On the record

It's where good vibrations from an Asheville studio's special environment and unique equipment wind up.
By Jordan Lawrence

https://asoft10294.accrisoft.com/businessnc/clientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/03/echo-Mtn.jpgThe Avett Brothers love North Carolina. That much is evident in the band’s song and album titles, which are sprinkled with markers such as Robbinsville, Matthews and Greenville. But the state turns up in their music in less obvious ways too. Siblings Scott and Seth Avett, the heart of the group, were reared on a Cabarrus County farm, and their folk-rock melodies are reminiscent of such legendary Tar Heel pickers as Doc Watson, while their breakneck energy calls to mind the indie rock that came out of Merge Records in the Triangle during the 1990s.

The pastoral harmonies and acoustic strings on the band’s latest record, The Carpenter, are homages to the Avetts’ home state. So it makes sense that the album, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart in September and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, was recorded at a studio in western North Carolina’s mountains. “Echo Mountain, it just feels very real,” says Seth, the younger brother. “Everything just feels so substantial with the doors and all that dark wood. The gear is sort of tried and true, and it has this perfect balance between tradition and a modern take on recording methods. And the engineers that work there seem to have a masterful hold on both.”

Echo Mountain Recording LLC in Asheville has played host to a range of popular outfits that include the Zac Brown Band, Flogging Molly and Band of Horses. Comedian Steve Martin cut his 2011 bluegrass collaboration with Steep Canyon Rangers, a North Carolina band, there. Parts of The Avetts’ I and Love and You, the group’s major-label debut, were cut in the studio in 2008. Only three hours from the band’s home base in Concord, the studio also had personal benefits. Scott’s wife delivered their daughter while the band was recording the album. They welcomed a son while making The Carpenter in 2011. “With both of those, I ended up missing a couple sessions,” he says. “That is certainly much more comfortable to know that in just a couple hours I can be home in the car. It’s a very comfortable place for us. It’s much like home.”

Opened in summer 2006, Echo Mountain’s existence is a happy coincidence. Once a Methodist sanctuary in downtown Asheville, the main studio is known as The Church. Owner Steve Wilmans, a Los Angeles native, discovered the city in spring 2003 when a friend asked him to assist with a cross-country move there. “It’s just a great town,” Wilmans says. “It’s a very unique, artsy kind of town in the mountains. A lot of times people want to get out of the main recording centers of Los Angeles and Nashville. It’s just kind of a getaway. We have a house that we offer for rent for people who come here from out of town. So when they stay here, they don’t have to spend money on hotels. It’s just a beautiful area, and people do love to come here. And it’s been that way for a hundred years.”

Wilmans describes his career in a blunt, gravelly mumble, tossing off rock ‘n’ roll recording landmarks as if they were forgettable stops on a particularly boring vacation. He started out in 1989, learning the ropes at Hyde Street Studios, a now-famous San Francisco locale where The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Blue Oyster Cult cut records in psychedelia’s heyday. He arrived in Seattle just before the grunge bubble began expanding in the early ’90s to work at Bad Animals, owned and operated in part by Heart’s Wilson sisters, before partnering with a friend to open his own studio, Stepping Stones. It attracted high-profile acts such as Pearl Jam and Modest Mouse before Wilmans sold it in 2000 to a Microsoft Corp. executive. He moved back to Los Angeles and operated a private studio from his home.

It’s not until Wilmans talks about finding his latest digs that excitement perks up his voice. His trip to Asheville and encounter with its emerging music scene spurred him to search for studio space there, and it didn’t take long before he happened upon an old church on the western edge of downtown. The high ceilings and roomy interior blessed the building’s former chapel with remarkable acoustics, and light through a stained-glass window paints the room in warm orange and yellow hues. He moved to the city later in January 2004.

“It was going for sale, really beautiful building, and the acoustics were really nice. So I went and got it. When I first walked into the building, I knew right away.” Jam band Donna the Buffalo was the first act to record there. The Church is the centerpiece, with a lofty, arched roof ripe for booming acoustics — especially desirable when a band wants an enormous drum sound. Adjustable dividers help isolate sounds, and there are three adjacent rooms where tracks can be laid down simultaneously. An amp closet is fitted with audio pickups if a client wants to use a different recording space.

“It’s beautiful,” says Jason Kutchma, frontman of the Durham-based punk group Red Collar, who recorded his country-leaning solo debut, Pastorals, there in fall 2011. The album resounds with a sense of warmth, a trait he says has everything to do with the environment. “It’s wide open. It’s tall — immense ceilings. There’s old woodwork there. … The sun’s peeking through stained glass that’s shining on your band mates. It’s pretty cool.”

