture.

They mentioned this in their interview: how much they learned from you guys about creating space in an arrangement.

Yeah, they learned a lot, and you can tell. They said that was why they came back—because they benefited so much from what Dan and I had to say. But they wanted to come in for the full album with all parts figured out. We actually did that album five songs at a time. Ten songs at once? There are just too many details to keep track of. We did all the mixing and mastering after, but the actual tracking was done in two chunks. The nice thing about ProTools is that the mixing is already half-done by the time you get there. If somebody’s recording a vocal, and I put a nice EQ and reverb on it and then we close the session, when I come back two weeks later, the EQ and reverb are still right there. Not like on the old manual boards, where I might have to mark positions of dials with grease pencil and tape.

Do you feel the new technology makes better music?

Technology is always changing. But good music is good music, no matter what. And it won’t matter the actual format of the recording—whether it’s ADAT, or tape, or CD, or whatever.

That’s the last link in your chain of recording you mentioned earlier.

Right. People will either connect with the song or they won’t. As an engineer, obviously I want things to sound as good as possible: it’s not like I’m saying “well, it’s just going to be an mp3, so who cares?” I’m saying that—have you read Howard Massey’s “Behind the Glass,” where he interviews producers engineers? He interviews Gus Dudgeon, who did the early Elton John records, David Bowie’s Space Oddity… he was asked about the analog vs. digital thing, and his reply was “You’re either recording a hit song, or you’re not.” He admitted to preferring analog, but it really didn’t matter.

When you get right down to it, we spend a lot of time on the sound of drums and vocals because people are either going to be dancing, or listening to the lyrics. I’m a guitarist and keyboard player, I play bass; but that’s all the decorative stuff we add so people listen to it over and over. When people first hear a song, they’re either going to be bobbing their heads, or listening to how the singer is communicating. That’s what draws people in and gives them goosebumps. There are cool sounds that enhance that, and that’s great.

I’m a big fan of Stereolab, their middle period stuff where it was all mathematical and weird, and I can’t really get my head around what’s going on all the time. That’s really interesting to me, but it’s ultimately not very accessible. My mom doesn’t know who Stereolab are, and wouldn’t like them if she did.

It’s not good party music.

No. For the same reason, I like listening to certain styles of jazz. It’s so fascinating to listen to Art Blakey, (John) Coltrane, guys like that. You listen, you hear everything that’s going on, it all works, but my brain is always challenged to find the patterns. But if everybody wanted to be challenged like that by music, pop radio would be very different.

It’d be a lot more Eric Dolphy, a lot less…

…Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. But like it or not, their music is really well crafted—it goes back to drums and vocals. But beyond that, there are hooks, and everything is there for a reason. A lot of it’s repetitive, but it’s over the top in the same way Phil Spector was—it’s big, and emotional, and they’re good at it. But when you hear it over and over, it’s all…

…primary colours?

Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. What I appreciate is a little more subtle.

That’s a good moment to segue into your Lost and Found series. You’ve been organizing a monthly show at the Artword Artbar, featuring local artists. What’s the principle behind it? Why promote a show, and why choose the people you’ve chosen?

It was a bit of an experiment. I work with a lot of really great musicians, and I realized that most of them don’t know each other. In both shows so far, none of the artists on the bill had actually met. That won’t be the case going forward, but that was the starting point. I wanted to expose musicians to each other, and I knew their audiences would like each other. I knew that if somebody likes what Paul Federici is doing, they’re probably going to like what David James Martinez is doing. It’s showcasing some of the good stuff in the city, although I’m aware that’s just a sliver of the talent around. There’s so much I don’t even know about. But someone like Paul—I keep using him as my example; hope that’s okay?—he’s from St. Catharines, and he’s just getting into the business after ten years working jobs. He’s committed himself to music, and I’m glad he did, because he’s a talented guy. He could cold call for gigs, but if he doesn’t hit the right gig, it’s no good. He could call the Casbah, and Brodie would have to say, “no, man, this isn’t right,” because even though Paul’s great, it wouldn’t be right in that room, for that crowd. So I’m trying to make it easier for people who don’t have a venue.

Also, Ron and Judith at the Artbar are so awesome, care so much about artists in general—they’re really an “art for art’s sake” place. It’s amazing. The music of Lost and Found is the sort of thing they regularly host, too. It’s great to have a venue that is a bar, not just a coffeehouse, but where people go to actually listen, and there’s no baseball game on in the background. Plus it’s a small room, so even if you only draw 30 people, it feels like a good crowd. There’s not an expectation to bring a huge crowd, which can be tough if you’re from out of town. So I try to partner up acts that can each bring 10 or 15 people, and the place feels full and happy.

We sometimes do shows here at the Studio, but it’s a lot of work, and it’s not really set up for that. We probably only do one show a year. When Glen was here, he was doing a lot more shows, because he was into that kind of recording.

Do you record every show that happens here at Catherine North?

We might as well! We have the gear, so it’s not too much trouble to record it. It’s a cool space for a show, but a lot of work. And for me, I prefer a more intimate recording experience, one without an audience watching you and coughing. Now, Jacob Moon made a live record here a couple weekends ago, and he basically redid his whole first album from 10 years ago. Not note for note, but showing how the songs have evolved over time. It’s an interesting way to do a retrospective. He did a few new songs, too, of course.

One of the challenges working with a solo artist is staying true to the song. There’s always a temptation to add things, just to fill up the spectrum, but you don’t want to add a hook or a part that defines the song but that they can’t duplicate live. Sometimes people just want it, so you do it, but the goal is to respect their vision and represent them. When you get right down to it, that’s always my goal—to respect artists’ visions, and help them achieve them.