Exactly 10 years ago today, on September 9, 1999, Bret Alexander opened Saturation Acres Recording Studio. Since that time, he's produced hundreds of artists — some of whom have gone on to have national success — and has had some of the most creatively fulfilling experiences of his life. And as he looks back on the past decade that he's spent behind the mixing board, he says he's not at all surprised that he's still there, twirling the knobs and helping people make records.
"That is what I want to do," says Alexander, sitting comfortably in front of the soundboard in the studio. "I've always wanted to do this. When we first started, I was a little surprised that it took off like it did — because it took off pretty quickly — and I'm actually pretty happy with where I'm at with it."
Alexander is perhaps known best to NEPA music fans for his work with The Badlees. As the guitarist and principal songwriter in the band, he helped steer the critically acclaimed roots-rock unit to a national record deal in 1995 with the self-produced album, "River Songs." Two tracks, "Angeline Is Coming Home" and "Fear of Falling," were national hits and the band's video appeared on VH1. While on tour, the group did shows with acts such as Plant/Page, Bob Seger and Gregg Allman.
When Alexander opened Saturation Acres 10 years ago, he was joined by fellow Badlee Paul Smith. The studio was located in Danville for about eight years and is now based in Dupont. Smith, who Alexander praises as having a major role in the development of the studio, still works with him on some projects, though Alexander now runs the facility alone. Alexander says launching the studio was simply an extension of the band's roots.
"Paul and I, and the rest of The Badlees guys, all met in a recording studio," he says. "My first gig out of school was an engineer, and Paul's was as well, so we were doing that before we did the band. And then The Badlees thing took off, so we just dealt with being in a band, exclusively, for many years. But the studio was kind of coming full circle."
Alexander says the fact that The Badlees spent most of 1998 and 1999 in label limbo as the well-documented Universal Music sale took place only increased his interest in opening a studio. He says that since the band had always done most of its own production anyway — and since it had asked the newly formed Universal Music label to release it from its contract — Saturation Acres offered The Badlees a place of its own and he and Smith an additional opportunity to stay involved in music.
"We wanted to continue to be musicians and continue to be creative, and we spent all of this time waiting around for a label to decide what to do with us. So, we started a studio so we could stay in the music business. That was probably the main impetus as to why we did it."
Acts that have recorded at Saturation Acres include Breaking Benjamin, Plus 3, k8, Panacea, Lemongelli, Graces Downfall, Clove, Jared Campbell, The Cellarbirds, Shawn Z. and The NonRefundables. (This writer has also recorded there several times.) One of the things that Alexander prides himself in is that he serves as a true producer and not just an engineer. He strongly believes in the importance of pre-production for young bands, where songs can be properly crafted and artists can discover their true strengths.
"We never wanted to be a 'recording studio.' I never wanted to have some producer from New York calling me and asking if we had this or that piece of equipment or being asked about what kind of accommodations we had. I never had any desire to do that whatsoever. We were more interested in the production. We have good gear, but we sell ideas."
As for the business side of the record industry, Alexander says he sometimes finds it just as perplexing as anyone. Breaking Benjamin sells a million records. k8 does a national television commercial. Alex Seier of Project 67 signs with Atlantic/Lava. He produced them all, yet says there have been a few others that he felt deserved the same success.
"It's like, 'I don't get it. What wrong with this? Why isn't this bigger than it is?'" he says with a laugh. "There's been a few of those, where there's nothing wrong. It's perfect."
To hear Alexander talk, don't be surprised if, 10 years down the road, Saturation Acres is noting its 20th anniversary.
"I love to do it," he says. "I like the camaraderie of it. I like musicians, as people. I enjoy that type of a person to be around. And I think I can help people find out who they already are. The thing that's most rewarding is when you work with a band, and they're coming from five different directions, and what's coming out of the speakers is kind of a mishmash of a lot of different things, and it's not really working, and it's not speaking. It's so cool to get them in a room, and get them on the same team, and start to figure out exactly who they are. And all of a sudden, it's like 'OK. Now we know. Now we know who we are, and what we're good at. Before, they were just playing.
"That's really what I think I do ... just help people find themselves."