Grant Avenue Studio, based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, is a prestigious, fabled, and legendary studio originally built by the brothers Bob and Daniel Lanois [Tape Op #37, #127]. In 1985, musician and engineer/producer Bob Doidge bought the studio; he has since kept up the quality and continues to maintain an excellent reputation. Folks such as David Bottrill [#19], Robin Aube, and Mark Howard [#134] have called the studio home at times, and for the past 18 years Amy King has been working there, continuing the tradition of world-class engineers and producers. She constantly lends a unique, professional approach to the sessions that occur there, and a background in psychology helps keep her aware. Her list of credits is extensive, having worked with artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, The Tea Party, So Long Seven, and Tuba4. Additionally, she has also been involved with the philanthropic Make Music Matter music healing program.
You're originally from Newfoundland. You were taking psychology in school, and then you took a totally different turn into engineering.
Yeah. I always had an interest in music, ever since I can remember. I feel becoming a recording engineer/ producer is something that one trains for their entire life, and even once they become one it will forever be a learning experience. How many other careers on the planet give that opportunity? I did go to Recording Arts Canada, but I view it rather as a waste of time and money. The benefit of it was introducing me to Bob – as he was one of the lecturers – so I wouldn't have been an unsolicited resume when the time came. Prior to RAC, I did some university in other fields to appease my folks – psychology, philosophy, and naval architecture – but from childhood I trained to be a musician; classical piano and every instrument I could get my hands on. I started messing around with equipment and electronics – it also helped that my dad is an electrician who loved teaching me. I became involved in the sound system and music program crew at church. Growing up in the early '90s, I was mostly buying rock albums, and I loved them. I started dissecting sounds and effects, and anything I heard I'd wonder about. I knew from reading album credits that this was something I wanted to have my name in. The older I get, the more I look back on life and see so many scenarios that prepared me for this career. Scenarios that are worth so much more than formal education.
You studied naval architecture?
Boat building and oil rigs. I thought it was fun and I enjoyed it, academically, but I knew where my heart was. I'm so anti-recording school now, but it did give me opportunity and connection. My goal was to take a class and move back to Newfoundland to start my own studio, but I felt the need to send out some resumes here. I did that, and Bob Doige called me back. Grant Avenue was right in the middle of doing a Gordon Lightfoot record, when Gord had had a stomach aneurism. I never did move back to Newfoundland to start my own place. I got involved in a lot of projects here pretty quickly.
Grant Avenue has always had a high quality standard of engineer. What does Bob look for in engineers?
People will automatically assume that you get hired based on a course or great technical knowledge in this field. When they hired me, Bob said one of the biggest turn offs about my resume was the fact that I had taken a recording course. It took me a while, maybe a couple of years here, before I realized where he was coming from on that. The reason he hired me was because I had classical piano training; I knew how to read music, and that's a great skill to have. I knew how to solder; also a very good skill to have in this business. And psychology; that's the biggest reason he hired me, as I had one or two years of basic psychology knowledge. That is needed on a daily basis. He could have taught anybody how to learn the console and the gear. You can learn that from a book. But how to deal with people, deal with artists – with a singer who's having a bad day – and then how to deal with all the dynamics that are going on in a band itself – you need to be able to navigate that.
You've been here for how many years?
It'll be 18 in September 2020.
You're the longest-standing engineer here, right?
Other than Bob, yeah.
Could you describe the vibe of the studio?
I could write a book about that. When these guys [Bob Lanois and Daniel Lanois] decided to move the studio here in the '70s, at the time they were recording in their mom's basement in Ancaster [Ontario, Canada]. They outgrew that situation. They were working on projects with Raffi and Bruce Cockburn there. I'm sure it was a huge pain for them to convert this building from a house into an operating recording studio. They had to move plumbing and electrical. The number of miles of cable in this building for audio is insane. Their decision to put it here has made a huge impact on how people feel about it and why they like to come here. Aside from the history, the feeling when you walk in the front door is like you're coming home. Making music is such an intimidating process for a lot of people; even people who have been doing it for a long time. If they can do it in an environment that feels like their own living room, it takes down that wall. We feel sight line and body language among band members is important. The layout of the studio allows everybody to see each other's faces and read each other's body language. That certainly adds to the musicality of a performance. That has a lot to do with the charm of this place. We are pretty steadfast in that it's all analog gear, for the most part. That went out of fashion after some time, but it's back in trend and has come full-circle with the resurgence of vinyl and whatnot. We're finding that people are wanting to come here because of our old tube microphones, as well as the analog console. Most of our outboard gear is analog. Strange as it probably sounds, I feel this place is a living, breathing thing. Anybody else who has worked here probably feels the same way. It's so embedded in our fibers, at this point. We have been operating here since 1976, and I hope it stays that way for another 42 years or more.
