Metalworks Studios Celebrates a Major Milestone
By Andrew King
Photos by Dave Dickson
Celebrating the 40th anniversary of a successful business seems like an apt occasion to reminisce about the past; however, Gil Moore is much more interested in the future.
Moore is speaking with Professional Sound just ahead of the date that, 40 years ago, found him formally opening the sound company and recording studio that would become Metalworks Studios in the very same commercial plaza in which he’s currently sitting. Over the course of the next four decades, though, its physical location is one of the few things to remain unchanged.
In that time, Metalworks Studios has grown to include nine individual workspaces that combine sought-after vintage consoles and equipment with modern systems and workflows like few other large-scale studios in the country. What’s more, the company has also expanded at the seams with a production technologies sales and rentals division, Metalworks Production Group (MPG), and a music performance, business, and technology career college, Metalworks Institute (MWI), now occupying adjacent facilities in the aptly named Metalworks Plaza, making for something of a music technology hub serving the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.
And while 40 years of operations in a very competitive and ever-evolving industry is no small feat – one they share with only an elite group of peers on the continent – Moore isn’t overly interested by dwelling on past accolades or accomplishments; he’s too busy working towards some new ones.
“The past and present are diverging in many ways, but also coming back together in many ways,” Moore muses, simultaneously speaking about Metalworks and the music production industry as a whole.
Moore and his bandmates in heralded Canadian rock trio Triumph founded Design Staging, the sound company and recording studio that would become Metalworks Studios the following year, in the fall of 1977 with the dual purpose of being able to record and rehearse together and also welcome other artists and clients as a commercial facility.
Metalworks forged its reputation as a top-tier studio on the then-bustling Canadian recording landscape quickly, outputting platinum-selling projects by the likes of Triumph, Tom Cochrane’s Red Rider, Platinum Blonde, and Haywire in its first decade of business. Before long, it was an internationally-known destination studio, welcoming the likes of Prince, David Bowie, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Rush, Tina Turner, and dozens more of the world’s top-selling recording artists.
Studio 1 Control Room
Over that time, the facility expanded and evolved in tandem with industry trends, eventually moving into mastering, audio post-production, surround mixing, and video editing and authoring.
When Metalworks opened, it was one of fewer than 10 large-scale commercial facilities in Toronto and its surrounding area, and the term “project studio” didn’t mean much to anyone. Four decades later, that landscape looks quite different, and yet, not without its challenges, Metalworks has kept pace with it all.
“I never found it frightening or intimidating, really,” Moore says about the paradigm shift in the recording industry nearing the turn of the millennium that eventually saw several of Metalworks’ competitors in Toronto and across Canada close their doors for good. “The industry has changed and will keep on changing but we’ve always been able to adapt.”
Interestingly, part of the reason Moore believes Metalworks has been so resilient throughout the second half of its history is the reputation it developed over the first. “We have a brand that people recognize, that represents a network of 40 years of musicians, producers, engineers, projects, and so on.”
But arguably the most significant factor affecting Metalworks’ ongoing growth and success is the “musical ecosystem” supported by its three divisions: the studios, live event company, and school. “We started as a studio, and a recording studio is a recording studio is a recording studio,” says Moore. “But our model now is rather unique, I’d say.”
After all, other famed and now-defunct large-format studios that once kept Metalworks company in the bustling GTA recording market boasted equally impressive facilities, personnel, and credits, but suffered much different fates.
Studio 2 Control Room
“I think we’re untraditional in the sense that, when I look at Metalworks, I look at the three arms of the company and leverage everything we’ve learned in each one to strengthen the others,” offers Moore. “On the education side, for example, we’re able to beta a lot of emerging technologies and work with manufacturers and software developers that have an interest in interacting with those young people that [can offer input] without the prejudice of working in the business for 20, 30, 40 years. Or with [Metalworks] Production Group, we’re constantly able to reconnect with artists through their live events and bring new projects back to the studio.”
