Published on June 13th, 2017 | by M. Milner0
Visiting The Big M: A Trip To Studio Bell in Calgary
You can see it’s twisting silhouette throughout downtown Calgary, a giant glittering M standing between the bridges, skyscrapers and Saddledome. It’s Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, the Canadian music-focused museum which re-opened it’s doors in Calgary.
Located on the corner of 4th Street SE and 9th Ave. SE, the museum’s home to one of the biggest collections of music memorabilia and vintage equipment in the country. I had the chance to visit it while on vacation the other week and take a tour of it’s vast collection of vintage gear, unique equipment and history of Canadian music.
Calgary’s a city with a vibrant music culture and history.
Sure, it doesn’t stretch back quite as far as Montreal or Toronto, but there’s a distinct legacy here: Tegan and Sara, Preoccupations, Chad VanGaalen and Feist all have ties to the city. Studio Bell does too: it’s built on the site of the former King Edward Hotel, a long-time blues/rock venue affectionately dubbed the King Eddy. The museum’s kept the former venue’s sign and facade on the corner of 4th and 9th, just a few feet away from one of it’s most prized pieces: the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.
Indeed, the museum acts as both a repository of music history and as a working studio.
The three studios here each have consoles with ties to classic rock history: the other two use consoles from Olympic Studios and from Trident Studios. Artists like David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Queen, and Genesis all recorded with these very units. Two of them are away from public display, but people at street level can see the Mobile Studio through a window and try to imagine the chaos it’s been through: numerous Stones touring parties, the 1971 Montreux Casino fire and Bob Marley’s 1975 English tour.
The museum largely extends vertically up through Studio Bell’s five stories, with each floor broken up into separate exhibits and an open staircase corkscrewing up along the middle. For me, the museum opened up with look at the roots of Canadian music: the Soundscape room. Here, a mix of roots music played over the PA, everything from native chants to sea shanties.
This opened up into a room of Canadian music pioneers, some of them familiar, some not so much. Several notable, oft-overlooked Canadians get their due here: arranger and producer Gil Evans, inventor Emile Berliner – who launched a record label in Montreal at the turn of the 20th century – and Reginald Fessenden, who helped invent AM radio.
There’s also a room stuffed with Canadian music notables: the trailblazer room.
This room’s the result of a project by Toronto-based photographer Norman Wong, who shot portraits of some of Canada’s best and most interesting musicians: Peaches, A Tribe Called Red, Joel Plaskett, David Foster and many others. Their photos are stretched out to life-size and surround the room, as if the viewer is surrounded by talent, as it were.
Finally, there’s also a room packed with vintage Canadian-made gear on display. It ranges from a rare Hazelcom McLeyvier synthesizer to a set of early Garnet amplifiers. But the coolest piece of this collection was Jack Richardson’s recording console. Perhaps best remembered as the guy who produced The Guess Who’s breakout single “These Eyes,” he also recorded acts like Alice Cooper and Bob Seger on this unit.
Moving up a floor, I visited the Speak Up stage, a room dedicated to pop music’s political power. Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” was playing over the PA, naturally. Beside an exhibit showing examples of politics and pop merging was an interactive display asking people if music had the power to change the world. The responses on this day were skewed, two-to-one, that it can.
Across the stairs is a room dedicated to voices.
Between a vintage Vocoder unit are two soundproofed vocal booths where people can try their hand at singing along to classic songs; Rob, a photographer accompanying me, scored pretty well on a version of “Takin’ Care of Business.”
But the centrepiece of this floor was a vintage Kimball theatre organ. A huge, six-station unit, this organ was originally designed to accompany silent movies and makes a dizzying array of sounds: crashing drums, loud blasts of pipe organ and even household sounds like a doorbell. On the day I visited, a pianist named Tina was playing it; her playing echoed throughout the entire museum.
There’s only a handful of this kind of organ left in North America; the one at Studio Bell is the only kind of this specific model still in use.
It’s trip to the museum is a tricky one: from a theatre in Washington State, up to Seattle and then Vancouver and finally to a basement in St. Albert, where it was eventually donated to Studio Bell.
Even though it takes up a whole room and has everything ranging from drums to a marimba to full range of pipes, this Kimball is actually the smallest one still in use: others have up to four keyboards and several more stations. Still, it’s wonder to see in use.
On another floor comes three related, yet different rooms. The Plugged In room has a huge bank of electric keyboards: a Mellotron, several Moog synths (including a Taurus, an uncommon foot-pedal unit), a Linn drum machine and a Prophet 5. Nash the Slash’s electric mandolin’s here too, although it’s something of an odd fit. Conversely, there’s an Unplugged Room, with a huge display of acoustic instruments: Neil Peart’s drum kit, Natalie McMaster’s fiddle and Ray St. Germain’s guitar.
But the most interesting room on this floor was their collection of pianos.
Elton John’s white song writing piano, a vintage ondes Martenot (sort of a proto-synth that’s similar to a Theremin) and Tangerine Dream’s Audacity snyth unit. And sitting off to one side, painted in bright, fluorescent colours is the Merry Prankster’s PA unit, a little box familiar to anyone who devoured The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a teen.
Up on the top floor are two showcases: one for Tom Cochrane and one for Sarah McLaughlin. Cochrane’s is stuffed with memorabilia and gold records, while McLaughlin’s is dominated by several instruments: a Kay guitar, an electric piano and the amp she used while playing Lilith Fair.
Between these is the Hall of Fame, where notable Canadians have been inducted and in the middle is a selection of vintage on-stage outfits (everyone from Avril Lavigne to Hank Snow) and some very cool gear: Randy Bachman’s guitar, Deadmaus’ helmet and Stompin’ Tom Connor’s stomping board.
There’s so much equipment and gear on display here, it’s sometimes overwhelming; in one room alone, there’s so many analog synth units, I had a hard time trying to keep them straight.
A few cool items aren’t on display, like TONTO, a massive synth unit used on Stevie Wonder’s albums in the 70s. And I haven’t even mentioned the hands-on aspect of this museum: several guitars, synths and pianos that anyone can walk up and play, including a very cool, and very old, Mendelssohn piano.
All in all, Studio Bell is a captivating place, an interesting mix of unique and familiar. It takes materials nearly every Canadian has experienced in some way – Randy Bachman’s music, for example – and places them in a new context. Sure, you’ve heard his mid-70s records, but now you can hear them while looking at the guitar he played on them. All in all, there’s a lot here to take in. If you’re ever in Calgary, it’s a must visit.