Perhaps the studio’s most sought-after virtue is tucked away in the control room. The Church boasts a Neve 8068 console from the mid-’70s, a mixing board known for producing bright, roomy tones, a winning complement to any country or folk-rock band. “You just want to have the tools at your disposal,” Seth Avett says. “Even if you don’t use them, you just want to find out. If we were in a really small room with cloth on the walls, would it translate better? Let’s find out. It’s good to be at Echo Mountain because those options are at your disposal. And even if they don’t work, the more options you have, the better off you are.”

Echo Mountain’s second space, API Studio, is next door to The Church, occupying the bottom two floors of a former Salvation Army outpost. The studio is named after an Automated Processes Inc. console rescued from A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood, where it rendered records from, among many, Metallica and Joni Mitchell. Its tighter, focused sound grafts well with the hard edge of louder rock bands. “We basically have the best of both worlds,” says Jessica Tomasin, Echo Mountain’s studio manager. “Some people are Neve people. Some people are API people. That’s part of it. We can satisfy all sorts of needs just depending on what somebody wants.”

Expanding to two studios happened partly by accident. Wilmans wanted to purchase a portion of the building’s parking lot, but the owner wouldn’t agree to anything but a sale of the whole property. Business was booming in 2007, so Wilmans bit and remodeled most of the three-story building into the second recording space. “It wasn’t real good timing for that on my part,” he says, laughing. “We had some struggles, some ups and downs.” Tomasin adds, “We spent a year building this other room just in time for the bottom to drop out of the economy and the music industry.”

Before creating the new studio, the company had been turning down work left and right. By the time it opened, Echo Mountain’s calendar had a number of vacancies, a by- product of being a fledgling studio with a freshly inflated capacity when labels were reluctant to dole out cash for recording due to declining sales. It has gradually rebounded, finding new ways to make money. There were slow periods — notably the summers of 2010 and 2011 — but business has been good enough to stay afloat. Last year, the expected summer slowdown never came, and revenue reached the middle six figures, about the same as 2011.

Big-name artists don’t roll through every day, so Echo Mountain has had to get creative. The company rents out part of the API building as office space to help cover taxes without dipping into profits — no small feat since Echo Mountain occupies 15,000 square feet of downtown real estate. Tomasin schedules local and regional artists into slots with an agreement that times can be changed up to two weeks before sessions begin if a higher-profile (and higher-paying) act shows up. She charges less for these bookings, which allows artists who couldn’t otherwise afford it an opportunity to record there.

A 12-hour day of studio time typically costs $850 if a band is recording digitally. If it wants to use analog tape, the rate rises to $1,000 to offset additional expenses. The tape machine in The Church is about 40 years old and often breaks down. The studio’s technicians also have to maintain alternate power supplies for the machine so a failure won’t bleed precious hours from a musician’s studio time. The rates also help maintain another draw. Over the years, Wilmans has stockpiled vintage equipment — the twin consoles, different amps and a variety of other recording gear. Each year, these collectors’ items appreciate in value. Many are impossible to replace, requiring costly insurance policies. “Our Marshall offset prototype — which is one of the amps that we have — is priceless,” Tomasin says. “We have one, Eric Clapton has one, and there’s one in a museum.”

Echo Mountain is the largest traditional recording studio in North Carolina, but its toughest competitor might be the rise of home recording. The digital age offers software artists can use with any laptop, so someone with a few pieces of gear and a microphone or two can produce a complete, multitrack album. The company has responded by introducing Vintage Mix, which takes recordings made elsewhere and runs them through its equipment, giving them a sound similar to something cut in one of its studios. Such tactics keep Echo Mountain in business, but for Wilmans, it doesn’t match the reward he gets from sitting in on a live recording. For him, this is the culmination of a lifelong obsession. “There’s nothing like hearing a take coming through the speakers as it’s being recorded. You’re hearing it live before it gets played back, and if you hear a take that comes down and it’s really special, it’s kind of a magical moment to hear that recording.”

Making magic requires a space where artists feel inspired. For the Avett brothers, no studio fits that better than Echo Mountain, one of the main reasons they say they’ll record there again. “Some studios don’t have enough vibe, don’t have enough spirit,” Seth says. “That’s definitely not an issue that Echo Mountain has. It’s just a really comfortable place with a lot of great vibe in it. I’m sure that it being in a converted church doesn’t hurt that. There have definitely been people there that have felt a lot of emotion and expressed love. I think that helps with the vibe.”