Practicality first… Every choice is either something that’s critical to the studio working, or something that will up our game. – Steve Major
MM: What’s the story behind Verge Music Lab? How did you guys start up?
SM: Verge Music Lab arose out the ashes of the old XM Satellite Radio performance studio in Toronto. I’ve been fortunate to engineer for XM / SiriusXM Canada since ’06 and we have an awesome relationship.
Three years ago I had a good pool of equipment, a production budget, and bands on the hook for satellite sessions but after a sudden real estate change XM couldn’t provide a studio. I decided I’d try to launch my own space and spent a year sussing out options.
The opportunity to be involved in an all-music facility with Music Mansion came up one day and it seemed a great enough fit to take a chance on. Epic construction began immediately retro-fitting a studio inside the historic structure. It was a total melee for a while constructing and getting some issues sorted, but we’re all fine now and enjoying a really cool recording spot.
MM: The Music Mansion is a pretty unique environment. What are some of the benefits of being connected to that kind of music community?
There is also some good crossover work between everybody that has helped bring in other projects and engineers. To me the studio/mansion seems like a unifier and has clued me into the potential of the people around me, and how we can combine resources. My mentality has been to try to foster everyone’s growth and involvement and I think that long-term win is materializing.
MM: What kinds of things influence your gear selection?
SM: I’d say practicality first, even though that sounds boring and cheap! Every choice is either something that’s critical to the studio working, or something that will up our game. Part of it is trying to cover the sonic bases for versatility and then also catering to specific interests.
Some of the core guys here like Josh Van Tassel and Reuben Ghose are hell-bent on old-school flavors, so they’re definitely in mind. Vintage instruments can be great but of course some old gear (especially mics) won’t sound like they did 50 years ago.
I think there are some great modern options that capture the essence of vintage gear without costing thousands more. And if old gear means more downtime then I don’t want it!
Modern stuff like AEA ribbons and Chandler gear can have both reliability and vintage flavor so that’s very appealing. I think everyone loves gear that has a certain identifiable sonic quality, whatever that is, because then they can say “I want that in this aspect of the song” and then that can be a productive creative decision.
MM: You’ve spent a lot of time on audio treatment for the studio. What are some of the key elements for proper studio treatment?
SM: The efforts you make on acoustics will pay off immeasurably in your work. The biggest and most stubborn acoustic problem in a studio is bass control. We came out pretty good considering they’re not huge rooms here.
Low-frequency anomalies will waste your life if you neglect them and people will avoid your studio like the plague. Deal with it before the gear goes in or you probably never will.
Treatment for the mids and highs can be slapped on your walls more easily but bass traps are a real-estate-eating pain in the ass. There is a ton of misinformation on the internet about how to treat your room DIY. When in doubt go with tried-and-true methods like superchunk corners and panel bass traps or cough up for pre-fabricated stuff like GIK.
Panel bass traps are great because you can make them mere inches thick and address the lowest frequencies. Instead of giving simplistic advice on all aspects of acoustic treatment here I’ll just say you better either do your homework or get a reputable consultant or ideally both. Oh, the fear-mongering!
MM: Digital technology has made home studios relatively affordable. Do you see that as a challenge? What are the major benefits of recording in a pro studio?
SM: The affordable technology also means there are more people recording their music in total, so I think there’s an evening out for work that comes our way. More people recording themselves at home is also great because by the time they come to a studio they’ve already learned how to work better behind mics and our jobs become easier.
It’s all art, so I appreciate a home-recording’s artistic purity, but an engineer at a pro studio should have the chops to get you there more efficiently plus have the experience to bring other artistic nuances to help refine your vision.
The other big benefit is that pro studios are trustworthy acoustically, so you can clearly hear what’s going on and there aren’t ugly surprises down the road.
MM: What are some of the most common mistakes that bands make in the studio?
SM: Work healthy! Bands often have a work-till-you-drop mentality, but I think that good creative decision-making is one of the first things to suffer when you’re tired and hungry. Take breaks and eat good food.
Bands may have worked on their songs for years before they come to record, and certainly it’s a lot of money so they want to work like mad and throw everything they have at it.
But once you’re overworked and blow your perceptive ability, you can be doing things you’ll just be unhappy with later without knowing it at the time. It’s like driving drunk! There are certain things in the process that I won’t do late in the day, because they’ll be performed so much better when people are fresh.
MM: Do you have any tips for artists prepping for a studio session?
SM: You need to schedule properly to accommodate the process. If you’re tracking beds before overdubbing, then allow time to get everything edited and feeling great before piling on the overdubs. Pre-production is great, and so is a dialogue with the engineer about the direction of the project and each song.
If it isn’t decided how the songs should sound then figure out some way to experiment at the beginning of the session.
Maybe the drummer comes in the night before and tries all the kits in different rooms, that kind of thing. I’d also suggest getting as many cool instruments/amps/etc lined up as you can, and having those items at your disposal throughout the sessions. Familiarize yourself with the available tones. Next to the player the instruments are the biggest part of the sound!
MM: You’ve worked with some great artists. What are some of your highlights?
SM: The craziest session was with Lauryn Hill in Montreal years ago when I was assisting at Planet Studios. It was a month without sleep basically and an emotional roller coaster at the studio. Somewhere towards the end of it I was privy to a vocal session. There was an unused C12 next to her – she was just rocking an SM58 into an over-driven 1073. It was what every engineer dreams of.
The song (Fugees – Foxy) never got a proper release sadly, but it’s a bad-ass jam if you can find it on the net.
MM: Who would be in your dream studio session?
SM: Easy! Josh Van Tassel and whoever else is in on it. All of his regular cohorts are incredibly nice and function so well in the studio. Those are the best days in the joint.
Through music history there have been studios and session players at the epicenters of sounds, like Studio One in Jamaica or Motown. A dream session would be doing something like that here with good friends close to home and pushing a new sound that might live beyond a few years.
For more info on studio booking, location, and rates, head over to the Verge Music Lab website. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook. And check out a session that Mojito recorded at Verge Music Lab with The Elwins and Luke Lalonde of Born Ruffians: