Recording studio is a hidden gem in Armbrust schoolhouse
Abbey Road, Muscle Shoals, Sunset Sound.
Someday, maybe The Schoolhouse will join that list of famous recording studios.
Right now, it’s a hidden gem in the tiny hamlet of Armbrust in Hempfield, a dream brought to life by audio engineer Daniel Blake, and a kind of refuge for the musicians who record there.
The name of the studio basically came with the premises, Blake says.
The original brick structure along Route 819 was built in 1889, with an addition that was used as a one-room schoolhouse added in 1912.
That’s the space Blake, 29, has transformed into a home for his digital 16-track recording equipment, where local musicians like Derek Woods, Kaelber, Highway Louie, Andy Davis Band, Nick Barilla and Habatat come to work in the welcoming refuge Blake has created.
“As a songwriter, I have personally always been greatly affected and influenced by the surroundings in which I am writing or recording to pull out the raw, real emotions,” Woods says. “(The Schoolhouse) sets a powerful atmosphere with a resonating old history and new history in the making.”
Honing his skills
A graduate of Hempfield Area High School and Westmoreland County Community College, Blake grew up next door to The Schoolhouse and remembers playing there as a kid, when the township sponsored a recreation program on the premises.
As a child, he says, he also developed an interest in music, teaching himself to play “piano, guitar, bass guitar, keyboards — all the common instruments.”
He honed his skills through his teens, playing with the worship team at LifeSpring Christian Church in Greensburg and in some “really bad heavy rock bands.”
At about 13 or 14, he says, he had the chance to record in the studio at Word of Life Church in Hempfield.
“The first time I heard an acoustic guitar back through the headphones, I was hooked,” he says. “It sounded better than real life to me — and it still does.”
After high school, Blake worked in his father’s flooring business and found himself with some extra cash.
“I said to my brother (Michael Blake), ‘What if I took my little savings and bought a microphone?’ Then I asked my parents. They all said, ‘Go for it!’”
He bought the microphone and a four-track recorder.
“And that was literally it,” he says. “After a few years, I saved up and invested in the equipment I still have now.”
Some real DIY stuff
Studio space was literally staring him in the face.
The Schoolhouse structure had been sitting empty for years, he says, until his parents, Roland and Marlene Blake, bought it around 2007 with the idea of using the schoolroom for family gatherings on holidays. The other part of the building contains two apartments where Blake and his brother now live.
Eventually, Blake says, he convinced his dad to let him use the schoolroom — which was in pretty rough shape — as a studio.
“It was some real DIY stuff when it first became a reality,” says Ed Kelso, Highway Louie lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist. “We went in mid-winter and did an album. There was junk piled up, no heat.”
Over time, Blake has redone the floors, windows and wiring; painted the walls and ceilings, and added lighting and ceiling fans.
The acoustics, he says, “are surprisingly pleasing. It’s quite free of any problems.”
The school’s original blackboard remains on the back wall as a kind of talisman for the space. It’s covered with autographs, drawings and cryptic messages that serve as a living history of the studio. Some parts of the board are sacred, others are erased from time to time to make way for new scribblings, Blake says.
The first group to come in and record was fronted by Blake’s neighbor.
“He had a band that was always blaring loud rock music, and they asked me to record them,” he says. “Then the neighbor’s band mate knew someone in another band. It’s all grown through word of mouth, thankfully. I don’t use social media much — I’m too busy doing it to stop and take a picture of it.”
Blake has created a “comfortable and comforting space with a great vibe,” Kelso says. “He has this calm, soothing voice, like when you get on an airplane and hear the pilot talking. He’ll say, ‘That was great, let’s do it again.’”
Blake says his job is to bring out the best in what the musicians themselves bring to the studio, not to impose his own vision on them.
“Imagine five or eight people in a room, all very obsessed with their own ideas. Then add loud drums and amps,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges is getting them to hear each other.”
“He thoroughly listens to the piece and understands what needs to be done to achieve a quality product in the studio, while preserving the artist’s unique stamp,” Woods says. “His gentle, yet enthusiastic character makes you feel at home in the studio but motivated to create.”
“There are venues that take advantage of unknown bands, bands that are desperate, but he isn’t like that,” Kelso says. “I think he undercuts himself a lot of times.”
An oversize leather armchair in one corner of the studio has become known as the therapy chair, Blake says.
“One of my favorite things is working with people who are younger than me, and creating a welcoming environment for them,” he says. “I end up hearing a lot of personal stories. That’s the meta-level of the job. I didn’t see that as a side effect happening at first.”
So is The Schoolhouse a career destination or a stepping stone?
To answer that question, Blake offers a story about visiting a friend who started out working with him before moving on to a job at a studio in Nashville.
As a thank-you for kick-starting his career, the friend flew Blake down to work with him for a week. (Ironically, he says, the band in the studio at the time was from Johnstown.)
“They had all the equipment in the world, everything I would have drooled over,” he says.
But Nashville was crowded, expensive and too fast-paced, and he found himself itching to get back to Armbrust and his fiancee and fellow musician Krystal Ritenour.
“I’m thinking of staying locally minded, starting a family and just enjoying my life,” he says. “I’m working five or six days a week. I have just as much as I can handle now, and sometimes a little more.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .