Ear to the Ground Studio


Deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a rutted dirt road twists upward through the forest. As you negotiate hairpin turns, pits and potholes, it grows darker as the towering redwoods close in. Resisting an overwhelming urge to turn back, you round one final bend and make out the gleaming dome of an aluminum trailer, coupled with the faint strains of a country serenade: “My love was alive but now it's DOA/I'm just another lone squatter at the KOA/There ain't a lonelier place when you're alone/and don't want to be.”

Will Shanks in the Airstream

Inside the trailer, expecting a grizzled retiree in a living room strewn with open soup cans, belting out an ode to a lonely life trolling America's favorite campgrounds, you instead find engineer Will Shanks at work, mixing Kentucky-based Americana cult favorites Trailer Park Troubadours' latest album project. This is the control room of Shanks' Ear to the Ground Studio (, which does double-duty as a stationary studio and a mobile rig for live events.

The idea for the studio came from Shanks' friend and “landlord,” Tim Beverly, who had built a recording space on the property years before. He said, “Why don't you come up here and use this place,” after Shanks cut his own record there. The 29-foot 1969 Airstream was bought as an “upgrade” to his landlord's trailer in 1999 while attending the music program at nearby Cabrillo College. During a year of gutting and rebuilding the interior — eventually transforming the rear bathroom into a control room — he turned cabinets and overhead bins into studio furniture, leaving a vanity intact. “I was just about to sledgehammer it,” says Shanks. “I actually hit it once, and said, ‘Shoot, maybe I can use this.’ I measured it and said, ‘Yeah, I bet I could put some [Yamaha] NS-10s and some racks in there.’”

The control room is centered around MOTU Digital Performer and a Mackie controller, with an Otari MX5050 and Revox B77 close at hand. Mackie HR824s complement the NS-10s, and outboard effects include spring reverbs, an Echoplex and an anthology of Universal Audio gear, from UREI EQs and an original 175 compressor to 1176 re-issues, from 610 pre's to UA's latest Precisions, 2192 converters and UAD-1 cards.

Shanks says that although he road-tests new gear as part of his day job as analog product specialist at Universal Audio, a lot of the classic units are his own; he insists that he has long been obsessed with vintage gear: “I was drawn to [UA] because of the whole Bill Putnam thing. I went down there and said, ‘I'll do anything!’”

Adjacent to the trailer, a building about the size of a two-car garage houses a large (23×25-foot) vaulted live tracking room and three iso rooms. A window aligns perfectly with the trailer's rear window, allowing line of sight into the main room; a snake connects the structures.

Dozens of vintage instruments are available: Tucked in Shanks' “guitar-moire” are assorted guitars, basses and keyboards, plus effects and amps. A Rhodes and tack piano, plus a Leslie, round out instrument and amp options.

The mic collection includes AKGs, Neumanns, Sennheisers, Earthworks and plenty of Shures, plus a refurbished RCA ribbon Shanks found in an old church loft. “It was smashed in a box at the bottom of a pile of boxes, but it still kind of worked,” he says, adding that he had the mic re-ribboned. “It was a real score.” Other scavenged treasures include an RCA rack with additional preamps and a McIntosh 240 power amp.

Isolation is not an issue out in the woods — the studio is set on a 10-acre parcel of land and the closest neighbor is about an eighth of a mile away — though Shanks admits that working in an aluminum room means tracking sessions occasionally get “rained out. If it's really pouring, it gets noisy on top of the trailer.”

Although Shanks occasionally brings the trailer down the mountain for recording gigs in Santa Cruz, his time is generally spent at the mountain facility, recording and mixing projects for local and regional talent — mostly unsigned singer/songwriters and bands. In a small but rich music scene famous for cultivating such diverse acts as the Doobie Brothers, Camper Van Beethoven and Gillian Welch, he says he finds plenty of artists he connects with musically.

“I really like developing artists,” he says. “I really like the sound of a band actually playing, and most of the time, I achieve the best results that way anyhow: The bands seem to be the happiest if we can just get it really good going in and have them play it live with minimal overdubs.”

The Trailer Park Troubadours' lead singer, Antsy McClain, agrees. “All the vintage equipment and live room sound gave the songs an important ‘hands-on’ feel that I know will translate through to the finished product,” McClain says. “And being able to spend three days in a vintage Airstream in the woods of Northern California? I can't even talk about it without getting all gushy. We intend on doing more tracks with Will, but now that he's getting all this press, we probably can't afford him anymore.”

There may be other
Airstreams nestled in the
Santa Cruz mountains, but none equipped like this one.

Will Shanks shows off the Epiphone limited edition "Airscreamer" guitar, designed
in honor of the Trailerpark Troubadors.
Will Shanks' tracking room
and "lounge area".

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