Joel Plaskett, Halifax's Rick Rubin, Showed Us His Analog Studio
I had never heard the word 'reverberant' so many times in one sitting, until I visited Joel Plaskett and Thomas Stajcer's analog studio. Here, sitting in front of Plaskett’s massive Rupert Neve Designs 5088 32-channel console I'
I had never heard the word 'reverberant' so many times in one sitting, until I visited Joel Plaskett and Thomas Stajcer's analog studio. Here, sitting in front of Plaskett’s massive Rupert Neve Designs 5088 32-channel console I've started to hear it so much that the word sounds made up. It's the centrepiece of New Scotland Yard, Plaskett’s one-room recording joint in an old storehouse in the middle of downtown Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
"This console used to belong to Usher, based on the serial number," Plaskett says, his long legs and arms crossed, "Isn't that funny? I know this could do some really amazing sounding hip-hop.”
Stajcer chimes in: "We also got this recently," he says, showing off an SP1200 sampler circa 1987, "This is the sound of early New York hip-hop, like DJ Premier or Pete Rock. It's like going back to DOS, though, it only takes floppy disks." We make fun of old shit for a minute and I can’t believe I’m hanging out with Plaskett, one of the best living Canadian songwriters. He’s also an advocate for the preservation of cool buildings, so in accordance, he’s created his own. He reminds me of a high-school music teacher talking with his hands and weaving technical knowledge into something quirky but completely understandable.
For years, the rock and roller self-recorded his albums and produced dozens of vinyl releases through his indie imprint, New Scotland Records at Old Scotland Yard, a small shed studio close to his house nearby.
In 2013, he started extensive renovations on the half-underground, one-story former fur warehouse with the intention of creating a commercial, for-rent studio. It’s as much a risk as a profit venture. Not even a year into the thing and New Scotland Yard has been nominated for a 2014 Music Nova Scotia Award. Plaskett also got a Producer of the Year nomination in part for Mo Kenney’s new album In My Dreams.
But Plaskett’s busy tour schedule has allowed him to take a step back from production. This is where Stajcer comes in. For $50 an hour, he offers engineering, production or both. And so far, a handful of artists have booked and recorded with him. I can see why: it was cool as hell to touch all Plaskett’s stuff.
The space is welcoming with a cozy but recordable lobby; it’s an Arizona-inspired chill-zone with a pool table and Plaskett’s original album artwork. Hundreds of records from his personal collection line one wall and his platinum records line the other. The studio itself is one thousand square feet with high ceilings and cork walls, packed with character instruments and Plaskett’s favourite equipment. "You know 'Superstition,' that Stevie Wonder song? We have a clav here now with that sound. We use it all the time. It's nice to have instruments that are unique to the studio because they show up on records and it's the studio’s signature stamp on a song," Plaskett says, strumming his 1928 tenor guitar. Actually, he keeps most of his 20 guitars here, along with his vintage amps, organs, drum kits, basses and his shiny 2009 Juno Award. I had earlier grabbed it and then waved it around like Drake just presented it to me.
“I’d say the studio is open to working with anybody," Plaskett says, looking around the room, "It would be great to get busy. I brought in a bunch of projects last year so all winter we were going full-tilt. We realized the more interesting and diverse acts we get in here, the more experience Thomas is going to gain, and that'll just add to the currency of the studio, you know? It would be really exciting for us to figure out how we’d capture a metal band in here. We’d be into it. We want to see what the space can do.”
Plaskett dreams of a diverse clientele and he describes the studio as multi-purpose. Stajcer also takes commissions on mixing pre-recorded albums as just one more opportunity to use that console.
"The rate somewhat inexpensive, although it adds up if you're trying to book it for 10 days, but we're able to record very well and quite quickly, especially for young artists who want a strong debut sound," says Stajcer, new to Nova Scotia from Ontario after working at Galaxy Studios in Belgium. He hooked up with Plaskett via sound engineer Charles Austin (Super Friendz) and it’s been a complementary partnership.
"I am useless with a computer. I don't even want to touch them,” laughs Plaskett, “But I know how to align the tape machines.” He says Stajcer’s technical proficiency is an asset to the studio’s focus on analog.
"We try to keep recordings on tape as long as we can," Plaskett says, launching into music-nerd mode, "We record to a quarter-inch reel and convert it to a digital signal but we're using analog outboard gear to effect it, then we send a 2-track mix back to the quarter-inch and that small reel of tape becomes the master. It just means there's one less step to get into the digital world, which keeps the signal path cleaner." Most of Plaskett’s albums were recorded in analog, which is ideal for his preference for vinyl.
"It gets kind of technical here but we have a clasp down there that syncs the tape machine in ProTools," he says, "So basically, you can record in analog with all the nuances of digital. It doesn't change the method but it changes the sound. The tape is way warmer than the digital path. That’s how we like it.”
"We also didn't want to be limited by any one sound," Stajcer adds, gesturing to the console. They’re excited that the open layout of the space allows for dedicated off-the-floor recording with any size band: "It's probably not quite big enough for a large string section," Plaskett suggests, "But it's not far off."
Plaskett’s been working on a new record of his own in the studio’s downtime: “People are recording at home these days, but I still love the idea of going to record somewhere. It feels special. I like recording at home, too, but in a studio the focus and energy changes and then ultimately the product changes.”
This all seems so personal for Plaskett and I feel like I’ve stumbled into his secret fortress. He could have built studio anywhere and for much cheaper. But Dartmouth and Halifax is his muse and stay ever-present in his work. This studio is a chance for anyone to experience Plaskett’s sources of inspiration.
“I think there are lots of bands who would like to come to Halifax and make an album,” Plaskett says, “The scene here is attractive, we’re right by the ferry, there’s great food nearby and there’s studio apartment. It’s my desire that this studio can be part of this community because it is such great community.”