By Janice Brown
Cotati, CA (March 28, 2006)–A rural Sonoma Valley residential recording facility, Prairie Sun Studios has been around since 1980, but it may well be in the midst of a heyday. The drop-off in major label work that has closed so many studio doors has also caused a surge in independent record releases, and studio time for the kinds of artists Prairie Sun has been after all along.
Prairie Sun co-owner, Mark “Mooka” Rennick, is a musician (bass player, primarily) who toured with Commander Cody’s Billy C. Farlow in the late ’70s. After trying to balance life as a touring musician with that of a studio owner/producer, he left the road for his–at that time–garage-style studio near Sonoma State College, which is what initially brought him to the area from his native Illinois. Prairie Sun co-owner Mark “Mooka” Rennick at the Neve 8026 console”I started with the Beach Boys’ ‘Clover’ mixing desk and a 1-inch 8-track machine,” recalls Rennick. “Then I got a 2-inch 16-track, and by 1979 I had bought a 24-track 2-inch machine from Wally Heider’s Studio when they went out of business. So, ‘Boom,’ I’m in the studio business–because I had the hardware.” In those early days, Rennick did initial projects with Bay area heroes, Mark Isham and Mark Needham.
In 1980, Rennick took the opportunity to move his operation to a chicken farm in Cotati, CA that had been partially set up as a recording studio. He formulated a plan that, many years later, has completely come to fruition. “I have slowly and methodically built up the equipment at Prairie Sun to where I have an 80-input SSL and two classic Neve tracking desks,” says Rennick. “And, I’ve literally kept my eye on that prize from the beginning, starting out with Tridents, then added the first Neve, then another, and then the SSL 4080 G/E in 2001.”
The target customer for Prairie Sun has always been one who would appreciate fine, well-maintained equipment, “aurally exciting” acoustic spaces, and an overall very “real” operation–unpretentious and born of passion and enthusiasm for music. Now that so much of Prairie Sun’s analog equipment and unique tracking environments are hard to come by, the recording experience the facility provides is unique; and, as it turns out, in demand.
“We have three Studers, and they’re all in impeccable condition–we have always re-lapped our heads, we have spare parts, and I have a really good technical support network,” says Rennick. “And, I’m really seeing a resurgence of analog recording. Since January, I think we’ve done eight projects and they were all analog, recorded to 2-inch.”
Between the equipment (*See “Vital Stats” below) and a variety of classic guitars, basses, amps, and two grand pianos, and the available tracking rooms–a large main tracking room and two live chambers–Prairie Sun has a lot to offer a band that books a session. “It’s just being able to bend with the budgets of the artists and give them extreme value for their investment–put them in the room with a really good engineer, a Neve board, a 47 tube microphone, because that’ll change their lives,” says Rennick. “With a lot of these indie bands–the only experience they have is with the digital, really thin, harsh-sounding recording systems, and when they finally go into a real analog studio, it’s like a religious experience on the first playback. You should see their faces.”
One of Prairie Sun’s undeniable claims to fame is all the work Tom Waits logged at the facility. The smaller of the two live chambers is called “The Waits Room,” as Waits was the one to suggest recording in it. Mooka in the “Waites Room” at Prairie SunIt’s in this room that the artist made the very sonically memorable Bone Machine and Mule Variations. “He was a great influence on us,” says Rennick, adding that Waits was basically a resident artist at Prairie Sun for about 10 years.
“And on every record he did at Prairie Sun, there was never a digital reverb touched–the sound was all those live chambers.” In a testimonial on Prairie Sun’s website, studio regular engineer, Oz Fritz, describes the Waits Room as “about the most ideal small to mid-sized room sound that you’re ever going to hear.” Rennick notes that now, “in every mix-down session, we re-amp things into the Waits Room then bring it back into the control room.”
The larger of the two chambers, the Prairie Room, is often used for cutting drums. As Fritz testifies, “The Prairie Room works well for creating John Bonham-type drum sounds or anything else that calls for a large ambient space.” The two live chambers are attached to Studio C, which houses the Neve 8024 desk, but there are tie-lines throughout the facility for a variety of recording possibilities.
Pictured at Prairie Sun are (l-r): engineer Scott Solter and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.A lot of bands travel to Prairie Sun and lodge at the ranch. At the beginning of this month, Prairie Sun had a truly full house. “Right now, Oz Fritz is staying with me while he works on an album for Shea Breaux,” says Rennick, “and the Mountain Goats are staying in the two guest houses, and this hard rock band I’m working with, called Wyldsky, are staying at my old house.”
The Mountain Goats have actually returned to Prairie Sun, after tracking their first album there last year. Artist/producer John Vanderslice and engineer Scott Solter brought the band out to Prairie Sun, and mix the albums back at Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco, which, by the way, is less than an hour’s drive from Cotati. “All my friends who are producer/engineers either have their own studios or are building home studios because they’re getting cut out of the budgets,” Rennick assures. “So, we track, mix and master here. We’ll be satisfied with whatever part of the project we get.” Mastering engineer Tim Gennert handles Prairie Sun’s Magix Sequoia-based mastering department.
Recent bookings have brought in Comets On Fire, tracking with producer/engineer Tim Green for a Sub Pop album; Red Sparowes, also tracking with Green; hip-hop artists Raw Sun and Fiji, in mixing on the SSL with producer/engineer Adam Munoz; and Rennick’s own spoken-word group, the Abolitionists, with engineer, Jason D’Ottavio.
PRAIRIE SUN RECORDING STUDIO
Studio Owner: Mark “Mooka” Rennick and Clifton Buck Kauffman
Room Design: Manny Lacarruba
Consoles: SSL 4080 G/E, G+/TR with VCA automation and Total Recall; Neve 8026, Custom 80
Recording and Playback: (3) Pro Tools HD3; Studer 2-inch A820, A827, A80; Ampex ATR 102 2-track 1/2-inch with Fluxdynamic heads, ATR 102 2-track 1/4-inch; 2 Alesis Masterlink ML-9600; 2 Tascam DA-30 2 Otari DTR DAT
Main Monitors: TAD TSM, NHT, Dynaudio (Studio A); Urei 811, Yamaha NS10 (Studio B); Urei 813B, Yamaha NS10 (Studio C)
Power Amps: AB Systems; Crown; McIntosh 2300; Urei 8300
Microphones: AKG C61, C414EB, 451L, C-12A, D-112; Audix SCX25 Lollipops, i5, D6, D4, D2; EV RE-20; Neumann U47, U67, U87, 582, M49, KM 54, KM84 and 85, SM-69; Schoeps M-221; Sennheiser 421, 441; Shure SM57, SM58, SM7; 2 Korby KAT-4, CM-23, Stubby’s
Outboard Equipment: Chandler; dbx; Drawmer; Dyna-Mite; Manley; Neve; Publison; Requisite; Urei; Calrec; Pultec; Sontec; SPL; Telefunken; Universal Audio; AMS; BBE; Behringer; EMT; Eventide; Lexicon; MXR; TC Electronic; Yamaha
Instruments: 1960’s era Baldwin SD10 Concert Grand Piano; Hammond B3; Leslie 122, 145; Kimball 7-foot Grand Piano; Yamaha CP-70; Alesis Quadra Synth Plus; Korg M1; Variety of classic Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Martin guitars; Fender and Marshall amps; Fender, Alembic, Musicman basses; Marshall, Orange, Roland and Fender amps
Miscellaneous: Lavry Blue converters/clocks, Apogee Big Ben clocks; Aardvark clock, Ultrasone HFI-550 headphones
Prairie Sun Studios