PHILADELPHIA, PA—At age 13, he started building computers; at 16, he began designing speakers and established a business custom-configuring PCs; and by age 20, he was restoring vintage analog mixing consoles and other studio equipment. The following year, Alex Santilli, then 21 years old, cold-called John Storyk, architect, acoustician and founding partner at Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG); his vision, Spice House Sound, officially opened for business in July.
Located in an old carriage house in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, Spice House sports a WSDG-designed a 650-square-foot live space with a 400-square-foot, fully isolated control room. Having worked his way from technician to engineer to manager at a Philadelphia studio, Santilli saw an opportunity to build his dream facility when the business was forced out of its location. Finding a late nineteenth-century carriage house in Philadelphia’s increasingly gentrified Fishtown neighborhood, he moved into the adjoining house and began designing and constructing his ideal recording studio.
“John picked Matt Ballos [WSDG’s project manager] to work with us,” says Santilli. “The three of us bounced emails between us. I would send Matt these long lists of requirements and ideas. I had all these measurements and data and plots. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to draw it.”
He adds, “I’m very much a technician. I think Walters-Storyk as a group liked working with me.”
With 2,000 square feet of usable space and a 25-foot ceiling to work with, WSDG designed a 650-squarefoot live space with a 400-squarefoot, fully isolated control room— a room-within-a-room construction that accommodates 10 people. A 120-square-foot iso room doubles as an overflow mix station while a 90-square-foot sound lock between the studio and the house can also serve as an iso booth.
In addition to variable acoustics wall panels, the tracking space also includes a novel moving cloud that can alter the room’s reverb time by as much as 50 percent. “I said I wanted at least 35 percent of the surface area from the center of the live room to be adjustable treatment,” explains Santilli, noting that Ballos suggested the adjustable cloud. “The room is so large that the only way we could accommodate that was through a large amount of moveable ceiling treatment.”
These days, everybody records at home, Santilli continues. “There’s really not a lot of large, tuned rooms, especially in Philadelphia. We wanted to maximize the volume but also make it flexible, so you could have a huge space without all the clutter of less-than-20 millisecond reflections. We wanted to offer something that people couldn’t do at home, at a quality level that they couldn’t get at home, either.”
Storyk adds, “Generally speaking, for a room with volume like that, we design it on the bright side. We make the low frequency response correct— because that’s where the problem is: runaway low frequency response. Once we get that, we start adding, on a variable basis, broadband mid-frequency adsorption as we need it.”
Santilli, whom Storyk refers to as a “gear whisperer,” has outfitted the new control room with some unique pieces of audio technology. In pride of place is a fully rebuilt Auditronics 700 Series inline analog console, serial number 20. “It had been in the basement of a church for years. No one knew what it was, so they sold it to us for $1,500, which was a steal,” says Santilli. “Not only did I restore it, but I redesigned the signal path to be the cleanest, most optimal circuit. It’s direct-coupled with no capacitors and uses higher quality parts than you can [typically] buy in audio equipment.”
Spice House owner Alex Santilli with the fully rebuilt Auditronics 700 Series inline analog console he restored himself. The soffit-mounted main monitors are Santilli’s own design and incorporate Peerless and SD Acoustics drivers. “There are only a couple of other speakers in the world that have the same goals,” says Santilli, noting that the design “is the most ideal for transient response, for sounding natural to the ear and for replicating complex tonal qualities. It’s the least lossy, the most coherent. I’ve been working on them for years.”
As for outboard gear, “I built some 1176s with all the original important parts. We have restored, original Pultec EQs and I have a couple of other pieces that I modified.”
In addition to offering Pro Tools, Ableton and Logic—running on custom-configured computers, of course—Spice House also offers tape-based recording: “I have an [Otari] MX-80 that I spent about eight months redesigning and rebuilding. I have empirical proof that it’s the flattest tape machine that exists. I replaced about 2,000 components in it—it was a labor of love.”
The microphone complement also includes some gems. In addition to his favorite, a Klaus Heine-modified Neumann U 67, he says, “Our [AKG] C12 is one of the first ever made and has a different circuit design and body than the later ones. Not to mention all our old RCA mics—44, BK-5B, 74A, 74B; we had them restored by one of the guys who worked at RCA.”
Santilli is working with the local Recording Academy chapter to initially bring in business. “I really want to focus on all the incredible artists in Philadelphia who don’t have anywhere world-class to record. I want to bring the soul of Philly back. The city is having a renaissance; I want that to be an artistic renaissance, as well.”
“I think he’s tapped into an opportunity there in Philadelphia,” says Storyk, also noting the city’s close proximity to New York and Washington, DC. “It’s a commercial studio with world-class specs, but he’s made it feel home-spun, very comfortable and low key.”
Walters-Storyk Design Group
Spice House Sound