Producers Jono Manson and Tim Schmoyer revive a legendary studio in Santa Fé.
Pro Audio Design provides gear infrastructure to classic New Mexico room - Console, ProTools, plus full patchbay.
Feature interview by Drew Townson
It would be an understatement to say that Jono Manson has built an impressive career. As a veteran guitarist, producer and composer in his own right, the award-winning Manson has plied his trade on stage and in the studio for four decades. After leaving his native NYC, Manson based his home and musical life in Santa Fe, NM, where he’s worked with the likes of John Popper, Crystal Bowersox and Brothers Keeper. His music has been used in movies by Kevin Costner and the Farrelly Brothers. As one of the busiest musicians in the Southwest, Manson is either touring, producing, or scoring. Working out of his own private “Kitchen Sink” studio just north of Santa Fe, you could say that Manson’s life was already in a really good place. But in mid 2015, a new and exciting opportunity came knocking on his door, and this one was way too juicy to pass up…
First, we need a little back-story on another Santa Fe studio whose history intertwines with Manson’s: It’s a nearly legendary place called Stepbridge. Indeed, Stepbridge studio was the finest recording facility south of Denver and beyond. Started in the late 1980s by Tim Stroh and housed in a vintage adobe hacienda near Santa Fe Plaza, the multi-room studio had everything a state-of-the-art music facility should have: An SSL console, analog 24 track machine, vintage mics and outboard, and more importantly, beautiful acoustic design with a true Southwestern feel. Stepbridge was a Santa Fe gem. That’s why everything from the music of Robbie Robertson, Dwight Yoakam and The Indigo Girls to the voice-overs of Gene Hackman and Val Kilmer were produced there. (Interestingly, one of the artists who worked out of Stepbridge in its heyday was, you guessed it, a young Jono Manson. But in the mid 1990s, he could only have dreamt that one day…)
Fast forward to 2015, where we find Manson weaving his New Mexican musical dream near Santa Fe. Meanwhile, Stepbridge founder Tim Stroh, a lifetime ski-fanatic, had moved to Colorado and sold the facility to ADR producer Edgard Rivera, who after a couple of years had put it up for sale again. The former studio was in decline. Santa Fe’s once luminous “farolito” was in need of new flame.
That’s when an agent of change arrived in Santa Fe, from …. Boston?
Jono, obviously you had been part of Stepbridge in the past. Tell us about your history there:
I first moved to Santa Fe from New York in 1992. By then I had already been a member of numerous touring bands and my career as an engineer and producer was already well underway. At the time, Stepbridge was pretty much the only world-class facility for hundreds of miles in any direction. During the mid-90s I worked there countless times, as a session musician on other people's records, as a producer, as well as recording a couple of projects of my own. In 1999 I built a small, but well-appointed studio of my own. At that juncture I had less of a need to track at Stepbridge.
Tim Schmoyer recently came to Santa Fe from Boston; how did you meet him?
Tim and I were actually introduced by the former owner of the studio, Edgard Rivera. Because he knew we had a mutual interest in the property he thought that it might be a smart idea for us to know one-another and potentially partner on this deal. After a brief but intense "getting to know you" period, it became clear that each of us had something to offer the other, and that between us, the puzzle would be complete. We met, hammered out a partnership agreement, and forged onwards.
What is Tim’s background and how did he end up in NM?
Tim is an accomplished audio engineer in his own right, with a strong background in live sound and location recording. For many years, Tim has been working out of his own home-grown studio in Boston MA, and doing location work, mostly for Blue Man Group in Boston. He is also a drummer, and has toured the US, Europe and beyond with a few bands over the years. He and his wife had been contemplating a move out of the Northeast, and this studio partnership solidified the decision. They will be relocating to Santa Fe in April, when he will become more actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the studio.
How long had Stepbridge been looking for a new owner at this point?
The property had actually been on the market for quite some time. Because of the fact that the studio was built from the ground up, the right way, the cost of repurposing the building to turn it into a restaurant, or condos, or something else was extremely prohibitive. So, real estate investors looking to use his property for something other than a studio were, thankfully for us, scared off. It basically laid dormant waiting for someone to come along with the intention of reviving the studio itself.
So the stars really aligned, it seems, for you guys to save the old girl…
It made sense on so many levels. This is the only facility of its nature in this region and it would have been criminal to allow it to be torn down. Plus, I have been closely connected to the music community in this part of the world for the better part of 25 years. Apart from my work with artists from all corners of the globe, I have also produced countless records for New Mexico-based musicians and have developed a good reputation and an ongoing and loyal clientele here. There was never a question as to whether or not the studio would have business. In fact, at the time that we moved into the facility, I was in the midst of working on several projects, all of which transferred into the new studio. Our business has been in the black from day one. Pretty much a no-brainer!
What is your vision for the studio?
Our vision is to restore it to its former glory, and beyond. Santa Fe has long been an oasis for artists and visitors from around the world, and we see no reason why this facility shouldn't be a destination for musicians and producers who are looking for a cool place to realize their creative visions. As producers we know that performance and feel are king. Without them, you have nothing. So we have gone to great lengths to generate an environment which, although the studio is quite impressive, remains down-home and inviting - A place where people can relax, and create.
