The Old Crow Recording Studio has been in the Yukon for 25 years, but many of you probably drive past it, unaware, every day.
About 15 minutes out of Whitehorse to the south there is a driveway and house like many others. Behind the house is a normal looking shed.
Inside this one, however, is nothing like the usual mix of scattered tools, skis and camping equipment. Enter the door and you’re staring at a mixing booth. The next room has guitars three rows deep. Drum kits. Microphones. A piano. And in the centre of it all, Bob Hamilton, who has kept them tuned and polished this past quarter century.
Like so many people in the North, Hamilton didn’t exactly come here on purpose.
“I was living in Victoria and I came up here for a gig,” he says. “That was a couple of weeks and I played the whole summer up here. Then I got an opportunity to join an R&B band, playing guitar and that lasted about six months. So I stayed up here for that winter. And I came back up here to live in ’83.”
It wasn’t until 1988 that Old Crow Recording became a focus in Hamilton’s life. The concept for it was small at first — just a way for Hamilton to record and improve his own music. Then he started working on things for friends — some mixing here and recording there.
“It just sort of grew out of that,” he says, “But the whole time I’ve been recording I’ve also been gigging, so it’s always been a combination of playing music and recording music.”
It’s fitting then, that the two tools Hamilton singles out to show me are a guitar and a mixing console.
The guitar is a 1938 Martin D-18. It has lived with Hamilton for twenty-odd years, has seen its share of battles and looks the part. As Hamilton tells it, the instrument has been roasted over fires by bikers, had sound equipment dropped on it and has generally been played to within an inch of its life. But if the cracks and dents tell one story, the patches tell another. This is an instrument that has been loved and it comes through in the sound.
“It’s really big and old-sounding,” Hamilton says. “This guitar would be worth a lot of money, but it’s been fixed so many times that it’s really a player’s guitar rather than a collector’s guitar, but I like it just fine that way.”
The console is a Harrison 3232, which saw use in Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans from 1974 to 1994. That means, as Hamilton points out, the voices recorded through the console belong to artists like Elvis Costello, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney. The story of how it came to be in Whitehorse, some 5,800 kilometres away, is epic.
“A friend of mine who came up here told me he had it and wasn’t using it,” Hamilton says. “So we wrangled a trade and my son and I flew out to Calgary and bought a van. We drove from there straight down to Florida where the Harrison was being kept and drove it back to Whitehorse.”
In 1988 Old Crow was the only non-CBC recording studio in Whitehorse. Now it is one of three, not to mention any number of basement recording setups. Over that time Hamilton’s work and his understanding of the relationship between musician and technology has also grown.
“You need to have some musical understanding to be a good mixer and I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t,” he says. “You need to have some technical expertise, you can’t just be a musician who thinks they know what they like. It’s a marriage of technical and musical. So I try to keep the technical stuff out of the musical people’s head, don’t tell them what I’m doing half the time, I just do it and try and make the technology invisible to them.”
Colin Hodd is a journalism graduate from New Brunswick.