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Holy music hall
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Sacred Heart Music Center in downtown Duluth started its life as a cathedral. Now it's a performance hall and recording studio. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
People come from all over the world to play the organ at Sacred Heart in Duluth. They love the sound. Bluegrass bands and punk rockers like the sound, too. The Sacred Heart Music Center spent more than 100 years as a cathedral. It has different acoustics from most concert halls and recording studios. And musicians say it has a different feel.

Duluth, Minn. — Sacred Heart isn't a cathedral anymore. The pews are gone. But the altar's still here, and the stained glass windows still light up with afternoon sun, and white columns still tower overhead to hold up the vaulted ceiling. The floor's in rough shape, and paint is peeling from the walls here and there.

But Sacred Heart still feels holy.

"You know, you walk in here, there's something about it," says Barb Darland, as she looks out from the choir loft. "I don't know what it is. I can't define it. It has its own, I don't know, charm."

Darland is on the board of directors of the Sacred Heart Music Center. It's a non-profit that runs the place. They've been putting on concerts for the past few years. They started with classical music, but they're branching out. They've had rock bands, and gospel choirs, and blues piano players. Lots of concerts still feature the organ.

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Image The organ

The organ was the centerpiece of the cathedral back when it was built in 1896. The building is listed as a historic landmark -- and so is the organ.

The acoustics are great. For the organ.

Barb Darland claps her hands and the sound bounces around for four seconds. That echo sounds really good if a few people are singing or playing acoustic instruments, but it's not so good for rock bands.

"Bass and drums can be an issue," Darland says with a chuckle. "They can really bring the place alive, but they can also really confuse the audience. That sound is all over the place, and it becomes overwhelming."

The people who run Sacred Heart are experimenting with curtains and baffles and other ways to deaden sound for some live performances. But the echo isn't a problem if you're recording music here. Then it's an advantage.

The Sacred Heart Recording Studio rents this space from the non-profit Sacred Heart Music Center. The studio's been busy over the past couple years.

This week, rock musicians from Kansas City and Chicago were recording here. The Duluth band "Low" sells its CDs all over the world, and they recorded their most recent one at Sacred Heart. Classical lute players have recorded here, and so have punk bands. "They don't build them like this anymore," says Eric Swanson, standing on what used to be the cathedral's altar.

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Image Eric Swanson

Swanson is the chief engineer for the recording studio. He says most studios are windowless and industrial. But not this one.

"There's 110 years of stuff that's been going on in this building," he says. "There's been a lot of baptisms, a lot of weddings, a lot of funerals, a lot of prayers. And a lot of that energy is still kind of bouncing around in here."

Swanson says the big, boomy sound isn't a problem for recording because he can put microphones up close to musicians, and that cuts down the reverberation. For a different sound, sometimes singers record their vocals in the old church office. Or the bathroom. Or even in the confessional.

"Sometimes in the middle of a doing recording you kind of get an idea," Swanson says. "What if we did this? Or, what if we put a mic here? It spurs the creativity to be in a place that's a little out of the norm."

Haley Bonar is a popular singer-songwriter in Duluth who's starting to get national attention. She recorded a CD at Sacred Heart last year, and a couple weeks ago she played in a concert here.

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Image Sacred Heart

"Maybe it's just the sound," she says, looking up to the arched ceiling. "Maybe it's the stained glass, or how old this building is, but playing on this piano in this space, I can't say anything more than that it inspires me to write music and makes me want to record in here even more."

In addition to all the recording, there's a slate of live performances at Sacred Heart.

On Friday night the Rose Ensemble from the Twin Cities will perform Renaissance music. They've become Sacred Heart regulars.

Concert organizers at Sacred Heart say they'll keep trying to bring in all kinds of music. They're also aiming for a more diverse audience. They give away some of the tickets for their concerts in the surrounding inner-city neighborhood.

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