Walking into Sud-Ouest Recording Service, located in the Montreal borough of the same name, feels like walking into a living room and a lovely time capsule. The ambiance is decidedly chill-70s, with the myriad of instruments calling musicians to play. Live from the couch (mid-century looking, brown), facing the drumset and a sunset, William (Will) Poulin and Matt Damron, engineers, producers, multi-instrumentalists, and studio co-owners, chat about getting into the music they record. 

“I feel like I’m in my apartment right now,” states Damron. The feeling is mutual – the open setting would make quite a beautiful living space, with incredible natural light and a cozy vibe. “I think the idea is to make people comfortable. If you’re comfortable, it’s easier to be creative,” the engineer adds. “People often say, ‘I felt like I could go to your studio, whereas other places felt too intimidating. Here, you guys are the engineers who built the walls, and it’s pretty small.’ It’s not perfect, but we make good music,” notes Poulin. 

Less separation, more magic 

Most of the magic happens in this room. At Sud-Ouest Recording Service, the norm is full-band for tracking. “We’re driven by that 60s-70s aesthetic of bands in a room playing together. And that’s how we like to make music,” says Poulin. This niche approach sets the studio apart and explains why musicians usually seek to work with the pair. “Our particular style of working lends itself to certain genres of music – rock, folk, jazz, anything focused around a band playing together,” says Damron, pointing out that recording as a group doesn’t often happen in modern production. Theidea even sounds novel to bands who aren’t used to it, but, as his partner remarks: “That’s how music has always been made – by playing together.”

This means musicians must do their homework before studio time to make the session easier – and budget-friendly – since instruments are recorded simultaneously. “We try to tell people before working here to rehearse a lot. Practice, make sure you’re tight, that you know every part of your song and what you want it to do,” says Damron. In the studio, anything can be done, from recording track by track to going as far as having piano, guitar, drums, and vocals done in one take. 

Recording can be done digitally or analogically in the studio, but always using the same approach. “We are encouraged to at least pretend that we’re working on tape,” says Poulin. Which also means capturing imperfections. In that regard, producers prefer to keep digital manipulations to a minimum. “You have studios that fix the shit out of everything way too much. We do correct little things, like a wrong note or chord, or an accident on a great take.” For example, if the band is struggling rhythmically, he’ll jump in by putting a mic in the control room and using a shaker to do percussion with them. 

A communal space 

The lack of a booth certainly contributes to the space’s conviviality, and is a fun challenge for the engineers, who sharpened their micing expertise. “It’s really fun to explore this room and figure out how to get good separation and sound,” states Poulin. “We have some cool gear, and that’s fun, but at the end of the day, it’s about a good song and performance. Does it sound good? Can I feel the song?” goes on his partner. 

Then, it’s about what it takes to make the song great. “We’ll do a couple of takes, and usually, there’s one take the band likes. Sometimes, we realize that another take had some energy, the one we thought was more perfect,” explains Poulin. The final product may also be a comp of different takes that will later get overdubs, embellishments, percussion, or anything the song needs. “Our approach is more one of a producer,” Poulin adds. 

This led the studio co-founders to launch Baby Horse Records, an in-house record label. The idea was first to put out the music made together with the community built around the studio. The venture also acted like their portfolio. “If we sign an artist, they’ll get produced in the studio. It’s kind of like Motown or Stax,” explains Poulin. Let’s do everything – that’s Sud-Ouest Recording Service’s motto. The studio’s name is borrowed from Sun Records’ origin story, which Sam Phillips (who recorded Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and more) originally named Memphis Recording Service. “It was a big inspiration for us building this place. In the 50s and early 60s, Phillips built the studio, assembled gear, and produced records, which he cut and played on the radio” tells the producer.  

With such a pointed vision, it’s hard to believe that Sud-Ouest Recording Service was born and built during the pandemic. Before he went on to study philosophy and literature, Poulin grew up in his dad’s hi-fi store. He is now the bassist of the Montreal-based band Bluebird, and met Damron through his brother and drummer Frédéric Poulin, whose band had put up a Craigslist ad to which Damron responded. The singer-songwriter, who’s currently working on a debut album to be released this summer, hails from Raleigh, North Carolina. He grew up playing in bands before interning at a major recording studio in New York City. In 2017, a non-musical work opportunity prompted Damron to move to Montreal. He and Poulin quickly discovered each other’s passion for recording. 

In 2020, as the pandemic halted their respective jobs, Poulin and Damron found the time and motivation to create the studio in a workshop space in the industrial area near the Lachine Canal. Everything  looks like it’s always been in the space – from the massive wood-clad wall separating the vestibule and control room, to the deep red curtains and the impressive collection of vintage and modern recording equipment. Yet, they had to figure it out themselves from scratch.

“One of the things that we did to make this studio possible is to have a co-op-like model. Community members pay a monthly fee and have a certain amount of time to use the studio. For example, the Wurlitzer belongs to one of our members, which is also why there are many instruments here.” This represents another beautiful way to pool resources, build community, and make more music – which is what it’s all about at Sud-Ouest Recording Service. 

Written by Christelle Saint-Julien
Illustration by
Holly Li