This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Andrew King
Music fans in the Montreal area have a lot to be excited about come the city’s bustling summer festival season. From the French-language fun of Les FrancoFolies to the stylistic mosaic of the Montreal International Jazz Festival to the hipster magnet that is the Osheaga Music and Arts festival, to name only a few, there’s plenty on offer for festivalgoers as the city transforms into a music Mecca in the sunnier months.
Albert Chambers is, first and foremost, a music fan, though he’s got some extra reasons to be excited for this year’s festival season in particular.
A longtime fixture of the Montreal music scene, Chambers has been serving the city’s creative community since 1995 with Studio Base Bin, a multi-purpose music facility that offers fully outfitted rehearsal studios as well as recording and production services under the same roof. As such, his business got a significant boost each year as local and international touring artists converged on the city with many seeking a pro-level rehearsal space.
However, after nearly two decades of operation in the arts district of the Plateau-Mont-Royal area, Chambers was growing disconcerted. Everything within Studio Base Bin was fine as far as he was concerned; the area surrounding it, though, was not.Rent and parking rates in the neighbourhood were rising fast while buildings were being renovated and condos developed. As Chambers puts it, “Everything was kind of going against the grain of what had attracted us to the space years earlier.” On the back of those changes, he made a deal and moved out.
At that point, his next step wasn’t totally clear. There was talk of selling the business, though that never materialized. Instead, he got a call about a new space – a large, open 10,000-sq. ft. warehouse with 20-ft. ceilings that once housed a vertical blind manufacturing facility, of all things – and decided to investigate.
“It was nothing to write home to mom about, to say the least,” Chambers says with a chuckle, “but I saw the potential, and kept visualizing in my mind what it could become. It was beyond anything I could have dreamed of.
BACK TO BASE-ICS
To understand the history of Studio Base Bin is to understand Chambers’ career trajectory to date, as music has been central to everything.
A native of Montreal and long-time guitarist, Chambers went straight into music retail after high school, selling records or musical instruments or a combination of the two with various shops. He studied music at the city’s Vanier College and, following his stint there, set off for Long Island where he continued his playing career while also working retail once again. Eventually, he ended up back in Montreal and took a job at the city’s iconic Steve’s Music store on Saint Antoine Street.
Chambers spent years at Steve’s, working his way up to management for his final two years there. “It’s a great place to work and they treated me great, but I started feeling like I just had to do something on my own,” Chambers recalls.
During his time in New York, he had the opportunity to rehearse in some fully outfitted, acoustically treated rehearsal rooms and the experience stayed firmly affixed in the back of his mind. “I just loved walking into a space that was totally equipped, where I could just bring my guitar and have everything we’d need to make music. And I couldn’t believe how cheap it was for such a cool space. I’d never experienced anything like that.”
Recording Control Room
That’s the experience he wanted to bring to his peers in the Montreal music community, and that’s what he set out to do. Chambers built a business plan and sought a start-up loan from the government, which he did receive – largely, he believes, because of some of the name-dropping in his application. “I think a lot of it was based on the service I used to give A-list bands, who would often give me credits on their records, so everyone from Celine Dion to Beau Dommage,” he recalls. “I think when I went to the bank with photocopies of my name on all of these big records, it gave me a lot of credibility from the beginning, and led to that first loan.”
He found a suitable space in the artistic district of the Plateau that could host three rehearsal rooms and signed his lease. At the outset, he benefitted from the support of his former colleagues at Steve’s Music, who Chambers says “really believed in what [he] was doing.”
That’s largely because there wasn’t really anything like what he was proposing in the area. “The mindset in Montreal at the time seemed to be that if you put really good equipment in these studios, it was going to get wrecked,” Chambers offers. “But to me, it was, if you want a pro clientele, you have to have pro-level gear, and up-and-comers would be thrilled to play on that kind of gear, so I knew I could find a balance.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Studio Base Bin made a big impression off the bat, with the city’s music community embracing the business and its founder, who many recognized from his time at Steve’s and his live performances.
After a few years, Base Bin moved to its second location, still in the same area of the Plateau, and enjoyed a successful run nearly two decades long.
“During that time, I was still playing live from time to time with [popular pop-rock band] Sky, when Karl Wolf was the lead singer there, and then starting playing with Karl solo while still running the studios,” Chambers recalls; however, the studios were soon taking up so much of his time that he had to put performing live on ice for some time.
“We had a great run there on Saint Laurent with so many big names coming through,” he enthuses, listing off the likes of Queen Latifah, Chromeo, The Barr Brothers, and film actor Gary Sinise as repeat clients.
