For the Record
Why nationally acclaimed recording artists owe their success—at least in part—to the Philly suburbs
by Stuart Nelson


If one plucked the earbuds from the head of the average iPod listener and asked him where his favorite music was recorded, he’d likely blurt out the name of a city such as New York, Los Angeles or perhaps Nashville. Suburban Philadelphia would rarely be a location that would spring to mind, but Philly and its outskirts have a rich musical history. From Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” to The O’Jays’ “Love Train” to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” some of the most important, influential and popular songs of the past five decades have been recorded in our backyard.


In recent years, the recording scene has migrated out to the far reaches of the suburbs, with studios from the Main Line to the outskirts of Bucks and Montgomery counties catering to a vibrant mix of national talent and aspiring local artists. Grammy-nominated producer Jim Salamone is a prime example.


Salamone, who made his mark with major studios in the early 1980s as one of the first adopters of electronic drum machines, got his start locally but became a hot commodity nationwide as artists and record labels pursued his unique digital percussion expertise and sequencing ability. Salamone made his first base of operations at the famed Sigma Sound Studios in Center City, working with the likes of Grover Washington Jr., Teddy Pendergrass, Patti Labelle and Bon Jovi. 


But Salamone’s journey in life, as well as in the music business, eventually led him to the northern suburbs, where he now operates Cambridge Sound Studios on a quiet side street in Newtown. While he was raising a family and settling down in Richboro, Salamone was still doing his recording work downtown and was beholden to the studio owners that provided him with work space. 


“I got tired of people selling their buildings, and having to keep moving my studios,” says Salamone. “So a buddy of mine that was in the famous German metal band Accept lived in Newtown and we became good friends. He recommended this furniture store that was going out of business and said, ‘You really ought to look at this space.’” 


Salamone wasn’t convinced right away about moving his livelihood from the heart of the city to the distant suburbs. 


“I sort of doubted Newtown because it was out of the way,” he says. “But I thought I would try something a little bit different, and I took over the space in late 2007 and we completely demoed it to the ground and rebuilt it, and so in 2008 I opened up here in Newtown.” 


‘A Little Hardware’

Since opening, Salamone has seen the benefits of his location outweigh the challenges and found that having a location in the suburbs doesn’t have to mean he’s off the beaten path. 


“Even though it’s about 35 minutes from Center City, we’re a straight run up [I-]95, and we’re about 15 to 20 minutes from the Trenton train station, so our New York clients don’t have to go all the way down to 30th Street and taxi in to a studio; we go to Trenton and pick them up.”


The location, not to mention his credentials, brings a diverse mix of local talent, nationally signed acts, and commercial work to Cambridge Sound. As Salamone spoke from his studio on a Wednesday evening, Kim Sledge from Sister Sledge were recording in an adjacent room, while other areas of the facility were in use for recording and production work for Ryan Gaughan of local rock/reggae outfit Among Criminals, TD Bank’s “Wow Awards” employee recognition program and a new reality TV show. But although Salamone’s recording pedigree and 30 years of networking in the industry bring a number of world-famous artists to our suburbs, Philadelphia’s tertiary status in the recording industry means relatively few of pop’s biggest celebrities personally make the trip to record in area studios.


But that doesn’t make the facilities or their locations any less relevant in the commercial music scene. In fact, some of the chart-topping hits dominating today’s airwaves have been graced by the talents of suburban Philly producers. While the artists themselves may record in other markets, it’s not uncommon for those raw tracks to find their way to local studios for mixing and mastering.


Usher’s latest album, “Raymond v. Raymond,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, went platinum and garnered the artist two Grammy awards including Best Contemporary R&B Album. Producer Ian Cross, known for his work with Janet Jackson as well as Usher and other top artists, worked with the staff of Milkboy Recording in Ardmore on the vocal production and final mix on two tracks for the album. 


Reflecting on one of the Main Line studio’s greatest successes from Milkboy’s new digs in Northern Liberties, producer Tim Sonnefeld, one of several engineers at Milkboy who worked with Cross on “Raymond v. Raymond,” acknowledges that their work on the album raised the value of the studio’s R&B stock considerably—not that the accolades went to his head.


“A lot of R&B guys started thinking that we were the guys to come to, and, you know, I got a Grammy certificate for it, the studio got a Grammy certificate for it,” he says. “It was a little paper to hang on the wall, a little hardware to put on the mantel.” 


The nonchalance with which Sonnefeld discusses what is likely his profession’s most prestigious honor reflects the technological and economic changes that are shaping the recording industry, affecting both the smaller local studios and the major commercial facilities alike.


“Sony’s studio closed down,” he says. “Hit Factory closed down. They’re struggling, too, because everyone has to change the way that they’re approaching the business now,” he says. “You can’t just count on the major label acts coming in anymore. Your ‘bread and butter’ has to be the local clientele. They’re the ones who are going to pay the rent.”


Both Sonnefeld and Salamone agree that the changes actually give an advantage to medium-sized studios in smaller markets such as suburban Philly.  


“As major recording studios are going by the wayside, there are a tremendous number of midline studios, like myself, that are cropping up, and project studios that are cropping up,” says Salamone. “Record labels are going away and consolidating and certainly being a lot less extravagant with their budgets. So there’s a whole new boutique market that’s opening up.” 


While a few clients still have the budget and the desire to record their projects in a single studio from start to finish, the advent of inexpensive and accessible digital recording technology allows many to work on their projects themselves, and make use of a recording studio’s expertise for the more complex recording and mixing tasks. In other words, things are changing.


“The studios are no longer what they once were,” says Salamone. “Years ago a studio was like a hospital. If you were sick, you went to a hospital; if you wanted to make a record, you’d go to a studio. But technology has brought that into the bedrooms and basements of a lot of people.” 


For people such as Salamone, the key to success in the new recording market is the ability and experience of the engineer behind the glass.


“Just because you have a scalpel, that doesn’t make you a hospital; just because you have a laptop and an interface, that doesn’t make you a studio. What differentiates [professional producers from the rest] is the quality of the equipment and the expertise of the people that are within the walls. I think people who have discerning taste and really care about their project still need people to help them make a record.”


Stuart Nelson is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia area.