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Death metal pioneers seek site to replace Temple Terrace studio

Jim Morris and Tom Morris inside the Morrisound studio. JAY CONNER/STAFF
Jim Morris and Tom Morris inside the Morrisound studio. JAY CONNER/STAFF
Published Dec. 11, 2018

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 3, 2016.

TAMPA — The Morris brothers, who gained fame for themselves and Tampa by giving death metal a huge sound, are looking for a smaller place.

The studio Morrisound Recording rose to prominence in the 1980s by mastering production of the genre defined by distorted guitars, heavy drums and demonic vocals.

"Death metal bands want everything to be huge," said Jim Morris, 57, who created the studio with his brother Tom. "The guitars have to be huge. The drums have to huge. The vocals have to be huge. It has a huge sound."

Their expertise turned Tampa into the death metal capital of the world and helped them launch the careers of musicians who would later found the internationally acclaimed Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

But with advances in recording technology that allow musicians to lay down tracks in a space no bigger than their bedrooms, it's time for Morrisound to downsize.

They operated for three decades from a 5,000-square-foot building on 56th Street in Temple Terrace and now are in the market for a place closer to 2,000 square feet.

They haven't found a site that's just right so meantime, their legendary business is nomadic, leasing space from other recording houses as needed.

Morrisound sold its big building in August 2014 to Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which stages concerts known for their huge sound, pyrotechnics and cast of performers — including a winter tour that stopped at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Dec. 13.

At the time, the Morris brothers expected to have a new studio open within six months.

"That obviously hasn't happened," said Tom Morris, 60. "We've almost closed on a location four times, but something has always prevented that from happening."

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One recent Tuesday afternoon the Morris brothers sat down to talk about their studio at a recording studio a friend operates in his South Tampa home and rents to Morrisound on occasion.

Later that day, the brothers were to tour property in South Tampa that might be their next location. "Our No. 1 priority for 2016 is to get into a new studio," Jim Morris said.

Their old location was a place of legend, said local radio personality Tedd Webb.

"It was the place where anybody who was anybody in the Tampa Bay music scene wanted to record," Webb said. "Check the list of acts that have put down tracks there and it would freak you out."

Among their mainstream clients have been Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and Faith Hill.

But they're best known for their contribution to Tampa's death metal scene in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Tampa-based Obituary and Cannibal Corpse of Buffalo, New York — two of the most successful death metal bands ever — launched their careers with albums recorded at Morrisound, as did Brandon-based Nasty Savage and Morbid Angel from Tampa. The hit bands Sepultura from Brazil and England's Napalm Death also came to Tampa to work with the Morris brothers.

While recording here, these bands also would play at local venues like the Brass Mug and the Ritz Theatre. Fans of death metal had a choice of shows to attend each night. Tampa became to death metal what Nashville is to country music and New Orleans is to jazz.

The Tampa Bay Music Scene Historical Society, an online museum website, puts it this way: "Whether it was from the common, everyday, average garage bands that were sprouting up all over the bay area, or the more experienced bands, Tampa Bay was gaining some well-deserved attention and recognition with this newer, much more aggressive sound,"

"We didn't realize at the time we were helping to create a scene," Jim Morris said. "We were just having fun."

The sale of their former studio was sudden. Trans-Siberian Orchestra wanted to lease it for a long term project but after crunching the numbers, realized a purchase made more financial sense.

For the Morris brothers, the time seemed right.

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The studio was built for a full band to record every note of every song and to turn the work into a final product.

"Our big studio had become outdated," Tom Morris. "We built it when the technology was not readily available or affordable for people to record in their homes. Now, every musician seems to have a mini-recording studio in their bedrooms."

Today, professional studios like Morrisound are used primarily for mixing into a polished product the tracks that band members record on their own.

The only instrument most bands need to record in a professional studio is a drum kit.

"To do that right you need anywhere from 10 to 15 microphones and an acoustic space designed well enough so the drums sound good," Tom Morris said. "You can't do that in a bedroom."

Said Jim Morris, "The music industry changes and as it does, so must we."

The Morris brothers' family has been part of Tampa's music scene for over a century.

Their grandfather M.L. Price was an organist for the silent films at Tampa Theatre in the early 20th century and owner of M.L. Price Music Co., Tampa's largest music store throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

"It's ironic that we have such deep music roots in Tampa," Jim Morris, "because we never really meant to end up here or do what we are now doing."

The Morris brothers were raised in North Palm Beach and taught themselves guitar.

They came to Tampa in the mid-1970s to study engineering at the University of South Florida.

Then they formed a band, produced an album and caught the recording bug, realizing their love of engineering and music made this a perfect career for them.

They created their studio in 1981 and about a year later, met a heavy metal band from Tarpon Springs called Avatar, whose members Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli would go on to help found Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

At Morrisound, Avatar recorded the album in 1982 that put them on the heavy metal map — "City Beneath the Surface."

Avatar changed its name to Savatage and recorded "Sirens" at Morrisound in 1983 and their followup, "The Dungeons Are Calling," in 1984.

"They were the first band we worked with that had a record deal," Jim Morris said. "That was a big for us."

More importantly, he added, it made them the go-to studio for local metal bands.

"Our only big competitor was an old guy in his 50s who wouldn't work with music he did not like," Jim Morris said. "A lot of other studios in the state didn't want to figure out how to record heavy music."

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It takes a special skill, the brothers said. When a band wants everything to be loud, nothing stands out as loud and if mixed poorly the result can be a jumbled mess.

"It's not everyone's favorite type of music," Tom Morris said. "It's not even my top pick to listen to. But if you know music, you know those guys have talent. It just needs the right studio."

The key "isn't for everything to actually be huge but just sound huge" said Jim Morris, choosing his words carefully to keep from revealing their tricks of the trade. Morrisound played a vital role in launching the genre, said James Quirk, a music historian living in New Jersey.

"When you look at the history of death metal," Quirk said, "most of the albums that are today considered essential classics were recorded at Morrisound."

He added, "Morrisound figured out how to handle the heavy guitars, the blast beats, everything. The relationship between the studio and bands that recorded there really established death metal as a legitimate genre, and those records have stood the test of time."

Worried they would be pigeonholed as a death metal studio, the Morris brothers sought clients from jazz, voice recording and other genres, too.

So when death metal faded from the mainstream, they stayed relevant.

The top-selling album they produced came in 1995, "American Standard," by post-grunge rock band Seven Mary Three.

And in 2014, Chuck Owen's jazz album "River Runs" produced by Morrisound was nominated for two Emmys.

"We're best known for a certain style — death metal — but we've never done just one style," Jim Morris said. "Creatively that would bore us. We'll stay diverse out as long as we're in this business."

Now, they just need to find a new home."

"Soon," Tom Morris said. "I'm confident 2016 will be the year."