Rural setting, big-time studio
It's an unusually warm, sunny November afternoon in rural Cannon Falls. Aside from the crackling of dry leaves under foot, and the gobbling of wild turkeys in the woods, it's quiet. A stream slowly gurgles by and trout dart back and forth under the clear, shallow water. It smells like fall - damp earth and dead leaves.
Tucked away in this pristine, natural setting is a state-of-the-art recording studio where the likes of Nirvana, Live, Soul Asylum, Mason Jennings, and many others have recorded music.
Pachyderm Recording Studio has been located just a few minutes south of Miesville on the outskirts of Cannon Falls since 1988 and has seen its share of ups and downs.
A piece of history
When you walk into the lobby of studio A, the main recording studio at Pachyderm, the first thing you see is a large terrarium that houses Frank, the iguana, "mascot" of the studio. Then you look up.
On the walls is gold record after gold record, which were either recoded at Pachyderm or elsewhere by the engineers who work at Pachyderm. The records serve as a reminder of the hallowed grounds you're on, but one piece of equipment inside the studio throws that into even sharper repose, the 1972 Neve 8068 console. The 32-track console is used for mixing recordings.
"So that's the brain or the nervous system of this studio, and this room was specially tuned and designed and created for fidelity, for good quality sound," Pachyderm owner Matt Mueller said.
What's special about the Neve 8068 at Pachyderm, however, is where it came from and who's used it.
The console was originally installed in studio B in Electric Lady Studio in New York, Jimi Hendrix's studio. The names of people who've used it read like a "Who's Who" of rock 'n' roll. Before Van Halen was famous, the band recorded their demo tracks using the console.
"It's been recorded on by many, many, many famous acts," Mueller said. "AC/DC recorded 'Back in Black' on it. John Lennon recorded 'Double Fantasy' on this board, and he was working on this board the morning he was killed. Basically, he worked all night long on a mix and then he was walking home the next morning and he was shot on the way home."
The console was at Record Plant Studios when Lennon apparently used it. A photographer came to do a photo shoot of Lennon while he was mixing "Double Fantasy," and Mueller has a couple photos from that shoot that show the console.
There's an interesting contrast at work inside studio A. Sitting next to the console is an Apple G4 computer. Mueller said the pre-amps in the analog mixing board give music a richer, fuller sound than new mixing boards. They use a computer program called Pro Tools HD3 to record, thus blending the best technology from today and years past.
The Pachyderm experience
Pachyderm consists of two main structures, the guesthouse and the recording studio. (The studio appears to be one building, but is actually three built against one another to keep the sound in each room isolated.)
The guesthouse was built in the mid-1960s by Herb Bloomberg, who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The inside of the house has the feeling of Wright's style, with a lot of wood and natural-face stone. The house is open, with one big, main living room. There's an indoor pool and sauna and a few bedrooms, a small "tiki bar" and an office space. A screened-in gazebo extends off the second story of the house.
Bloomberg designed and built the house for a successful granary owner who sold hops to Milwaukee breweries out of Cannon Falls.
In 1988, the music scene in Minneapolis was exploding, with Prince's "Purple Rain" becoming a hit a few years earlier, and First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis becoming a well-known concert venue.
Four recent college graduates decided to build a studio to capitalize on the growth of the Minnesota music scene, and Pachyderm was the result.
The idea was that bands would come to Pachyderm and live in the guesthouse for a few weeks as they recorded their works.
"We're a destination studio: there's no place (like this) you can move into," Mueller said. "Almost 99 percent of the studios are in some old warehouse or an industrial area in the middle of the city, and that's great, that's cool, but you can't stay there for a week and do an album.
"We're definitely isolated from everything; cell phones really don't work down here. No road rage coming to the studio. The most road rage you've got is the waddle from the house to the studio with a cup of coffee in the morning. Bands totally dig that. And that's why all those famous acts came here in the '80s and early '90s."
Mueller said the egos of some of the rock stars they have to deal with are incredible. But a lot changes when people get to Pachyderm.
"Suddenly everybody's vibe just cools way down," he said.
Whether it's a big-name band or a group of up-and-comers, their strategy is to get them to the studio, and from there the rest usually works itself out.
"You've just got to get bands here; you've just got to get them down here once and they fall in love with the place," he said. "It's really easy once they're here; we don't even give them the sales pitch."
For a band like Nirvana, who recorded at Pachyderm after the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the record that defined them as a band and gave them the most commercial success, Pachyderm was the ideal place for them to get away from the world and work on recording their next album.
Today, Pachyderm also offers a full range of services to bands, including business consulting, entertainment lawyers, small runs of CDs, album art and getting them connected with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Rise, fall, rise
In the early part of this decade, the rise in popularity of digitally downloading music instead of going to a store and buying an album changed the entire industry and hurt Pachyderm, like many other small studios, Mueller explained.
One major effect digital downloads had was the elimination of a lot of smaller labels, and the "big six" record labels emerged from the pack, Mueller said.
"A lot of the remaining labels had their own recording facilities, so they wouldn't send a band out; they'd keep you right in house and that was a way to cut costs," he said.
With the loss in CD sales, flying bands around to the country to studios like Pachyderm was one of the first things the big labels cut.
Around that time, the then-owners of Pachyderm weren't reinvesting much back into the studio, and it eventually fell into disrepair. Mueller bought it in 2006 after owning a mortgage and real estate company and credit repair firm for 25 years.
"Music has always been my love and my divine purpose on the planet, so with my knowledge of manipulating real estate deals, I was able to put myself in position to purchase this property."
But when he finally bought the studio, home and six-acre parcel of land on which they sit, it was clear the real work had only begun.
"When I got here, it was apparent that nobody had done anything in six months," he said. "The mice were living in the console; they were living in the tape machines. The house was full of spiders, and it was dirty," he said. "It was kind of just a depressing moment, to be honest."
There was cleaning and repairs to be done, in both the house and studio. A gazebo that juts out of the second story of the house was literally on its last legs when Mueller bought the place. A contractor wanted $120,000 to fix it, but Mueller instead enlisted the help of a six friends and they did the work themselves one week, repairing and reinforcing the structure so it will now last another 100 years, Mueller said.
"That's part of life; it's all good," he said. "I'm certainly not bitter. I'm blessed. It's been a great labor to bring it back."
Today, studio A is back to the shape it was meant to be in. Their live room continues to be well known throughout the industry for recording drums. They also have studio B now, which is set up in the guesthouse. Studio B rents out for about half as much as studio A, which helps Mueller compete with smaller, basement studios.
Derek DeMike, a Hastings native, is completing an internship at Pachyderm. He recently graduated from Full Sail University in Florida.
"I started off just cleaning and keeping the studio running," he said. "Then I started sitting in on sessions with other engineers and watching and learning the ropes, learning how to use the board, the patch bay, figuring out where to place mics, and how to bring out the best of the room that we have here. Now I'm doing small gigs that I'm doing for free and getting a lot of experience out here.
"I've learned just as much, if not more, here than I ever did at school. As much as they can show you and show you pictures of it, you don't really get it until you're full-on in, dealing with rock stars."