Recapturing Philly's Musical Soul

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Nov. 16, 2010

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Photo by Michael Alan Goldberg

Just inside the doors of The Studio—one of Philadelphia’s premiere recording facilities—owner Larry Gold sits at the receptionist desk, smiling broadly as he clutches the neck of the cello he plays for three hours every morning. Standing next to the desk is a tall man dressed head to toe in black, long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He’s got a rock musician’s presence; perhaps he’s here working on an album.

“This is Sol,” Gold says, gesturing toward the man in black. “He’s gonna be sitting in with us. I’ll explain why in a minute.”

Gold puts his cello in its case, scampers through the expansive lobby—past a long wall displaying dozens of gold and platinum records, the fruits of his 40-year career in the recording industry—and briefly disappears into the bowels of his sprawling, 20,000-square-foot loft space on North Seventh Street, near the Electric Factory. Sol eases into a cushioned chair; Gold returns and sits on the edge of his. He turns and smiles again.

“I’m retiring,” he says, then leans back in his chair and exhales, as if the cat he’s just let out of the bag weighed 500 pounds. “I’m 62 years old and I’m tired of running this place, so Sol here is gonna take over.”

“Sol” is 28-year-old Solomon Silber—producer, classical guitar whiz, frontman of the hard-rock trio Nomad Superhighway, former Yalie and, like Gold, a Philadelphia native.

“I’m just here to carry on the legacy that Larry has established,” says Silber, soft-spoken and serious.

“Larry Gold has never been good at restructuring,” says Gold, “and that’s what’s got to happen right now.”

The changing of the guard at The Studio is symbolic of the transitional period happening within the Philadelphia recording industry—indeed, the national recording industry as a whole—as studios try to weather the forces that have beat it down over the past decade. Thanks to greed and excess, combined with a massive increase in music piracy, the major labels have collapsed, taking with them the fat paychecks that were the lifeblood of most large studios. Meanwhile, the recession and the painfully slow recovery has driven artists small and big to buy recording gear—which continues to get better and cheaper by the day—and craft albums on their own, rather than spend hundreds or sometimes thousands a day in a “proper” studio.

The level of attrition has been high. Many of Philadelphia’s big-name facilities—Studio 4, Indre, Kajem, even the legendary Sigma Sound for a while (more on that later)—have closed up shop, their owners either giving up in the face of adversity or stubbornly holding onto the old ways of doing things and being forced out of business. Other places, like The Studio, have somehow managed to hang on through these brutal times, but they, too, are feeling the squeeze and finally undergoing the process of changing their business models in order to survive. But in the midst of that gloom-and-doom, there is a surprising amount of optimism among studio owners, and there are even some new studio ventures sprouting up around town. Though their approaches vary, some of the major players in Philly’s recording industry who spoke with PW appear bullish about the future of their business. And many think Philadelphia can enjoy a renaissance akin to the golden age of the late ’60s and ’70s, when big artists came to the city from far and wide to make their albums and tap into some of that Philly music magic.

 

To say that Larry Gold is a key figure in that magical music history is a vast understatement. A Kensington-born cello prodigy who studied at the Curtis Institute and was arranging his own scores and performing concerts around town before he was a teenager, Gold eventually linked up with nascent Philly songwriting team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and joined their house band, MFSB. At engineer Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound (which opened in 1968), Gold played on virtually every big Gamble & Huff-penned hit recorded by the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, McFadden & Whitehead, Dusty Springfield and countless others.

In the ’80s and ’90s, after Gamble & Huff’s Philly Soul hit-making factory faded away, Gold became a cellist and arranger for hire, mentored local artists (including DJ Jazzy Jeff), and dove into production work at Sigma and Kajem, working with Boyz II Men, Freddie Jackson and others. In the mid ’90s, determining there wasn’t a truly great-sounding recording facility in Philadelphia, Gold gathered up his savings and took the plunge into The Studio. “I felt confident I could build a room that could sound really good,” he says. “In those days this space was dirt cheap. This part of town was a wreck.”