You use a lot of analog gear still, but you use RADAR for tracking too?
Yeah. When I first started here, unfortunately they had just stopped using 2-inch tape for the everyday sessions because digital had come around. They were using Tascam DA-78s when I started, which I hate. They were terrible. Three machines running eight tracks apiece. The sync errors that I'd get every morning; I don't ever want to relive it. In 2005 we converted to RADAR, which is a Canadian-made digital hard drive [recorder] by iZ Technology. We had one of the first professional studio-grade ones here. We are on our second unit, and that's what we're still running now. Bob says it's the closest sound to 2-inch tape. That's what people are after, and operating it is very similar.
It operates in a linear fashion?
The transport system is still just play, stop, fast forward, and rewind. It does have some small editing capabilities. There are newer versions, which I haven't worked on yet, that are running Pro Tools in tandem with the operating system.
If you get called to do gigs in other studios, are you versatile on other systems? Would you be able to jump in on a Pro Tools session?
Not with the level of confidence I have here. For the most part, if anyone calls to work with me specifically, unless they're out of province or something, I ask if they would consider coming here. This is my wheelhouse. Doing sessions at other studios certainly requires some time to acclimatize to the gear, the room(s), the politics, and the overall vibe. Because I've been at Grant for so long most of my artists want to work here, so it's great for me. I have the technology portion down to a science, where I don't have to take any focus off of the artist ever, unless a problem arises that needs attention. If I were to go to another place to do a session, many studios are software based or in-the-box, and I don't want to be using a mouse or dealing with any pull-down/sub menus when I'm recording. I want my eyes and ears straight ahead, so I can gauge the artist's frame of mind through their facial expressions and body language. Plus, if an artist or a band are on the live floor, playing and they glance in at me – if my attention was on a screen or on anything but them, I believe that insinuates a sense of disinterest. At Grant, our RADAR can operate without a screen, and all of my tape levels, monitor levels, pans, EQs, sends, and so on are right in front of me when facing forward. The only time I have to turn my attention is if I glance to my left for a moment to check on any outboard gear I've patched in. I am confident and quick enough with our setup that if I have a band coming in to listen to a few takes of a tune, and I know for a fact there are some edits to do, I can have those done whilst the artist/band are putting down their instruments and are en route to the control room. If I was anywhere else, it would take me a while to be confident with the kind of workflow I am fortunate enough to have here. I am doing some mobile recording, so with that I'll use Zoom's LiveTrak [L-12]; the quality is outstanding. I'll use those for mobile, and I bring it back here to mix on our analog system.
You recently had some Massey Hall gigs [in Toronto], recording Gordon Lightfoot live. Was that with the Zoom system?
It was a totally different setup for those. With the Massey shows there's often a video aspect as well, and that gets outsourced to different companies. This last one we did was being covered by a crew doing a documentary. We subcontract Doug McClement at LiveWire [Remote Recorders] to provide the backline gear for us for that gig. He'll bring in his preamps and live mixing console. We take our feeds from the stage that we run into RADAR. We do a live mix using Doug's board that we send Gord home with, so he can listen to it that night if he wants. Then we do the final mix on our system here at the studio.
Do you have any particular gear at the studio that you always go to?
My favorite compressor, and it has been for quite some time, is the Universal Audio LA-3A, as well as their 2-610 [tube preamp]. As for outboard effects, I'm a delay junkie. I like the older ones, because I like that lo-fi delay that the older Korgs have. Anything that's a plug-in or computer-based is almost too perfect. For reverb, I like the EMT 250 or 240. In terms of microphones, I'm a sucker for the old tube mics.
