An interview with co-owner/engineer DAVE DOWNHAM
By J. Tagmire

If you are a musician from Philadelphia or South Jersey , you probably have a connection to the Gradwell House Recording Studio. You may have recorded a few songs, or had your CD mixed or mastered there. You may have seen a show at one of the past locations, or you know somebody, who knows somebody, who has the high score on their Arkanoid machine. But if you aren’t one of those people, we’ll explain.

Gradwell House is a 2200 square foot, digital recording studio, now based in Haddon Heights , NJ , after growing out of two previous locations. The studio is owned and operated by Dave Downham and Steve Poponi, who you may know from such bands as The Secession Movement, Condor, The Ages, Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start, or Dixon Ward.

In over 8 years, many local, national, and even international musicians of all types have recorded at Gradwell. Most recently, The Progress has spent a good amount of December and January there, recording their debut LP Merit for Negative Progression Records. Steve and Dave have also worked with bands such as: The Early November, New Atlantic, and Jena Berlin .

I got a chance to sit down with Dave Downham and chat about Gradwell. (Steve is either too cool for school, or in Europe with Bloodhound Gang). Dave’s been at Gradwell for over 2 years now and he’s also currently teaching Fundamentals of Music for Sound Engineering at Camden County College . He plays a major part in our Mass Broadcast Volume 1 Compilation CD. He not only sequenced the CD, but also performed in 4 of the songs and either recorded, mixed, or mastered a few more.

J. Tagmire - So what is Gradwell House?
Dave Downham - Gradwell House is a studio that was started by Steve Poponi in his basement in Maple Shade on Gradwell Avenue, hence the name. It was a basement studio. In it's present form Gradwell House is a studio that Steve and I partnered up. I guess it was Jan of 2004 and we decided to get a new location. You know obviously after the Gloucester location which was the first location he did after having the house. Now we're in Haddon Heights , NJ in a refurbished Warehouse. It’s a very do-it-yourself kind of thing, where we just basically put it together the way we thought it should be. Essentially it's just a 2 person partnership.

J. Tagmire - Who works here and what are their roles?
Dave Downham - Steve and I are owner engineers, and basically I guess... Jeff Mott used to work for us and he was kind of a freelance engineer. And then we've had this kid Stewart… but basically the only people who are on staff now are Steve and I as owner engineers and Chris ward who's also the drummer of Pattern is Movement who is a freelance engineer. So the roles basically, Steve and I kind of take care of between the two of us we take care of all the administrative, all the booking, the cleaning, the session work… I do the majority of the mastering but Steve and I both do recording and mixing. Well work on sessions together, we'll ping pong between sessions and all that sorts of jazz we to everything from taking out the trash to organizing people to painting to cleaning whatever so, we pretty much take care of everything and then a freelance person comes in just to do sessions and a little cleanup afterwards.

J. Tagmire - How did you end up at Gradwell?
Dave Downham - I guess when Steve started doing the basement thing… probably like a year or two after that I started doing a studio called Couches in the Desert with Dave Dworanczyk from secession movement and we bought a bunch of analog stuff. So we went the opposite route that everybody went at that point. We bought a mixer, we bought some outboard gear, we bought mics and we bought an analog tape machine, which everybody told me not to do, everybody told me to do kind of what Steve did which is get a modular digital multi-track, he had the fostex 16 track and then he moved to computers.

We were doing it concurrently but he did it more as a full time job whereas we ended up being more of a project studio where we worked on our own stuff and some friends bands. As that started to hit it’s last strides and everything like that Steve called me in like March or April in 2003 to come work with him at Gradwell in Gloucester because he needed another engineer, because of touring and just to have somebody else to do sessions with. So I went over there, learned the program, started doing sessions there. He kind of went on tour pretty soon after that so I started learning Nuendo, which is the program we use, and just kind of how to run sessions in that space.

So that’s how we ended up here. Probably somewhere like 4 or 5 months after that… maybe October, November of that same year 2003, he asked me to partner up. Initially I thought it was going to be a bad deal for me because I knew I was going to make a lot less money because at the time Steve was being very generous and splitting 50/50. So when I would come in to do a session I was getting $12.50, which is pretty fucking awesome, you know? But it ended up being a really good move because I really like doing this and we ended up doing a lot with it, as far as getting a new space and really just trying to take the time and money to do that whole thing.

J. Tagmire - Why would somebody choose come to Gradwell as opposed to another studio?
Dave Downham - Obviously a lot of people are going to come to us because they hear records that we do, and because we’ve been cheap. Even though we’re raising our rates to $40 an hour, that’s still cheap in the scheme of things, particularly for a studio that has our amount of equipment, and engineers with experience.

And the space is a huge thing. It gives you a lot of options as far as how you want to track. You can track everybody in the room, as opposed to being in a basement where you’re very restricted. You’re very restricted sonically and you’re restricted by what you’re able to do. For instance, This Radiant Boy just did a record here and they wanted to do room micing for vocals, you can’t do that if you’re in a basement. It just doesn’t sound like anything. It doesn’t sound any different to have a mic ten feet away.

