Deep Ellum's Recording Studios Are the Hidden Treasures of Dallas Music
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Deep Ellum is widely known as one of the best areas in the city for live music, with several venues opening their doors and turning on bright lights every night. But not so well known to the public at large is the host of recording studios in the area, many of which you've probably walked right past without having any idea they were there. And much as the bars and clubs of Deep Ellum are on the upswing, the neighborhood community of off-the-radar recording studios is undergoing its own growth spurt.
Rockit Lab Studios, located on Elm Street near Sons of Hermann Hall, has been at its current location for three years. Prior to that, it was at another Deep Ellum space for two years. Rockit Lab is a full digital studio with a large staff of accomplished in-house producers. These veterans of the electronic music scene are people who threw lots of parties in the '90s. They focus on EDM and hip-hop, but can accommodate virtually any music genre. Their goal is to provide a cost-effective studio to new artists and producers.
But they also have a couple rooms used as photography studios. This was a natural progression because photographers kept asking to use the space. "It's been interesting seeing the photography and art scene mixing with all these musicians," says owner Chris Gregg, who has been part of the Deep Ellum community for 20 years. Bands from all over the world regularly use the rehearsal room with its full PA system. With SXSW, they have had plenty of that this week.
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Rockit Lab also offers classes to teach different types of music software; multiple producers and instructors from local community colleges lead these courses. They have also offered classes on how to publish and distribute music. "We try to provide as much information as we can to the local community to help them get off the ground in music production," says Gregg, who hopes to open a second facility in Deep Ellum aimed more at music education.
And then there's Mongo Productions. Michael Smith, who goes by Mongo, has been a part of Deep Ellum since the '80s, running and renting sound for various clubs. He has run a few different studios and also owned Club Mongo in Arlington. A few years ago, he opened Mongo Productions, a recording studio with a rehearsal space next door. From 1993 to 2006, the space on Commerce was known as Last Beat Studios.
Mongo Productions is a great-sounding room with big isolation booths. "It's my pride and joy," says Mongo, who seems proudest of his current studio and production work above all other accomplishments. A labor of love, it took considerable time and effort to create a Dallas recording studio every bit as good as something you would find in L.A. or Nashville. "Sooner or later Dallas will be the third coast," he says.
Mongo Productions works with musicians from all over the world who are frequently shocked by how good the sound is. But Smith also works with locals, recognizing Dallas as a hotbed of music. "In the music business some people really make it," he says. "But there's always those other people behind the scenes who helped them make it along."
While Rockit Lab and Mongo are both veterans of the neighborhood at this point, a couple other new spaces have opened up in the past year to help bolster the community. Aqua Lab Sound Recordings opened its doors last September. The studio, situated just behind Reno's Chop Shop, is run by two punk rock guys with punk rock ethics, co-owners Josh White from the Aquaholics and Matt Powers from Street Arabs. White does a lot of the engineering and owns most of the equipment while Powers does booking and marketing.
"We're not claiming to be these huge experts," says Powers. They think of themselves as a down-to-earth, affordable studio with a home-studio vibe as opposed to a stuffy, self-serious space. The studio focuses on rock and punk, but it's a nice space with a comfortable atmosphere. They are trying to nurture local bands and help the scene progress. There are lots of young bands with great songs and they want to make sure there is a place for them to record singles that will help propel them to the next level.
Aqua Lab is also a place where newer bands are often learning from more experienced musicians who also use the space. "We want to be the group that helps the younger bands," says Powers, who admits that they've sought out bands they particularly like. They want to help artists make their first recordings and see them blossom. More than anything, they just want a new band to come in and wow them.
Matt Medlock, who generally goes simply by his last name, opened Legacy Music Group in July, right next door to Ferralog Recording Studios. Legacy is a full-service recording studio and publishing company with all sorts of amenities to make artists as cozy as possible in an artsy Deep Ellum setting.
Originally from Arkansas, Medlock has always known he would have a career in music, he even began working in artist management at 13. After moving to Dallas for college, he decided the area was a good fit for a music career and chose to stay. The studio is rented out to the public, but also used as a place for its own producers and songwriters to make music. Artists from several genres have recorded at the studio, but the focus is on developing local hip-hop and pop artists. Legacy also works on licensing deals for commercials, movies and video games.
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