By Kevin Young
Photos by Neal Burston, ImagesWithImpact.ca
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Professional Sound magazine
For the owners of downtown Toronto’s Dream House Studios, the most important focus of their business model is an emphasis on the artists that write and record there and the songs that result from that work.
In any discussion of a studio, the gear, the functionality, and the layout and construction figure heavily – in many cases to the exclusion of a conversation about the actual experience of recording there, and how the space and staff fosters creativity, directly or indirectly.
When describing Dream House, co-owners and founders Alex Bonenfant and Adrien Gough tend to speak in terms of the vibe and the similarities between the facility’s informal beginnings in 2010 and its ultimate transition into a commercial studio.
“I would say that what’s developed here at Dream House has been an evolution,” Bonenfant offers. “When we came in here initially, it was a place to work for myself, Adrien, and Henry Walter, who goes by the name of Cirkut. We were all friends and were working on Adrien and Henry’s record when they were signed to Last Gang Records.”
Prior to leasing the space, Bonenfant had been working at the Orange Lounge. When he left Orange, he began looking for another studio with Walter and Gough. “We found this space and started it up, initially as a place for us to work. And initially, we were living here; it was our residence, our place of employment, and our studio. But we decided that wasn’t well suited to our lifestyle,” Bonenfant says, laughing.
Living and working in the same space and with good friends sounds great on paper, but, unsurprisingly, comes with challenges: “Like a bass cab blaring into your room at 2 a.m.,” Bonenfant offers as an example. “So that lasted roughly six months, which was enough.”
The rooms they’d been living and working in became four production rooms in which they’ve had a variety of tenants over time – “People who are young and up and coming,” says Bonenfant. “Producer rooms in Toronto are really at a premium. It’s hard to find a place where you can make noise at any hour. We found that they’re in demand and since the day we started renting those rooms, I don’t think we’ve really had any vacancy.”
There has been turnover in the seven years since they started out, a result of people cutting their teeth in the industry, establishing and working on the foundation of their careers, and then moving on as their careers develop. In short, Dream House functioned as kind of an artist incubator. “And I think to this day it still works very much that way,” Bonenfant adds, “but I wouldn’t limit it to artists.”
In truth, it’s really just an extension of what they’d been using the studio for in the first place.
Bonenfant describes the path of his career as fairly traditional for an engineer/producer. He studied at the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology (OIART) and then took a position as an engineer at Toronto’s Cherry Beach Sound, where he spent a great deal of time with his first mentor, Inaam Haq, who’s been the senior staff engineer at Cherry Beach since 1998 and worked with a diverse array of artists, ranging from Rush to Mark Ronson to Rihanna. From there, Bonenfant moved on to the Orange Lounge for two years before going freelance in 2009.
Gough started out as a musician, a saxophone player, which, he says, ultimately led him to hip-hop and pop production, working alongside Walter, aka Cirkut. “I’m very much not an engineer, but I know a lot about music and rely on Alex’s strength in terms of him being a gear guy,” Gough explains about their creative synergy. “I think it’s important to have people around the studio, and in the community of the studio, who aren’t necessarily the gear people, who just want to help foster the creativity of songwriters and musicians.”
Having someone who’s not directly working on the tech side, who is there to offer guidance from a different standpoint is, according to Bonenfant, invaluable. “The way I look at it is [it’s like] therapy. It’s a sanctuary. I think it’s important to take it back to the roots of what it really is – a place of creativity and feeling.”
“The goal was for us to have a place where we could work and sustain our lives,”
Gough continues, adding that owning a commercial studio wasn’t something he ever felt was in the cards for him.
After deciding to offer up the producer rooms and main studio to outside clients, they soon found there was significant interest from others with similar needs – people who needed a workspace but didn’t want to have, say, a bedroom or home studio and be constantly surrounded by their work. “Dream House was really retrofitted for living and I think that’s what gives it a really communal, homey feel.”
