NY METRO REPORT

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Paul Verna

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You walk into a large control room and all around you is nothing but vintage analog equipment: Studer A827 and A80 24-track recorders, an Ampex ATR-102 half-inch mastering deck, Pultec EQs, 1176 and LA-2A compressors/limiters, a stereo tube EMT plate, tons of mics, tons of amps, tons of instruments and the centerpiece of it all — a 56-input Neve 80 Series wraparound console with Flying Faders (and a 24-input Trident sidecar to boot).

Without knowing it, you've entered one of New York's most advanced digital production facilities.

Magic? Sort of. It's actually the Magic Shop, a downtown haunt where scores of artists have made some of their best records in the past 12 years, from Lou Reed to Sonic Youth to Sheryl Crow to Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

Even though the Magic Shop was built as — and remains — a state-of-the-art analog room, it leads a double life as a Pro Tools laboratory, with a nifty work-station that resides in a cabinet operated by a hydraulic lift. If you don't want to use it, then the computer stays neatly tucked away. But the minute a client requests it, the rig rises from its sconce like a lion waking from a long sleep.

Once a staple of the U.S. alternative rock scene, the Magic Shop has recently broadened its clientele to include acts from around the globe — which includes, of course, the studio's own neighborhood in the Soho section of Manhattan. “In the last six months, we've had a combination of very international records and very local records,” says owner Steve Rosenthal. “It's not your typical major label bands from all over America.”

To illustrate his point, Rosenthal rattles off a list of the studio's recent clients: Icelandic alt-rock star Bjork; Mauro, a Belgian rock act produced by Dave Sardy of Marilyn Manson fame; Bonnie Pink, a Japanese artist signed to Warner Japan; New York cult guitarist Marc Ribot, who was in producing Sony Japan act Sion; Andres Levin, an American/Venezuelan producer who brought Chilean rock act Panico to the Magic Shop; American/Brazilian musician Arto Lindsay, working on a new Brazilian music project of his; and Brazilian death metal stars Sepultura, who spent a couple of days at the Magic Shop.

On the local side, the one-studio facility has been buzzing with hometown favorite Reed, who worked with bassist Rob Wasserman on Wasserman's upcoming project; also with Latham at the boards. (Reed's wife, Laurie Anderson, logged in time at the Magic Shop herself last summer). In addition, the studio hosted singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston, who worked on his latest Elektra project; one-time Dream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn cut a solo project with producer/engineer John Agnello; and critic's favorite Ida made a self-produced record at the Magic Shop.

A studio owner who manages to find time to actually work in his facility, Rosenthal has recently produced independent albums by local singer/songwriter Pal Shazar, featuring Sara Lee on bass and Jules Shear on background vocals; Rounder folk/blues artist Stephan Smith and Von Em, a band referred to Rosenthal by Bottom Line Cabaret owner Allan Pepper. Rosenthal also engineered the forthcoming release by anti-folk artist Lach, which was produced by frequent Magic Shop client Richard Barone of Bongos fame.

The only recent project at the Magic Shop that does not fit into the international or local categories was the mixing of The Go-Go's upcoming Beyond Records project, which was done by the production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade — Magic Shop regulars who appreciate the studio's Neve console, its generous assortment of outboard gear and its homey vibe.

Despite the Magic Shop's analog history, 80% of its projects now involve Pro Tools, according to Rosenthal. Most sessions are now done exclusively in the digital workstation, but employ a hybrid of Pro Tools and analog tape — an M.O. that Rosenthal can easily accommodate thanks to a patchbay that allows him to route his 24 channels of Pro Tools to any input or output on the Neve or Trident.

While the studio's graceful conversion from analog to digital has enabled it to keep pace with its clients' demands, the real secret to the Magic Shop's success has been Rosenthal's immersion in the local music scene. Besides owning and operating the Magic Shop since its inception in 1989, Rosenthal is the co-owner of the Living Room, a haven for singers/songwriters that grew out of the Siné scene — best known for spawning the career of the late Jeff Buckley. “The Living Room keeps me in touch with the community of musicians that work and live in New York,” says Rosenthal. “If your business is not based on Mariah Carey calling up, it's really important to be involved in the community you work in, and a lot of studio owners miss that in a big way. I've been really involved in it, to the point of giving away studio time.”

If Rosenthal can afford to occasionally donate hours to cash-starved local artists, then it is because he gets enough referrals through his extensive network of contacts to keep the studio humming with commercially viable projects. A few years ago, however, he had his doubts as to whether or not the Magic Shop would survive the cutbacks in label budgets. “For me, the worst time was about three years ago, when the majors pulled the plug on alternative music, which was what my business was based on,” says Rosenthal. “It was like they woke up one morning and said, ‘That's the end of it.’ So I had to go through a transition, which meant being open to new technology and to projects that don't necessarily come from an A&R representative at an American label.”

Now, with a stylistically and geographically diverse clientele — and his roots firmly planted in the local scene — Rosenthal is doing better than ever, both creatively and commercially.


Send your NY Metro news to pverna@vernacularmusic.com.






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