ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Matt Guarnere has nearly 40 years of experience in the world of audio, and fills a special place in the Rochester community. He’s its premiere audio archivist.
He founded his company, What’s Real Unlimited in 1991, which now specializes in archiving and restoring analog audio — think anything from reel to reel tape, to ADAT tape, to vinyl records, even to CD — into a easily storable and shareable digital format.
Although Guarnere’s history in Rochester ranges from young hotshot singer, to technical director for Lovin Cup, to stage manager The Lilac Festival, working the Rochester International Jazz Festival, to recording engineer, to audio contributor on recent livestreams, he combines all of these skills for “What’s Real.”
“Nowadays, I rarely produce new sound recordings,” Guarnere said. “Instead, I utilize the same kinds of tape machines, turntables, and electronic technology that I started out with in order to bring bygone sounds and video into the 21st century.”
He admits it’s often not an easy feat, as many of the older media forms have become very delicate, like this piece of Rochester history.
Guarnere got a call from Aric Schaubroeck from House of Guitars about a very special record. It’s an acetate record from a Rochester band called “The Howse.”
The Howse was active in the 1960s through the 1970s in Rochester. They were comprised of Phil Sanguedolce, “Wally” Sudor, Ron Collins, Larry Weld, and Benny Grammatico (of the Lou Gramm family tree).
An acetate record is a very fragile kind of record — made of shellac and metal — that was made on-site at a recording studio for a musician in the band, or a producer. It was a way for them to bring the music home and review it. Because they are so fragile, and so few were made, very few exist to this day.
And even so, no two acetates are exactly alike.
This acetate features a song called “You’re A Head;” it’s the only copy known to exist. It’s an abstract double entendre of a high school stereotype. The song itself features soaring vocals, playful vocals by leader Sanguedolce, and psychedelic interludes put in place by the producers of the record.
Since the master tape of the original recording is long gone, Guarnere said that this acetate is a “ghost of memory.”
The song is unique, and its format delicate, so Schaubroeck thought of only one name to call to make sure that it stayed safe.
“He’s given me recordings of his that other people have done as well,” Schaubroeck said. “His recordings… He took the time, and put a lot of heart into the recording. I knew he was the guy to go to. I knew he had the equipment, and I know he’s passionate about it, which is very important.”
Acetate gingerly in hand, Guarnere brings the acetate to his “light of shame” at Bop Shop Records, so he carefully clean it.
From there, it’s off to his efficient workspace. Everything in the space is perfectly cultivated for this work: special tape machines, personalized and tailored turntables, multiple kinds of needles for that turntable… The list goes on. Needless to say, it’s a well-oiled machine.
The acetate is scratchy, and the song itself is covered with white noise. Guarnere digitally captures by recording the sound of his turntable right into his computer, after he checks the speed and tuning with a guitar.
A couple weeks go by, and Guarnere has worked his magic.
He and Sanguedolce meet at Bop Shop Records. Guarnere has a set of monitor speakers set up, along with his computer and a mixing board. The two discuss the record, and the band itself.
Then Guarnere hits play.
The beginning, a spacey tremolo, is noticeably bereft of the crackle and hiss that it had before. When the lead vocals came in a few seconds later, a rush of compressed mono psychedelic glory filled Bop Shop, and a wide smile cracked on Sanguedolce’s face. It was his first time ever hearing this song recorded.
“Amazing,” he said. “This doesn’t sound 50 years old. You could release this today.”
And sure enough, Guarnere and Schaubroeck are working to release this track, along with four others by The Howse, into a brand new release sometime next year.
“If I do my job right, the listener may not even realize that the music playing or the voice speaking was once a tape or a disc,” said Guarnere. “The sound just returns to being a pure life event that can cheat time again and again for generations to come.”
Butt Guarnere’s talents go beyond just music restoration.
Rochester’s Maria Canete brought Guarnere a cassette tape recorded by her late grandfather in Puerto Rico in 1965.
“My mom had been wanting to listen to it for years, but we were afraid to ruin it by playing it,” said Canete. “After Matt beautifully restored it, my mom, sister, and I were amazed to listen to him talking about his life, his faith, and his feelings. It was very emotional, and now we’re on a mission to find more tapes.”
“Matt is just this unbelievable talent,” said Tom Kohn, owner of Rochester’s famed Bop Shop Records, with whom Guarnere has been working and sharing his love of music for more than 20 years. “It’s amazing how much he cares about how things sound. And, he’s just as thoughtful about the very personal aspect of mining people’s memories.”