You carried the “Kitchen Sink” brand over from your former studio. What’s the back-story on that name?
About 10 years ago, I bought the property north of the city for the purpose of building a recording studio, but also kept some of the aspects of the house intact, so that artists could come to New Mexico, camp out and make records. Part of what became the main tracking room had once been the kitchen of the original home. I managed to migrate all of the furniture and appliances from the kitchen into another part of the structure but the sink posed the most challenges. So, for the first eight months or so of running the studio there was a sink in the middle of the main tracking room. Hence the name. At this point, the brand has been established, so it's way too late to change now.
Being that much of the original Stepbridge gear was gone, you brought over some of your own gear, plus you and Tim made a major console purchase from Pro Audio Design. What did you get, and what led to your choice?
Yes, virtually all of my gear including outboard mic pres, dynamics, vintage instruments, and my entire mic closet made the transition to the new place. We established a finite budget for improvements to the new studio, including gear, renovation, and installation, so we had to make careful decisions on how to allocate those funds.
Apart from a brand-new 32 channel ProTools rig, our main investment was going to be in a new centerpiece analog desk for the studio. Given our fairly remote location, and the fact that there is very little technical support available in New Mexico proper, we decided early that a new console, as opposed to an older desk, was our best bet at the outset. We started shopping around.
My friend Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, a great musician and producer who's worked with everyone from Joan Jett to Steve Earle, suggested that I contact Drew Townson at Pro Audio Design. In my first conversation with Drew, I discovered that he, himself, had actually worked at the former Stepbridge Studios back in the 90s, and therefore knew the facility very very well. I took this as a sign that we were meant to work together on this. Again, the stars align! We explored many options and, in the end, decided on the purchase of a brand-new 36 channel Audient ASP8024 console, with the automation add-on.
Why Audient, and how do you like it so far?
When we started investigating the Audient ASP, our interest was piqued from the get-go. I contacted anyone I could find who could talk to me about their experiences working with these boards. Time after time I heard the familiar refrain that these were extremely reliable, great sounding desks, that the EQ was very musical, and that the preamps offered an incredible amount of bang for the buck. So, Tim and I flew to New York so that we could demo one in a studio there. We ran the desk though its paces and pushed it hard. And from that moment on that we were sold.
We worked directly with Audient in the UK who configured the console to best suit our needs.They have a great, hands-on team. The desk is extremely well designed and very intuitive. The routing is extensive and flexible. I've been spending 12 to 15 hours a day in front of the ASP8024 and I can now honestly attest to the fact that, whether in tracking or mixing, all of the glowing endorsements were 100% true. In short, it looks, feels and sounds great!
PAD not only sold you the console but also designed wired and installed the patchbay?
Yes, we worked very closely with Eric Anderson and PAD's design department, who conceived, and built our patch bay. In addition to our DAW, we are also running 24 track and 2 track analog tape machines. Our new mixing console has a classic in-line, split fader, design so there are 72 inputs in total (80 if you include the eight channels from the automation section). So, we really were in need of a comprehensive patching system in which all of the ins and outs as well as each and every insert on our console, all of our outboard gear, the tape machines, all of the inputs and tie lines from the panels and the various rooms in the studio, could be easily accessed. Eric then flew out to Santa Fe and we spent five days rewiring the entire studio. At this point every inch of cabling in the entire facility has been replaced, and every solder point on every panel in every room has been re-done.
How is it going so far?
It's going great! The tracking room sounds fantastic, and our system is working like gangbusters! We couldn't be more pleased with the work that PAD did on our behalf.
What projects do you have going right now, Jono, and what’s coming up?
I am currently producing albums for a couple of regional artists; a pretty loud album with a gifted singer/songwriter named Kito Peters and a new record for award-winning "new folk" artist C. Daniel Boling. In between sessions with them I'm recording all manner of other music. Next on my production docket is an album for folk duo Ordinary Elephant and we've got a Metal band from the Pacific Northwest coming in to track at the end of the month. I'm also just wrapping up mixing on a long-running project with a sufi-rock band called The Sketches, from Pakistan and this summer I'll be producing albums for two serious rock acts from Italy. Oh, and I'm working on finishing up a new album of my own!
Needless to say, the former Stepbridge is once again abuzz with music, now that Manson and Schmoyer have brought the Kitchen Sink to old Sante Fé!
About Tim Schmoyer:
Tim is an experienced live sound and recording engineer currently who has built his career up until now in Boston, MA. For the past ten years Tim has been front of house engineer for Blue Man Group Boston and he has also worked live sound at many Boston area venues, including The Middle East, The Paradise, and Great Scott. Through his homegrown Engine70 Studios, Tim has long provided engineering and mastering services for numerous area bands and solo artists. His own musical interests have always leaned towards the hard-core, punk, metal scene. However, as a recording and mix engineer, he has worked over a wide spectrum of genres, always serving the music and bringing out the best in each project.