From the outside it appeared to be an unassuming three-storey Crescentwood home. Inside, however, music magic was being made. Between 1974 and 1981, Roade Recording Studios, located in a residential block at 887 Grosvenor Ave., was the spot for local rockers to record or just hang out. "There wasn't any other place that was hip to current music recording at the time," recalls founding partner and chief engineer Glenn Axford. "It was a cool place. Just about every rock band from that era came through our doors."
Axford had been operating his own recording business before partnering with CFRW deejay Bobby "Boom Boom" Branigan, aka Bill Rouse, in the early '70s to create a studio for recording radio ads. The two converted the second-floor apartment of Rouse's Grosvenor Avenue house into what was at the time a state-of-the-art, 16-track recording facility. The walls were lined with sheets of lead behind the Gyproc for soundproofing (Axford never received a noise complaint from neighbours), the control room was equipped with a top-of-the-line Neve recording console (similar to the console in the acclaimed Sound City documentary directed by former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl), and the bedroom was turned into the studio proper.
"The vocal booth was literally a bedroom closet," says recording engineer Howard Rissin. "I felt so bad for anybody going in there to sing because there was no air in there. They would come out sweating." The lounge featured antique furniture, wood panelling, shag carpet and a Coca-Cola machine. "It was very '70s."
Opened in 1974, Roade quickly became a mecca for musicians. While commercial ads and jingles paid the bills, rock musicians found the ambiance appealing. "Even though it was small, it was an incredibly creative space," says Rissin. "There was so much music going on there all the time."
The tiny control room was often jammed with musicians and hangers-on.
"I was recording overdubs for Bill Iveniuk's Bills Bills Bills album," Howard remembers. "When the bars closed all these musicians would show up because everyone knew Bill and he would tell them, 'I'll get you on the album!' We ran out of space on the tapes for all his friends to add their parts. One night we were blasting the playbacks full volume when a very drunk girl leaned over to ask me, 'Is this your stereo?' "
Brian Rich came on board as partner and studio manager while third partner Jim Rouse, no relation to Bill who had since moved on to radio in L.A., was responsible for drumming up business. The operation eventually occupied the main floor for offices and tape duplication while the third-floor turret room was used for storage and additional offices.
As studio guitarist Ari Lahdekorpi recalls, "Many of the late-night sessions at Roade included cameos by the elite of the Winnipeg music scene." Jazz player extraordinaire Ron Paley recorded at Roade as well as Tim Thorney, Greg Leskiw, Bob Fuhr (with band Zdenka), Dale Russell, Laurie MacKenzie, Maclean & Maclean, Honey Hill, Graham Shaw and Popular Mechanix, to name a few. The latter-day Guess Who also cut tracks at Roade. "It was a lucky confluence of souls and energy," states Graham Shaw, who recorded his first jingle at the studio. "A buddy in Toronto needed a jingle for a new pizza company so I made it up hung over while Glenn set up the sound. It ran for about 30 years."
"I learned how to be efficient recording jingles," notes Rissin. "For a rock session you might spend the first day just getting a drum sound but for a jingle session you had maybe five minutes to get the drum sound right. You had to work quickly. I did sessions for Manitoba Tourism, Garbonzo's Pizza, Triple E Trailers, you name it." Mike Rheault wrote many of the jingles with Elias, Schritt and Bell often called in to sing on them.
Over the winter of 1975 to '76, Burton Cummings was a frequent client, recording demos for his debut solo album. According to Axford, "He was trying out a lot of ideas and would play all night, sometimes alone and sometimes with Ian Gardiner and Gord Osland." While Burton paid his bills, others weren't so flush. "I remember Brian Rich yelling, 'Don't give that guy any tapes until he pays his bill!'' laughs Rissin.
Another regular customer was K-Tel, which employed the studio to master its various budget compilation albums. "A courier truck would arrive with all these original master tapes from all these original recording artists from the '50s and '60s," recalls Axford, "and they would want it done the next day so it would be an all-nighter to get it completed."
The house was rumoured to be haunted, and there were ghost stories abound. Tapes would mysteriously slow down or a piano chord would be heard from the empty studio.
By 1980 the studio was struggling, as competition from other facilities in town required upgrading Roade's equipment. Rather than incurring the expense, the partners decided to close up shop.
Still, memories endure. "There was a definite vibe in that very funky old house," muses Lahdekorpi.
"For a pretty small space we managed to get a great sound," says Axford. "It was a fun time."
Join John Einarson this fall for his "Off The Record" series of classes at mcnallyrobinson.com