Sound Foundry owner brings 'golden ear' to music production
Kingsville studio a rural retreat for musicians
Brett Humber and his musical life have come full circle. As a kid he learned how to play electric guitar in his parents’ basement. Now, in the same basement, he’s recording an eclectic range of Essex County musicians, singers and songwriters.
Humber is the sole proprietor of Sound Foundry Studios on the McCain Sideroad, but when the company was started in the late 1990s it was a partnership created amongst friends, located first in St. Clair Beach and then Maidstone.
Humber and the company were forced to leave the Maidstone location, and Humber, now down to one partner, was looking for new premises.
“We didn’t want to get too far out of the city … as we shopped around there was light industrial areas which were too noisy for us, or commercial, retail places where we were creating too much noise for them,” he said.
“All those things factored into this. My parents have been super supportive my whole life and they were like, ‘you want to rent a space, the basement is sitting empty.’”
So, in 2003 Humber went back to where it all started.
Humber eventually acquired full ownership and now has clients recording at his studio from Windsor and Essex County, Detroit, Chatham, London, Toronto and points beyond.
He said there are multiple advantages to having a recording studio in the middle of rural Kingsville.
Prior to COVID-19, Humber said, Detroit bands — like Ruth’s Hat — enjoyed leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city for rural Ontario. The Kingsville studio was a recording destination for city bands needing a break.
“Some bands like the convenience of being right downtown — (here) you’re going to a retreat. It allows you to clear your mind and focus on the art and the creative process.”
And then there's the cost: it’s a lot cheaper to record in Kingsville than in Toronto.
But the biggest reason Humber located the studio in Kingsville is the wealth of local talent.
“I really realized the breadth of the talent here. There were so many talented people here, not just people I knew, that I went to school with, which was huge, but young, old; there was just so much talent.”
The local talent pool includes bands and singer-songwriters like Brown Water, 50 Watt Head, Lodown, Explode When They Bloom, Cellos, What Seas, What Shores, James O-L and the Villains, Nemesis, Fresh Breath, Area 51 and Max Marshall.
Humber said about 10 years ago a Windsor music zine published a list of the top records from Windsor-Essex County. Many were from Kingsville and Harrow.
So why does Kingsville and area produce such high-end talent?
In Kingsville, Humber said, the music program run by Norm Buchanan at Kingsville District High School helped nurture a lot of aspiring musicians.
“He was ultra-enthusiastic and intense,” Brown Water and 50 Watt Head lead guitarist Ben Guthrie said of Buchanan.
“There was no hiding from that guy, I mean you had to be on or he would rip you apart … but rip you apart in the nicest possible way.”
Guthrie’s bandmate and vocalist with Brown Water and 50 Watt head, Mike Edwards, agreed.
“The bad teachers we all remember because they were terrible. They were either miserable or in the wrong line of work but then you have great teachers and those were the ones that treated teaching as a vocation. It wasn’t just a career, it was a calling, and Mr. Buchanan was that guy,” Edwards said.
“Out in the county there are less things to do right in your face…. You had to do something; you could play outside or you could pick up an instrument. So, I think picking up an instrument was a way to curb rural boredom.”
Humber said Kingsville’s isolation from urban distractions in the 1990s and early 2000s also acted as an incubator for local musical talent. That was a time when the internet was in its infancy, there was no Netflix, no arcades and fewer TV channels. Gaming consoles were not the same addictive force they are now.
“Out in the county there are less things to do right in your face…. You had to do something; you could play outside or you could pick up an instrument,” Humber said. “So, I think picking up an instrument was a way to curb rural boredom.”
There are other issues that make head-banging music easier to play in a rural environment — there are simply fewer neighbours to annoy.
“So here we are on Uncle Bill’s farm … let’s turn it up so loud the cops have got to come and the cops never came and we would just pick it up,” Humber said.
Edwards agreed, but said there was another factor: the broadcast proximity to rock ’n’ roll radio stations in Detroit, like WLLZ and WRIF, and across the lake in Ohio, WMMS and WOIT.
“There was a lot of classic rock, I guess you could call it hard rock, that was the doorway,” he said.
Guthrie said it was simply cool to play guitar in the 1990s in Kingsville.
“It was a status symbol. You could play guitar. You could play Eruption by Van Halen. You were the guy. It wasn’t cars, it wasn’t sports for a lot of us. It was identity.”
Humber has recorded a number of popular bands, but the most successful act he has produced and recorded is The Blue Stones, a two-piece band whose members Tarek Jafar and Justin Tessier are from the Tecumseh-St. Clair Beach area. The group was nominated as one of the best breakthrough groups at the 2020 Junos.
Humber said there are a lot of technical skills involved in producing a recording — but there is also some psychology involved.
If a group is recording an angry, heavy metal song, and they are not angry enough, he will say something annoying or irritating and then ask them to resume playing. If a gentle folk song sounds too edgy, same thing in reverse: ask them to stop and think about a cuddly puppy or a warm family memory.
The technical side is important, especially with COVID, since band members are often dispersed throughout the province.
Humber said many musicians have recording equipment at home, so they send vocals, guitar and drum tracks to the Sound Foundry Studio. Humber mixes the components of the song and then makes a decision whether extra musical flourishes are required. If the band can’t supply the extra tracks, Humber will call upon his numerous local contacts in the music industry.
Once the sound is converted from analog to digital, Humber mixes the elements together on a computer.
One song Humber is working on is It’s Christmas Time Again by Fresh Breath, a two-piece husband and wife alt-country group from Kingsville. The song may sound simple, but there are more than 50 layers or tracks to mix.
“He’s got what you call the golden ear,” Fresh Breath’s Katie Pascoe said of Humber. “He really good at listening and finding what you’re missing, what will elevate a song and push it where it needs to be … I don’t think we would have the success we’ve had so far without him.”
Her husband Josh added: “It’s invaluable to have a third party … when you’re writing yourself it’s very easy to get caught up in yourself, he is just so great picking apart songs … he's just great at making things sound polished.”
Next year, Humber will emerge from his parents’ basement. He has a home on Cedar Beach with a large out-building that will serve as the studio’s new home.
Retired music teacher expresses pride in 'terrific students'
Former music teacher Norm Buchanan retired from Kingsville District High School in 2004 and still lives in Kingsville.
He spent 33 years at the school, teaching thousands of kids, and whenever he meets former students they always refer to him by the same honorific: Mr. Buchanan.
“I often said to a few of them, you know my first name, you can use it, but they don’t,” Buchanan said.
Three of his former students — Brett Humber, Mike Edwards and Ben Guthrie — had nothing but praise for their musical mentor.
“You ask any adult how daunting it would be to stand in front of all these teenagers and get them to perform well. Norm was able to do that,” said Edwards. “He took control of the room. That’s a quality a lot of people don’t have.”
Buchanan said his goal, along with fellow music teacher Ann Dresser, was to give students a deeper appreciation of music — to make them better listeners, a better audience.
But he said the trio of Humber, Edwards and Guthrie were exceptional.
“I could say to Ben, we need a guitar solo, here’s this piece … the next time the jazz band came back for rehearsal or a performance the solo was ready. He was that talented,” Buchanan said.
He said it was “nice” his three former students are still thinking about him.
A story the three like to tell about Buchanan concerns his days attending high school in Thunder Bay and mixing with the likes of Neil Young and Paul Shaffer, music director of the David Letterman Show.
Buchanan declined comment on any past association with Young and Shaffer other than to say, “We crossed paths.”
“If I’m going to talk about Ben, Mike and Brett, that's what I’d like to comment on, these fellows. They were terrific students.”