It only takes a few hours hanging out in downtown Asheville, N.C., to realize this small mountain city of 70,000 has become a magnet for thousands of alternative-lifestyle pilgrims, artists, musicians and outdoor enthusiasts. Downtown, Pack Square and Pritchard Park are regular scenes for musicians, performance artists, large drum circles and dancing. The area also boasts a fine symphony, good jazz and world beat. It's no wonder the city's unhurried vibe, beautiful setting and manageable size has lured in so many creative types.
Steve Wilmans, an engineer/mixer with 20 years' experience and a former partner in a Seattle-based studio called Stepping Stone, was one such person. While Stepping Stone was a destination for acts such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse and Super Deluxe to record — and where tracks by Heart, Peter Frampton and the fictitious band Stillwater were recorded for the movie Almost Famous — Wilmans and his partner were made a purchase offer they couldn't refuse by a Microsoft man with deep pockets.
Standing, from left: studio owner Steve Wilmans, Shannon Fitzgerald, Danny Kadar, Jeb Puryear (Donna the Buffalo). Seated: Joe Blaney (producer), Bill Reynolds (Donna the Buffalo).
“When I sold the studio, I moved back to Southern California because the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest finally wore me down and I needed the sunshine,” reflects Wilmans. “I moved to L.A. and took some leisure time traveling to Australia, Bali and Mexico, and surfing and doing the occasional project for a couple of years. Finally, I couldn't take L.A. anymore. A friend of mine was moving here from L.A. because he was tired of it, and on an impulse I helped him drive his Ryder truck and move his stuff here in April of 2003.”
Wilmans was turned on to a 6,300-square-foot Methodist church in downtown Asheville that was about to hit the real estate market and immediately connected with the space, with its 20-foot vaulted ceilings, stained-glass window in the sanctuary and the all-important downstairs kitchen. He then enlisted the help of George Augspurger to design Echo Mountain Recording's (www.echomountain.net) control room and main monitor system. After getting all of the necessary permits, they began remodeling in April 2005 with the help of Asheville-based contractor Casey Carmichael of Heritage Restoration. Reid Carlson and Scott Green of Zahner Inc. provided beautiful replication of the original paneling that is featured throughout the church building, as well as the rest of the carpentry.
“As far as gear goes, I wanted to meld old-school and vintage analog with the latest in digital technology,” says Wilmans. “I'm an analog guy, but I also realized that Pro Tools is the industry standard.” With the help of Steffan and Marc Fantini, as well as Bryan McCurry in Los Angeles, Wilmans began tracking down the vintage gear — from the 32-channel Neve 8068 MkII console to the Studer A800, to the mic collection that includes a Telefunken Ela M 251, to the guitar amp collection that includes a priceless offset Marshall prototype JTM45 head with matching offset cabinet. “I wanted the place to scream warm analog vibe that matched the feel of the building,” Wilmans says. He also brought in John Klett, Jack Kennedy and Dan Zellman to fine-tune the facility's technical aspects.
To appeal to the digital crowd, Wilmans hired Bruce Sales as all-around Pro Tools guru. Though Asheville is Sales' hometown, this Berklee College of Music grad worked for the past 14 years in New York as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, sound designer, engineer/mixer, graphics designer and Website designer for the powerhouse New York firm David Horowitz Music Associates (DHMA). “I recorded a wide range of instrumentation and mixed for many top-drawer advertising accounts like GE, Mercedes, Pepsi, Visa and USAir,” Sales says. He also recorded and mixed a number of short films and albums.
Wilmans also attracted independent producer and now staff engineer Danny Kadar, whose credits include My Morning Jacket, Iggy Pop, Trey Anastasio, Chris Whitley, New Birth Brass Band, James Carter and, most recently, Arizona. Jessica Tomasin is studio manager.
Echo Mountain kicked things off with Donna the Buffalo cutting tracks with Joe Blaney producing and engineering. “We had a great time here,” enthuses Blaney. “Donna the Buffalo is a band that is most comfortable playing live, and they have had a hard time feeling comfortable playing in some other studios. Here at Echo Mountain, it felt right at home.
“It makes a lot of sense building a studio here,” Blaney adds. “Asheville is a beautiful small city with a lot of artists and creative people, and great shops and restaurants and bars, and everything is in walking distance, like a little village, but you are really close to the mountains. For a studio that has just opened, this is really flying well.”
Rick Clark is Mix's Nashville editor.
From left: Ben Wigler and Alex Hornbake from the band Arizona with staff engineer Danny Kadar behind them
Steve Wilmans (left) with George Augspurger, who designed Echo Mountain Recording’s control room and main monitor system.
The control room, looking toward the back wall.
Photo: Stewart O'Sheilds
The big room, where Reid Carlson and Scott Green of Zahner Inc. provided beautiful replication of the original paneling that is featured throughout the church building, as well as the rest of the carpentry.
Photo: Stewart O'Shields
In addition to a stocked cabinet full of musical instruments (such as the organ and guitars pictured here), Echo Mountain's clients can also take inspiration from the stained-glass window in the sanctuary.
Photo: Stewart O'Shields
Steve Wilmans' vision for Echo Mountain was to meld analog with digital. For example, the main control room features a vintage 32-channel Neve 8068 MkII console and custom Augspurger monitors, as well as a full Pro Tools rig.
Photo: Stewart O'Shields
Recording artist Tyler Ramsey during a recent session