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Rittenhouse Soundworks: Arts in Progress.

January 15, 2016

RittenhouseSoundOnline04Text by Brendan Menapace. Images by Jason Melcher.

Jim Hamilton appreciates the creative process. He sees the value in creating music organically in a room with other people. The beauty in music is hearing the time, effort and collaboration within. His studio in Germantown, a work in progress in itself, reflects that.

Hamilton, 57, of Germantown, explains the history of his new studio space on Rittenhouse Street—the aptly named Rittenhouse Soundworks—as he opens the door to reveal a large empty garage.

“This building was built by Chrysler in the turn of the last century,” Hamilton says, gesturing to the expansive room. “So, where it once was a symbol of the industrial revolution, now it’s a symbol of manufacturing art.”

Hamilton speaks very softly, as if he’s trying not to wake someone up. His eyes widen and he begins to speak with passion when he gets onto a topic that interests him. He says he can go on for hours about things like percussionists and the evolution of musical styles across the world. Every now and then, when he references an old piece of music, he’ll mimic a saxophone melody or pat out a drum rhythm on his knees.

Hamilton grew up around the arts. While coming of age in Kensington, his father was a professional tap dancer, so Hamilton grew up in a dance studio and got his own start in music tap dancing.

RittenhouseSoundOnline05The library in his studio, filled wall-to-wall with records, is where interns will eventually be working on radio broadcasts out of the studio. Hamilton says the room is a recreation of the environment he grew up in. His father sold turntables and taught tap, with renowned dancers from all over the world coming into his family’s studio to teach.

Hamilton has a wealth of musical history knowledge. He knows about how Appalachian dance meshed with a Cherokee flat foot dance and evolved into tap, and how tap is the reason the drum set exists in America. He knows about how old Irish rhythms made their way to the rest of the world and created new styles. He rattles off countless musicians many have never heard of. And he says if you want to learn about history, you follow the music.

“You don’t really learn about it in school, because they don’t really teach culture,” he adds. “Information isn’t knowledge. It’s how you connect that gives you the awareness.”

With so much creativity and encouragement in his family, Hamilton says that the arts became a way of learning about himself.

“My parents instilled in [my siblings and I] this mentality with talent, you can go anywhere,” he says. “So it was kind of expected that you would find out who you were as an individual and then do that. So it wasn’t said, but it was implied, that you were going to find your place through this improvisation.”

RittenhouseSoundOnline02The main recording studio at Rittenhouse Soundworks is one of the largest rooms in Philadelphia, in terms of open floor plan—approximately 5,000 square feet. Behind the studio, the control room has a mixing board that was used for the last three Sly and the Family Stone records. Thanks to detailed schematics, Hamilton and fellow Rittenhouse producer and engineer Brian Boland were able to fix the console themselves.

Though Rittenhouse Soundworks is still in the works, the studio is already drumming up business. Hamilton and Boland just finished recording a classical ensemble of seven musicians for a production of “Peter Rabbit Tales” at the Enchantment Theater Company, composed by Charlie Gilbert, who is the composer in residence for the company. The sound of French horn and trumpet bleeds into the room from the mixing room downstairs. It’s one of the more complete areas of the studio.

“It’s been great to be a part of the whole experience [of working at the studio,]” Boland says. “Jim and I always used to talk about it, and then he pulled the trigger and got the building and kind of lured me back from Los Angeles.”

Boland had been in Los Angeles for 10 years before moving back last October to work with Hamilton. He’s playing back takes from the Peter Rabbit project to Gilbert, who’s sitting with stacks of sheet music in front of him.

“I was excited to work here, first of all because I was completely captivated by Jim and his vision of the place when I came here,” Gilbert says. “I was really jazzed and wanted to be a part of it. And it offered us a big room where we could have seven musicians. I was looking for a big room with a good acoustic sound, and this really fit the bill.”

Hamilton smiles when he hears this. It’s clear that the studio is truly a labor of love to him. He does it to be a part of the creative process and make something special.

Going forward, the studio will be used to broadcast three online radio shows under the name Tension Rod Radio, named for Hamilton’s record label. The first release on his label was a percussion duo out of Rio de Janeiro.

Hamilton devoted his space and his time to something he believes in. He wants to use his facility to teach younger generations how to create something organic through art.

“You got empty chairs in the studio? There should be kids there, learning, so they can understand that this is how you be a producer,” he says. “We’re creating an environment here that supports learning. We learn from each other because everybody trusts and nurtures each other. And people come here to be a better them. You’re here because, whatever it is that you do, you’re here to give that away.”


  1. January 15, 2016 12:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Brendan Menapace.

  2. January 18, 2016 11:46 am

    Rittenhouse Soundworks is doing so much for musicians and the community, it’s hard to describe. Jim Hamilton had created a magical space.

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