That’s just a pair of examples, as really, the opportunities for experience, ideas, and resources to cycle through more than one facet of the business are virtually endless. When Moore delves into another of those examples – about how MWI students, graduates, and instructors help to shape the evolution of the studios’ signal chains and workflows – that’s when the discussion shifts from focusing primarily on the past to the present and future.
“A lot of our direction on the studios used to come solely from our engineering staff and producers,” Moore admits. “Now, we’re also talking to our instructors, and talking to graduates who are out working in other studios and with other artists in different parts of the industry.”
Basically, the idea is that the bigger the network, the more perspectives there are to consider.
Drake’s go-to recording engineer, Noel Cadastre, is a Metalworks Institute graduate. “He’s been all over the world in top-tier studios,” says Moore, once again offering a prime example of a larger concept. While Cadastre does much of his work with Drake and the extended OVO family at Metalworks – specifically the recently renovated Studio 2 – “Noel sometimes records Drake in make-shift environments like hotel rooms and buses, and they’re also building a studio into Drake’s new house,” Moore says. “We’re also able to adapt as audio styles transform in EDM and hip-hop, and we’re privy to the information from that front line, because of these relationships.” And there are many others like Cadastre who’ve gone from MWI to working with some of the most prominent artists and engineers in the world.
Many in the music and recording industries cite the rise of digitally-dominated genres like EDM and modern hip-hop as another catalyst for the shift from large-scale commercial studios to their project or home-based counterparts; however, that’s another area where Moore and Metalworks seem to differ from the status quo.
Studio 2 Live Room
“Analog is still, and I think always will be, a big part of music production, and that’s especially true for more traditional genres,” he begins. “So when it comes to the equipment we’re using in our studios, it’s still going to be a blend of digital and analog. Those decisions about gear and software are really driven by looking at the market as a whole and deciding which tools the majority of creators are going to need.”
In his experience – and, again, in what’s coming back to him from contacts in other places and parts of the industry – the creators from the bottom to the very top of the hip-hop and EDM production pyramids are looking for new sounds now that so many long-time staples (808s and MPCs, anyone?) are so heavily proliferated throughout their respective genres. In many cases, their approach is to simply create their own samples from an analog source and sometimes using analog recording equipment. “There’ll never be enough tones and sounds in the world to satisfy creators and artists,” Moore tacks on, “so they’re always going to be searching and recording new ones.”
Moore and his team’s recognition and, more importantly, embrace of such trends is another core strength at Metalworks. Whether it’s policy or workflow or overall direction, they want to be as malleable as possible.
Metalworks Founder Gil Moore & Studio Manager Giancarlo Gallo
“Anybody that’s ever been in a meeting with me discussing objectives and the direction of Metalworks, they know there’s one thing to never say, because they know it’s not going to go over well,” Moore says, laughing. That line? “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
“In every process or destination we’re seeking, we’re looking at it with how we’ve been successful to a certain point, but then looking at things we’ve done poorly or that need improvement. It’s always about refining the system,” Moore says. “I talk a lot in meetings about trying to create great systems. That helps us communicate better and keeps us working as a team ahead of the curve.”
He elaborates on the point, but the overall idea can easily be summarized by Walter-via-Wayne Gretzky’s famous (and overused) quote: “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.”
“It’s a great metaphor for business,” says Moore. “Easier said than done, but it’s always something we strive for.”
Moore recognizes that being at the forefront of industry trends and subsequently able to adapt to them is critical to Metalworks’ ongoing success. He also recognizes that, despite his years of experience doing just that, at this point, his staff is the company’s greatest asset in that regard.
“If somebody asked me, ‘What’s the key to the company?’, I’d say it’s our people, without a doubt.”
Amidst Metalworks’ 40th anniversary celebrations, the biggest issue that Moore and his team are working on is that of human resources and, specifically, his and his managers’ interactions with their entire staff.
