Beyond marking a commercial and critical epoch for the band and arguably bringing the synthesizer into pop culture, Van Halen’s 1984 has the prominent distinction of being the only diamond-certified (10 million plus units sold) release recorded in a home studio. So perhaps it’s fitting that, in the era of bedroom hi-fi, the console that the group’s guitarist and creative driver Eddie Van Halen used to revolutionize recording resides not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or even The National Music Centre, but rather a coach house tucked quietly behind a Victorian home in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
“When it arrived, certain parts were being held together by duct tape and there were women’s numbers written in chalk all over it,” laughs Edouard Ratiarson, the current owner of the console, which, after some refurbishments, now sits in a sleek, space age covering inside the aptly named Coachouse studios.
A custom board originally built for United Western Studios – where the likes of Quincy Jones and David Bowie worked their magic – before being procured for Van Halen’s backyard set up, it’s one of several legendary consoles that have found an unlikely home in Canada. These include boards from Abbey Road (Jukasa Studios in the Six Nations reserve), AIR studios (The Warehouse in Vancouver, Subterranean in Toronto), Doppler (Halo in Hamilton, Ont.) and Headley Grange (Breakglass in Montreal), which the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Police, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd crafted classic albums on. As golden relics, they don’t come cheap. But in the democratized digital age of Pro-Tools, a classic, well-built console offers a chance to be rooted in sonic legacy; the chance to jam with the musical ghosts in the machine.
"If a piece of recording gear is considered tried and true, you usually try to acquire it as a studio owner,” says Breakglass’s Jace Lasek, who also plays in the band Besnard Lakes. “To tell you the truth, when we purchased our console in 2008, we had never really heard what it even sounded like, but we knew the pedigree and the desire for bands to want to record on a console like that. It imparts a texture and a colour that can really only be achieved by actual analog electronics.”
“Parts of Physical Graffiti were recorded on it, and allegedly it resided on Led Zeppelin’s plane for a period,” Lasek’s partner, James Benjamin, adds, recalling a session where someone paid to get a picture of cash spread out over the “Kashmir Neve.”
And in that way, it’s made for interesting board-fellows. “Some pretty special stuff has passed through it since,” Benjamin says. “Here Comes The Night off Arcade Fire’s Reflektor was recorded live off the floor during a secret performance/recording we hosted at the studio and, most recently I imparted some of the Neve magic to a Kaytranada’s single.”
Likewise, artists including Snoop Dogg, T.I., AC/DC, Elton John and R.E.M have all been lured to record in Canada by the mystique of the legacy console.
But pedigree aside, Coachouse’s Ratiarson says a legacy board provides an elegance and simplicity that digital tools are unsuited to offer, and speaks to a certain craftsmanship that has to be inherited.
The Van Halen console, by example, arrived by recommendation from Ratiarson mentor, the legendary engineer and producer Henry Hirsch (Lenny Kravitz, Madonna). A professor and digital design strategist by day, Ratiarson found Hersh in upstate New York and apprenticed on a board that came from Olympic Studios, where Led Zeppelin recorded Stairway to Heaven. “At the time, people were just throwing out older consoles,” Ratiarson recalls. “Henry refurbished them and created [a cottage industry] which brought the price up, but also created a new appreciation.”
Signal Corps Studio’s Arun Pandian, another Hirsch devotee and the current owner of the Stairway console, argues that a legacy console also offers a way to stick out. “We now live in an era where anyone can make music and everyone has access to the same tools. Having unlimited choices and options is never a great way to make art,” Pandian, who has worked with the likes of Mumford & Sons, Norah Jones and Lauryn Hill, says. “It is my belief that having limitations and obstacles to overcome forces you to make hard decisions on the front end and creates an environment in which creativity can flourish.”
Ratiarson agrees. Sliding a hand over the custom board, he explains that, like Eddie Van Halen, he was drawn to invest in a legacy console for its sonic authenticity. One which he hopes will draw a certain type of artist to Coachouse.
“The ghost in the machine is the purity,” he says, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It was built by Bill Putnam, who is known as the father of modern recording in the 1960s, so there’s a beautiful simplicity in the electronics. It’s designed for ease of use and no corners were cut. That’s the science part.”
“Then there’s the artistic and emotional side, which is all of these great musicians and producers had made these great records on it,” he continues. “You can literally say their electrons have passed through these circuits. That’s the side that makes you think about its vibe and collective energy. It’s the stuff that’s contained in it from the greats at United Western to Van Halen and now the stuff that’s going to happen in Toronto.”
As if he’s taking it all in real time, Ratiarson trails off for a moment before catching himself eyeing his console. “That’s awesome.”
Built by Bill Putnam in 1968 specifically for Hollywood’s United Western Recorders Studio 2, the United Artists console which now resides at Couchhouse Studio in Toronto has been pivotal to some of music history’s most important, cheesy and successful moments. Here are a few of its highlights:
1968: Daydream Believer, The Monkees; I Think I Love You, Partridge Family
“All the great jazz musicians of our time recorded on that console as studio musicians,” studio engineer Joe Sidore recalls. But the UA’s first certified hit, and a harbinger of things to come, was the breakout single from The Monkees, who recovered from the cancellation of their series by producing their most popular single in Studio 2. The Partridge Family would follow suit two years later.
1971-1977: Quincy Jones, various film scores
The man better known as Q used the UA console for multiple film and television scores throughout the 1970s, including for the landmark mini-series Roots.
1973: Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power (mixed by David Bowie)
After Stooges frontman Iggy Pop botched the initial mix of garage rock’s big bang, his pal David Bowie was brought in to remix the whole album in a single day. Bowie hunkered down at Studio 2, bashing out the influential mix in what he later recalled was “the most absurd situation I encountered while recording.”
1984-1986 Van Halen, 1984, 5150
Eddie Van Halen acquired the custom UA as part of a creative power move, setting it up in the backyard of his Los Angeles home so he could have more control over the direction of his band’s music. While engineer Donn Landee was setting the console up, Eddie began noodling on a keyboard, eventually landing on the signature sound that would define the band’s sixth album 1984 and its lead single Jump. Two years later and, tellingly, with a new lead singer, Van Halen released 5150, which was named after the studio, a reference to police code for a mentally disturbed individual.
1968: The Monkees - The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees
1969: The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band - Love Land
1970: The Partridge Family - The Partridge Family Album
1970: The Partridge Family - I Think I Love You
1970: Mason Williams - Classical Gas
1970: Thelma Houston - Ride Louie Ride
1971: Quincy Jones - Brother Johnson
1973: Music from the film - Dillinger
1973: Iggy Pop & The Stooges - Raw Power – mixed by David Bowie
1973: Music from the film - Jonathan Livingston Seagull
1973: Hubert Laws - A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich
1976: Woody Guthrie We Ain’t Down Yet
1976: Filming for the film You Light Up My Life
1977: Johnny Rivers - Slow Dancing (Swaying to the Music)
1977: Barbra Streisand - Superman
1977: The Section - Fork It Over
1977: Music from the miniseries Roots
1977: Theme from the TV Show The Love Boat
1984: Van Halen, 1984
1986: Van Halen, 5150
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