New York City, NY

David Bowie's Final Studio: Magic Shop

Frank Mastropolo

"That was a magic moment"
SNYM Records

The Magic Shop opened in 1988 well before Bloomingdale's, MoMA and a luxury hotel became its neighbors in New York's SoHo. The increase in the area's rental value spelled the end of the studio. Despite the offer of financial help from Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, owner Steve Rosenthal was unable to buy the space from his landlord. While Rosenthal continues his business of mixing and restoring classic recordings, the Magic Shop closed March 16, 2016

Grohl featured the Magic Shop on his HBO docuseries Sonic Highways. The Ramones, Norah Jones, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Soul Asylum are among the artists who recorded at the Magic Shop over the last 28 years. David Bowie recorded his last two albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, in complete secrecy here.

We talked with Rosenthal days before the studio closed about what drew so many artists to the Magic Shop. Mario J. McNulty and Kevin Killen, two producer/engineers who worked there with Bowie, Reed and others, recalled the funky studio that has, at its heart, a 1970 Neve mixing console that perfectly captures the musician's sound.

Rosenthal told us that when he started, people thought he was crazy to build a studio in SoHo when most recording facilities were uptown.
Steve RosenthalPhoto by Frank Mastropolo

Steve Rosenthal: I lived on Spring and Crosby in a loft with musicians in the early '70s and I really loved Crosby Street. I loved the cobblestones, I like the feel of the place and clearly back when I was looking, which was '86 and '87, this neighborhood was much more affordable.

I should say, when I opened up, Crosby Street was a pretty funky block. It used to be dangerous. Each day I would come down and there'd be smashed windows in cars.

Kevin Killen: You'd be down in SoHo and you'd be walking down this unassuming street and then all of a sudden you go through this little grey door into this really wonderful space. I can't reiterate how many times musicians would go in there and go, "I love the way this place looks!" And then they'd love the way it sounded. It was a very creative space and musicians thrive in that kind of space.

Steve Rosenthal: There are things that go wrong. The water pipe explodes in the stairway and there's water all over the lobby. You've got to plow on. Somebody's here, they're working, they want to make their record, they don't want to know about stuff like that.

I enjoyed when people would go outside and eat out front of the studio. Some people would go out and bring a Hibachi and sit outside and barbeque. There was, over the years, lots of silly stuff.
The Magic Shop's Neve ConsolePhoto by Frank Mastropolo

The Neve Console

Mario J. McNulty: When you think of Magic Shop, you think about the console. And sure, there are other studios that have vintage Neves that are similar-sounding consoles. This one was unique in its physical design because it has this wrap-around design that's very rare. The wrap-around design doesn't make it a better console but it does make it cool. It definitely looks like a spaceship.

Kevin Killen: The sound of the console is really great at capturing what's going on in the space with the least amount of degradation and so everything had this big warmth to it. People talk about how great old records sounded, they were warm and punchy, and you listened to the sound of those consoles and that's exactly what you get.

Steve Rosenthal: Actually, I think the studio is a hybrid studio. It's a hybrid of both vintage and new gear. The center of the studio is built around this vintage Neve console. But I also have a brand-new Pro Tools system in there. So if somebody wants to manipulate the sound in a modern way, they can do that.

I never thought it was my job to tell people how to make a record. I always wanted to give them a wide range of tools to be able to make a record.

For the first two years it was really difficult to get people to come here. Musicians and producers tend to be a little superstitious and nobody wanted to be the first in to the studio. So it was very hard.

And then I did this amazing record with Charles Brown, the great blues singer and pianist. I did it for Rounder with Dr. John and it was just an amazing record. Soon after that Lou Reed came and he did Magic and Loss and the Ramones did Mondo Bizarro and Sonic Youth did Dirty and Suzanne Vega came and worked and after that – then I had a business.

Kevin Killen: I mixed a song for Lou Reed at the studio, he had a rough mix that he wanted to match and had difficulty doing so for whatever reason. I was working with Laurie Anderson at the time on her Bright Red album for Warner Brothers and they had just started dating. He played me the rough and left for a few hours. Since it was 24 tracks, it was quite a straightforward task in my mind and Lou was ecstatic when he heard it. This console is just so musical.

Steve Rosenthal: I think it's a question of coming and focusing. That's not to say there aren't a whole bunch of bands, younger bands, that were very excessive here. I'm not going to name-drop people but yeah, there was lots of crazy stuff that went on here.

David Bowie

Steve Rosenthal: The last couple of years it was really an honor to have David Bowie come here and secretly and quietly we made his last couple of records. I was always a big Bowie freak so for me that was amazing.

In the age where people are using their phones for everything, using their phones to tell their friends what they ate for dinner, this was a really difficult secret to keep. But we really wanted to out of respect for David. And we did.