Studio 5 Mastering Suite
“This is really a watershed moment for us,” he explains. “We were recently told by our HR consultant that, when you’re over 85 employees, you should have a dedicated HR manager. The only thing that concerns me about that model is becoming distanced from our staff. I want to walk around and know everybody and have a relationship with them.”
Again, that type of rapport is central to so many of Metalworks’ competitive differentiators.
“We want to be driven by reason, logic, and team discussion, not by an autocratic approach,” he emphasizes. “For the most part, we’ve been able to shepherd the creative instincts people have to achieve an atmosphere that’s professional but also relaxed. We want to encourage creativity and new ideas, not hold people down. We do a unique job here with our HR. I’m proud of it, and it’s important to the way we approach our respective roles.”
It helps that the median age for employees at Metalworks is relatively young, and Moore says he has always invited people to use Metalworks as a “professional stepping stone” on their career path.
“I just want those people to succeed,” he says. “Hopefully they’re succeeding at Metalworks, but I want them to succeed elsewhere, too, and to look back on their time here as having been enjoyable and educational. There are so many different jobs and opportunities and niches in the music business, and they’re all pretty cool. This is a great business to be in.”
Over the past 40 years, Metalworks Studios has accrued accolades and achievements that are simply unequaled in the Canadian market. Nearly 200 platinum- or gold-certified projects have been cut there. They’ve been named Studio of the Year at Canadian Music Week’s Music and Broadcast Industry Awards 17 times. The Mississauga Board of Trade recently recognized Moore with its Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Mississauga Arts Council presented him with its Patron of the Arts award. And now, after the very recent closure of Phase One Studios on the other side of Toronto, Metalworks may very well be the oldest commercial recording studio in the country.
But again, while Moore is of course very proud of these achievements and quick to share the credit for them, his gaze is fixed on what lies ahead.
“I look at the future now and say, ‘Okay, we’ve achieved some things in the domestic market that I’ll call historical, but what are we going to do to earn our stripes tomorrow?”
Turns out he has a few answers.
Studio 6 Control Room
Metalworks is currently revisiting the curriculum at MWI, which was initially developed in the late ‘90s despite having been regularly updated to keep pace with industry advancement. Much of that work is focusing on the current digital and cloud-based paradigm, and includes potentially incorporating cloud-based learning management systems and online learning environments. The “zenith” of the plan, he reveals, is a hybrid of education and professional audio collaboration and recording coming together beneath the longstanding brand.
A core piece of that is something Moore is perhaps most excited about: the development of a cloud-based studio and collaboration hub called AudioWorks.
The origins of this leading-edge concept trace back about four or five years and, ironically, are partly based on the origins of Moore’s career with Triumph in the ‘70s. “When we were starting out, nothing creative would really gel unless we were jamming in our rehearsal space, which happened to be a bowling alley,” he chuckles. “With the increasing bandwidth and better internet connections around the world, the data you can move and speed you can move it at, there’s no reason why musicians and producers today can’t be collaborating remotely.”There are currently cloud-based platforms for recording, rehearsing, teaching, and content distribution, but the idea of an entirely online studio that records high-resolution audio with a truly professional workflow is a new one, and it’s attracted significant attention and investments from some major music industry players – including some MWI graduates.
Interestingly, it’s a further democratization of the recording business, which Moore recognizes as a bit humourous considering Metalworks is celebrating a significant milestone as a brick-and-mortar recording destination.
“I remember the old days when it seemed like there were iron bars and costs that kept musicians out of studios,” Moore reminisces. “Now, we have synthesizer apps on mobile devices and the bandwidth and internet connections we need to really usher in a whole new creative class.”
A beta version of AudioWorks is expected to drop before the end of 2017, and Moore sees it fitting that it coincides so closely with Metalworks formally starting its fifth decade of operations.
“It’s a very exciting thing from the studio’s point of view,” he says, and while change isn’t always exciting to veterans of the audio recording business, for Moore and Metalworks Studios, it’s at the very core of their success.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Sound.