DANVILLE — Like most any recording studio, there are amplifiers, organs, drums and microphones placed throughout Saturation Acres. There is a glassed-off chamber that houses a large control console and mixing board. And scattered across the counters are everything from labeled cassettes to guitar picks and tired coffee mugs.
But there are also differences here.
The photographs on the wooden walls are of The Band, the Beatles, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. And among the many guitars standing neatly in one corner are banjos, mandolins and sitars. No, this isn't just some sterile, character-free recording studio.
This is where music is made.
And this — even more than the fine equipment and fascinating instruments — has what some musicians might call "a vibe."
Sitting just off a long dirt road and surrounded by trees, Saturation Acres feels like a mini-version of the renowned Bearsville recording studios, near Woodstock, N.Y. It looks like a place where music should be recorded. Nothing too fancy. Nothing that would catch anyone's eye passing by.
Just a good place to tune up and lay down some tracks.
Opened in April 1999, the studio is owned and operated by Bret Alexander and Paul Smith, who are perhaps best known for their work with the national recording artists The Badlees. The facility, which was first built by area musician Rusty Foulke of the band Hybrid Ice, had been unused for several years before Alexander and Smith decided to again fill its walls with the creative sounds of music.
"We were doing The Badlees' 'Amazing Grace' album in Bret's basement," says Smith, "and thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to do some demos with other people?' People started asking about it, and we started to look for a place. We called up Rusty and talked to him about it, and he was open to the idea of us coming in here."
"In a way, it's kind of like coming full circle," adds Alexander. "We used to do a lot of The Badlees demos here in the early '90s."
So far, dozens of artists from throughout Pennsylvania have recorded at Saturation Acres, including Robert Reilly, Darcie Miner and Wrench. Some have come in for short sessions, while others have done entire albums. Smith says the combination of new state-of-the art equipment and older vintage gear provides for a special sound.
"We have a bit of an old-school approach to recording," he says. "We like all of the classic recordings, and try to get some of that vibe into what we're doing here."
"There's lots of other studios around that sell time," says Alexander. "And if somebody comes in and just wants to buy time, we'll sell it to them. But the whole vibe of this whole thing is production. It's a place to make records and help people get their vibe together. The gear is important, but it's not really about the gear. You're just trying to bring out the best in whatever the artist is."
Alexander says although he and Smith come from a different musical background, the studio's philosophy is similar to the old Stax Studios of the '60s, which worked with artists such as The Staples, Otis Reading and other R&B artists.
"We just try to make it a real comfortable spot," he says. "We're doing a little more of a classic-based, old-school kind of recording. We have a pool of players and musicians that can come in and play on the records and bring the quality up. It's like having a house band.
"That's the vibe."
For Alexander and Smith, music has provided lots of good vibes. The Badlees have recorded five full-length albums, two EPs, and are one of the most successful original projects to ever come from this region. In 1995, the band signed the first of two national recording contracts and two of the group's songs, "Angeline Is Coming Home" and "Fear of Falling," were national hit singles. The video for "Angeline" — directed by actor Anthony Edwards and staring Julianna Margulies, both of "ER" — appeared on VH1. There was also a national tour with Bob Seger and opening act slots with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and Gregg Allman.
Still, 1998's massive Polygram/Seagram sale left many musicians with a bad impression of the entire record business. The Badlees themselves spent a year in corporate limbo before they were finally able to release last year's "Up There Down Here" LP, and Alexander and Smith say the whole experience now gives Saturation Acres a feeling of sanctuary.
"It's 95-percent creative," says Alexander. "You come to work, you're making records, you're recording songs, you're writing songs and you're writing arrangements. Every day. You're not trying to get your record label to give you an answer, or trying to get from Tallahassee to Norfolk, or trying to kiss the ass of some radio station to maybe play your song four times. It's like the shortest distance between two points."
"It's you and the music."
"The idea of being a performer and be able to have fun in the studio and do production — that's a very difficult thing to do," adds Smith. "With the band, we got to do that, but when we were independent, it was only a year and a half between records. After we got signed, it was ... "
"Five!" interjects Alexander with a laugh. "One record took as long as all of the other records combined."
Smith says that despite some of the record label problems the band faced in recent years, the experience has helped make him and Alexander better producers and engineers.
"We learned a lot of practical knowledge as a band in studio by doing it all ourselves all those years," he says. "And the very last major label thing we did, 'Up There Down Here,' was a huge education because we got to go to the bigger studios and see how to do things like put up two mikes and get them to sound amazing. You struggled with that for years, and that kind of gets your juices flowing all over again. It's great to come to one place, take all of that knowledge we've accumulated, and take it to other recordings."
"And like Bret was saying," he adds, "I too don't enjoy driving in a van for 16 hours. I don't know how many people do. It's got to be a huge labor of love, and it's got to be a tidal wave of everybody moving in the exact same direction — for that 'touring-band-on-a-label-promoting-a-record-thing' to work. For us, the last couple of years — as everybody knows — it's just been a tremendous struggle to do that."
"Here, it's like 'Happy Land.' This is the happy place. We come here every day, and it's like an oasis."
Alexander says the most enjoyable part of running the studio is seeing the music of visiting artists develop and blossom, and helping them grow during that process.
"It's almost like being an fashion designer or an interior decorator," he says. "You try to show off people's strengths and hide their flaws, and that's what it's about — to just try to get to the essence of the person or the songwriter."
"We're just trying to make them the best they can be."