Rooms Like Sonology Don't Make Great Records, People Like Idée Fixe's Jeff McMurrich Do
Published Oct 21, 2019If you were to walk through Bartlett Parkette, a small green space on Geary Avenue in the west end of Toronto, you would likely mistake the adjacent white cinder block building that houses the music studio Sonology for a maintenance shed. But inside the graffiti-adorned building are homey and quiet creative spaces where Jeff McMurrich — producer, engineer, and co-founder of the label Idée Fixe — makes timeless-sounding records with artists like Jennifer Castle and U.S. Girls.
The studio was originally built in 1999 by Chris Hegge, owner of Audiolab Recording Company. Three years ago, McMurrich decided that it was time to leave 6 Nassau, the studio space he rented in Kensington Market, after the building was sold. Fortunately, Hegge was looking to sell and McMurrich took advantage of the unique opportunity to own a prebuilt studio.
As McMurrich tells Exclaim!, the move has been a positive change. "The way you produce records is affected by the space that you're producing a record in, so it's nice to change the parameters in which you're working.
"At 6 Nassau, I invited the room into the recording," McMurrich explains. "I was using room microphones and techniques that involved the space, whereas Sonology has a tight [live] room so it's more about dry, close sounds that are then treated. The change is nice, because you get bored. It forces you to change what you're doing. You become a bit complacent and you start doing the same thing."
Alongside a kitchenette and McMurrich's office, there are two separate studio spaces within the building. McMurrich specifically refers to a 400-square-foot live room and its adjoining control room as Sonology. The warmly lit live floor is stuffed with instruments and retrofitted with isolation booths that have charmingly small doorways.
Although Sonology is open to other studio professionals, McMurrich says that most of the people who come in are clients that he's met over his 30-year career. Most recently, members of the Toronto psych-pop band Bart, who are signed to Idée Fixe, rented Sonology to produce a record. Moving forward, though, McMurrich wants Sonology to become synonymous with his work, rather than with a physical space.
"[Sonology] is a place for me to do my work, first and foremost. I think from here on in, the name Sonology is just me. No matter where my equipment is, or where I go, or if I move from here, Sonology is just me and my gear. So if you're working at Sonology, you're working with Jeff somewhere," he explains.
McMurrich speaks passionately about his love of great songwriting, his commitment to make great-sounding recordings and his desire to foster a "magical" listening experience. He does so in part by working with tools that have been in use for decades, including plate reverbs and tape echoes. "There was no digital [processing] when I started making records, so the sound of tape is kind of like the sound of making a record to me. It doesn't seem finished until it hits the tape," he says.
"I don't subscribe to esoteric tech talk — it's just a smoke screen. It's about the music and it's about the performers," McMurrich adds. "Having been doing this for 30 years, I've worked in so many different studios, I've tried a lot of gear and I know what works for me. If you spend enough time with certain pieces, then you can develop your own language that is unique and different from what other people are doing."
At Sonology, above all, it's about honouring the songs.
"I'm personally drawn to great songwriters and if [a song] just needs guitar and vocals, then that's all it needs. I just try to produce the records the way that they are pointing. It's about the performance and the song. The thing that depresses me is when I hear a live performance that is better than the recording, because that's a disservice to the artist. And I hear it all the time," McMurrich says.
"At some studios it's about the lounge and it's about the coffee machine — it's a service business. People who want to feel important and feel like they're being catered to will pay a premium to have a giant screen TV and a videogame console and a stocked fridge and a cappuccino machine, even though the studio may sound like shit," he continues.
"Rooms themselves don't make great records. Studios don't make great records. People do."