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Twenty Years of Milkboy Magic.

August 28, 2014

MilkboyOnline05Text by Tyler Horst. Images by Charles Shan Cerrone.

Most of the time, Tommy Joyner is everywhere at once – on his phone, at his computer, in the studio, getting ready to run home or to his music venue or somewhere else.

Right now, though, Joyner is busy in Studio A, the biggest of the three rooms at MilkBoy the Studio, tracking vocals with Australian singer-songwriter Matt Santry.

Middle-aged but youthful, Joyner is at home at the massive console sprawled out in front of him. He pushes up the volume slider on the drum track so Santry, by the couches in the back of the room, can strum his guitar and sing the lines he’ll be performing for the microphone in a few minutes.

“I’ve recorded a bunch with Matt,” Joyner says. “He’s putting together a record but we’re doing it one at a time.”

The two men pause for a bit to plan out their next move. It’s important business. Every minute in the studio counts but Joyner and Santry both seem very relaxed, as if they are old friends.

“That’s what it’s like when you’re recording,” Joyner says when Santry heads to the vocal booth. “You get to know people very quickly. It’s like going into the foxholes with somebody.”

Joyner and his MilkBoy engineers have been working intimately and tirelessly with artists like Matt Santry since 1994, when Joyner started MilkBoy Recording with a 4-track mixer and a microphone above Zapf’s Music Store in North Philadelphia.

This month, Joyner and his MilkBoy team celebrated 20 years in the business. He’s come a long way since recording underground hip-hop and punk bands to now owning the premiere recording facility in the city, hosting the likes of Florence + The Machine, Lil’ Wayne, Meek Mill and more on any given day. 

MilkboyOnline01Since founding MilkBoy, Joyner, a South Carolina native and longtime drummer, has never stopped hustling. He expanded his makeshift recording studio at Zapf’s by moving from North Philly to a larger room in Ardmore. MilkBoy hosted countless indie acts at their space on the Main Line.

Joyner and his business partner Jamie Lokoff later opened a popular coffee shop and venue in Ardmore (since sold) and then another coffee shop in Bryn Mawr (also sold).

In 2011, they opened their eponymous bar, cafe and 200-person venue on Chestnut Street (which is managed by Joyner’s brother-in-law, Bill Hanson).

And then two years ago, MilkBoy Recording moved to its current spot in an industrial area off Callowhill Street, the former home of Larry Gold’s legendary facility, known simply as The Studio. The place is now called MilkBoy the Studio.

While Joyner was learning the business in the 1990s, Gold was building his dream recording space. The Kensington native who was a teen music prodigy and later a member of MFSB, the house band for Gamble & Huff’s Sound of Philadelphia, designed the space himself starting in 1996.

With the popularity of the neo-soul sound in the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Studio became the place for the likes of The Roots, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, John Legend and other national and international acts.

While Joyner and Lokoff now run the operation, Gold still comes in on a regular basis to help shape the kinds of songs you need to sign non-disclosure agreements to work on. His recent credits include string arrangements for Lana Del Rey, R. Kelly and Mariah Carey, among others.

Gold works on his 30-year-old Synclavier, a bulky synthesizer and workstation with a hard drive bigger than the device itself. Those of the Pro Tools generation might laugh the instrument off as nothing but a relic but this particular gadget is responsible for many of the gold plaques lining the MilkBoy walls, crediting Gold for his contributions to hits like “Flashing Lights” by Kanye West and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.”

“I don’t want to impose on them,” says Gold about his place in the current MilkBoy ecosystem, where he has a room on reserve at all times.

He takes a break from arranging strings on a new “orchestral pop” song featuring a host of star vocalists. When the track plays, Gold bobs his ponytailed head to the beat, eyes fixed on some point in the unseen distance as if visualizing the musical possibilities in his head.

Gold often spends his downtime in the studio, reading or chatting with the younger engineers, many of whom would probably love to see the industry guru stay for as long as possible. The technology Gold uses may be old, but his talent, knowledge and experience are timeless. He also has a lot of faith in the next generation.

“I remember when I first met Tommy,” Gold says of Joyner. “Tommy was a good drummer and he liked making records. I could tell he liked making records.”

Separated from MilkBoy and its day-to-day operations, Gold insists his space here is only temporary.

“They are really connected to the local community,” he says in a smoky rumble. “I am so not connected to anything. I never was.”

MilkBoy is no home studio but it’s intimate enough not to scare away local musicians, who bring in most of the regular business. Chill Moody, Pissed Jeans, OCD: Moosh & Twist, Marsha Ambrosius and countless other area acts feel very, very comfortable here.

It’s also sophisticated enough for the likes of Miley Cyrus, who spent two weeks in the cozy Studio B space recording vocals. You never know who you might run into in the musical labyrinth.

The storied space is quietly abuzz with activity every day of the week. Engineers could be mixing as many as four songs at a time, each behind a different closed door, picking apart one bar at a time. In the quiet of the waiting area, though, it’s impossible to notice the crazy schedule the place runs on.

“MilkBoy is 24/7,” says studio manager Caitlin McCullough. “Most artists come in last-minute.”

They come for the gear and the expertise on-hand, and also for the commitment the staffers have to making good music. The importance of using the studio to serve the artist isn’t lost on Joyner.

“It’s like running a hotel,” he says between spits of chew. “You have to make sure the artist has everything they need to be comfortable and creative.”

Joyner met Matt Santry in 2009 when they played in the same Bruce Springsteen cover band for The Boss’s birthday
celebration hosted by WXPN. When Santry, who now lives in Philly, later visited MilkBoy the Studio, he knew he’d be coming back to record there. In addition to it being a great space, he’d have the ears and guidance of Joyner to move the process along.

“As an artist, I’m so in my own head,” Santry says about choosing Joyner for his new record. “I wanted someone to be trusted.”

For Santry, the relationship with a producer makes all the difference in recording the ideal piece of music.

It’s easy to feel comfortable in the MilkBoy studios. It’s a place with a lot of history, but that history doesn’t go to its head. The gold and platinum records on the wall aren’t so much a daunting presence but an encouragement to current and future artists.

It’s impossible to guess where the recording industry will be in the next 20 years, but it isn’t crazy to expect the MilkBoy name will still be a part of it.

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