The Magic Shop’s studio A in SoHo was internationally known for its distinctive sound, outstanding team, and the high-profile clientele who recorded there, including Suzanne Vega, Coldplay, Arcade Fire, the Foo Fighters, and David Bowie. But quietly tucked away in the “Blue” and “Red” studios at their Crosby St. facility was a precision audio repair and restoration operation responsible both for archiving some of the 20th century’s most precious recordings, and for nurturing the careers of multiple GRAMMY Award-winning restoration and mastering engineers who continue this important work.
After the closing of the Crosby St. studios, the team has reconvened at a new facility focused on audio restoration and archival in Downtown Brooklyn. With an exciting project with Laurie Anderson and MASS MoCA in the works and a roster of burgeoning young engineers, The Magic Shop Archival and Restoration Studio is back in action and working extensively with iZotope’s RX 5 Advanced. We caught up with founder and chief engineer Steve Rosenthal about the field of audio restoration and archiving, and how modern technology helps them preserve historical recordings and collections.
“I met Alan Lomax and Matt Barton [current Curator of Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress] in 1995. They were interviewing engineers for the preservation of the Lomax collection. I outlined and came up with a proposal to digitize that archive and that was the first large archive that I worked on.”
Since then, The Magic Shop preservation team has restored collections of Woody Guthrie, The Rolling Stones, Erroll Garner, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and decades of live recordings from legendary venues like The Bottom Line and Caffe Lena. In recognition of their work, the Magic Shop team has garnered seven GRAMMY Award nominations and five wins.
“It’s really important to be forward thinking about preservation, and a lot of times when you do a large archive, you’re only going to get one crack at doing it right. We always try to digitize these recordings at the highest resolution we can. We have a whole procedure for analyzing what we get when we start a new project. We have an assessment period where we go to where the tapes are, looking through the tapes, looking through the discs, trying to assess what kind of shape they’re in and then we triage what needs the most attention and figure out what the process will be to get it digitized.”
“One thing that I really believe in is to do it [the restoration of an archive] in a focused time period, so that you are really concentrating on the task at hand. Sort of like a family, all the engineers are working in the studio on the same project at the same time, so you can get problems solved and you can have dialogue about issues that come up. I’m not a dribs and drabs guy. Let’s get in, focus, and accomplish the task.”
“Now we have to budget it so it’s affordable for families, estates, and artists. We also play a role in helping these people realize their dream of having these works preserved and then finding a home for them.” The digitized archives often land at university libraries, museums, or the Library of Congress. “Finding a repository for the assets is part of the service that we offer. Not only does it help in deferring the cost of the digitization and restoration, but you know there will be a safe home for assets as well as all the associated memoranda, documentation, and correspondence.”
RX in action
“Last year we put out Erroll Garner’s complete Concert by the Sea. For the first time, everyone gets to hear the whole show, which was 22 songs. The original release was just 11 songs, but we found reference to the second half of this recording in letters and correspondence, and then did the long detective work trying to find the original tapes. But in terms of the audio, it was really difficult to deal with. It was basically a fan recording. It was recorded in mono on a 7 1/2 IPS tape machine. It had so much wow and flutter that we used Jamie Howarth’s Plangent Process for the tape transfer. He worked his magic on it, got the speed to be correct, and got rid of a large amount of the wow and flutter. Then Jessica Thompson, who mastered the record, used RX to fix the dropouts and hiss that were all over the recording.”
You can learn more about the Magic Shop’s new studios on their website, and try RX for your own audio repair and restoration projects by downloading the free, 10-day trial.
Special thanks to MARS engineer Alex Slohm for his assistance with this article.