Laying Down Detroit Sounds

There’s an alchemy that happens in the recording studio. It’s a place where sound meets vision — where meticulous craft butts heads with wild-eyed artistry. Studios are also often the pivot points around which a music scene can revolve.

Detroit, of course, has a storied history of this magic happening. From John Lee Hooker’s after-hours recordings at United Sound in the ’50s and the sounds pumping out of the factory that was Hitsville USA in the ’60s to the racket rising from basements, backrooms and converted spaces in the ’80s and ’90s where producers, soundmen and engineers cut their chops making records for would-be next generation stars.

A sampling of the current studios representing the city of Detroit bears out a connection between past, present and future.

Detroit’s sonic reputation

In fact, in 2004, the connection between Detroit’s past and its future was strengthened when attorney Roger Hood and his wife Aretha re-opened United Sound in its original location in Midtown on Second near I-94. Simply enough, the Hoods bought the space from the city. It had been disused and rat-infested for years. The Hoods saved United from that fate – and, in the process, turned it into a steady business.

Now, they’ve got both Studio A and storied Studio B up and running recording, the future sound of the city. This includes everything from critically-acclaimed Ann Arbor afrobeat orchestra Nomo to Christian hip-hop artists like Detroit’s CPR. Those two points of reference – a 10-plus member improvisation-friendly band and a young hip-hop artist – help explain part of the reason studios are still critical even in the current do-it-yourself-enabled cultural landscape. This is an age where, according to fellow downtown producer Jim Diamond of Ghetto Recorders, “you need to keep in mind every other band has a home recording studio in their practice space these days as well.”

Studios are magnets for the kind of folks on the front line of establishing a city’s sonic reputation.
Heck, they are oft-times the architects of that rep. Such is certainly the case with Ghetto Recorders’ Jim Diamond. For the last 10 years, Diamond has operated Ghetto as a one-man operation in a former poultry processing plant adjacent to the State Theatre, recording the bands that have become icons of Detroit’s recent rock ‘n’ roll visibility like the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs, the Witches and others. Recent projects include work with locals like the blues-punk trio Cuckold as well as bands from Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and Seattle who all traveled to the D to get his sound after either hearing it on one of the MP3s on his site or reading the studio name on one of his high visibility clients’ liner notes.

Diamond’s philosophy is straightforward: “(I want) to give bands an opportunity to record in a relaxed atmosphere, so they feel more like they're in a live performance or rehearsal situation as opposed to a doctor's office, which most studios seem to feel like,” he says.

Jam on it

That feel for the live jam also guides the work that comes out of the White Room at State and Griswold. White Room’s got a solid track record and an enviable longevity. Michael Nehra opened the studio in his parents basement in 1987 and it is now run by engineer John Smerek. According to Smerek, their success is due in part to the unparalleled mix of vintage gear and the ability to be creative utilizing the studio’s 6,700 square feet of recording space. The location works out well, too, when a label wants to set up a band from the Midwest with a New York or Los Angeles producer, White Room meets them halfway – literally.

But what keeps the lights on is that the White Room is, says Smerek, “all about any type of live music.”

White Room’s recent-release CV is impressive and bears out Smerek’s live-music-first proclamations. From the green-bottle winter country blues of the Deadstring Brothers and the warmth of singer-songwriter Ben Cyllus to the raucous Detroit Cobras and the supercharged rock swagger of The Paybacks, Smerek and company’s work at the White Room lets the music speak for itself.

Engineering creativity

Not far away up Woodward Avenue is Warn Defever’s Brown Rice studio. Open for just a few years now and steadily gaining clientele, Defever’s been hard at work helping craft sounds for both up-and-coming and established independent artists such as Loretta and the Larkspurs, the aforementioned NOMO, Ida, PA and Defever’s own band His Name is Alive, among others.

 Despite the constant stream of city-borne distractions – everything from ambulance sirens to street folk showing up uninvited to sit in on congas during a recording session – Defever’s business has been steady.

“The demand for friendly, creative engineers and studios will always be around,” he figures. “However, I think musicians are finally get hip to the idea that an overpriced ‘professional’ studio with a long list of crappy sounding major label clients that made truly shitty records is not worth the effort.”

It’s this kind of demand that would move a young sonic entrepreneur to open their own space.

One of the newest studios in town is High Bias, owned and operated by engineer/producer Chris Koltay. Cincinnati native Koltay officially opened in October of 2005 after laboring over renovating his Corktown building by himself, by hand. "I did buy the place for really cheap. So I was able to sink a lot of money into gear for the studio.”

His first clients were up-and-coming indie-rock outfit Rescue. “They waited a long time for me to get this place open,” he chuckles. “They asked me to do their record a year and a half ago.”

