Tape Recorders

soul shopElio DeLuca (left) and Patrick Grenham pal around at the Soul Shop. Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

At their all-analog studio, Elio DeLuca and Patrick Grenham are assembling a legacy that lasts.

Elio DeLuca places a square, plastic box on a metal chair and clicks it open.

Inside is a reel of tape. DeLuca picks it up and places it on his tape machine. He quickly feeds the translucent tape around and through a series of knobs and holders before pressing a square button. Music begins to echo throughout the room.

This short ritual begins every session at the Soul Shop, an all-analog recording studio in Medford owned and operated by DeLuca and Patrick Grenham, both of Somerville. With its unique sound, custom gear and refined recording methods, the Shop is both a studio and a community for recording artists in the region.

soul shop

The idea for the Shop came from DeLuca and Grenham’s desire to record live music to tape without breaking the bank. “We wanted to record live to two-track tape, and nobody in Boston could do it or was willing to do it,” DeLuca recalls. “The studios that did have tape machines were renting out rooms to use them for, like, a thousand bucks a day.” They built the Shop in 2007 in a former piano restoration shop and began recording music in the space in 2008.

The Shop’s walls were built and designed by Grenham and DeLuca, who first met in high school. Grenham is a professional builder and has been constructing houses his entire life. Using traditional acoustic sound techniques, the men built the walls slightly slanted to avoid creating a dead-sounding space with no natural reverberation.

“It was a big priority for us to build a room that was very natural sounding,” says DeLuca. “A lot of modern studios are built from a 1970s, 1980s idea of a dead room that gives engineers a lot of control over the way things sound, but which also doesn’t allow the musicians to be performing in a comfortable, natural-sounding environment. It’s completely dependent on isolation, the use of headphones, the use of separate rooms for each musician and isolation booths. I find that to be an unnatural way of working. No one else, when they perform or listen to music, is operating in such a way.”

soul shop

DeLuca and Grenham would know, as they’re both musicians. DeLuca is a conservatory trained pianist. He plays with a number of local acts, including Blinders and Faces on Film, and he recently completed national and international tours with Titus Andronicus. Grenham has been playing guitar and singing for close to a decade. The two have played in several bands together, including Keys to the Streets of Fear, the New Lights and The Tony the Bookie Orchestra.

The Soul Shop has two rooms—a control room and a live room—both connected by a long hallway with a bathroom on one end and a kitchen station on the other. The control room is mainly DeLuca’s domain. It’s where his console, tape machines and outboard gear sit. (It’s also where the Shop mascot—Mike Bison, a stuffed animal American bison—permanently lives on the couch.) The two rooms share a wall that’s mainly consumed by a large window used to communicate between the two spaces.

The studio was set up to handle all types of music, from death metal to jazz. It’s also been used for voiceover work, and it’s where DeLuca composed the film score for Beyond the Wall, which premiered at the Independent Film Festival of Boston earlier this year.

soul shop

While construction was going on, the two men also began assembling gear, including the studio’s main Neotek console and a 16-track tape machine. In sound recording, each track holds one sound, like vocals or a bass line. Musicians can record tracks individually or several at once. A song is made by layering these tracks.

In analog, each track is on the physical tape. When you change something or make a mistake, it stays put. Unlike digital recording, there’s no undo button.

And yet, DeLuca always knew he wanted to work with tape at the Shop.

“[Tape] forces you to make decisions, forces you to operate in a certain way where you’re extraordinarily in tune with the music,” he notes. “There’s nothing to look at—you really have to use your ears. It sounds like a trite expression, but you’d be surprised how much of modern recording doesn’t involve people using their ears, looking at waveforms. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I feel like it does lead to a certain type of mindset and working methodology which is really anathema to the way I like to work.”

soul shop

Alongside the studio’s live room, the Shop has also become known for its custom-built analog gear.
“When I was a kid, my father used to always say, ‘Any idiot can do anything if they know how to read,’ so I got a tube manual,” Grenham recalls. “I had access to working with tube equipment, so I started playing around with it. You don’t learn anything from doing it right. Maybe someone did once. I don’t know who that guy is.”

Over the years, Grenham taught himself to build a wide variety of recording tools used at the Shop or sold to interested parties, including many of the amplifiers in the live room’s “amp wall” and other pieces of gear used by DeLuca in the control room when he’s recording bands. Grenham and DeLuca also regularly maintain and repair the majority of the gear in the studio.

“A big part of it is functionality,” DeLuca explains. “Even if you bought all the stuff off the shelf at the moment you started the place, things start to go, things start to break, age comes in. Also, there’s no modern equivalents to certain things. You cannot go to the store and buy a Hammond B3 organ.”

The Brooklyn-based cello and guitar duo Quarterly, formerly of Boston, has recorded two records at the Shop, including their first release done live to two-track tape. Chris DiPietro and Kristen Drymala say they recorded at the Shop because of its “amazing collection of vintage amps, hi-fidelity mics and … the tape machine itself.”

soul shop

But gear aside, DiPietro and Drymala chose the studio for another reason.

“Like the best local institutions, the Shop has certainly helped forge a community in the greater Boston area,” explains DiPietro. “It is not uncommon to see familiar faces at recording sessions, whether they’re lending a hand on a track or just passing through to chat. As an engineer, Elio keeps an ever-expanding rolodex of local talent which really cultivates collaboration in the Boston music scene.”

Nearly a decade after the studio opened, dozens of musicians have recorded in the space—and the client list continues to grow. In the near future, DeLuca and Grenham say they’ll be including a digital recording component to the studio to aid musicians who may be recording portions of their album in different studios—a common practice these days, according to DeLuca.

Still, the Shop will always be a place built on knowledge, forged with history and preserved with passion.

“I think we associate ourselves with some of the same guys that worked here years ago [building pianos],” says DeLuca, “who were local, crotchety Italian guys building something that mattered—and building something that lasted.”

More on the Soul Shop, including information on how to reserve space, can be found at soulshoprecording.com, on Facebook or on DeLuca’s personal website.

This story originally appeared in our September/October print edition, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.