Published Sep 09, 2015Giant Studios hates Kevin Drew.
The Broken Social Scene frontman is one of the few trusted friends that studio owner and Metric guitarist James Shaw has sanctioned to use his Toronto recording space.
Yet, since Shaw and former co-owner Sebastien Grainger opened Giant back in 2007, the control room has been plagued by "a ghost." "The left side [of the monitor] just goes out sometimes," says Shaw.
Drew and frequent collaborator and former Stills frontman Dave Hamelin were recently scheduled to use Giant while Shaw was on tour. Drew had previously worked on Andy Kim's It's Decided and the Tragically Hip's new record at the studio. But "every time Kevin walked into the building, the left side would go out," says Shaw. Dejected, the two retreated to the Bathhouse Recording Studio on the other side of the city. "I sat down, pressed play on iTunes and did this," he says as he rotates a single knob on the studio's 24-channel console, "and it's been back ever since.
"The ghost likes me. I don't think the ghost likes Kevin very much."
Perhaps Giant's ghost is a manifestation of Shaw's fastidiousness. By his own admission, he's "very specific about what I like," and doesn't take well to people moving things around. "I never wanted to open a commercial studio," he says. "It's a pain in the ass."
He and Grainger bought the former west end garage in 2006, initially investing $50,000 in renos and gear to get it into useable shape. Metric's last three albums were recorded at Giant, including their forthcoming sixth LP, Pagans in Vegas, out September 18.
In those early days, Shaw and Grainger rented the space out to other artists to pay the bills. But after Shaw found a coffee pot sitting on the console, he put his foot down. Today, only select friends are allowed to use it.
Grainger sold his half two-and-a-half years ago when he moved to L.A. and Shaw has since made many alterations to suit his — and by extension, Metric's — specific needs. "It's really taste-driven," he says. Giant is home to a battalion of synths, including a rare, Yamaha CS-80 he estimates alone is worth $50,000, the equivalent of that initial investment. "You'd have to go to Phoenix's studio to find that stuff."
He removed a vestibule that separated the control room from the patio deck situated between the studio and the house in which Shaw lives. He installed a custom API/Neve hybrid console and moved the computer, which once sat on the console's right side, to a floating workstation to free up space around the control board. Racks of compressors and pre-amps sit to the left of the board, while synths, including a replica modular Moog are found to the right, near to door to the live room. A signed John Lennon trading card — a gift from a wealthy friend and benefactor — is perched between the dials of one model.
Previously, a reel-to-reel tape machine briefly stood next to the synths. It was engineer John O'Mahony who encouraged Shaw to buy it rather than spending money on compressors. "He was like, 'Why would you spend that much money on a compressor. Why don't we get a tape machine and it'll actually affect all the recording as opposed to one guitar track?'"
Shaw calls Pagans to Vegas Metric's "most electronic" record, heavily inspired by the Cure and Depeche Mode. But the album was tracked to physical tape. "It gels stuff together," he says. "It makes things mix and puts everything in the same space and mellows things out." But, like so much of the gear at Giant, the tape machine isn't something many other artists are looking to use, and since Pagans' completion in March, it's been tucked into the studio's cramped storage closet.
The live room itself is a spacious single room. Items like a Theremin, a Hammond organ that belongs to engineer and former Stills keyboardist Liam O'Neil and a Rhodes piano co-owned by Shaw, O'Neil and Hamelin are carefully stored against its four walls. A half-dozen amps are meticulously arranged next to the storage closet. But for Pagans, Shaw exclusively used his rare mid-'60s Vox AC30 — the same model played by U2's the Edge. The album's "thin and dry" bottom end was achieved with a Music Man bass, which sits on a rack next to a Danelectro baritone guitar that also makes regular appearances.
By most standards, Shaw's studio offers an optimal experience for a working musician. Highly personalized, it's mere steps from his home and "there's like 20 five-star restaurants within a five minute walk."
Still, it has its limitations. "It's a room that was built for $50,000 in an auto shop. You can't disguise that." While on tour with Imagine Dragons, Metric began work on a companion record to Pagans, recording in hallowed spaces like the Village in Los Angeles. Shaw was particularly taken by Guilford Sound, a remote space in rural Vermont. "I do have visions for [Giant] one day being in a place that's not a garage," he says. Still, "it's so fucking convenient."