Analog music is dying, and Dicky Spears of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, is reviving it with a monster he calls Squid Hell.
It’s a music recording studio built to redefine studios, a three-story instrument that blurs the line between organic and digitally manipulated sound, and a playground for sound waves and instruments. It’s Spears’s giant, concrete rescue breath for an industry that underwent a bad digital overhaul in the 90’s and lost its identity in the process.
The tall, boxy and gray exterior hardly advertises aural pizzazz, but when you walk through the door of Squid Hell, it’s like taking the Magic School Bus inside a vessel that’s part guitar, part xylophone. Close the door: sound waves travel in two directions – echoing one way and abruptly halting in the other, as if someone hit the damper pedal and the soft pedal of a piano simultaneously. The effect is created by careful construction that shapes sound from the building’s foundations to its rafters. Within the same room, a listener might be acoustically transported from a cathedral to a cozy piano bar.
Spears’ vision of his analog/digital studio formed when the digital recording age emerged in the 90’s. Around this time, he started a recording business out of a room in his apartment in Boston with mostly digital equipment. Eventually, he realized something was missing from his recordings. The sound was unnatural and perfect … too perfect. It lacked the distortions characteristic of recording environments, which sometimes shape sounds unexpectedly into what become new, innovative masterpieces.
Digital music sends sound waves down a direct path with no opportunity to stray, and straying is precisely what our ears are accustomed to enjoying in music. We hear in analog, which is why the distortions that screamed through Jimi Hendrix’s amplifier could not be reproduced authentically without a non-digital, analog system, and the haunting echo in Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” recorded in an empty English castle, could not be duplicated using a personal computer. Digital recording, Spears realized, lacked the unpredictability of live sound. It lacked personality.
When commercial studios began failing as home studios boomed, Spears bought up their analog gear. He bought an old paint warehouse in an industrial neighborhood in Jamaica Plain for storage, and eventually realized it was the perfect space to reconstruct what was lost in the recording industry. Raising the money from private investors, Spears tuned the warehouse into an acoustical masterpiece: Squid Hell Studios, named after an actual person – his high school band mate Richard Hell, nicknamed Squid.
To get the perfect sound in analog, the recording environment should have properties fundamentally different from the editing environment. In order to create those differences within the building, Spears constructed the studio and control rooms on two distinct foundations within the building – one for the studio, and the other in the middle of the studio for the control room. The control or editing room requires components that blunt sound – that essentially allow the sound engineer to hear the baseline of whatever is coming out of any stereo, without flare. To control the bass sound waves, which sink because of their longer wavelengths, Spears attached small compartments with hanging panels in the basement below the control room to work as shock absorbers that prevent sound waves from echoing below the room. Above, in the main level control room, a giant, curved window looks into the studio over a large analog sound board equipped with a jumble of keys, levers and dials. The rear wall is covered with a beautifully carved, smooth wave of wood that stretches to the ceiling. From a distance, it looks like the pipes of a large church organ, or the strings on a giant autoharp. The front and sides are designed to absorb sound, simulating the base noise heard from any normal stereo so the sound engineer can guarantee a perfect performance through any speaker.
Virtually every foot of the studio room plays differently with sound waves – the height of the roof, the shape and the materials that make up the walls, the chambers below the floor that echo at varying degrees from one side of the room to the other. Sound moves through different parts of the room like a rat in a maze – hitting barriers, getting lost in dead ends, zapping to the finish line – crashing into an ear or a microphone. It’s this journey that makes the waves analog– the sheer organic nature of them is impossible to duplicate digitally.
But in a digital age when hard drives are cheap, and a computer can record and store thousands of hours of sound at a miniscule fraction of the cost of analog tape, it is uneconomical for musicians to record completely in the traditional way, no matter how good the gear is. With this in mind, Spears designed his masterpiece to employ both digital and analog. Using the studio space as an instrument, and funneling sound through an analog sound board, sound waves are finally channeled into a digital system. By leaving the digital step until the very end, his system preserves the integrity of the natural sound as much as possible.
Despite the sophistication of Squid Hell, recording there is still much more labor intensive than just recording digitally. Analog recording is very much a labor of love, and the business of making music these days is a practice without patience. Finding the perfect spot to record in a room takes time, and adjusting levers and dials on a 10-foot long sound board is an overwhelming task for many sound engineers who are used to working on a relatively compact PC. Many view this type of recording as inefficient and archaic, but the most sophisticated of sound engineers know that it’s the most natural route for recording sound. Geoff Abramczyk , a sound engineer and musician who has periodically worked in the studio for five years, summed it up best saying there’s nothing quite like Squid Hell, and that playing music there is like feeling you’re funneling chaos into something beautiful, both carefully honed and left unpredictable.
Though the studio is already completely functional, a family tragedy and difficult financial times astringed the flow of funding meant for the building’s final touches. Sadly, the only things keeping the studio from officially opening its doors are just a few exit signs, an elevator permit and a paint job – all are required for a business operation permit. But despite the speed bump, Spears is still doing a small amount of recording in the studio while he looks for investors to help him complete the project. All who have recorded there are blown away. Spears describes it as an “acoustical theme park” – but you have to see it to understand.