Sweetwater Productions’ Studio A includes a C7 grand piano with MIDI in addition to Pro Tools HD3 and a Digidesign ICON with D-Control.
Before Sweetwater became an audio household name, Chuck Surack’s mega-successful retail business began as an offshoot of the studio business he started in his Volkswagon bus in ’79. His early use of the Kurzweil K250 in the mid-’80s led to relationships with musicians and recordists, and he quickly found himself providing gear, sounds and advice to a new age of music-makers. Since then, his studio business and retail operation have grown exponentially, each lifting the other.
Surack took both sides of his business to a new level this year, with the construction of Sweetwater’s new studios, performance theater and retail headquarters in the company/owner’s home town of Fort Wayne, Ind. Three new recording facilities and the theater are situated in an impressive structure that also includes the warehouses and company offices. “As the company has grown from the days in my VW bus to today, when we have 343 employees,” Surack says, “one of the things we try to do to separate ourselves is to really take care of our employees. So when we built this building, we wanted to take things to the next level for our employees, as well as our customers.”
On the recording studio side, that meant creating acoustically isolated spaces that fulfill a variety of functions but are all interconnected. Surack retained the Russ Berger Design Group to help realize the ambitious project. “We wanted a studio that was a mix of traditional functions but was very contemporary in terms of equipment and interconnectivity,” Surack says. “Our studios can connect to each other, they can connect to our theater, which can connect to our conference hall and to an outdoor amphitheater that we have, and we can record from any of those places.”
Another mandate that Surack gave to the studio designers, building architects and contractors was to keep this project as “green” as possible. “I recycled at home before it was in vogue, and we’ve done it at work for decades,” he says. “And when we started looking at furniture and materials for the new building, it became clear that we could be a leader for northern Indiana — and maybe for the whole audio industry — by setting an example that made good business sense.”
The team of architects, designers and builders did such an excellent job that the project is set to be awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold status. “Many elements that helped this project achieve LEED certification include windows and skylights throughout the building, which help reduce or eliminate the need for electric lighting. Sweetwater’s previous studio was cut off from all direct outside light, so staff and clients really appreciate the positive difference that natural light can have on the vibe of a session,” Berger explains.
Surack also cites the choice of renewable bamboo hardwoods, water-saving bathroom fixtures, and nonpetroleum-based glues, carpets and paints as parts of the sensible, green studio design.
The studios are managed by Surack’s longtime friend and colleague Chet Chambers, who also had a good deal of input into the design of the facilities’ workflow. Chambers explains that the three rooms are all equipped with Pro Tools HD3 systems, and an enviable collection of plug-ins, outboard and mics, but each room was designed to perform different functions. Studio A, with its ADAM 2.5 surround monitoring and Digidesign ICON with D-Control, is the largest and includes a tracking room and two iso booths. Studio B is equipped with an ICON with D-Command and JBL 4000 Series monitors; this mid-sized room was designed for mixing and overdubs. The C room (stereo pair of ADAM 2.5s) is set up for mastering and audio restoration.
But Chambers emphasizes, above all, “You’re not buying the room or rooms, you’re buying our staff and our expertise. At a typical studio, you rent a room and the time,” he says, “but this is a full production facility. On almost all of our projects, people ask us to produce, sometimes co-write, definitely arrange. We’re involved all the way through the creative process.
“We have to offer more than just studio time because, let’s face it, my biggest competitors are on the other side of the aisle from me,” Chambers continues. “Sweetwater’s sales engineers are selling Pro Tools systems all day long, saying, ‘You can do this yourself in your bedroom.’ And in theory they can. But maybe their skill level or their budget isn’t such that they can do it all — all the way through to mastering and duplication. Our studios are designed so that people will do what they can and let us help with the rest.”
Recent clients at Sweetwater Productions have included Mercy Me, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Ed Roland of Collective Soul, and numerous local and regional artists.
“Chuck and I are both Fort Wayne hometown boys,” says Chambers, “and for us to be able to pursue our music dreams in our home town in the middle of Indiana is an amazing ride and a blessing.”