Among the many gifts of life in the San Francisco Bay Area is the proximity of urban arts and culture to a beautiful natural landscape. An hour’s drive north from the city leads to a world apart, in the sunny, bucolic Sonoma County countryside.
In the Sonoma County town of Cotati you’ll find Prairie Sun Recording, the studio complex where, for 38 years and counting, musician/engineer Mark “Mooka” Rennick has hosted artists including the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Nine Inch Nails, Dick Dale, Faith No More, Neko Case, The Tubes, and Carlos Santana, to name just a few. The Grammy-winning records that frequent visitor Tom Waits made there are so admired that artists come from all over to track in the Waits Room.
Rennick started Prairie Sun in a rented house in 1978, when he was studying East Indian music at Sonoma State College and tracking projects for fellow students. A few years later, he entered a partnership with Clifton Buck-Kaufman, an art collector and co-founder of the annual Cotati Accordion Festival, and they transported the studio gear to the Buck-Kauffman family’s ten-acre property: the former La Lomita Hatchery chicken farm, which has been the studio’s home since 1981.
Rennick, who grew up in rural Illinois, named the new studio for the actual prairie in his home state. “I grew up in a farm town called Wyoming, Illinois,” he says. “It’s in the second-smallest county in the state, Stark County, with about five thousand people—and corn and soybeans.”
It’s maybe a little ironic that Rennick traveled so far from a midwestern farm town, to settle in a western farm town, but as Prairie Sun became better known in the Bay Area music scene, the studio became a true recording destination.
“Van Morrison was one of the first projects we did here,” Rennick says. “He was living in [neighboring] Marin County at the time, and he came to do some overdubs. Before too long, we were working with all the record labels.
“One of the more serious landmarks at the beginning of my career,
which people might not know about, was speed metal,” Rennick continues. “We did Faith No More’s first record. We did the first record for a band called Legacy, which quickly morphed into Testament. We did the first record for Exodus.”
The Waits Room
Mike Varney, producer and founder of the Shrapnel Records group of labels, brought a lot of the shredders he signed to record Prairie Sun during the ’80s. “The first big thing we did with Mike was with Yngwie Malmstein and his band, Steeler,” Rennick recalls. “There was a whole plethora of those rock bands: Tony MacAlpine, Greg Howe, Cacophany, Racer X.”
Over the years, the studio has grown into a three-studio residential facility with a country attitude and an L.A.-level abundance of classic and state-of-the-art pro equipment. “You need to have more than one room if you want to keep your doors open,” Rennick says. “I started with Studio B in 1980 here. I commissioned A in 1987. I commissioned Studio C in the early 2000s, because I knew that if I was booked in one room for this week, I could move a booking into another room.”
Prairie Sun also offers mastering services by Grammy-winning engineer Tim Gennert, whose recent projects include albums from John Fullbright, Kitaro and others. The most recent addition to Prairie Sun’s family of businesses: Prairie Sun Live, managed by Travis Strain. Rennick has equipped this new venture to the hilt, with about every popular FOH console model, several P.A. systems and more. In the past year, PSL’s clients have included Ziggy Marley, Michael Franti, the Green Music Center and Wells Fargo Center; and they have gear out on tour with Bonnie Raitt, Daft Punk and others. Where other studios might have downsized or closed their doors, casualties of a damaged music industry, Rennick has diversified and invested.
“But it’s having our guest house and being on this property that makes this a musician’s dream,” he adds. “It was my dream to retire some day and go to a farm, and we’re on a farm.”
If there’s one client who put Rennick’s “farm” on the map, it’s Waits, who tracked his Grammy-winning albums Bone Machine (1992) and Mule Variations (1999) there. In a Mix “Classic Track” article on the song “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” engineer Biff Dawes talked about the Waits Room.
“We found a room that had been used as an office, with a high ceiling, a cement floor, redwood paneling, some old water heaters and metalwork in the corner,” Dawes said. “It was connected with tielines to the control room up the hill because there was also an echo chamber there. We were able to put preamps in that room, and we recorded everything in there.”
The Waits Room holds a mythic quality for artists who admire Waits’ brilliant adventures in lo-fi. “He would actually have a carpenter on staff and he would build instruments right there, where he was recording,” Rennick says. “One day, I drove up our driveway and this guy is out there on the sidewalk with microphones, recording. I said, ‘Tom, we would gladly ask people to park around the other side of the property and give you the space you need to record outside.’ But he says, ‘Mooka, I love the cars. I love it all, Mooka, it’s real.’”
When we spoke with Rennick for, he and studio manager/engineer Nate Nauseda were wrapping up a week of live-to-2-inch band tracking with another iconic artist and a first-time visitor to Prairie Sun, Bruce Cockburn.
“I’m living in San Francisco now, and that meant that I could commute to the studio and still drop my daughter off at school in the morning,” Cockburn says. “My producer, Colin Linden, had checked it out and was very enthusiastic. The atmosphere was just right for what we were doing: It’s a very relaxed, and relaxing, place to work with enough isolation between the rooms that we were able to have a rhythm section plus a trumpet player all playing at the same time, with eye contact. It was terrific to do it in a way that was very performance-based, to where I’m sure a lot of the first takes will end up on the record.”
Breaking down the Studios
This list hits the big-ticket items. Visit prairiesun.com for complete details.
Console: SSL 4080 E/G
Monitors: TAD TSM-1, Barefoot MM27 Gen2, ProAc Studio 100, Yamaha NS-10
Analog: Studer A80 2-inch 16-track, Ampex ATR-102
Digital: Pro Tools 12 HDX, Burl Mothership and Lavry Blue Converters
Console: Custom Neve 8036
Monitors: UREI 811, Barefoot MM27, Yamaha NS-10
Analog: Studer A827 2-inch 24-track
Digital: Pro Tools 12 HDX, Lavry Blue Converters
STUDIO C (INCLUDES THE WAITS ROOM)
Console: Custom Neve 8026 MkII, API 1604
Monitors: Barefoot MM27, Genelec 1022A, Paradigm Reference Studio 20s, d&B Q1, Yamaha NS-10
Analog Studer A820 2-inch 24-track, RADAR Super Nyquist converters
Digital: Pro Tools 10 HD