In addition to the rehearsal studios, Chambers was also operating a recording studio out of the space and collaborating with plenty of artists as a songwriter, producer, and engineer. The list of acts with whom he’s worked on those fronts is diverse and impressive, including the likes of Simple Plan, Dream Theater, Debbie Gibson, Moist, and many others.
In fact, his latest collaborations with jazz vocalist Coral Egan earned a JUNO nomination, which came just before he shut down Studio Base Bin’s Saint Laurent location and contemplated his next move.
OUT IN FRONTENAC
In what was essentially an empty warehouse on Frontenac Street in the Delorimier neighbourhood showing its barest bones, Chambers saw the future of his business. He shared his plans with a friend that helped him mock up a rough idea of the layout, “and even then, we came up with a great facility,” he enthuses. “Seven fully-equipped rehearsal studios plus my recording control room, a conference room, a mezzanine for a video editing suite…” There’s even a small boutique in partnership with local instrument retailer Musique Max.
The conversion process lasted about two years – a long time for Chambers, considering his livelihood was basically on the line. “It was a long process with a lot of red tape and a lot of stop-and-go,” he recalls, enjoying the benefit of now being on the other side of it all. “At one time, we were thinking it might not happen, and it stayed like that until the walls started going up.”
Subsequently, the final six months of the makeover sped right along. That’s in large part due to the contributions of many who believed in the business, including film and TV composer Ray Fabi, Tom Cronin, Chambers’ business partner Michael Battista, and Zach Tahi, who funded and contracted the build.
Chambers had his sights set on reopening in the spring of 2017, just ahead of summer festival season in Montreal. “It’s kind of my Christmas, this time of year,” he says, speaking to Professional Sound after a few months of operation in his new space and just ahead of the opening day of the 38th edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
When it came to the acoustic treatments for the seven rehearsal studios and his recording suite, Chambers consulted several studio designers in his contact list about things like floating floors, soundproofing principles, baffle and diffuser design, and so on. Of course, he also carried forward a fair share of experience from the construction of his previous two facilities.
The substantial work required on the design and acoustics front kept him close by during the construction process to the point that, for a few months, he wasn’t taking on any recording or outside work. “It’s not an easy task,” he emphasizes. “If one nail goes in the wrong place, it could compromise the whole design.”
All of the rooms feature floating floor designs and the same basic acoustic treatment, though as Chambers attests, the rooms each have their own sonic character owing to their different dimensions.
Studio A is a 24 x 24-ft. space with 13-ft. ceilings that offers a good aural balance between live and controlled response.
Studios B and C have higher ceilings but are also more narrow, giving them a very airy and open quality. “They’re a little more live than our others,” Chambers explains, “but I did want a couple [of rooms] that had a bit more reflection and could breathe a bit more.”
Conversely, Studios D, E, and F – lovingly dubbed the “mini Base Bins” because of their smaller dimensions and lower 13-ft. ceilings – are “very tight-sounding,” according to Chambers, in part because of the heavier acoustic treatments compared to the other spaces. These smaller rooms are ideal for five musicians or fewer.
Then, there’s Studio G. Of the seven rehearsal studios, this is the crown jewel – a 1,000 sq. ft. space with 20 ft. ceilings and simple but elegant décor. It offers the best of both worlds in terms of its sonic character – open and airy but with plenty of control. This is the space that’s been attracting the big names back to the new Studio Base Bin.
“The bulk of my A-list clientele, a lot of them have already been back here,” Chambers says. “It’s really cool to see some of the bigger production companies welcoming me back after being closed, too. This is now the hub that brings together so many things that I love about my work with music.”
On any given day, you might find a jazz trio rehearsing in one studio right next to a hard rock band in another, and as Chambers says, “Both can work in harmony with no problem whatsoever.”
He continues: “I didn’t want this to be like anything else in Canada. Every stage I would see at the summer festivals while the new facility was being built, I was noticing the technology they were using – like engineers mixing monitors on a tablet from the stage.”
So while the individual studios at Base Bin all boast pristine acoustic treatment, they also feature state-of-the-art technologies, like a Behringer tablet-controlled XR18 or X32 digital mixing console in each. Other companies like Yamaha Canada Music and PAG Canada, which represents Electro-Voice across the country, also stepped up with support.
Empty warehouse that has since become Studio Base Bin
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Chambers enthuses. “I can walk into a really complicated set-up with a certain artist, and once we’ve done it one time, I can save the scene and the band can walk in the next time, we place the mics where they were, and I leave. That makes it so efficient for the client, and so efficient for me, since I have several rooms to deal with.”