George Augspurger, arguably the world’s leading studio architect and acoustician, designed the recording and control rooms; Gold filled his studios with top-of-the-line analog and digital equipment, expensive microphones, one of the best grand pianos in the city, and tons of modern and vintage outboard gear. The Studio had its own electric feed, making it one of the cleanest-sounding rooms in the city. “This is a studio,” says Gold, arms outstretched. “Most of these other places in town, I don’t call them studios. Everybody else does—that’s probably what takes business away from me. They call it a studio and they have one mic. I’m not saying you can’t make a record there, but I don’t see them as studios. I see them as pre-production rooms.”

Owing both to Gold’s facility and his reputation as a world-class musician and arranger, artists flocked to the place almost immediately—Gold tells a story about Tori Amos recording some sessions there in 1996 while Gold and his wife were still painting the kitchen. Gold brought in then-up-and-coming (now humongous) producer Rodney Jerkins and the pair co-crafted Brandy & Monica’s 1998 megahit “The Boy Is Mine” and Jennifer Lopez’s first No. 1 single, 1999’s “If You Had My Love.”

Soon, the Roots—who had cut their first albums at Sigma—migrated to The Studio (they now have their own studio space on the same floor as Gold), and the place became homebase for the burgeoning neo-soul movement, with Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Common, Musiq, Bilal and others recording there regularly. “This place was real hot there for a bunch of years,” Gold says. “When we opened, it sort of doubled its business every year for the first six or seven years.”

Gold’s profile as a string arranger continued to grow as well—in the ’00s, superstars like Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly have dropped by The Studio to work with him. But even with that client base, Gold admits that in recent years business has slowed down, that The Studio is currently operating with a skeleton staff, and the combined costs of the lease and equipment upgrades/maintenance (his high-end clients expect high-end gear …that works) are large. “This place has always managed to break even, even with a large overhead. But I’m not gonna lie to you—coming at a studio right now, as a strict businessman, it’s not a good situation. And as the business wanes you have to really now come up with clever ways of adding to the income of a place like this.”

But Gold doesn’t have the passion or the energy for that anymore—he considers himself a musician and arranger first and foremost, and doesn’t hide his distaste for the business side of things—which is why he’s selling The Studio to Silber (as part of the deal, Gold will stay at the facility to continue his arranging work and maintain the already existing client list, most of whom Gold considers dear friends). Silber says he has loads of ideas to get The Studio thriving again. Among them: An in-house label called Wiseman Records, which will handle everything from pre-production through final masters and packaged product; and an education arm of the facility called the Wiseman School of Record Production and Engineering. And in a more general sense, Silber aims to reach out to local Philadelphia artists, those beyond The Studio’s long-running focus on R&B and soul, and in particular young, aspiring acts. “We’ve got to expand the palette,” says Silber, who’s eyeing the worlds of mainstream- and indie-rock.

To that end, he’s bringing in a formidable collection of amplifiers, guitars and other instruments that The Studio conspicuously lacks. Silber also plans to stress the one-of-a-kindness of The Studio to those young artists who are dreaming big. Pointing to an issue of Billboard that sits on the coffee table in front of him, Silber says, “How many records on the charts in there were made at home, or at one of these small studios around town? This is a special place—there’s only a handful of places in the world with this type of gear and this type of vibe.”

But how are these fresh-faced artists supposed to pay for the privilege? Gold refuses to reveal his day rates, but Silber says he’s prepared to make things affordable and negotiate lower initial rates to help artists get on their feet, especially the particularly promising artists The Studio plans to develop in the hopes that they’ll become regular clients once they get big, ultimately getting a return on the investment.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. pete said... on Nov 17, 2010 at 09:13PM

“The dirty secret about recording studios, especially those that model themselves as ,"top notch", is that a large chunk of their money comes from vanity projects. This is also the skeleton in the closet of recording labels. A great majority of ," music business", participants, in terms of ,"artists", are egomaniacal hacks who are hungry for approval. They think that they are, "talented", when they are in fact average interpreters of basic musical ideas and forms. It is wonderful that professional sound engineers are available in Philly, because bands like the Roots can
link up with them and record with the best equipment.

