There’s a secret in Canton Township, Michigan.
Eminem knows it. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin know it. Even Ted Nugent knows it.
They’ve all been inside the nondescript gray building near Ford Road that houses the mystery.
They’ve stepped inside the building’s blue steel doors and walked into a bit of magic – a recording studio known throughout the international music industry.
Sound and Mystery
“People come from all over the world, this is one of the best drum rooms in the country. We’ve got different pianos, this is a really cool (one.) Hey, it’s a little in tune today!”
Grammy award-winning producer and musician Chuck Alkazian stands in the middle of a 5,000-square-foot polished wood floor, where simply taking a few steps creates a whole new world of sound.
“Like over here, this is gonna give you a little tighter sound based on the height of the walls and this is all covered in special foam,” Alkazian notes. “You hear how it’s a little more roomier? But it’s good room. And then if you come into a vocal booth, do you hear the difference? There’s no echo. It’s completely dead. It’s cool, you know?”
It’s not just a different kind of sound. This is pearl sound. As in Pearl Sound Studios, Alkazian’s livelihood and his life.
“Down in Nashville they don’t really have a lot of ambience. Things are really tight. But I like moving air. Air is where it’s at. I think echo and reverb and space create emotion,” Alkazian said.
That sound – Pearl Sound – is part of studios hidden inside a large building that used to be a truck repair shop.
“I had two older women probably in their 80’s pull up once and go, ‘What do you do in that building? You should be ashamed of yourself!’ I kind of let her peek in through the door…and then she kind of slowly crawled in like a little puppy dog coming out of its cage. And then an hour later she’s like, ‘This is so cool! I can’t wait to tell all my girlfriends at canasta!’ ” – Grammy award-winning producer Chuck Alkazian
But Alkazian says for the past four decades it’s been both a destination for a variety of musical icons and a point of intrigue for the roughly 40,000 drivers who sit daily at the stop light on nearby Ford Road.
“I had two older women probably in their 80’s pull up once and go, (Alkazian shifts into an aged feminine drawl,) ‘What do you do in that building? You should be ashamed of yourself!’ I go, ’Well ma’am we’re a recording studio.’ And they’re like, ‘Musicians do drugs.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m sure some do. Would you like to see?’ And she said, ‘I’m not going in there!’
Alkazian can’t stop from laughing at the memory.
“It was great, because I kind of let her peek in through the door and a friend of mine was playing the drums so she heard. And then she kind of slowly crawled in like a little puppy dog coming out of its cage. And then an hour later she’s like, ‘This is so cool! I can’t wait to tell all my girlfriends at canasta!’ ”
The Long Road Home
Alkazian says he’s been fascinated by the recording process since he was in grade school, when his mother found Pearl Sound and other studios could use a musical 10-year-old with a technological bent.
“I’d come home after football practice and I’d get a ride to a studio,” Alkazian remembers. “I think people took to me because I was a little kid. It was cute. Everyone I worked with hid me from any of the bad stuff in the business. They would always protect little Chucky. And I feel by being protected, I’m able to make great music that protects others.”
By the time he hit about 30, Alkazian says he’d gone from learning to make records while living off of food scavenged from commercial food trays to becoming an in-demand producer jet-setting from coast to coast.
But he says family and other personal matters eventually drew him back to Canton, where he and a partner decided to take the ownership plunge and make Pearl Sound studios their own.
“There’ve been quite a number of famous records that have been made here. And I don’t think people realize how supportive the international music business is to Canton Township,” Alkazian said. “When someone comes from Czechoslovakia and records at your studio for a month and goes to every restaurant and stays at a hotel in your city, or someone comes in from Los Angeles or Japan… A lot of people know the city of Canton because of Pearl Sound Studios.”
It’s a roster of talent that runs the gamut of genres, from hip hop artists and the B-52’s to k.d. lang and Anita Baker.
Michigan music legends like Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger found a home at Pearl Sound.
Detroit native Mike Skill took his band The Romantics to the studio a few years after their songs “Talking in Your Sleep” and “What I Like About You” became staples on the radio.
Now Skill says is back at Pearl Sounds producing solo material.
Skill says he trusts both Alkazian’s deft touch (he calls him “The Chief” in the studio) and Canton’s quiet ambience.
“It’s kind of not in the middle of anything that’s distracting. You’re out in a nice rural area. You get out there and it’s like cubby-holing, you’re just in your own space.
“And then (Pearl Sound has) got all the toys, all the bells and whistles. It’s high-quality stuff,” he said.
Alkazian’s “toys” include what he says is one of only two remaining microphone pre-amplifiers originally used by Motown Records, creating a sound so clean he says digital devices cannot compete.
His control room features speakers as loud as jet engines, yet delicate enough that they must be tuned with lasers.
A Chance to be Who They Are
But Alkazian says the technical wizardry pales in comparison to the profoundly personal relationships he’s developed at the studio.
“One of the bigger moments was being friends with Chris Cornell from Soundgarden,” he says, his voice growing quiet. “That’s a rough one ‘cause he died here. I did a song on (the record) King Animal called “Halfway There.” It was actually an acoustic version of the song that Joe Barresi had produced and it was a European-U.K. release. But we started a writing relationship (that) not a lot of people knew about.”
Pearl Sound’s partnerships extend to more than just established musicians.
Alkazian points with pride to a list of young bands he says he helped break into the music business, bands he contends would not have compiled such a combustible sound if they had not been recording at a studio.
“Playing together, that’s the synergy that a lot of bands are missing nowadays. Because it’s hard to have synergy with some guy through an Ethernet cable. I mean, it’s cool. I do sessions with people in Tokyo here in Canton just through the internet. But what kind of synergy is that?”
In fact, he says, one of the prizes for winners of a talent competition at the Michigan State Fair is the chance to record three songs at his studio.
“A lady came in here who was …a ragtime piano player. Widow. She started playing and I recorded the whole thing…That’s what it’s all about. There’s people out there that have these visions that are getting shut down on a daily basis. And you never get a chance to be who you really want to be.” – Producer and musician Chuck Alkazian
That in-person connection, Alkazian says, has created some of the most memorable experiences he’s had in music.
“I don’t discriminate. I actually had a lady come in here who was 80-years-old. She was a ragtime piano player. Widow. She sat at the piano and I just threw up the microphones, ‘cause I was just enamored with this woman.
Alkazian pauses, reconstructing the scene.
“She went into a bubble, she wouldn’t even look at us. She started playing and I recorded the whole thing. And she played for an hour straight, five or six different songs. Flawlessly, like you knew she played in a parlor or something in the 40’s. And I gave her the CD. She was from England. She donated the CD to her university where she went. And they sold like 50,000 copies, that’s how good it was.”
Alkazian smiles, his reflection dancing off of computer screens surrounding the massive sound mixing board in his control room.
“That’s what it’s all about. There’s people out there that have these visions that are getting shut down on a daily basis. And you never get a chance to be who you really want to be.”
Alkazian says he got that chance. To paraphrase the lyrics of his friend Chris Cornell’s song “Halfway There,” Pearl Sound is “what his dreams have become.” He says he’s right where he should be. Making records. Doing it in Canton. And planning for many more musical milestones ahead.
Click the audio link above to hear the full story and the complete interview with Chuck Alkazian