Ed Wolfrum (at console) works with Fred Bridges at the United Sound Systems Studio in Detroit. The studio is in jeopardy of being demolished to make room for extras lanes on Detroit's I-94 highway. Photo By Ed Wolfrum
“United Sound should be preserved for its history,” according to Ed Wolfrum, former engineer at the Detroit studio. That may not happen, however; United Sound Systems building—a spot famous for leading the growth of the city's famed music scene—is in jeopardy of disappearing as part of a proposed project to expand the nearby I-94 highway by adding more traffic lanes on both sides.
At least 100 structures could be demolished as part of the project, including the United Sound Systems studio building, located on 2nd Ave in Detroit and just north of I-94.
Wolfrum, United Sound’s Chief Engineer from 1969 to 1973, feels the building should be preserved based on its historical significance in the region's music scene. “Every major artist in Detroit came through there,” he recalled. While this studio has hosted recordings for many of music’s greats, including Aretha Franklin, Berry Gordy Jr., George Clinton, Miles Davis, the Dramatics, John Lee Hooker, Luther Vandross and Eminem, and was at the forefront of the age of Motown, it does not have any historical marker or designation that could protect it from demolition.
United Sound Systems Recording Studio was established in the 1930s when owner and founder Jimmy Siracuse saw an opportunity to join the flourishing Detroit music scene. He originally opened a music store before purchasing the building on Second Avenue and building a recording studio that is believed to be the first independent recording studio in the United States. In the 1950s, Siracuse added Studio A to the back of the building, creating a space large enough to record an entire orchestra.
Additionally, the studio was a recording technology greenhouse, according to Wolfrum, who noted United Sound had engineers constantly building their own recording equipment for the studio, and improving on existing gear. “Most of the equipment was homebrewed,” Wolfrum said. “We didn’t buy much. United was really on the forefront of all this stuff and had this reputation as a hot shot technical studio.”
Wolfrum mentioned that while the history behind the studio is important, he also understands the economic reasons to demolish the building. “Big studios are very expensive. It costs a lot to run a studio,” he said.
However, the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the music history of Detroit, is working to find a compromise that would extend the highway without destroying the studio.
“Preserving it is going to take a lot of money and a lot of imagination and a lot of people,” Detroit Sound Conservancy founder Charles Gholz told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s Exhibit A of Michigan and Detroit’s impact on global sound. It should be alive and cooking.”
Luckily, there is hope for the studio. MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi said that no plans were in place yet, and that demolishing the studio is a "worst-case-scenario."
If the facility is saved, that may, by necessity, be just the beginning of a longer journey. The Detroit Free Press quoted Aretha Hood, the owner of the United Sound Systems studio in the early 2000s, remarking, “It was a money pit. It needed so much work.”
Even with the costs of keeping the studio standing, former engineer Wolfrum said it should be preserved. “It was the mothership of Detroit,” he said. “A lot of guys got their start at United Sound.”
Have you visited or recorded in United Sound Systems Studio and have a story you want to share? Do you think the studio should be preserved? Let us know in the comment box below!
Detroit Sound Conservancy
United Sound System's Studio A is large enough to record a whole orchestra on site. Photo by Ed Wolfrum
The Wheel Room at United Sound Systems Studio in Detroit. Former engineer Ed Wolfrum said that despite costs, the studio should be saved to preserve its history. Photo By Ed Wolfrum
United Sound Systems founder Jimmy Siracuse started the studio in the 1930s, and later purchased the property on 2nd Ave. in Detroit. Photo By Ed Wolfrum