“When I moved here, nobody was moving here,” says Koltay. “No one’s moving here now! But once you’re here, there’s no place else I’d rather be. People can do things here. It’s a place for misfits to do what they want to do.”

Koltay figures he’s got a solid niche in the Detroit rock studio world. Somewhere between the aesthetic of Diamond’s Ghetto and the higher-end prices of White Room. His other high profile clients thus far are the critically-acclaimed artful-garage-rockers SSM who have pricked up the ears of the New York Times and other wags.

“I moved here to do this. I figured there was a niche I could fill. The SSM and the Rescue record, I don’t think you could make a records that sound like those any other place in the city.”

Koltay’s vibe is guided by his desire to create a comfortable, creative atmosphere where acts can both explore their sounds and capture a moment. To that end, he says, “I don’t want people to feel like when they’re in the studio they have to worry about the clock. There’s no clocks, there’s no phones.”

And he figures his rates and location across the street from one of the city’s better barbeque restaurants (Slows) and a homey dive bar (LJ’s) make High Bias an attractive joint for bands to swing by while on tour to document their new road-tested jams.

“All I wanna do is be busy,” he says, simply. On his upcoming docket are records from Lee Marvin Computer Arm, Shoe, Hoss Burly and other bands.

Business and sonic pleasures

Nestled among the tree-lined side streets of downtown’s cozy Harmonie Park is the aptly-named Harmonie Park Studios. Open since 1996 and run by brothers Mark and Brian Pastoria with in-house producer Michael J. Powell, HP has gained a reputation nationwide thanks to high-profile clients like Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops and Kirk Franklin and welcomed marquee-names-in-the-producer-world like Rodney Jerkins and others to create Grammy Award-winning jams (Mark won a Grammy for his work on Franklin’s track “A House is Not A Home” from the recent Luther Vandross tribute album).

They’ve carved out a successful enterprise in a highly-competitive environment. Detroit has its fair share of advertising production studios, but Harmonie Park manages to mix the artistry of original work with contract production work for the local ad biz.
“A studio is a hard thing to open these days,” says Brian Pastoria.
“Our studio is mostly for our own work and we happen to work with associates who need a studio. [Audio editing software] ProTools has changed everything. If you don’t do advertising work or you don’t work with clients who have budgets it’s hard to maintain the overhead. Most local musicians and artists who are great…don’t have a lot of money.”
Keeping the Balance

Indeed, some quick-penned pundit once wrote that when the nation’s economy catches a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia. So how does a business like a recording studio survive – especially when a recording studio is something which some could see as an extension of the extravagance of supporting the arts in tough times?

Detroit’s sound architects have varied strategies. At Ghetto, Diamond is the sole employee with gear he owns outright in a studio with less-expensive rent. So he keeps his overhead low. Defever, similarly, is his own sole employee in a one-room operation.

Some, like the White Room, get creative to help keep the business flowing. Since musicians are often not averse to late-night hours, and since the wee hours are usually not booked for recordings, White Room is able to offer up “After Hours at the White Room,” where, Smerek says, bands can record at a deeply-discounted rate.

For their part, in addition to the commercial work, the Pastorias and Harmonie Park also keep themselves firmly rooted in their neighborhood and their city, supporting the neighborhood summer concerts and becoming a proud part of the community in which they live and work.

 It’s exactly this mix of art, commerce and community that unifies the studios that support Detroit’s vibrant and varied music scene. They’re all, to one degree or another, interested in not just staying in business, but doing so here in this funky, funky city, capturing its funky, funky sounds. From the Hoods’ embracing United’s legacy to still-working ’60s Detroit R&B stalwarts like Nathaniel Mayer and Andre Williams recording at White Room and Ghetto, respectively, the past is prelude to a future that looks to thrive in Detroit’s recording studios.

Or, seeing as sound engineers typically speak in more concise terms, let’s leave the summation to the professionals. In this case, White Room’s Smerek: “There are some fantastic studios around, and hopefully artists and bands will continue to see the value in working with professionals in a commercial facility that was built as a recording studio.”

For an annotated trip down memory lane, click here.
That’s the Soulful Detroit tour of recording studios past. Much of United Studio’s back-story can be found there. If you’re a true aficionado of R&B and pop music past, be prepared to be alternately inspired by what once was, and depressed by modern-day photos of the sites where so much of our city’s cultural legacy lies anonymous, unmarked, burned out or disappeared. It’s an apt reminder in general of the ephemeral nature of pop culture and a thought-provoking place to ponder how Detroit specifically regards its heritage.


Brian Pastoria, Bill Donahue, Mark Pastoria of Harmonie Park

United Sound

Jim Diamond

Chris Koltay

Interiors of Harmonie Park

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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