Willow Street, PA (November 4, 2022)—Legendary studio owner and engineer Joe Tarsia died November 1, 2022 at the age of 88. A key player in the East Coast studio scene for more than half a century, Tarsia defined the sound of Philly Soul in the 1960s and ’70s, started the revered Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia and New York City, co-founded SPARS (Society of Professional Audio Recording Services) and even in his later years, helped educate the next generation of studio pros.
Tarsia got his start working as a tech around the Philadelphia studio scene, eventually falling in with Cameo Parkway Records in the early 1960s, where he worked his way up to chief engineer. In 1968, he sold his house and car to fund his dream of opening his own facility—Sigma Sound Studios on 12th Street in Philadelphia. Starting as a simple two-track outfit, Sigma quickly jumped up to eight tracks, and later became one of the first 24-track studios in the U.S.
In the years that followed, Sigma Sound Studios became the epicenter of the 1960s-1970s Philly Soul explosion, where a seemingly endless string of hits for Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records were recorded. The studio, and often engineer Tarsia himself, was responsible for the sound on smashes by The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Patti LaBelle and more. Famously, David Bowie reinvented his career at Sigma in the mid-1970s, adopting his Thin White Duke persona for the 1975 Young Americans album. Other artists that captured tracks there over the years included Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, ZZ Top, The Roots and countless others.
By the late 1970s, the facility had 10 rooms booked incessantly, leading Tarsia to expand into the New York City market, opening a second Sigma Sound above the Ed Sullivan Theatre in 1977. Over the next decade, it would host sessions by artists such as Whitney Houston, Madonna, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Ashford and Simpson, Paul Simon and more. In 1979, Tarsia teamed up with 10 other high-profile studios around the country to create the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services, and was the organization’s first president.
Tarsia sold the New York facility in 1988 but kept the studio name, though in 2003, he sold the Philadelphia location as well, famously donating 6,200 unclaimed tapes to Drexel University. Today, that studio has been closed since 2014, but the site is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, ensuring it can’t be demolished in the future. In his later years, Tarisa often lectured at schools, helping inspire the next generation of audio pros.
A resident in recent years of Willow Street, PA, Tarsia was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in 2016. Over the course of his engineering career, he earned more than 150 gold and platinum record awards. He will be remembered by his wife Cecelia, daughter Loria Rawle and grandchildren Nicole, Patrick and Becky.