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The Saltmine Studio Oasis, Phoenix

Vintage Meets Modern in Five-Studio Recording Complex

Vibe matters. That sometimes indescribable quality that makes a studio unique—from the Buddha in reception to the artwork on the walls, the leather in the lounge to the instruments on display, the sound of the room to the personality of the assistant engineer—is often what makes a studio thrive. Since modern recording broke away from the radio lab, lots of people have built world-class studios. Those that last, they have a vibe.

Don Salter opened The Saltmine Studios in 1988 over his three-car garage in Phoenix, then moved into an industrial park, then expanded in that industrial park, then moved into a three-building gated complex in 2003, complete with intimate stage and outdoor venue. That’s 28 years in business as a studio, changing and adapting with the times in a mid-major music market, hosting artists such as Megadeth, Lil Wayne, Soulfly, G-Unit, The Refreshments, Sevendust and Yes, among many, many others. The place has a vibe, and it starts with Salter.

Born and raised in Santa Monica, influenced by an optometrist father who yearned to be a classical pianist and an older brother who introduced him to the British Invasion, Salter ended up graduating high school in Utah and moving to Phoenix soon after. He opened a very successful restaurant/sandwich shop with his brother, then made his bones in commercial real estate in the go-go ’80s, writing music after the lunch rush and between showings. He considers himself a singer-songwriter. He played in bands that recorded. When the last band broke up, he took over the makeshift studio. In 1988, he entered the recording industry full time. Now he’s on the cover of Mix.

Salter is one of those personalities that seems peculiar to the audio industry, at times so familiar and at other times completely unique, yet always driven by music. He’s outgoing and charismatic, and at the same time focused and detailed. He can wax philosophic as he shoots pool on a purple-felt table off Studio D, and he can describe the process of filling the foot-thick masonry walls with sand to give “weight” to Studio A’s live room. The Chinese gong in the entrance is all him, as are the Southwest tapestries that hang in just the right spots and the Egyptian motif throughout, along with salt rocks. He loves vintage gear and has amassed racks of Pultecs, Tube-Techs, Gates, Manley, Neve and API, and he was the first Arizona studio owner to buy into Pro Tools. He arrives at the studio around noon and typically stays past midnight. He considers himself a curator, providing the best possible environment so that artists can create the best possible music.

“I would like to say that I had some kind of grand plan, that I had a farsighted career dream to build a five-studio recording complex, but it just turned out this way, completely organic,” Salter says. “Back when we opened, I just wanted to fill a niche in Arizona, a classic analog studio with a modern approach. Then I wanted to build something for both local and international artists that would rival anything in Los Angeles or New York. Here in Phoenix.”

After the garage studio and well into the industrial park incarnation, with a vintage Neve console and Studer 827 analog machine, Salter found himself running out of space. Metal band Soulfly had hired super-producer Toby Wright for the record that became Primitive, and frontman Max Cavalera wanted to record locally. He found The Saltmine. It was a big band with a big crew, and Salter ended up renting a Winnebago and building an outdoor lounge/green room. It worked. Salter started thinking about a bigger space.

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to Toby Wright,” Salter says. “He taught us so much about tracking, about using the room, about what goes into a great studio. When he first walked in and saw the Neve and Studer and the large rack of outboard, he asked our engineer, John Gray, ‘Does all this stuff work?’ John said that it did and asked him if he had a budget, not knowing who Toby was. We ended up doing 11 weeks, 18 hours a day on Soulfly. I figured that if we could do this with them, then we could do it with others. So I started looking for a building that could house a couple of studios, one that I could own.”

In the early 2000s, Mesa, in Phoenix’s East Valley, had proposed a new $100 million downtown Arts Center and the metropolitan area was in the first stages of citywide light-rail construction. Salter started looking at real estate nearby, and soon found a three-building complex, a former newspaper headquarters, then a church, one block off Main  Street, one block from the soon-to-be Arts Center. It had a security gate, a plaza, and tremendous possibilities. Salter closed in early January 2003; Soulfly came back for the inaugural sessions in late September, to record Prophecy. They would come back again for Dark Ages.

The nine-month build-out was intense at times. Salter assembled an architectural team, including Douglas Brimhall at Material Culture, Jerry Davis at Jeremiah Associates and Dennis Foley of Acoustic Fields, and served as general contractor himself. He has a penchant for design, starting with doors and windows and non-parallel walls, and he outlined the maximum use of space to fit his needs as a track/mix/master multistudio complex. The main rooms doubled in size from the industrial park. And the ceilings got much higher.

“That’s one of the things Toby [Wright] taught me,” Salter says. “Get the most space, the most size, and capture the most you can get, because you can always make something smaller later.”