But I think the main reason that people should consider coming here is obviously we’re musicians, we play in bands, we still play in bands, we write music, we record ourselves, we know what it’s like. I think we’re younger guys, meaning not that we’re 15 or anything like that, but as far as the scheme of engineers. My experience with a lot of early engineers that I worked with is that they were guys that their aesthetic was still maybe in the 80’s in the sense of how they heard music or how they thought music should sound. We tend not to be too condescending… we deal with a lot of people that are younger and older than us.

As far as current styles, we may not by totally sympathetic to Metalcore or anything like that, but we know how Metalcore should sound. I think we’re relatively open and we’re also honest to the point of obviously being obnoxious to some people. But I think that’s good because we’re not the kind of people where you’re not gonna come in here and record and we’re just gonna sit there mute the whole time, thinking you suck. We tend to be kind of open about that. Honestly, a lot of people that come in here are kind of cool to hand out with. So it’s a fun process and I think that it’s a fun place to do it.

J. Tagmire - Have you recorded anything here other than Rock?
Dave Downham - Literally in the past two weeks we’ve had Hardcore, solo Acoustic Singer Songwriter, Metal, really ambient like Pink Floyd-y, Radiohead kind of stuff, early 90’s Rock, Indie Rock, kind of Blues Rock kind of stuff, literally anything you could think of… Grindcore… and that’s like two weeks of sessions. We really get a lot of different stuff.

J. Tagmire - Anything you prefer more than others?
Dave Downham - We king of came up in the era of the early 90’s heyday of Indie Rock stuff. I mean, you know, we’re doing the Progress record right now and they’re not necessarily a throwback, but they have a bit more of that Indie-ish kind of thing. I think we just prefer good… you know what I mean? Good makes our job easy. Good makes it so that we can listen to something and not be really annoyed that the drummer can’t hit his kick drum with any degree of consistency. Because like, the Grindcore stuff can be fun if it’s played really well. The Metal stuff can be fun. I think stylistically that’s the kind of stuff we prefer.

Probably my favorite thing to record is live Jazz kind of stuff. Because it’s not brutal on your ears and it’s also kind of fun to do live sessions where you can hear everything right away. For my personal taste I’m getting really tired of track-by-track recording… just for my own personal… because I do it all the time. Just so you know what I mean track-by track being you overdub, overdub, overdub, you know, do the drums first, bass… as opposed to like with our band I think we’re going to try to do more and more stuff live. I think I’m just getting sick of the feel of just overdubbing… I think it’s nice to have the variety basically. If we were the kind of studio where we were known for just heavy stuff, that would get really old.

J. Tagmire - What’s the longest someone has spent here recording?
Dave Downham - The Progress was just here for about a month. Not everyday, but…. We’ve had bands like Isaac Hurt was here and Dan was doing a session for over a year, but that’s not an everyday thing. So we’ve had people take a really long time to do sessions. Probably the progress they’ve gone through at least three or three and half, four weeks maybe. I’ve done a couple of records this fall and the one band, The Meridian, they did their stuff in like two, two and a half weeks straight. They were here almost every day, minus a couple days. Obviously when you’re doing a record when you have 10 or 11 songs, it does take a lot of time to track everything, if you’re doing track-by-track, a lot of overdubs and that sorts of shit. We’ll get anything from someone coming in for one single three to four hour session, to that kind of thing where people are here for months coming in, doing different things.

J. Tagmire - Whats the farthest someone has traveled to record here?
Dave Downham - We’ve had a band from Kansas , probably the furthest in the States, and then we’ve had international. We’ve had a band from Hamilton Ontario , called the Bird Rentals that came down and did a two day lengthy EP… like 7 or 8 songs. This summer, in like July. Really good guys, we met them when we were touring, when Condor and Up Up were playing up in Ontario . That’s probably the furthest. We frequently get bands from Pennsylvania , North Jersey , we’ve had Delaware , a bunch of bands from Virginia , I believe we’ve had Maryland too.. obviously Philadelphia bands. We’ve had bands from Brooklyn , we’ve had bands from up New York state… Connecticut .

J. Tagmire - What’s it like working with Steve Poponi?
Dave Downham - He’s a total fucking asshole… I’m kidding. I remember when we were working on the Classic Brown stuff because Steve and I and Dave Dunn played all of the instruments other than Stacey obviously. We kind of butted heads a little bit at first because I play a bunch of instruments and he plays some instruments, we both engineer and everything… We just worked on The Progress record together and we basically were in the roles of where I was kind of here to do the engineering and he was here doing more production, but we have a pretty easy time working with each other and as far as listening to a mix and giving each other some sort of advice, or anything like that, we work pretty well with each other.

As far as being partners in the studio I think we work really well together. As far as running the business and having similar taste… There’s very few things we really butt heads about and usually the way it works is that if somebody has something that they feel strongly about and the other person doesn’t have an opinion the person that feels strongly takes precedence. The other person is not going to be an asshole or be contentious just to be contentious. It’s never like that.

J. Tagmire - How should a band contact you if they’re interested in recording at Gradwell House?
Dave Downham - Email. Read the contact info on our page first because the more detailed the email the better. We do all of the booking… a lot of people call us in the middle of sessions, and because of service and we don’t want to be like  an asshole to people, but a lot of people drag us on these lengthy conversations for 5 or 10 minutes when we’re in the middle of another session and we’re trying to get on with everything.

(And with that the phone rings.)

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