Researching Toronto Music Studios

Advertisement from Billboard Magazine 24 Nov. 1979

In Summer 2021, I was part of a project that explored the functions and the fluidity of spaces which sound engineers utilized for recording music. This was research that was to complement a book, ‘The Sonic Heritage’, from the Oslo School of Architecture & Design. Since I hailed from Toronto, Canada, I was asked to identify studios in Toronto that operated from the 1960s to the 2000s. The goal was to find unique examples of music studio spaces that did not alter their interior appearance, or layout, but which adapted to the spaces for the recording process. Shortly into the research, it became very clear that there was a rich and sometimes forgotten Toronto music history.  

One of the first studios I researched was RCA Studios, which was the original CHUM radio live recording station from 1947 to 1954. The building was purchased by RCA to function as a recording and mastering studio. Another notable studio was the Nimbus 9 (Sound Stage) that was founded in 1967 by the Canadian jingle writers Jack Richardson, Alan Macmillan, Ben McPeek and Peter Clayton. The recording studio was the first to have rotating walls, that could change from reflective to absorbent surfaces, depending on the demands of the recording project. Finally, many musicians remarked on the rural studio at Puck’s Farm. This property provided a menagerie of attractions, including a petting zoo, while also operating as a music studio. A 150-year-old barn on the property in King County, Ontario, was converted into a music studio that could be rented out to bands. The owner of this property, Frazier Mohawk, had previous experience in the music industry and recorded in Los Angeles before buying the property in the early 1990s. 

Overtime, these studios faced similar financial hardships, as the demands for space gradually declined and as recording technology improved. Gone were the days when studios had to be the size of concert halls to fit the large number of musicians needed to record songs. This did, however, showcase an extension of the functionality of spaces, when recording studios had to adapt their practices to keep their studios afloat. These adaptations included increasing the rental hourly prices, or adopting new recording practices to attract a wider genre of musicians. For example, RCA studios was used for jazz recordings and was a well-known Rock studio, where the drummer Neil Peart from the band RUSH and Gordon Lightfoot were recorded.  Studios that were once architectural gems and technological giants, such as the famed Manta Studios on Ontario Street, the first all-digital recording studio in Canada, had been reduced to rubble in the 1990s, to make way for new condominium developments. Many studios were forced to close or move. Smaller studios could not compete with the demands from the music industry and were overwhelmed by the higher budgeted recording studios.

What this research underscored for me was the adaptability of spaces that were converted into music recording spaces. Whether it was converting a live radio station, or a 150-year-old barn, these spaces and their functions were reconfigured to suit the needs of the recording studio. This in turn showcased a uniqueness that was attributed to Toronto’s music studios. Through their unremarkable appearances these studios flew under the radar but utilized their interior layout which aided in the construction of sounds which were unique to each studio. Though these studios are very few in number today, they still tell an important part of Toronto’s local music history and should continue to be acknowledged as the steppingstone for Canada’s music industry. 

For more information on this project, you can visit the Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/sonicheritagebook/.

Post by Andrew Northey for TINI Music Co-op, September 2022

Andrew Northey is a Masters candidate at the University of Guelph currently researching tourism history in the Scottish Border Counties during the Victorian Era.

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