At Montclair’s Magic Door studio, musicians find right vibe for creativity

Magic Door studio Montclair

PHIL SILVERBURG

Magic Door owner and Elk City drummer-producer Ray Ketchem.

Since its doors opened on a cozy corner of a Montclair street in 2017, Magic Door Recording, a state-of-the art studio, has welcomed an eclectic mix of artists to enjoy a full range of services, including album recording, mixing and session work.

Ray Ketchem, the owner of the studio — as well as a producer, musician and commercial illustrator — captures a diverse range of sounds in this space, including sounds people don’t expect to hear.

“A recording should delight and surprise the listener,” he said. “In the studio it is easy to balance instruments in a pleasing way, but sometimes having instruments unbalanced is the more artful decision. Using heavy compression, saturation, filters, various delays, modulations and manipulations can shape an otherwise simple composition into something you want to listen to over and over again.”

Magic Door’s client roster is vast, including nationally known indie bands (Versus, Luna, Guided by Voices); local favorites (the Karyn Kuhl Band, Fond Farewells, Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help); drummer Will Hunt of Evanescence; jazz drummer Jerome Jennings; country band The Cactus Blossoms, and Ketchem’s own art-pop band, Elk City. Ketchem also has mastered records by many artists, including Alex Chilton and Human Switchboard.

RAY KETCHEM

Michael Shelley interviews Dave Davies at Magic Door.

Leslie Odom Jr. of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” Dave Davies of the Kinks and producer David Bendeth (who has signed Crash Test Dummies and Cowboy Junkies, among others, during his lengthy career) have stepped through Magic Door to record. Davies taped an interview with WFMU DJ Michael Shelley there, in April. (When Ketchem introduced himself as Ray, Davies was amused by what he thought was a joke referring to his brother, Kinks frontman Ray Davies.)

I visited Ketchem recently and learned that the secrets to this soulful producer’s success lies in a potent brew: technical mastery, great equipment, an inspiring space and a musician’s sensibilities. He has toured extensively and pairs his talent with a confident and kind demeanor. His goal is to make musicians feel comfortable so that risk-taking enters the studio and artists feel open to pushing themselves beyond their imagined limitations.

While he has a well-stocked studio with traditional equipment, he also focuses on cultivating experimentation. “I love weird Casio keyboards and old drum machines that don’t always function the way they are supposed to,” he said. “Musicians get excited when they hear equipment sputtering in a broken way. It can ignite new ideas and directions.”

Designed by George Augspurger, Magic Door reflects Ketchem’s belief that musicians create their best work in a relaxed space with gorgeous acoustics and areas to collaborate.

RAY KETCHEM

Larry Mitchell, recording at Magic Door.

The studio’s name was taken from a beautiful song by the same name on Elk City’s 2007 album, New Believers. When lead vocalist Renée LoBue’s lilting and powerful voice encourages the listener to “step through a magic door and be set for more,” I hear a promise of new beginnings.

Ketchem gave me a tour of his headquarters, first through a comfortable lounge and kitchen area with big wooden tables, then to the live room where musical sparks fly, surrounded by many doors of muted colors that lead to isolation rooms, lights you would find in a comfortable parlor and vintage and modern recording gear and instruments.

Ketchem created his own version of a magic door by tearing down the wall that faces the street and replacing it with a garage door covered with many windows. These windows allow for natural light to filter in, creating a homey mood.

“The vibe of the studio is very important to me,” said Ketchem. “Most musicians rehearse in interesting spaces with low lighting. I was interested in making musicians feel relaxed and at home, so I can capture their best performances. It doesn’t look like a traditional studio.”

On May 4, Magic Door supported the Montclair community by serving as co-sponsor of an outdoor festival, Montclair Center Stage Fest, which featured Elk City, The Porchistas and other bands. LoBue sang lyrically haunting and rhythmically powerful songs from the band’s albums, including their fifth, Everybody’s Insecure (2018), and some beautiful tunes from Souls in Space, an EP with a June release date (like Everybody’s Insecure, it will be on the Bar/None label).

JOE REINO

From left, Renée LoBue, Ray Ketchem and Richard Baluyut of Elk City perform at the Montclair Center Stage Fest on May 4.

I got a sneak preview of two unreleased songs: “Your Time Doesn’t Exist,” featuring LoBue’s dreamy vocals, and the Souls in Space song “Dream on Tip Toe,” which has a powerful rocky edge. Elk City combines soul-baring, introspective lyrics with inventive rock ‘n’ roll. Co-founded by LoBue and Ketchem (the band’s drummer and producer), Elk City also features guitarists Sean Eden (also of Luna) and Chris Robertson, keyboardist Carl Baggaley and bassist Richard Baluyut (also of Versus).

During the group’s set at Montclair Center Stage Fest, LoBue told the audience that “when you’re a friend of Ray Ketchem, you’ve got a friend for life.” LoBue and Ketchem have been playing together in bands, including Melting Hopefuls, since 1989. They met after she graduated from high school, and developed a close working relationship.

“Ray has always had a magical way of uplifting people and, therefore, uplifting the music they make,” LoBue said. “He really cares about the projects he works on … he’s not looking to just get something done … he wants to infuse every recording with his creative spirit … He’s the guy who should be writing books on how to treat people.”

