In August of 1974, David Bowie, looking to shed his Ziggy Stardust glam-rock persona and vibe, came to Sigma Sound on North 12th Street to explore the Philly Soul sound on his wildly successful ninth album, Young Americans . The room he recorded in is gone now, but Sigma’s current owners—who are re-launching the venerable studio in January following years of limbo and ownership changes after founder Joe Tarsia first sold it in 2003—are going all in with a big-money, “If you build it, they will come” approach to entice big names to town once again. More than a million dollars has gone into ripping out and rebuilding the entire facility, purchasing the latest, hottest consoles and other equipment, building a huge soundstage, and generally amping up the “wow” factor.
“When I first got here the rooms were kind of antiquated—Sigma to me was on the way to becoming a museum,” says part-owner Durell Bottoms, a Philly producer and songwriter who’s worked with Boyz II Men, P!nk, Vivian Green and others. “It was cool to look at the rooms, but you couldn’t make a record there. We wanted to make it so that if I went to Nashville and worked at Starstruck, which is Reba McEntire’s studio, and then came back to Philly to our studio, I wasn’t depressed, you know what I mean? They’re on another level, so we decided in redoing this place, let’s do it at that level of excellence.”
Not that record-making was all that was on Bottoms’ mind. “I said to the other investors, ‘Look, if you guys aren’t writing songs, producing music, doing music for film, coming up with content, a studio’s a joke.’” Even the word “studio” is a dirty word—the facility is officially being re-branded as Sigma Sound Entertainment. “I run around here ranting and raving saying, ‘If I ever hear any of you guys call this building a studio again ...’ I’m trying to create the mentality that it’s an entertainment complex.”
Bottoms says that Sigma’s a one-stop destination for artists—they can still make an album there, but they can also shoot a video or do other TV projects on the soundstage, they can consult with the new full-service marketing and promotions department, and they can throw an album release party in the lavish environs. They’re also looking to expand their operations into film, comedy, video games and more. In terms of recording artists, Bottoms insists there’s big money still out there to be had; that the facility, and the Sigma name and history, will bring in five-star clients—Kanye West is due later this month for a party, he says—which in turn will help subsidize the development of new artists. Like Silber at The Studio, Bottoms hopes to impress fresh faces, including lots of Philly artists of all genres, and make them clients for life. “Before Taylor Swift was Taylor Swift she was just a little girl who walked into a studio. We have the ability to see this great talent now, and instead of treating them like new talent, treat them like superstars.”
Sigma’s also trying to develop its producers and engineers to add to the draw. Bottoms says that one of his producers, Dilemma, “is like a fusion of Timbaland and [Black Eyed Peas’] will.i.am. I’m telling you, he’s the next.” The presence of another of Sigma’s co-owners helps: Trenton, N.J.-born producer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Blackstone, who is an in-demand touring bassist for the likes of John Legend, Pharrell and Jill Scott, and currently works as music director for Jay-Z, Kanye, Eminem, Janet Jackson, Maroon 5 and others.
“It all boils down to the people,” Bottoms says. “Make it about the team we’ve got, but when we get people in here, have a facility that they’re gonna be like, ‘Woooow.’”