“What does the music ask you to do? Not the band, not the client, not the producer, not even yourself. What does the music require?”
When we think of a recording studio, our minds might jump by default to the storied, big-budget studios of Nashville and L.A. that appear on movie screens. But like the Michelin star restaurants of the world, quality can often be found in unlikely places.
On the intersection of Main Street and Mystic Ave in Medford, Massachusetts, the Soul Shop, built and operated by Elio DeLuca and Patrick Grenham, stands as a working analog recording shrine with a commitment to providing an affordable studio experience whilst retaining world-class quality.
DeLuca is a man of many hats. He is a first-rate engineer, a multifarious piano and keyboard player, and an inspiringly opinionated Bostonian. I connected with him virtually to ask him about the story of his self-built studio and his approach to record making.
Operating since 2007, the Soul Shop came from a frustration that nothing of the sort existed in town—an analog recording studio in a spacious, live sounding room, for an affordable rate.
“Anywhere where you wanted to record to tape was $1000 a day,” DeLuca recalled. “Or, the places you could afford, the [tape] machine in the corner was like a fetish object, it wasn’t really a workhorse. People didn’t know how to use that shit.”
While many older pieces of gear such as tape machines have been relegated to the role of furniture objects as digital recording becomes the norm, DeLuca maintains a commitment to the seemingly old-fashioned ritual of analog recording. And he knows what he is doing.
“A tape machine is like a vintage car,” he says. “You can keep it in the garage and it looks good, but if you drive it everyday it will break down. You have to know how to fix it.”
DeLuca always had an apt visual metaphor at hand. The building itself, formerly a piano restoration shop, has been around for more than a century and a half. Continuing in the musical tradition of the building, Elio prides himself on converting it into a spacious, live sounding studio.
We ran through the differences and similarities between analog and digital recording. The main difference is that on tape, there is no Undo button. Once you’ve run out of tape, that’s it. The nature of digital recording allows one to hit that Undo button endlessly, or page through seven-hundred menus of synth sounds, for example.
Deploying another one of his visual metaphors, according to DeLuca, “Opening up the whole parameters of possibility, that’s enough rope to hang yourself.” He explained: “A little bit of limitation, I’ve always found that to be an advantage.”
The important takeaway is that even though the mindset may be different between the two mediums, good songwriting and good musicianship eclipses everything. As DeLuca lovingly put it: “How about you go out there and make a masterpiece. What’s stopping you? It’s not the medium, it’s not your choice of analog versus digital. I know that for a fact.”
Much of DeLuca’s philosophy in the studio involves eliminating artificialities in the recording process, striving to capture the most natural sound possible. A record-making trend developed in the 1980s suggested isolating musicians while playing so the sound from one instrument would not bleed into the microphone of another instrument. DeLuca, showing his subversive side, responds, “They’re not covered in fuckin’ blankets when they are on stage, and the drummer isn’t wearing headphones in a separate room looking at his bass player on a closed circuit T.V. when they are on stage, so lets just see if that’s necessary, and spoiler alert, it’s fuckin’ never necessary.”
For DeLuca, recording shouldn’t be some sterile, formulaic process. He sums up his approach poetically, “What does the music ask you to do? Not the band, not the client, not the producer, not even yourself. What does the music require?”
The Soul Shop houses loads of musical equipment, much of which DeLuca has found and restored himself, purchasing old, unloved pieces and returning them to their former glory. “I spent a lot of time finding deals on something that was busted and putting it back to stock, putting it back to working order,” he said.
The wall of vintage amplifiers, world-class microphones, an arsenal of keyboards, and a Steinway Model M grand piano are among the gems.
“It’s a big thing for me at the shop when someone comes in [that] it’s not a pile of stuff that’s all sort of barely there,” DeLuca added. “If you see something [in the shop], you’re gonna be able to use it.”
The studio has been hit hard by the pandemic, not having had a live session since March of 2020. DeLuca hopes to open his doors again as soon as it is safe to do so, and to put his impressive collection of gear back to use making music. The shop started as all analog, but has since expanded its capabilities to include digital recording as well. DeLuca is well versed in both mediums, but in keeping with the spirit behind the name of the Soul Shop, he first and foremost seeks to eliminate artificialities to allow the soul of the music to breathe, regardless of the medium in which it is recorded.
Tristan Geary is a jazz pianist and composer based in the Boston area. A recent graduate of Bard College in upstate NY, Tristan has been playing and composing for many years. His writing has appeared in Sound of Boston, The Dog Door Cultural, The Arts Fuse and GBH.