You can’t talk about recording studios without talking about their “vibe.” From the late 1950s and early 1960s, when visionaries like Bill Putnam, Tommy Dowd, Rudy Van Gelder and Cosimo Matassa broke away from the broadcast lab-coat model and began producing records, Vibe became one of the great differentiators for artists looking to book a studio and make great music. That sense of Vibe, of providing a “recording experience,” made Power Station the Power Station, or makes Record Plant the Record Plant. It’s what makes Blackbird what it is, or the Village or Capitol or Larrabee or Criteria or Abbey Road what they are.
Of course the equipment package is important, too, and the talent of the engineer/producer is most important of all. But anyone with money can build a studio, and engineers/producers today work all over the place. So when an artist is looking to record their music on their dime, they want to be comfortable, and they want to live inside the experience. The Vibe. When Rose Mann has the perfect margarita delivered before the dinner break, along with your favorite magazine, and you’re sitting in the Record Plant lounge after a full day of tracking, that’s Vibe. When John McBride pulls out a rare Telefunken mic, serial #002, for a new singer-songwriter, that’s Vibe. When a Louisville engineer working out of a one-room, self-built, strip-mall facility shifts the carpet on the wall and puts the amp in the bathroom and moves the mic just a hair on the plastic-pail percussion—because it fits the track—that’s Vibe. That’s an Experience. Every single recording situation is an Experience.
But I didn’t expect to be talking about Vibe and Experience when I drove up I-69, then west on U.S. 30, to the Sweetwater complex in Fort Wayne, Ind. I had been there before, when they opened the new 180,000 square-foot retail/sales/office space back in 2008, complete with three world-class Russ Berger-designed studios and a 250-seat Performance Theater. It is impressive by any measure, the first Platinum LEED-certified building in the state, with state-of-the-art warehouse distribution tracking and packaging systems and unparalleled customer resource management databases. There was a retail store-style entrance, a Candyland for musicians. There’s the annual Gearfest, bringing in 8,000 musicians each June. But Vibe? Maybe I just wasn’t looking. This time, however, on a visit in early December, I got it.
First, there is expansion and construction going on everywhere, including two new buildings on the 110 acres and a new, larger space for the Sales Engineers, the heart of the entire organization. There is the common area, complete with putting greens, a music Academy, rehearsal rooms, a salon, a fitness center, restaurants and coffee bars, a stage for club-style performances. There’s a big tubular slide right next to the main open-air stairwell to the second floor for a touch of fun and whimsy. On the day I was there, 14 nuns, on a tour, took the plunge.
There’s excitement in the studios, too, centered around the creation of a whole new model for production, one that involves in-house musicians and package deals and a diverse, flexible, artist-centered approach. And that creative Vibe is seeping its way out into the larger Sweetwater culture. The story is inside the issue.
But what’s most impressive is the Vibe simply in and around the workplace. There’s something going on, and these people are happy to be here. It shows. There’s a collective attitude to Do Things Right, Go the Extra Mile, Have the Perfect Conversation, Treat the Customer With Respect, and Be Honest and True. These types of fundamental principles, whether adopted in a personal or professional life, create their own kind of Vibe, too.
Sweetwater the Retailer has experienced enormous success over the past 35 years, and studios have been at the center of the operation since Day One. Sweetwater Studios is now coming into its own, still in its infancy but looking to create a new kind of Vibe. A Destination Experience. There’s much more to come. Stay tuned.