An interview with Producer/Engineer Michael Keire of Threshold Recording Studio

“Threshold recording studio is located in heart of the Hamilton, Ontario’s arts district and is the personal recording studio of Producer/Engineer Michael Keire. The studio is an open concept room acoustically treated by world-class studio designer Terry Medwedyk (Phase one, Nobel St and Laquar Channel) of Group one acoustics. Threshold Recording Studio is the melding of professional and practical studio design bound with the creative sensibilities of an artist-oriented room.”

We were lucky enough to chat music, Hamilton, recording, and more with producer/engineer Michael Keire. Read our full interview below.

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The Paper Street Journal: Tell us a little bit about your past. What was it like working with what is now Boxcar Sound Recording? Did you have a mentor, or was recording and engineering something that you’ve refined on your own?

Michael Keire: I started taking music and recording seriously, as a career path, when I was a student at McMaster University. I went to see a live recording of Wax Mannequin at Catharine North Studio where I met Dan Achen and Glen Marshall, the original owners of Catharine North. During my time at Catharine, roughly 3-4 years, Dan took me under his wing and taught me a ton. I owe him a lot.

Near the end of my time at Catharine, Glen and I hit it off. Dan and Glen were no longer getting along and Glen and I decided to partner up and start a new studio with Bob Lanois – Dan Lanois’ brother. Originally, this was at 270 Sherman. That space was a disaster to say the least, but got us on our feet. We then moved over to the Cumberland art spaces and started Vibewrangler which is now known as boxcar. The guys that are in there now are all good dudes and I’m glad they are still up there making music.

Vibewrangler (now boxcar) was an interesting and mostly educational experience. In other words, I learned what to never do again. I spent a lot of time, money, and energy building that room. From constructing the large ISO room, finishing floors, to installing the HVAC. It was a huge endeavour… ultimately, too huge to complete properly. After a few years, the limitations of the partnership and space became apparent, too hard to ignore, and I decided it was time to go out on my own. It was hard to walk away from that, especially because of the amount of money and time I had invested. But, in retrospect, there is no doubt it was the right choice.

I have learned a great deal on my own. Trial and error mostly. However, there have been many people that have mentored me to varying degrees. I would say Dan, Glen, and Bob had a great deal of influence on how I make records with basic engineering and how to run a studio, and more recently, Joel Hamilton and Brian Lucey from the States. It is very important to remember that making records is an art form. With that, there are traditions and there is the need to push the envelope and to be yourself. There are a lot of conventions that need to be learned, and a commercial space is best for that, but with that said, being able to take risks and not feel large financial pressure, like in a home/production studio, is also crucial for growth.

The PSJ: What are some of your influences when it comes to audio recording? What sorts of sounds influence you today? 

MK: That is a hard question to answer because there is so much that has influenced me. From a sonic milestone standpoint, Tom Waits’s Bone Machine blew my mind. I had never heard anything done like it. He was doing all of these unconventional things and yet it still sounded huge. That record is probably my biggest [influence] for production particularly because I was in my late teens when I heard it. It was like my first kiss or something. I will never forget it. Now, I listen to tons of things. I am a big Roots fan. I love the last Spoon record, the last two Kendrick records, the last D’angelo, and the last Bowie record. There are too many to list, really. That’s what I listen to at home when I spin records. In the car I generally listen to CDs out of the studio or I’m just chilling out listening to classical on CBC radio 2. That is a new change… But with family, mortgage, and the studio, the car has turned into a zen place that I just zone out the way most people do in the shower. It’s where I brainstorm.

The PSJ: Tell us a little bit about Threshold Studios.

MK: Well, Threshold Recording Studio is a place I started building 5 years ago. It’s located in downtown Hamilton on the second and third floor of an old industrial building. I am a big believer in older and newer recording technologies and the studio reflects that. It can be seen in the cross section of gear. From a 24 track 2 inch machine, an old U.S. military compressor, older Coles and Neumann microphones, to newer equipment like the Universal Audio black 16 Apollo, Bricasti m7the SSL console, or cutting edge monitors like the Barefoots mm45 I have in the room. My goal has been to collect a diverse arsenal of the best and most interesting equipment that’s been created. One tiny step at a time. It has taken a lot of work to make it happen. Eighty five percent of the time I am the one making records in the room and so it caters to my preferences and process. But, there are a handful of other engineers and producers I let work in the room. The reason behind this is that I wanted to create a place that not only allowed me to make records, but that represented a world class production room in Hamilton that allows others access to the best of the best at an affordable rate. Something that Hamilton did not have before Threshold; it’s had large studios only. As of now it is focused around a single room. However, that will be changing over the course of 2016 with an isolation room or two.

The PSJ: What are your philosophies about recording and capturing sound in a room? How important is the artist’s interaction with a studio space?

MK: As far as technical philosophies go, that changes from project to project and its my job to cater to the artist while still doing my job capturing great sounds and a great performance. At the end of the day, it’s all about the artist. So, how the artist functions in my room is most important. Are the comfortable? Are the working well? Are they doing their best? Those are the biggest concerns. After those things are understood then I get to conform to the situation and the record-making happens. One of the advantages I have from working in my own room for so long is knowing the ins and outs of it. I know what sounds good, what doesn’t, and when I do experiment, it’s coming from an informed perspective. All huge things. There is a great Steve Albini quote that says something to the effect of, you can experiment all you want but if you haven’t learned anything from it, it was a waste. I believe that, and is that main reason why I built, and do most of my recording, in my room. That controlled experience and wisdom has made me better at what I do.

