When you first walk through the doors of Sacred Heart Music Center, the enormity of the venue is felt by the immediate echo of your voice. Sitting high upon the Duluth skyline, Sacred Heart Cathedral is a historic landmark that opened its doors in 1896 and installed a renowned Felgemaker organ in 1898. It was longtime organist, Joan Connolly, who saved the building from demolition by buying Sacred Heart for $1. The building has been home to a world-class recording studio for 18 years and has been hugely supportive of the Duluth music scene. Artists like LOW, Haley, Trampled By Turtles, and Charlie Parr have all worked within its walls.
But there’s one thing the music venue has that sets it apart from any other venue. When asking longtime director Eric Swanson about what makes the church unique, he simply states, “Six and a half seconds,” then claps. The huge echo makes him smile and say,
In 1987, the church was hanging on by a thread. It sat empty with no heat and no functional bathrooms. Over the years, it’s been rejuvenated with heat, remodeled bathrooms, new flooring, and fresh paint. The studio started back in 2001 and, as Eric shares, was created to document all the different kinds of music being made in Duluth at the time. Sacred Heart Music Center holds 15-20 concerts a year and seats 438 at full capacity. With 6.5 seconds of reverb, you can imagine the magical lush experience of sitting in a space with live music reverberating all around you. The environment makes it one of the top concert experiences in Minnesota.
Designated as a historic building, the exterior has to remain the same, but they’ve been able to turn the inside into a functional venue for weddings, fundraisers, and concerts, as well as housing a dance studio and a full-sized recording studio. The upper balcony hosts the renowned Felgemaker organ that still gets used every week for practices and is played about once a month for free concerts on Sunday afternoons. The impressive 1,493 pipe organ has also been used in many recordings over the years. Charles Hendrickson, a noted Minnesota organ builder states,
“The Felgemaker organ in Sacred Heart… is not particularly old, by European standards, but it is certainly the largest old organ indigenous to the state… The value of this instrument is in its tonality. The sound is large and reverberant in this marvelous building. Few organs in Minnesota, old or new, can produce such a sound.”
The recording studio sits in a side room that was called “The Crying Room” when the building was a church. This place was for all the young kids to sit when they were upset, so their parents could still see the service.
Inside the control room of the studio sits two walls of equipment and a massive soundboard. Displayed on a shelf in the studio is a picture of Eric’s twin daughters, who are adopted from Ethiopia, playing on the original soundboard. The studio is filled with relics and analog tape from all of the artist’s recordings over the years. There is board tape hanging on the wall from the first record that was ever tracked in the studio, Trust by Duluth artists Low. Low have been consistent supporters by recording and producing other artists at Sacred Heart. The world-class studio has helped launch careers for so many Duluth artists and continues to be a destination location for national artists as well.
The nucleus of Sacred Heart lies in the main space, surrounded by tall stained-glass windows. The high arches and slim structural beams hug the seating area. When filled, it feels intimate while sounding larger than it really is. The front of the room features original tiling and a solid white marble altar. The side balconies now host lighting equipment to illuminate the stage, as a grand piano sits in front. The venue feels alive with history and echos of the past. There’s a grandiose feeling when one sits in the middle of the space and absorbs each sound reflection and whisper. At the same time, you feel close to the whispers and reverberations of any voice.
Touring through Sacred Heart, it is evident what makes this music venue so special. Each pocket and room carry a different tone and sound. As a recording studio, the entire building is a viable option in which to record. The back office gets used as a green room and a microphone can easily be set up if you want a deadened sound. The drum room is a converted storage space that has exposed stone and baffling materials behind the kit. It has just enough live reverb to inject the drums with energy, yet short enough decay to keep it tame.
Walking into the narthex, Eric shared that it is used as a vocal booth at times. It has a cool resonance that feels light and airy. He then led me into each of the restrooms. The men’s bathroom is darker, while the women’s bathroom has a more chamber reverb vibe. Each room has been used for vocals, amps, acoustic guitars, and percussion over the years. The palette of sounds at your fingertips is extremely rare as any recording studio is typically limited to space. This also means one doesn’t have to jump into software or hardware to find the sound you’re after. At Sacred Heart, you use your ears and move around.
Climbing up the creaky wooden stairs in the back of the church, Eric sat down at the organ and started fiddling. The church came alive. Hearing the 6 second echo throughout the space and standing in front of those pipes, there was an unmistakable energy that surrounded me. You don’t hear compression. You don’t hear unnatural EQ. You hear the sound of something organic and real.