Studio A, pictured on this month’s cover, would house the vintage Neve with Melbourne sidecar and run the large live room. Clients who had tracked at the previous location had asked for an SSL to mix on, so Studio B was central to the plan. Both rooms are floated from the main structure; isolation was paramount. This summer, Salter installed Mega Sound Cluster 5 main monitors, each with four TAD 1603 woofers and large wood 4001 TAD horns, powered by two Bryston 14 B SST amps.

“We designed 8x8x16-inch masonry block walls, to be filled with sand or concrete, sitting on floated footings, separated from the building by 2-inch foam spacers,” Salter explains. “All the stem walls sit on footings that are floating but are bearing on the 14-foot sand-filled walls. Then we furred out interior walls, with dead airspace between. Then in the live room, we have a combination of hard and soft surfaces to suit any style of recording.

“In Arizona, it’s typical that any time you track, you have to turn off the air conditioning,” he adds. “So we designed floating, flexed ducting in a plenum above the ceiling that is coiled and dropped through a round vent, with no metal grille register to rattle or whistle. Supplies and returns are big and round with no vent bracing. The cold air rolls in nice and slow and quietly, with the additional benefit that excess sound pressure has a place to go. Each room has its own AC system.”

The industrial park version of Saltmine kept humming, with John Gray engineering, while Salter supervised construction in Mesa. Simultaneously, gear was being added to fill out the other rooms—mics, outboard, and an SSL for Studio B. Phil Wagner found Salter a 6064E Series, owned by Ben Grosse and modified, restored, refurbished and swapped over the years by Paul Cox. It’s working nearly every day.

Over the ensuing years, a small production studio was added, with keyboards and controllers and a small vocal booth. Studio D was filled out, after Salter picked up another SSL, a 4056 G+ with a “red panic button” formerly owned by David Foster and brokered through Dave Malekpour at PAD. In one of those full-circle moments, Foster visited Saltmine last Easter with Ariana Grande to work on a couple of songs, and the first thing he asked after walking through the gates, was, “Where’s the console?’ He signed it later that day.

There is also a two-bedroom bungalow, with a Mackie/Pro Tools writer’s space and private lounge and patio within the complex, 50 feet from the main building, completing the five-studio facility. But there’s still more. A few years back, mastering services were added through a Manley backbone that rolls into Studio A. Recently, Salter started promoting the outdoor stage, complete with P.A. and lights, as the Oasis Venue, It’s been used for record releases, parties and, most recently, for an eight-band daylong gig during the Mesa Arts Festival.

That’s a lot of space to fill with music-only sessions, but business has been good of late. Roughly 50 percent of the bookings come from hip-hop and rap, with the other 50 percent “everything else,” but mostly rock and hard rock. Artists are both local and from around the country. Phoenix is, after all, a destination city, with resorts and adult playgrounds and a big-event reputation.

And yet, for all the rooms and vintage gear and Pro Tools HDX systems, it’s the people at Saltmine that bring the vibe. Since the early days, Salter has surrounded himself with staff engineers who are eminently creative and talented in their own right and yet completely content with assisting when a visiting engineer walks in the door. In the early days, there were guys like Mark Matson, who worked on the Refreshments, the Pistoleros, Dead Hot Workshop and Megadeth, among others. Later it was Lance Dean. Today, it’s John Gray, Kyle Colley and Andre Nelson.

Gray, a Connecticut native who started recording at age 8 and moved his studio to Phoenix in the mid-’90s, has been with Salter since 1998 and provides the anchor and senior talent. He’s a mutli-instrumentalist, a songwriter, and sometimes beat-maker. He has a penchant for metal, and he fits in, he says, with his long hair and pale skin. But the rappers like him, too. He’s got great feel.

Colley came aboard as an intern in 2007, following graduation from the nearby Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences. A Michigan native, he assisted on the Lil Wayne sessions for Tha Carter, and has done a whole lot of hip-hop tracking with the likes of J. Cole and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and countless local acts. He is a teacher, too, as well as a live sound engineer around town.

Andre Nelson, a mere pup at 21, is the newest to join the staff. He, too, is a recent CRAS grad, and a fine guitarist who ended up playing on a Lil Wayne track. He can bop to old-school soul, and there is metal and hard rock in his bones. He is just now establishing a client base and already in demand.

The rest of the place runs on the strength of interns, almost exclusively from CRAS, with which Saltmine has a long-standing relationship. Salter considers it his responsibility to teach them, train them, observe them, and then give them the chance to jump in the chair when the opportunity arises. Salter himself remains chief cook and bottle washer. Saltmine in Mesa is a long way from Saltmine above a three-car garage, but the vibe remains the same.

“It’s been a complete natural progression,” Salter says. “It wasn’t predetermined that we would grow in this way, but I have confidence that I provide an opportunity to create at the highest level, and the Saltmine is a safe environment full of creative tools to make music 24 hours a day. And I get to be the curator of greatness! How cool is that!”