Feature Stories

Klearlight Studio's Awesome Gear Collection Is a Synth Lover's Paradise

Being able to predict the future is valuable. Jay Jernigan and Jimi Bowman have the kind of synthesizer collection aficionados like Vincent Gallo or Ryan Gosling could afford. But with most of their collection acquired during the 1990s when pawnshops were full of rare gems, they paid a fraction of what it would cost today. This was before synth mafias like Switched On in Austin existed. Musicians often walk into the place and lose their minds.

“The only reason this stuff is here is because I started buying it in the very early '90s,” Jernigan says. In 1990, he was 15 and buying this stuff on the cheap from pawnshops. He knew it wouldn’t last. There was so much gear available he was cherry-picking it. “We would buy stuff we knew we could flip to buy stuff we wanted for ourselves." By the time R&B blew up and everyone needed a Rhodes or Wurlitzer, they had storage rooms full of them.

There are things at Klearlight Studio some may have seen on the Internet and many items few even know exist. It’s not unusual for people to whip out their phones and take bug-eyed selfies with some of this gear. Formed in 2007, Klearlight quickly attracted the attention of Alan Palomo and Ronnie Heart. They visited the studio before Neon Indian was formed, then working under the name VEGA. Ariel Pink recorded EPs at Klearlight; he was so inspired by his surroundings that it was hard to keep up with him.

Ariel Pink was familiar with some of Jernigan’s old recordings, which were sometimes influenced by Krautrock. In the late 1990s, Jernigan was involved with a Dallas underground avant-garde collective, Vas Deferens Organization. He was the synth guy on a couple records that many weirdos and collectors would love to get their hands on.

Bowman and Jernigan have been recording and making music since they were teenagers. Bowman was in the metal band Morbid Scream, who were contemporaries of Pantera and Rigor Mortis. “Back then the Dallas metal scene was crazy,” Bowman says. “Local bands could draw three or four hundred people on any given night.” More recently, he played in PVC Street Gang.

Prizes from their collection like the EMS Synthi AKS, an ultra-rare British suitcase synth, attracted Daniel Huffman, who brought friends like Dan Deacon and Tobacco to the studio. “Everyone’s seen Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii,” Jernigan says. Pink Floyd used an EMS Synthi AKS to create “On the Run.”

The second half of the new These Machines Are Winning album was recorded at Klearlight and Zhora just completed a new track. Unconscious Collective recorded both of their albums there and the Cannabinoids have been visiting the studio for years. Erykah Badu has enjoyed recording many vocal tracks at the studio over the years, including “Hey Shooter” for Rocket Juice and the Moon. When Badu had the studio booked, the Flaming Lips wanted to visit. This resulted in “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” the track Badu sings on for the Flaming Lips & Heady Fwiends release.

Klearlight is a cozy place where there are no interns hanging out and they keep the location under wraps. Artists can go there anonymously with no other reason but to work. “It’s not a hangout spot,” Jernigan says. “It’s chill.” Badu has also brought James Poyser, the multi-instrumentalist producer from the Roots, into the studio. Jazz pianist Robert Glasper has also visited with Badu to record an entire track for Miles Ahead, the upcoming film about Miles Davis.

Inevitably there is downtime and people get to mess around with things they probably haven’t seen before, like a Mellotron M400, which Led Zeppelin used for some of their most famous songs like “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Rain Song” and “Kashmir.” An ARP 2600, one of the finest analog synthesizers ever made, would be another standout. It was used to create the voice of R2-D2 in Star Wars and legends like Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder used it for music.

But that’s just a few gems from Klearlight. Stepping into the control room, there is a 1970 Swiss broadcast console and a late 1940s American tube console reminiscent of what Sam Phillips would have used at Sun Records. There is the kind of sitar guitar that Steely Dan used for solos, vintage German microphones (they could be mistaken for futuristic handguns from the '50s) a la Fleetwood Mac, and huge microphones from the 1940s that Bing Crosby would likely recognize.

What is on display at Klearlight is very impressive, but it’s just a fraction of the collection — what’s tuned up, calibrated and ready to record. “This is the stuff that fits in here,” Jernigan says. Lately they are thinking it’s time to move to a bigger place. Their current location is off the radar, which is great for keeping their valuable equipment safe and providing artists some peace and quiet. But they are ready for a space with a huge tracking room, which will attract even more artists.