Other musicians sing a similar tune about Ketchem’s approach.

“I’ve always preferred working at studios run by working musicians,” said James Mastro of The Bongos, Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, The Karyn Kuhl Band and others. “They just seem to be more simpatico to what an artist needs, be it good gear, good suggestions, good coffee. Magic Door is no exception to my rule.

RAY KETCHEM

James Mastro, recording at Magic Door.

“Ray Ketchem is a great musician in a great band, who happens to run a great studio. You can spend thousands of dollars on expensive equipment, but if you don’t know how to use it, or don’t know how to coax an exceptional performance from the musician, then it’s all for naught. Fortunately, Ray knows how to do that, and I love working there. I’m glad the Magic Door is wide open.”

Kuhl — who helped define the Hoboken sound of the ‘80s and ’90s in her earlier bands, Sexpod and Gutbank — recorded her recently released anthemic single “Hey Kid” at Magic Door. She has a June release date for her EP, also produced by Ketchem, and said that “the live room sounds amazing. Ray is a total pro and his calm demeanor really puts you at ease.”

I asked Ketchem to narrow down moments in the studio that surprised or delighted him and he responded: “So many. It sounds like it must be untrue, but I get excited to record or produce every project that I work on. I love working on Guided by Voices records. They’ve been one of my favorite bands since the early ’90s, so having a chance to make multiple albums with them has been a dream of mine.”

He is also excited for the release of the Karyn Kuhl Band’s EP in June, stating that “she’s such a cool person and is immensely talented.”

Ketchem gets excited by the process of production. “I’ve been told many times that I’ve pushed singers or musicians to play or sing better then they thought could. My approach is to make people feel … as if they have nothing to lose. ‘Try reaching further, why not? This is the time — make this song the best it can be.’

“A big part of producing someone is psychological. Sometimes you have to trick a player into getting out of their own way so they can open new doors to their abilities. Encouragement works on some people, but it’s not always the answer. It helps to be able to read people and test what might work for them.”

RAY KETCHEM

Guided by Voices at Magic Door.

He often sees bands live and listens to rehearsal recordings during pre-production planning. He prefers that the band not practice to the point of perfection before recording.

“If the band has everything locked down, it can be stifling,” he said. “Most musicians are inspired by trying ideas, exploring sounds or instruments they hadn’t considered before … When the spark of inspiration hits, it’s good to be open to exploration. Sometimes you can spark creativity just by suggesting a different guitar pedal or the use a different guitar or amp and suddenly a musician is treating their instrument like it’s a whole new thing. Their mind opens up and they are taken out of their comfort zone.”

Holding a jug of Diet Coke near him at all times, Ketchem talked about his musical influences, including Wire, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, The Breeders and Arthur Lee’s band, Love. Wire’s albums Pink Flag and Chairs Missing influenced his approach to recording. He admired “the artful way they layer guitars … they were the band that made me realize that clean guitars could be more aggressive than distorted ones. And the drumming is nearly accentless, which rids them of many rock clichés brought on by blues influence.

Love’s song “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” from the album Found Love: The Lost ’71 Sessions, is one of Ketchem’s favorites. “I had a dream the other night, baby,” Lee sings. “I dreamt that I was all alone. But when I woke up, I took another look around myself and I was surrounded by 50 million strong.” These lyrics makes me envision Ketchem kept strong by the millions of songs he’s heard over the years, serving as the foundation for the sounds he creates in his recording sessions.

Born in West Virginia, Ketchem attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and began his career as an illustrator for a New York company. His mother, a music teacher, encouraged him to work as an artist, but he was driven to add music to the mix.

He considers visual art and music to be similar, arising from the same creative core, and equates painting with sound production. “Sometimes you might need a little more blue in a painting, you balance it. Sound is the same thing.”

RAY KETCHEM

Ray Ketchem’s former studio, The Womb.

He started in 1991 with a tape machine, analog console and some microphones and eventually operated his first home studio, named The Womb, in Belleville. His early days focused on recording Melting Hopefuls, but soon he was asked to record other bands for the Bar/None Record label.

“It all happened organically,” said Ketchem. “Glenn (Morrow, owner of Bar/None) believed in me before I even believed in myself.”

In his home studio, Ketchem took Bar/None’s Burnside Project song, “Cut the Pulse to Begin,” and re-mixed and re-imagined it while adding his own drumming to create the theme song for the final two seasons of the Showtime series, “Queer as Folk.” In addition, he produced the Elk City song “Totally Free,” from their album New Believers, which was used in a Super Bowl commercial for Cadillac.

In 2005, he moved the studio to his Montclair home, but after his sons were born, it was time to open Magic Door. “The family needed the space and peace and quiet,” he said.

In addition to performing and operating Magic Door, he is engaged with raising his kids, which involves navigating the familiar challenge of traveling to lots of soccer games, and encouraging his boys to balance their enthusiasm for sports with an appreciation for music and community.

Making his mark by supporting others to “realize their vision,” Ketchem is driven to do so because of the legacy it promises.

“Music has a thing that’s timeless about it,” he said. “When we are all gone, music lives on.”

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