You'd never suspect that Valley of the Kings was a recording studio from the outside of its building. Located on the fourth floor of an office building in Dallas, it couldn't be in a more mundane location. But the most surprising part of the studio is who runs it: Pat Zepeda and her 23-year-old granddaughter, Gabriella Zepeda. Then again, they never would've expected to work in the music business, either.
“I think we complement each other,” says Pat. “We complement each other really well,” Gabriella agrees. She thinks being two generations apart may be the key. “I am nothing like my mother at all,” Gabriella continues. “She’s the complete polar opposite of me. But when it comes to my grandmother, we click and understand each other.”
It all started back in 2001 when Pat helped her son, producer Billy Syn, open a studio at the family’s pool house. Gabriella was 9 at the time. “The pool house was always buzzing,” she remembers. After her uncle took her to some live shows and made her a song using samples from one of her favorite anima films, Gabriella knew she would be working in music by the time she was in her early teens. She may not know how to play an instrument or even produce, but she started learning how to manage a studio at a very young age.
After a few years, Valley of the Kings relocated to Deep Ellum in the space formerly occupied by Last Beat Studios on Commerce. Eventually Billy Syn started wanting to focus on being a producer instead of running a studio. “Running a recording studio requires a lot of administrative work and he is a producer,” says Pat. After beginning to take over the business side with her granddaughter and learning the ropes, they started realizing that many Dallas artists know how to make music, but little else.
“They can’t register their songs,” says Gabriella. “They don’t know what a publishing house is. They don’t know booking agents.” They started being very protective of the artists, telling them when it wasn’t the right time to invest in a tour and live on a bus when they should be making music and building a local following. Sometimes it even made sense to tell them that they weren’t ready to record an album yet.
“I guess it stopped becoming just about us being a recording studio,” says Gabriella. “It started becoming about helping the artists grow.” When artists inquired about booking studio time, they weren’t simply asked how many hours are needed. Gabriella wanted to know what their goals were and tried to understand exactly where they were at with their career in order to provide a highly individualized service. “We can get you where you need to be if you tell us what you are doing,” she says.
After a few years in Deep Ellum, they decided a larger studio was needed and relocated again to Carrollton, taking over the studio that used to belong to Vanilla Ice. In addition to local artists like Da Dreak and Bobby Fisha, Valley of the Kings has worked with Justin Bieber (“pre-haircut”), Waka Flocka Flame, Gorilla Zoe, and Lil Flip. They also started doing music and image consulting, sound design for films and music publishing.
By the time Gabriella was 16, it was understood that she would ultimately take over the business. “It just became my life,” she says. Her grandmother recognized her skills in sales and managing, her uncle turned her on to all sorts of music and she was constantly obsessed with figuring things out and soaking up knowledge.
“We clash sometimes,” says Pat. “But there is something really awesome about our dynamic and we can bounce right back,” adds Gabriella. “She’s a conservative project manager. I’m the go-getter; I get things done. I have these huge ideas. But she grounds me.” Pat simply thinks this is why she was put on this earth and that this family business is the legacy she will leave behind.
After working out of Carrollton for 6 years, a highway was expanded and eminent domain kicked them out of that studio a year ago. With this latest transition, Valley of the Kings has gone from a pool house studio to the entire fourth floor of an office building. The new studio is a mix of commerce and creativity and is clearly meant for people who are serious about making it in the music industry.
Studio A is one of the largest rooms in Dallas, clearly meant for a band. Both the studio and the control room have huge windows that offer a spectacular view of the city. Veteran studio designer Bob Suffolk remembers the first time he put windows in a studio: “Their productivity went up 40 percent,” he says. It’s something he has felt strongly about since.
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Studio B is smaller, with hip-hop and voice-overs in mind. There is a break room, offices and storage. It’s an impressive sight. They plan to have a roster of 20 engineers to cater to virtually any type of music. And just like with musicians, they are looking to nurture engineers just out of school and help them perfect their craft.
“We watch a lot of unethical things happen,” says Gabriella. “We watch a lot of people get taken for lots of money. People go on tours and never come back. People quit their jobs and never make it in the music industry.” With Valley of the Kings, they want to make a difference
“It’s the culture we are trying to create,” Pat adds. “My son is a musician. I know the pain that they go through. That’s why we care. If he had had somebody to walk him through the process, it would have been easier. There are so many producers in Dallas who are excellent, but they never get the opportunity. I am trying to create a cradle, a place for people to actually grow.”