Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (February 24, 2021)—A few years ago, Matteo Burr visited Puerto Rico looking for a reset in his life, but driving around in a rental car, he says, all he found was bad radio. I was blown away by how bad the radio was,” says Burr, drummer and founding member of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. In the U.S., he says, “We’re so spoiled by KCRW and KEXP—incredible radio.” That led to a realization, and before long, he’d unpacked his bag and was making plans to set up San Juan Sound, a multipurpose, radio-driven studio.
Before he’d even found a suitable space, Burr scoured Clasificados, the island’s Craiglist equivalent, and began collecting gear: “I had no engineering experience, but I met someone early on who did.”
He found a space on the second floor of a building in Old San Juan formerly occupied by WKAQ-AM—Puerto Rico’s first radio station, and the fifth in the world—but his original plan began to evolve after he got a message that a Neve V Series console and an MCI JH-24 tape machine were for sale on the island at what was once Ochoa Studios. The desk needed some work, he says, “but I decided to be the crazy gringo who took a chance.”
The Studio’s First Major Recording
By August 2017, San Juan Sound was nearing completion. “A month later, Hurricane Irma hit, and then Hurricane Maria two weeks later. We had no power until December. I was witnessing the worst natural disaster I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Burr, who dropped out of a master’s degree program in teaching to form the band with Potter, had been considering plans to work with local community schools and independent musicians. With everything on hold, he filed his nonprofit paperwork and flew to Nashville to collect 50 guitars from Gibson. “We put them in the hands of people who lost their guitars in the storms,” he says.
Back to the Neve console: Originally delivered as a V60 to Conway Studios in Hollywood, the Neve desk was sold to Ochoa in the ’90s. In-house engineer Kiko Hurtato, who now also works at San Juan Sound, later acquired the Neve and sold it to Burr. After the storms, Burr called on technicians Gregory Davis, John Klett and John Musgrave to help restore the desk. Aiding the effort, the late Norman Druce hand-delivered one of his Atomic Instruments power supplies and an Altec 438C tube compressor.
Musgrave visited twice, to work on the center section and 24 input channels. “That’s all we wanted,” says Burr. “We call him Uncle John. He’s been incredible, a force of nature.”
Now the studio offers Pro Tools, Ableton and Logic after recently upgrading to a locally built “Hackintosh.” “We got a Waves DigiGrid and DigiLink to the 192 and 96 interfaces that we already had,” says house engineer Joshua Sandoval.
Burr says he took inspiration from some of his favorite studios for San Juan Sound’s design, such as Plyrz and Barefoot in California, La La Land in Kentucky and Daytrotter’s former Iowa facility. “Live tracking is a lost art form, so I built a huge live room with natural light. It’s like a big living room.” Bands can bring in an audience if they wish, he says.
Vintage gear available in the space includes a 1970s Fender Rhodes piano, a 1968 Fender Princeton amp, and Harmony and Silvertone guitars. “I just want everything to be around for musicians to grab,” he says.
Puerto Rico is typically associated with reggaeton, but it offers so much more, says Sandoval, who studied music at one of the island’s universities. “The music scene here is so diverse. We have everything from classical music to modern jazz,” he says.
Burr, who is about to release the island’s first vinyl indie compilation featuring some of that diverse talent, says, “This is a place for the community. I built it as a place for independent musicians. We give free experiences or name-your-price; an honor system. If no one asks, we’ll give them the standard rate. They have these experiences that I hope they’ll never forget.”
San Juan Sound • www.sanjuansound.org