Neumann U 47s and whatnot?
I am. It's cliche for me to say that – because it's what we have here – but I get to use them every day. I know them and know them well. They sound great.
Have you perfected how to get sounds out of Grant Avenue, or do you feel like there's still something new to learn all the time?
One of the cool things about doing this for a living is that every day you could possibly be learning a whole gamut of new skills, if you're willing to do so. I've been here a long time, but even just last week I was dealing with sounds in the drum room that I've never heard before. In that case it was based on weather and humidity level changes in the building. I'll never learn all the nuances in this building, and I'm cool with that. That's part of the fun.
What are your clients like here?
Here's one week: On Monday I had a country band. Tuesday, an indigenous drum circle. Wednesday, opera. Thursday, jazz. Friday was classical piano, and the weekend was heavy metal. It is a giant cross section of every different type of music. Lots of indie rock. Lots of jazz. With that comes every different type of personality you could possibly imagine. It's funny, I've never been a big listener of instrumental jazz, but I enjoy working on those sessions. I try to make myself happy, and hopefully my artists will be happy with it as well. I'm fortunate enough that a lot of the artists I get to work with are already coming in with a well-crafted song. The skeleton is already pretty great. I'm a sucker for the Phil Spector "wall of sound," and I love the way that Coldplay records sound; yet I also love intimate single instrument and vocal albums as well. The honesty of some of the early recordings, when they didn't have any multitrack to work with and just one mic in a room; I love that. No amount of production can make a bad song great.
You've worked with Gordon Lightfoot quite a few times. Was there any particular challenge you were presented with? He had been in a million studios before; he probably had his own way of working.
Absolutely. Gord likes things in a certain way. The first day I met him it was, "Okay, Amy; we need to make sure that his chair is exactly where it was the last time he came in, and the ashtray has to be exactly where it was." I can understand that philosophy, and I respect it. When I was a kid, my dad listened to Lightfoot. From the sound of the voice, I always pictured a big "lumberjack" looking man – almost a Paul Bunyan character. When I came on board at Grant, they had been right in the middle of recording Gord's album Harmony. This was when he took quite ill and was basically out of commission for a long time. I remember when he was out of his coma and ready to get back to work; he was supposed to come to Grant to discuss proceeding with the album. When he came in, I didn't think it was him – I thought it was a random slight guy walking in the door. From my many experiences with him now though, I can honestly say he certainly packs a Paul Bunyan-sized personality into that slight frame. I have become extremely familiar with Gord's catalog over time, and when I get to sit in the same room or take a phone call from him, it is still quite surreal. Bob has been excellent in giving me so many great opportunities, but allowing me to work alongside him with Lightfoot certainly is a highlight. Last year, Lightfoot was to be the final performer at Massey Hall before it closed for renovations, so he called us to come in and record the show. It was July 1st [Canada Day], and I can't think of a more Canadian thing to have done than record Canada's legendary Gordon Lightfoot at the iconic Massey Hall on Canada day! I have many stories and thoughts on Lightfoot, but one stands out: We needed some serious renovations that we couldn't afford; otherwise the overhead cost of running this place would have bankrupted us within a year. We weren't eligible for any funding, grants, or loans, so we started a crowdfunding campaign to help. Gord came into the studio (at no charge to us) and played a show for 12 ticket holders. We advertised the show and it sold out in one day. Due to his generosity, we were able to take care of a huge portion of what needed to get done. During that lovely intimate show, when he started into "If You Could Read My Mind," I looked out at the audience and there wasn't a dry eye. Grown men were openly weeping – it was certainly quite a moment.
When it comes to mixing, do you have a certain approach when you begin a mix?
If I'm working with an artist who wrote their song on a specific instrument, I will usually start with that. But every song has its own way that you'd want to approach it. I couldn't really give a blanket answer for that. From early on, I learned the mystery behind the "faders up" rough mix at the end of the session to send the artist home with. So often those first instinct reference mixes are something that can't be captured again. Always keep a high resolution version of that rough mix somewhere – sometimes it ends up being "the one," and it is awful if the only version of it exists as an MP3.