Eric smiled at me as he saw my face illuminate. He stopped playing and said, “I don’t.” Implying that he doesn’t really know how to play the organ, I replied back that whatever he was doing, it sounded amazing.
This venue has remained a personal inspiration to my development into the music industry. The 2005 Ashtray Hearts album Perfect Halves was recorded at Sacred Heart. At the time, I was working at my first recording studio and popped in this album. The sounds and tone of the instruments were beyond anything I had ever heard. The natural reverb of the church was front and center, combining perfectly with the band’s instruments. Ever since, that album is, sonically, one of my favorite albums and an example of what amazing natural reverb sounds like. The warmth and space you can hear in those songs inspired me.
Eric Swanson, Engineer/Producer
Eric Swanson has been working in the music industry for over 45 years. He suffered a massive stroke back in 2015, which immediately rallied the community of musicians in support. His career has meant a ton to Duluth musicians, he’s developed and supported so many of them over the years. He continues to be involved at Sacred Heart and, in meeting with him, there’s still a strong sense of pride in the studio that he built in that special space. Eric has a guru-type aura surrounding him. Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but as an audio engineer. The stroke has slowed down his voice, but his mind is still sharp and filled with so many tips and tricks he’s developed over years of recording music.
Eric grew up in Duluth, lived in Iowa for a bit, and moved to LA for 11 years, all while gaining experience in the music industry. When he moved back to Duluth, he noticed a very diverse and gifted stable of musicians in the community. Wanting to document the music in Duluth, he opened the recording studio. Even today he shares that the music scene in Duluth is still “all over the place.”
He’s added some help over the years in engineers Jake Larson and Tom Fabjance. At the heart of the studio is the Midas Legend 3000, a 48 channel analog soundboard. The studio is packed with compressors, amps, microphones, and devices all set to capture that special magical reverb. Anybody can go to LA to record, but Sacred Heart is a destination place for recording an album. At $75 an hour, or $700 for a full day, you get access to everything packed into the space. When you factor in the world-class reverb, it’s unbeatable.
The Guest Room
Haley McCallum, Musician
Back in 2002, Haley McCallum started recording her first album, The Size of Planets, at Sacred Heart. She was just 19 and her career was about to take off. She had been at Sacred Heart taking photos of Low during a rehearsal and really liked the space. After bumping into Eric Swanson at events and shows, he offered to record her at the church.
“I’m not really a religious or even spiritual person. But it’s as close as I can get to having a religious experience in the sense that like, that reverb is mind-blowingly beautiful. It is religious,” shares Haley.
She recorded that album on analog tape and in listening back, you can hear the warmth and reverb behind those songs. Haley shares the place has such an interesting feeling to it. She’s definitely had experiences in there where she knew she wasn’t alone. When a building is as old as this one is, coupled with the number of experiences that have taken place inside, there’s bound to be residual energies.
“I think it kind of attracts that magical, maybe invisible energy, spiritual energy, because it is such a peaceful place.”
Haley has had the unique opportunity to record and perform at the venue. Her personality as a recording artist has always leaned towards needing privacy and feeling at peace when she’s recording. When she plays at the venue, there is a moment where it takes her a bit to get over the fact that there are people watching her. For her, the environment has always felt more of a workspace than a performance space. With that said, her experiences performing there have been deeply special and she hopes to get back up to perform soon. Check out the short video above spotlighting a performance back in 2017, all shot at Sacred Heart Music Center.
Sacred Heart has hosted a variety of gifted artists over the years such as Cactus Blossoms, Chastity Brown, Mason Jennings, Gaelynn Lea, Low, and Charlie Parr. Although they don’t host a ton of shows, the ones they do are steeped in talent. I highly suggest subscribing to their email list to be notified of shows and plan a trip to Duluth to experience the venue.
The full schedule can be found here. A few highlights include:
2/23 – Happy Birthday, Handel – Felgemaker organ recital. Come and celebrate the 334th birthday of George Frederic Handel. The program will be as varied as the composer’s works, from concerto to opera and back again.
5/17 – Nordic Journey: An afternoon of music from Nordic lands – This concert will feature Nordic music performed by concert organist James Hicks, pianist Asami Hagiwara and Arna Rennan, a well-known local folk musician.
Music venues are the lifeblood of our community. By providing musicians the opportunity to showcase, collaborate, and experiment with their craft, venues are essential in their development. This series will continue to promote and support our local venues across Minnesota. Please see the previous articles below and go support local music. Our hope is that these articles show the importance of supporting venues and places where creativity can thrive.