Let us not assume that every band that records a bunch of tracks, and promotes them as a valid contribution to the the sum of world culture, is any more than a bunch of attention seeking dreamers. I was one of those ,"musicians", once, and then I had the sickening realization that everything I made would be buried in time., because of endless vanity projects.”

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2. Mike Tarsia said... on Nov 23, 2010 at 03:12PM

“To say Sigma was "antiquated " when an sll 900 was installed on a few years before it was sold is a disservice. Plus no rooms in the city had it's history or sound. Ask for the gold and platinum credits of stuff MIXED at any of the facilities mentioned in this article and see if it approaches the over 180 at SIGMA.

I now run Mike Tarsia Recording and I helped put that gold and platinum on Sigma's walls.”

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3. Mike Tarsia said... on Nov 23, 2010 at 11:33PM

“Durell I must tell you if you could not record a hit at Sigma Sound Studios as they were in 2003 you probably could not record a hit anywhere. This is 2011 and thing change in 8 years so it is good that you are catching up. I must point out however while Sigma was always a leader in studio technology it was not the secret to its success or what the world came for. They came for the expertise; they came for ears behind the console. That is an element all the doodads in the world cannot replace.

Considering that with today’s technology many if not most artists record in their home studio where they have the freedom to spend as much time as they like, when they like and then seek a studio where they can get the expertise (ears) to finish, your soup to nuts approach is a very interesting. I hope it works for you! My approach is to serve the business as it is today, to be the trusted ears that made Sigma Sound Studios special. That’s the business model I adopted and the business model”

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4. Mike Tarsia said... on Nov 23, 2010 at 11:38PM

“I adopted and the business model that keeps Mike Tarsia Recording busy.

PS you asked for our gold records and awsard to promote you biz and my fathe as graciuos enough to provide them..

ACTIONS AND RESULTS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS AMD I AM PROUD THAT WE ARE ON THE WALK OF FAME AND THAT MR GAMBLE RECOGNIZED SIMA AND MY FATHER'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE "SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA" READ UP.. WE HAD MANY "FIRSTS AT SIGMA AND MANY GREAT STAFF..TONY MASSERATTI WORKED THERE AND WE WERE TOO BUSY TO FIT IN BOB CLEARMOUNTAIN

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5. Mike Tarsia said... on Nov 23, 2010 at 11:48PM

“sorry for the tyops ..you get the gist and the quote was from JOE..he did all he could to help you continue the SIGMA legacy ..he even provide our awards for your walls..I find it a affront to hear your statements

JOE TARSIA and the great staff of engineers we had.. both creative and technical.. warranted us in inclusion the book "TEMPLES OF SOUND"

Belive in a meritious society and nor demerits and my wishes will be for you to suceed ..
Any way I can help ..I am available

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6. Today's Musician said... on Nov 24, 2010 at 11:43AM

“Man - Desperation is a stinky cologne...

The music BUSINESS (I use the word loosely) continues to die a painful death, but these knuckle heads keep trying to wow artists with their name dropping & false appearances.

A NOTE FROM THE COLLECTIVE, "NEW ARTISTS":

We develop our own budgets, we have our own studios, we market our own records, we book our own shows. We're savvy & informed. We can smell BS from a mile away, because we grew up in a new industry that requires self development, skepticism, & personal responsibility.

When we work with other people it's because we respect their craft, their talents, their integrity... We trust them. And that's it, nothing more matters to us.

A NOTE TO THOSE WHO WANT OUR BUSINESS:

Try taking down all golds/platinums from long before you were born, spend time with us, prove YOUR personal value to us, be respectful, & most importantly don't blow smoke... We deal with smoke blowers on the daily.”

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7. Leonardo said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 02:26PM

“School em Mike. School em. Computers have no tone. and i love computers! Drew is right, its the the business model, not the gear, that is dead. See U at the next Phila Recording meeting.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jan 2, 2012 at 03:55PM

“just graduated from SAE Institute in Amsterdam, Netherlands.. I want to make great music sound better-that would be living my dream. But first a need a job... /i am willing to work at NO SALARY to prove my worth..would appreciate a reply. David Scott”

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