Have you met any of the previous engineers, like Mark Howard or David Bottrill?
Yes – both. I was a kid of the '90s. When I started to listen to music, it was Top 40. Once my parents started accepting the fact I was listening to non-church music, I started to get into Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, Tool – everything that was coming out in that time period. I was in love with that scene. I fell in love with the sound of Tool. I remember seeing David's name on the albums, but I never really connected the two until six years in. We were doing a console repair and there was this handwriting on the inside of the back panel, where all the solder connections were. I asked, "Who's handwriting is that?" I know Dan's, and I know Bob's. Bob said, "That's a guy named David Bottrill. He worked here. This was his first studio." I just about hit the floor, because this guy is literally my sonic hero. I've met all sorts of bands I grew up listening to, but I was only starstruck when I met David Bottrill. I was such a giddy fool; I probably made a complete idiot out of myself.
Grant Avenue was built by Daniel Lanois and his brother Bob, like you noted earlier. You've worked a bit with Daniel Lanois, right? What was that like? Inspiring?
Stressful! He has, without a doubt, one of the most recognizable sounds and styles of our lifetime. Whether or not one is a fan of his particular sonic approach, it is undeniable that he is a very talented man. I still get nervous before any session, even with folks I have worked with a lot, but with guys like him that feel of "nerves" certainly is heightened. He knows what he wants, he knows how to get it; he expects the same, and quickly. He spent a long time converting this building into a studio. He knows the "nooks and crannies" of the gear, of the room – basically the molecular structure of the whole place! I sat right seat to him a few years back. At one point he was asking for sources to be patched, routed, and cross-patched that I had never done before, but I figured it out without looking like I had to figure it out. It's times like that when the words of Bob Doidge are a constant voice in my head: "Unlike surgeons, don't worry. If we mess up, no one dies."
In one of the photos on your website, you and Bob are standing outside with Daniel and Emmylou Harris.
They came in for a couple days to run some rehearsal tapes and workshop some new material. Emmylou is an inspiration for anybody in the industry, regardless of if you're a woman or not. Her command of a room full of musicians, many who could be deemed very intimidating, proved she has their respect.
You mentioned earlier that you're anti-recording school.
I am. I'm sure what they're teaching is useful in certain aspects. But if you're lucky enough to get out of a recording school and get a job in a recording studio – there aren't many left – what they don't teach you is what really matters. The ability to deal with people. The ability to write legibly. How to clean a toilet. They don't teach you any of the real-life skills that you're going to need on your first day of work. School seems to be all about gear; not much about ears. Gear knowledge can be learned from a book, and even getting hands-on experience at school is not guaranteed, due to class sizes. You can't learn that way. You have to get out there and do it. Like I said, having gone to a recording course was almost a deterrent for me getting hired here. Bob said, "You start out thinking that you already know too much, and really, you know nothing." In school you think, "Okay, here's an acoustic guitar. My book says I should put the microphone here and then roll off this and that frequency." But the reality is that you need to get down there, listen to the instrument with your ears, and then decide where to put the microphones. On every acoustic guitar, it's going to be different. They don't teach you how to use your ears or your own judgment, or the fact that it takes time. The 10,000 hour rule certainly rings true!
They also should teach disassociation of eyes and ears. We're such a visual-driven society. One thing that I did want to talk about, and I'm probably generalizing, but a lot of people will show up and their ability to play their own instruments has completely declined over the course of the last decade or so. People have become so reliant on technology to fix their mistakes. People don't know how to tune their guitar by ear. That's a big problem. Where did effort and dedication go? How about singing without assuming the use of Auto-Tuning? That human aspect and that heart; that's what translates to a listener. You can't emulate that. Technology can be great – and I know it's going to keep getting better and better – but we need to be able to learn how to turn it off. I'm fortunate enough that, for the most part, the people I get to work with want the realness and the human aspect. Most of the people I work with don't even want to play to a metronome, so the thought of quantizing anything is completely out of the question. I love that, to a certain degree. It's so musical, in one sense, if you can do it.