When people enter the studio, they feel like they’ve walked into someone’s house – a vibe enhanced by the claw foot tub and wainscoting in the washroom, radiant water heaters throughout, and a pair of pot belly gas fireplaces, one in the lobby and one in the live room. That’s a plus, Gough says. “It’s a fully functioning, comfortable space and I think that relaxed vibe and energy allows people to be in the studio and feel relaxed, creative, and inspired.”
Gough credits Bonenfant with spearheading the retrofit of the studio. “Alex did an amazing job. At that time in my life, I had no idea what drywall was. Nor do I ever want to know what drywall is again,” he says, laughing.
“I’m somewhat handy,” Bonenfant puts in, “and we pulled in a lot of favours and time from people who wanted to contribute. It was a group effort.” Having a drywaller and master electrician in his family definitely helped, he adds, but it was not a full-on studio build. “We added things as we started to work and realized that the room needed tweaking.”
Over their seven years at Dream House they’ve continued to upgrade as the community using the studio grew and as the business began to be more balanced, financially speaking. “We took on risk, buying equipment and, at one point, we lined the whole live room with barn board, which mellowed it out. Then we added baffles and clouds on the live floor.
Then we realized we needed some diffusion. So it’s been a very adaptive process where, when we had the money, we’d update. Project by project, year by year, we’ve continued to enhance and develop it.”
Coming in at about 1,900 sq. ft. overall, the studio consists of the four previously mentioned producer rooms, which surround a communal kitchen and are separated from the main studio – with its approximately 200-sq.-ft. control room and 300-sq. ft. live room – by a lobby with a spiral staircase that provides access to an expansive wraparound rooftop patio.
“It lends itself to a big cross section of people,” Bonenfant says, “songwriters, engineers, and producers in multiple genres. And the main studio is shared; that’s the communal aspect of it, that it’s open to all of the tenants and partners here.”
Comfort was and remains critical, Bonenfant insists – basically, “not having the place have a commercial studio vibe.” Instead, the plan was more about fostering an environment where people aren’t staring at a clock on the wall.
But community, he continues, was and is their primary concern. “Neither of us had the ambition to run a commercial studio. The intention was always to have this function as a place to foster creativity for the community around us and since the day we opened, we’ve kept the rates in a range that’s affordable and enables us to facilitate creativity. I think that’s the anchor – the backbone of the place – and what makes it interesting and unique. It’s a creative incubator where people can come in and meet other people in the community that don’t necessarily run in the same circles and find a way to collaborate with them and work on songs. Both Adrien and I, our focus has always been on songs.”
Over time, Dream House has hosted producers and songwriters such as Jon Drew, Illangelo Tom D’Arcy, and Arthur McArthur, and Artist clients including METZ, July Talk, Crystal Castles, Fucked Up, Nelly Furtado, K-os, and The Weeknd, among many others.
They have an ongoing association with Sleepless Records and play host to a number of producers, engineers, labels, and management companies, including Dream Machine, Nightmare Mgmt, Nook Recording, Jason Dufour, Mike Sonier, Josh Bowman, Frazer Mac, The Hand Recordings, and Young Wolf Hatchlings, some of which actually use the producer rooms as offices.
Those partnerships increase the sense of community and foster openness between everyone who is part of the creative process and the business of building artists’ careers.
“It’s about casting a wide net and being a part of all of those different franchises,” Bonenfant says. “A lot of those companies are independent contractors or companies that have an association with the studio itself. Those people are all working on their own projects and it gives us an opportunity to be invested in those projects, whether it’s arm’s length or getting involved through the studio or my label or management company.”
Although Gough and Bonenfant play different roles in the day-to-day workings of the studio, Gough describes its governance as “a bit more socialist.”
Essentially, he says, they operate as “a big family,” with Bonenfant as Dream House’s senior engineer and Calvin Hartwick as the studio’s main in-house engineer. “Adrien and I are partners and we both handle operations. Calvin is also the studio manager and handles any of the outside bookings and coordination of the use of the studio and scheduling.”