Kabir Hermon, our chief engineer, and I halved the staff for any of the times that David and [producer] Tony Visconti came. So we would have a very small staff and then we all signed non-disclosure agreements to be quiet about it.

Mario J. McNulty: I think David really liked it because everybody was low-key that worked there. There weren't any people running around asking for autographs. There wasn't any kind of excitement.

It just happens to be within walking distance to his house. That was a lucky coincidence. He could walk down, sit on the couch and just relax. I had a station set up for him near the piano with a whole bunch of instruments. He could come in, pick up a guitar, plug in and be ready to go.

He loved the fact that the Neve was there. He wouldn't want to touch any buttons. But he likes that it's there because he knows what it does. He was very sharp like that. He knew that some of the stuff was important to the sound.

If he knew he liked the sound of the room and he knew that the team there, either Tony or myself, liked it then he felt, OK, it's going to work. To him it was very simple. He could make a decision very quickly and say, "This sounds good. I like it. Let's make it work." Once he has that knowledge he'd never waver.

David would make his own demos. He'd been doing that for decades. They would be sometimes on a cassette or in the latter days they would be on his iPod. He had a little studio set up in his apartment.

He wanted to be self-sufficient in that way. When he was being creative, it was usually very private. He'd come in with a demo, sometimes no vocal, sometimes he'd have a vocal on it. Or a scratch vocal, a rough idea. Sometimes it would just be him humming along a melody that he might not have actual lyrics. But he would do that and bring them in the studio and say to the band, "OK guys, this is it, here you go. Check it out."

Once we started doing the first rounds of recording, he was excited. He had a smile on his face, loved the sound of the room and it was great.

There's a moment on the song "Love Is Lost" where we had already recorded the basics of the track and then he said to me, "Let me drop this idea down to the bridge." He would do that from time to time. After we had decided on a take, he might have something in his head. He might just say, "Hey, let me throw this down while everybody is taking a break."

He played this part on a synth, on his keyboard that I had set up for him out there that was just mind-blowingly cool. That was a magic moment. I'm thinking I'd been working for him for 11, 12 years at that point and still he's blowing my mind with the most incredible progression that you would never expect. It was just gorgeous. It reminds you that you're always so grateful that those things still happen.

Dave Grohl

Steve Rosenthal: Dave was wonderful, he's a really amazing guy and he's really been helpful to the studio. He's been helping me stay in business and he also clearly tried to help me buy the two floors here so I could stay.

He came and chatted with me one afternoon. I remember he showed up and the intern almost passed out. Because Dave just showed up on his own, there's no entourage, none of that. He just showed up. Said, "I want to talk to Steve."

So we hung out and we talked for a long time. He doesn't have any airs, there's no pompous rock star stupidity. We got along well and then he decided he wanted to do the episode of Sonic Highways about the Magic Shop. I asked him at least four or five times, "Are you sure you don't want to do Electric Lady?" He was like, "No, I don't want to do Electric Lady, I want to do the Magic Shop."

So I said OK. So he came, it was amazing. "I Am a River," the song for Sonic Highways, he wrote in the basement. The band came, they recorded, it was a blast.

The Future

Steve Rosenthal: I'm going to continue my archival and restoration work. It's a big part of what goes on here. We just completed work on the Earl Garner archive. It's over 2,000 tapes that we transferred here.

I'm also going to continue doing my restoration mixing. For example, Kabir and I have mixed a whole bunch of Elvis Presley original masters. We just did a big Elvis box of shows from Las Vegas. So that part of it I'd like to continue as well.

I'm very proud of my staff and they really care about what goes on here and they're really focused on their work and they want to do good work. Most of the people that work for me now started out as interns here. So they've been here a long time.

Mario J. McNulty: His staff was really well-trained and had the etiquette down, which is really necessary if you want to be a top-tier studio. They knew a lot of the ins and outs of how to deal with high-profile clients and people that were starting out.

Kevin Killen: When you have that kind of environment, you always end up doing great work. Because everybody was so comfortable, the music would just flow very quickly. So you'd book the project in there for two weeks and you'd often find yourself being ahead of schedule.

Mario J. McNulty: People call it "vibe." It has this comfortable, almost living room-type feel to it where nothing is too stuffy at all. It was like a recording studio for grownups, and for people that knew what they were doing.

Kevin Killen: Because it had such a distinctive sound and such a distinctive spirit, that can't be replicated. That wasn't something that Steve created overnight. Even if Steve took all the equipment and put it in a new location, it would not be the same Magic Shop. There's something very special about the way the room sounds and unfortunately, once it closes its doors that will never be recaptured again.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. The former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton, has written a number of books on music, television, ghost signs, and New York City history. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition. Mastropolo subscibes to that old Sicilian proverb, "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Prov and you provolone."

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