Chambers says these last few months of operation are the first time in his 20-year career that people have come out of the studio and actually gushed about their experiences. “It’s not just rehearsal [to them]; with the technology and the proper gear and the rooms properly treated, they’re leaving the room like, ‘What just happened?’ These are artists that have rehearsed and performed in every type of space for decades and they’re admitting they just haven’t had an experience like this. As much as I’d like to toot my own horn after close to 20 years in the previous space, I’ve never had this kind of reception. I’m blown away and couldn’t be happier.”
CONCEPTION TO PRODUCTION
Plenty of new songs have surely already been born inside Studio Base Bin’s various rehearsal rooms, and being the musical hub that it is, musicians can professionally record those very tracks under the same roof.
Chambers doesn’t publicly advertise as a commercial studio; he doesn’t really have to. After decades in the music business, his professional network is substantial, and enough people seem to know that they can have Chambers cut their tracks at Studio Base Bin or take advantage of the space with an outside engineer.
“I designed it to be more comfortable and practical for songwriting and one-on-one sessions, or even having several people in the room collaborating,” Chambers says of his new recording space compared to its predecessor.
The control room is spartan and spacious with a very modern and sleek aesthetic. There’s a small iso booth connected to it that can fit a full drum kit, though it’s primarily used for vocal or guitar tracking. There’s also an isolated amp booth accessible from the main control area.
“Along with Studio G, the control room is the space where people’s mouths kind of drop,” Chambers says with a smile. “Honestly, the furnishings and design were almost more important than buying more outboard gear. It’s a cozy space that’s good for creativity. In the past, I had people feeling a bit cramped, because that’s when I thought racks and racks of gear would be impressive, but having a better flow with more space to keep people comfortable and, say, for a guitar player to be able to set up with a massive pedalboard and have people working around him without feeling confined or limited, that was really important.”
Once again, Chambers went “all out” with the acoustic treatment, even building his own diffuser on the rear wall of the control room that offers a “great centre image where it feels like there’s nothing behind [you].”
The control room isn’t totally dead; there’s no treatment on the ceiling, though it still sounds tight and boasts a very pleasing bottom end. “The midfield monitoring is just phenomenal here,” Chambers adds, mentioning his Amphion and Focal studio monitors.
Chambers says it’s always a challenge balancing the operation of the rehearsal studios with his production work, especially when he has multiple projects on the go – often with international clients or collaborators – at any given time, which seems to be the norm thus far.
He’s currently working with a vocal producer in Los Angeles, recording for Universal Music France’s publishing library, and collaborating with a cast of songwriters in Nashville, France, and across Quebec.
Time is indeed a valuable commodity and he’s hoping to eventually be able to spend the majority of it on his production work, but for now, it’s split about 50/50 between that and overseeing the rehearsal spaces.
“The first couple of months, people expected to see my face almost as a host at the front door, so I’ve been balancing my studio work with making sure things are running smoothly in the rehearsal rooms and making sure the clients have everything they need. After all, it’s a new space with new technology, so there’s a bit of a learning curve for everyone.”
Those state-of-the-art technologies have offered some new functionality for Studio Base Bin, including the ability to record 16-track audio stems from any of the seven rehearsal rooms. “Within five minutes, you’re in full multi-track mode in seven studios,” Chambers says, listing some benefits that might seem obvious. “We’ve never had that capability before.”
If an artist is looking to do some pre-production, for example, they can plug in a MacBook, record the stems, and keep whatever they might need. In fact, Chambers had a client in not long ago that took a pencil condenser and recorded a guitar track directly into his DAW with other bands rehearsing around him. “So he was here working for three hours, walked out with a phenomenal guitar track, and spent maybe $70. It’s kind of mind-blowing what you can do today. We can literally have six rehearsal studios multi-tracking at once. I’m just using technology that’s out there to maximize people’s productivity, and give them a space where they can not only rehearse, but do several things under one roof.”
Chambers knows that the success of the new Studio Base Bin is very closely tied to the success of the creative community surrounding it, and that’s why, in addition to a purpose-built facility and second-to-none service, offering good value is at the core of his business model.
“We know the music industry isn’t what it used to be and money isn’t falling from the sky, so I’m going to do what I can to stretch people’s dollars as far as they’ll go while not compromising the product in any way, regardless of whether they’re recording here or rehearsing here or writing songs or whatever,” he says.
A lot of time, work, and resources went into this new iteration of Studio Base Bin, with Chambers even questioning its completion at times, so it’s more than thrilling for him that, even after just a few short months, the business is back on track and maintaining its reputation as hub of creativity in a city that has so much of it to offer.
***Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of ****Professional Sound. ***