Dream House features a mix of cutting edge recording technology and vintage instruments, including a Wurlitzer 200A that Bonenfant bought from an elderly women in Scarborough – the original owner, who bought it at Sears in the ‘60s. “And it came with the original music stand, bench, and pedal,” he boasts. “After she bought it, she put it in her living room and it hadn’t moved for 40 years.”
Generally speaking, most recording is done in the box in Pro Tools, Ableton, and Logic, but Gough, Bonenfant, and Hartwick are open to anything, including clients who want to bring in a 24-track tape machine, though that’s yet to actually happen. Basically, anything that enhances the experience, the creative process, and, ultimately, the end result, they’re good with.
At one point Dream House did have a Trident console but eventually got rid of it because so few clients were interested in using a large format console. Down the line, however, Bonenfant is hoping to add a smaller format board to their audio arsenal – perhaps an API 1608.
“Even though we went away from the console format, I think people are coming back to it now,” he says, adding that most audio manufacturers have developed gear that fits well with the way Dream House functions and its clients work. “So, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see something like that as a part of the studio.”
With that, and every other decision they make in terms of upgrades and improvements, their focus remains on enhancing the atmosphere and ensuring clients can inhabit a space that’s conducive to creation.
“We’re both music fans and that is always going to be at the forefront,” Bonenfant enthuses. “We’re also fans of individuals, of people, and we want to champion people with vision and a tireless work ethic. I think that’s been the culture here over the years.”
The community has changed over time, but its members share that ethic, as well as a love of songs – regardless of their differing tastes, styles, and processes.
Going forward, Gough sums up: “I think it would be really cool to continue what we’ve been doing for another five, 10, or 20 years – as long as we can, because when we first opened the studio, I know that both of us… didn’t think the studio would last a couple of months,” Bonenfant puts in. “Even if Dream House isn’t in this building, I think the community we’ve worked with, we’ll continue to work with for years to come.
They’re an extended family to us. I don’t think any of us are focused on being gear nerds or studio nerds; we’re all focused on the people we work with and the songs we work on. I think that perspective will never change.”
Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.
DREAM HOUSE GEAR HOUSE
Control Hardware & Software
Avid Control|24 Surface
Apogee Symphony I/O (24 x 24)
Apple Mac Pro
Apple Logic Audio
Avid Pro Tools 12
Monitors & Headphones
Yamaha HS10W Subwoofer
Bryston 3B Amplifier (x 2)
Realistic/Optimus Bookshelf Speakers
Preamps & Equalizers
API 512b (x 4)
API 550b (x 2)
BAE (Neve) 1073 (x 6)
BAE (Neve) 1084 (x 2)
Chandler Limited Germanium Pre/DI
Great River Electronics MP-2NV
Manley Massive Passive Stereo Tube EQ
Neve 5432 Sidecar (34128 Modules x 8)
ADR Vocal Stressor F769X-R
Alan Smart C1
dbx 160 (x 2)
dbx 161 (x 2)
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor
Empirical Labs EL8-X Distressor
Empirical Labs Fatso
Standard Audio LEVEL-OR (x 2)
Summit Audio TLA-100
SPL Transient Designer (4-channel)
Tube Tech CL1B
Universal Audio 1176 (x 2)
Universal Audio LA-2A
AKG 451 (x 2)
AKG 414 (x 2)
Blue Microphones Kiwi
Lawson L251 (tube)
Neumann U87 (vintage) (x 2)
Neumann 582 (vintage tube)
Neumann M 149 (x 2)
Shure Beta 91
AKG D112 (x 2)
Sennheiser 421 (x 2)
Shure Beta 52
Shure Beta 57
Shure SM57 (x 2)
Shure SM7 (x 2)
Yamaha Sub Kick
Apex 210 (x 2)
Beyerdynamic M160 (x 2)
Coles 4038 (x 2)
DIs & Misc.