The PSJ: Can you still love the same song after listening to it over and over in post?

MK: Absolutely! It’s a quality you gain over time. But, the two records that are being played most in my car right now are things that I just finished up. You have to be slightly masochistic. You have to love processI listen over and over because I want to learn more. I want to be better and better. Ultimately, it’s the competitive spirit that keeps me going. Not just against others, but also against myself. I always liken this to skateboarding: you are aware of what other guys are doing, but when it comes down to it, it’s you and your board. And you keep drilling out that one trick over and over until you get what you want, tweaking small details over and over. It’s the same as shadow boxing. That’s the same as making records. Making records includes so many steps, so many details, and so many variables. The only way to get good is to be able to understand how each one of those things effects everything – from that individual instrument’s signal chain, to how it fits in the whole mix.

The PSJ: What does it mean to be a part of the Canadian music scene? How would you characterize “Canadian music”? What does the “Hamilton Music Scene” mean to you?

MK: I think being apart of the Canadian music scene means less than it did a while a go. The global village aspect of the internet has definitely changed things. I think people are brought together because of geography. But I don’t believe that geography means they will be pushed into a genre. This exists on a grey scale… but it’s how I see the trend.

Hamilton, is even less affected by a geographical influence to the scene’s genre. This is a weird hodge-podge music community. I love it for that reason. It’s also not a large music hub like Nashville or L.A. and I think we get some more interesting things happening because we are not as greatly affected by small ripples in style and trends like the Toronto music scene is. However, relating back to the Canadian music scene, Toronto is basically where the music industry starts and ends. It’s where the grants come from. Many Hamilton bands have succeeded outside of the country and I believe that is because they aren’t consumed by trying to succeed in that market as much and have taken the financial risks themselves to get out.

The PSJ: What are some acts you have worked with? Are there any local acts you would like to work with?

MK: Over the last 5 years that I have had the studio I have worked with a lot of great acts. Some of the bigger names that have walked through the studios door are Wildlife, The Dirty Nil, Serena Ryder, Dave Pomfret, Young Rival, The Junior Boys, Dark Mean, The Arkells, Lobby, Jessy Lanza, New Hands, The Rest, Illitry, Munroe, The White Crowleys, Jenifer Budd, Billy Moon, Matty V (Young Empires), The Medicine Hat, Bruce Peninsula, The Dill, and Mike Trebilcock.

Yes, there are quiet a few local bands that have caught my attention.

The PSJ: Aside from your extensive work in producing/audio engineering, how else do you like to get involved within the musical arts?

MK: That is a good question. I have had several school groups come through. I have taught some small groups of people basic engineering and that is something I think I will do again – just want to make it interesting. I have wanted to host a cool intimate show in the space but that hasn’t lined up yet. But if anyone reading this has an idea, I’m looking for something to do. It’s important for me to be involved in these types of things as well.

The PSJ: What can we expect from Threshold Recording Studio in the future? Do you have any projects coming up that you’re most looking forward to? 

MK: I don’t have any drastic plans for the future. There are a few construction things that will be happening. As of right now, I am quiet happy with the gear in the room and am primarily focused on the records that will be coming through the door for the next 4 months. It’s a great thing to say when you have bookings 4 months ahead. That gives me cause to pause on the big picture stuff and just focus on the job and my family.

As far as new releases coming up that Im stoked about, yes, there are a few. There is a new Wildlife record coming out that I did quite a bit of work for. It was mixed by Mark Needleham (Killers, Imagine Dragons, Moby) which is cool. The new Medicine Hat record is absolutely phenomenal. Very excited for them. They have a new single with a very impressive video that was released. I recently completed another record with Munroe. We had an all star band come together with members of Feist’s band and the Arkells. And a new single from some of my best friends and personal heros, Dark Mean… Also finished a record with my good friend Dave Pomfret that’s really cool, and also currently working with the White Crowleys. Cohen from the band works at the studio with me and has really become a huge part of what the studio is now. There are also a couple things coming out that are still hush… but, yeah, some cool things are coming down the pipe!

The PSJ: Lastly, do you have any advice for younger producers/engineers and musical artists?

MK: Sure I do. I was given some great advice when I was starting out. Number one is, you need to work incredibly hard. You don’t take time off because you are entitled to normal hours. You take time off when you are going to burn out. There are many people looking to do this as a job. You need to work very hard to stand out. Following that, I was told that becoming a professional in the music industry is a marathon and I think that is accurate. The people that can’t keep with the pack, that fall and don’t get back up, because you will fall repeatedly, are the ones that disappear. Second, you have to take risks. These risks are financial; they are going to school or interning in some distant place, they are losing money trying to find a system that works for you – there are many. Much like musicians, the people behind the scenes are defined by their stories. Get out there and truly give it your all because that is your story.

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Eric Tarquinio,
The PSJ