It does not seem like a recording studio could exist here. In an industrial section of Sand City, between Nichol’s Plumbing and Heating, and Worley Ironworks, where the industrial equipment sounds like a hyperactive dentist’s office, Gary Souza has his Real to Reel Recording Studio above a warehouse for Spas By the Bay.
Luckily, the homemade isolation room—the room where the musicians are recorded—is separated from the industrious, noisy outside world by about a foot-thick wall composed of several layers of carpet, carpet padding, sheet rock and sound board.
To some, especially the proponents of the latest digital recording technology, a foot thick wall is not the only thing separating Souza from the real world. The other thing is Souza’s reliance on antiquated recording equipment.
While Souza, a very talkative man with a graying ponytail and round, John Lennonesque eyeglasses, shows me his equipment, he explains why he prefers old-school analog recording equipment to the new fandangled digital technology. “Digital has a completely different sound, “ he says. “A biting, bright sound.”
“If it’s good enough for Elvis, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, it’s good enough for me,” he says about analog recording equipment.
In the control room—where Souza can adjust the sounds of the various instruments being recorded in the isolation room—the animated musician shows me his prized possession: A one-inch reel to reel tape deck, which looks kinda like a boxy movie projector with two tape reels sticking out from the top like Mickey Mouse ears. To the left of the tape deck are a couple of effects boards and a recording console with hundreds of colored knobs that look like Sweet Tarts.
In these days with computer programs like Pro-Tools, more and more musicians are simply recording at home instead of logging time in a recording studio. But Souza insists that he does more than simply record his customers. As a local musician who played with local blues group the Broadway Band for 16 years, Souza is willing to help fill out his clients’ songs by playing bass, acoustic or electric guitar, percussion, keyboards or synthesizers for no extra charge.
Also, since he has been writing songs for over 20 years, Souza is able to tell what might be missing from a client’s song. He just looks at the song the same way an architect looks at a building. “I can see the infrastructure,” he says.
As an example, he plays a friend’s song called “A Family Strong.” Souza says that his pal came into the studio with only the lyrics accompanied by a few chords played on an acoustic guitar. Now, the song swells with instrumentation including multi-tracked vocals, keyboards, handclaps and a jazzy saxophone solo.
After starting Real to Reel Studios in 1997 at another location two blocks away, Souza says he has recorded everyone from folks dabbling in songwriting to established regional acts like popular blues band Red Beans & Rice and heavy rockers J.J. Hawg. He says he has even put rap artists like Marina’s So Real and Seaside’s Society’s Nightmare on CDs.
Right now, the recording project that is getting Souza fired up is a tribute album to Ray Charles featuring local artists. According to the self-proclaimed archivist, Charles was a real steadying influence during Souza’s formative years. “Things weren’t easy (growing up,)” Souza says. “Things were rough, but Ray Charles soothed me.”
The tribute album will have local artists like John “Broadway” Tucker, Warren Davis and Bill Sullivan performing Charles’ classics like “You Don’t Know Me.”
Before leaving, Souza plays a version of “Hit the Road Jack” from the upcoming album. Closing his eyes, he sings along with this version’s vocalist, seven year-old Dhani Birdsall, son of local bluesman Alligator. While the song plays, Souza seems lost in his own world.