“Ch-ch-Changes/Look out you Rock’n’ rollers.” – David Bowie, “Changes”
As it so often does, change is once again reshaping the New York City recording landscape.
The latest modification to NYC is of the unwelcome variety: The Magic Shop is closing. The SoHo recording studio that opened in 1988 will officially close its doors on Monday, March 16th. Founder Steve Rosenthal broke the news late yesterday evening via a Facebook post that read in part, “I get that New York City is always changing and adapting like the living city it is. Maybe what I believe in is no longer of value, but it was for us and we lived it.”
Rosenthal and the talented team who ran The Magic Shop certainly did live all things audio, consistently maintaining not only a high standard of excellence at the studio, but also its accessibility to artists, producers, and engineers of all types. But its ultra-convenient location on Crosby Street put it smack in the middle of a neighborhood where land values are skyrocketing – never a good sign for a recording studio that leases its land, as opposed to owning it.
While no official reason for the closing has been cited yet by Rosenthal, the studio’s impasse with its co-op landlord at 49 Crosby St. was well documented. Not even the mighty Dave Grohl – fresh off of featuring The Magic Shop on his HBO series “Sonic Highways” — could help Rosenthal to purchase the property.
The Magic Shop was a favored recording, mixing, archiving, restoration, and mastering destination for a long list of artists, from megastars to the most independent of indies: The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, Kurt Vile, Norah Jones, plus David Bowie’s most recent The Next Day and * are just a tiny sampling of who walked through the doors (see the 2015 SonicScoop video tour here).
Real Feel, Fearless Gear
What they were drawn to was a tangible vibe, made all the better by nearly 2000 square feet of recording space. Adjoining that was a control room that starred a breathtaking custom Neve 56 input series 80 desk with Flying Fader automation — Rupert Neve himself expanded the board to 55 faders in 1996. Vintage microphones and killer outboard gear by Neumann, API, EMI/Chandler, Focusrite, Sontec, GML, Urei and more became weapons of choice for audio pros worldwide visiting SoHo for a touch of Magic.
One such engineer was Mario J. McNulty (Prince, Laurie Anderson, Angelique Kidjo, Lou Reed, Nine Inch Nails), who along Magic Shop engineer Brian Thorn and project manager Kabir Hermon helped track David Bowie’s penultimate release, 2013’s Tony Visconti-produced The Next Day, at the studio (see SonicScoop’s in-depth article on the album’s creation here).
“The Magic Shop had some very cool sensibilities, and they’re going to be missed,” says McNulty. “It was ideal for band-oriented projects where you needed a room for drums or strings, or to record vocals. It was a throwback versus your sterile pop studio of today – it was a different style, and a lot of people felt comfortable there.
“Steve Rosenthal has always been a very accommodating studio owner, and he definitely cares about the people that work there,” McNulty continues. “They had an excellent staff that was well trained. They got it. A lot of old school studios that have been around know the etiquette of how things are supposed to be – they were a good example of that.”
The Magic Shop’s amazing wraparound Neve console was a major draw for McNulty, who experienced it when recording clients such as Semi Precious Weapons. “I used that console as a super high-quality front end,” McNulty says. “It has a rich, thick-colored sound, and at the same time it’s very clean and open sounding. Without any EQ engaged, you could pull the fader up and immediately get this rich tone. It would affect every microphone – you could have a Shure SM57 going through it, and it would add that quality to it.”
When a studio like Magic Shop closes on relatively short notice, booked sessions will have to be redistributed locally. For McNulty, the first-call alternatives in Manhattan will include Germano Studios, Electric Lady and MSR, plus Brooklyn’s Mission Sound Recording. Still, as McNulty notes, Magic Shop will basically be impossible to replace.
“You have these recording cathedrals in New York City, and you put them on your radar when a project comes up,” he explains. “Magic Shop often came up on the radar for my projects. Semi Precious Weapons was the first full band record I made there, and The Magic Shop was the total right choice of studio for that band: It was 70s glam rock, raw – the vibe of the studio fit. Everything about it was the right kind of feel.
“That was a nice thing to have, but now unfortunately as an engineer that isn’t on your radar anymore. That option goes away. I don’t think there’s any option that could immediately replicate The Magic Shop.”
Big Apple Impact
Whenever an elite facility like the Magic Shop shuts down, the question inevitably arises: Is New York City’s recording scene fading away? As large-scale professional studios succumb to the laws of the jungle, it’s a natural reaction. But McNulty, for one, doesn’t see The Magic Shop’s shuttering as any kind of final blow for Big Apple audio.
“I think it’s a bit extreme to call it a death knell,” observes McNulty. “It’s just a changing atmosphere. I think footprints are getting smaller. There’s small studios popping up all the time. There are NYC Studios that I don’t even know of – I just worked at one that I had only found out about a few weeks ago. It’s nothing on the scale of The Magic Shop, but people are doing what they need to do to make records. Drums and strings still need space – somehow it will be recorded. I’m not happy about the fact that large NYC studios are dying, but I can’t spend too much time worrying about it. It’s kind of happening beyond our control.
“But I don’t think it’s a nail in the coffin, it’s just an evolution. The studio scenes are changing, and you have to figure out how to work within that because people are still making records more than ever.”
Resolve is essential when developments like this go down. A studio like The Magic Shop vanishes, and all the music that was made there feels even more beloved. Commensurately for Tony Visconti, the studio’s closure is a loss that runs incredibly deep. “A part of my life just died,” he said. “I will miss Magic Shop almost as much as I miss my friend David Bowie.”
- David Weiss