The Hills Are Alive

Our guide to North Bay recording studios


From world-class studios to smaller, project-based operations, North Bay musicians have an array of choices when it comes to recording. Why are so many of these studios based in the town of Sebastopol, population 7,000-ish? We have absolutely no idea.

Ausgang Audio “We love working with creative musicians and bands, and have recently recorded the Highlands and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Imaad Wasif,” says Justin Millar, who with wife Cara Phillips, runs this hi-fi analog recording studio with digital recording options. Located in an old Petaluma Victorian, the studio features a separate control room, live rooms with 10-foot ceilings and wide plank oak floors. Millar brings years of experience as a Skywalker Sound staff member to his work as an engineer.

From the Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Jeopardy’ Files Star Wars freaks can record on equipment actually used at Skywalker Ranch, the compound run by Jungian-inspired director George Lucas.

Recording Philosophy “We’re passionate about recording, vinyl records and archiving a band’s uniqueness.”

Banquet Studios Thirty years of recording experience is one of the perks of working with Warren Dennis Kahn, retired SSU music professor and the owner/engineer at Banquet Studios. Kahn recently upgraded to a beautiful, acoustically sound studio in rural Sebastopol with views of rolling wheat-colored hills. The large studio (they recently hosted a 40-person choir from Occidental) is strictly digital. “It’s a huge endeavor to put out a record,” says studio manager Shanin Jones, a singer and percussionist with R&B dance band Blue Moon. “Just to have the guts to do it. We want people to feel encouraged and supported. Since we are all musicians here, we understand the pressures of the recording process.”

From the Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Jeopardy’ Files Deepak Chopra, author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, recorded an audiobook here.

Recording Philosophy “Our purpose is to provide a conscious recording environment in which personal artistry is encouraged, creativity is inspired and the human spirit is expressed.”

Coyote Creek Studio On a sunny day in Sebastopol, Robert Butler, owner of Coyote Creek Studio, plays a rough cut of “We are the Ones,” a heartfelt song by singer-songwriter Sky Nelson. Working primarily with such regional artists as Kelly the Singer and rock band Jed, Butler looks for artists with potential and is willing not only to record them but also to help with post-recording promotion. “This is a comfortable place. Artists are in a situation where they can do their best work,” Butler beams.

From the Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Jeopardy’ Files The studio got its name from the coyotes that liked to visit during late-night recording sessions. According to Native American lore, these creatures represent the trickster god. Maybe the studio is situated on some Sedona-like vortex.

Recording Philosophy “The signal path is the key. It starts with talent, mics, the room and pre-amps.”

In the Pocket “I wanted to build a studio where I could achieve the sounds of my favorite records,” says owner Gregory Haldan from his finely outfitted In the Pocket control room. After purchasing a NEVE console mixing board previously used on The Benny Hill Show, Haldan continued his search for the best gear available. “I have a clear vision of how I want to approach equipment,” he says.

Clients like Gov’t Mule and Tom Waits, who recorded both Alice and Blood Money here, have taken advantage of the isolation and privacy. “It’s about helping people make the record of their dreams,” Halden says.

From the Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Jeopardy’ Files “Dr. Woo,” the mysterious previous owner of the property attempted to build a “spiritual creek” underneath one of the houses. It has since been diverted.

Recording Philosophy “Focus on the music.”

Prairie Sun On first approach, Prairie Sun looks like a farmhouse. In fact, it spent the first part of its life in rural Cotati as a chicken hatchery, a fact that co-owner Mark “Mooka” Rennick shares with pride. “It’s basically a funky old chicken barn,” Rennick says about his successful recording facility. But don’t be fooled by the rough exterior. Prairie Sun is a world-class studio, featuring vintage analog equipment combined with the most up-to-date digital profile. Patronized by the likes of Tom Waits, who recorded the Grammy Award-winning Mule Variations in a modified closet now called the “Waits Room,” the Mountain Goats and Heavy Weight Dub Champion, this “funky chicken barn,” has seen its share of brilliance.

Studio B features a Neve Mixing board previously owned by Pete Townshend. Studio A features an 80-input mixing board. “We can handle huge projects,” Rennick stresses. Musicians who want to mix analog with digital can do that, since each room has a proprietary digital ProTools system, all wired for two-inch analog tapes.

From the Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘Jeopardy’ Files Before a recording session by a West County hippie band, a guru-priest attempted to splash holy water around one of the studios, seriously threatening some very expensive equipment.

Recording Philosophy “Prairie Sun is an artistic compound with professional services and great vibes, and we like to have fun.”

Zone Recording/Blair Hardman Productions “We get all levels of performers in here and we make everybody feel comfortable,” says Blair Hardman from the helm of an immaculate control room that resembles the inside of a small spaceship. “I majored in psychology so that’s a big help,” Hardman laughs, speaking of his ability to stave off nervousness in clients who may be new to the recording process. Clients can also choose from hundreds of guitar amps since they are given access to all of the gear in the adjacent Zone Music store.

From the Rock ‘n’ Roll Jeopardy Files Blair Hardman made a guest appearance on the bestselling audiobook The Secret. He read the biblical quotes.

Recording Philosophy “Recording at Zone means never having to say you’re sorry.” [ ]

Other Studios to Love

Grizzly Studios “From the early ’90s to 2000, it seems like practically everything that came out of the North Bay area came through the studio,” says owner Roger Tschann about his legendary Petaluma digs. From Mac Dre to Cutie Pie—a Japanese ska outfit who flew across the Pacific to record with the man responsible for records by California ska bands like the Bruce Lee Band—Grizzly is a place where musicians of all stripes can come for quality analog and digital recording.

“It’s affordable with a relaxed vibe,” Tschann says about Grizzly. With a track record of producing classic recordings from pretty much every cool band to come out of the North Bay, Tschann can put his output behind his words. 707.763.BEAR.

The Plant Recording Studios Fleetwood Mac recorded their perennial hit Rumours at Sausalito’s original Plant in 1976. This world-class facility still caters to the big names, including the Dave Matthews Band, Joe Satriani and Santana. For those with a little extra cash, check out the “Garden,” a studio room complete with tropical plants and a hot tub.

Route 44 Owner and engineer Harry Gale has captured the sounds of many of Sonoma County’s finest including Doug Jayne, Charlie Musselwhite and Laughing Gravy. Route 44 features an efficient and comfortable set up along with ProTools-based digital recording on two acres of country land in Sebastopol.

“All egos get checked at the door—including mine,” says long-time musician Gale. “We usually wind up having a great time doing our best, and I have many clients who come back repeatedly for three or more albums.”

Sebtown Slated to open this month, Sebtown is a professional recording studio in the heart of Sebastopol. Studio designer Jack Jacobsen designed the world-class acoustic recording rooms. Owner Chuck Johnson doesn’t hesitate to declare, “it’s the best in Sonoma County.” Local artists are encouraged to contact this affiliate of the New Vintage Artists label to see for themselves. 707.495.9001.

Silverado “We believe in creating an environment where the artist feels supported by a combination of state-of-the-art electronics and precision engineering, editing and mastering—and quality professional people with positive attitude, to get quality results,” says Patrick Flynn, head engineer at Silverado. Located in rural Calistoga, the studio combines a vintage TAC magnum console with ProTools for those looking for personalized hybrid touch. Rates are comparable to other studios, and they offer package deals for longer projects.

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