Behind every great record there's a recording studio, and in the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth, musicians have plenty of options to choose from. In fact, as the local music scene has enjoyed an upswing in recent years, its been powered in part by a host of new studios — as well as time-tested veterans. These 10 offer the best bang for a band's buck, but don't just take our word for it — take the musicians' themselves, who offer their opinions below. 10. Palmyra Studios (Palmer)
Artists who dig it: Chuck Rainey, Kirk Thurmond and the Millennials, The Stevie James Trio
Thirty minutes south of Dallas is the sleepy little town of Palmer, where nothing much happens all of the time. Unless, of course, you venture over to Palmyra Studios. Situated on 65 acres of pure, Ellis county privacy, inside of the original family’s farmhouse, circa 1903, there’s a solid, 100-year-old cedar control room with loads of analog gear, a vintage mic collection and a 1969 Abbey Road Class A Neve 8038 console. Basically, Palmyra Studios is the Sonic Ranch of the DFW.
Palmyra Studios was founded by legendary sound engineer Paul “Pappy” Middleton after decades of touring, mixing and recording some of the greatest musicians alive, including the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt. And he’s far from slowing down. Stephen Ketner of Dallas’ Stevie James Trio calls Palmyra the “perfect studio for the analog purist.” For Ketner, visiting Palmyra is “a true vintage experience, the kind you read about in rock mythology where the band locked themselves in the studio for a month. I've literally done it at Palmyra.” He adds, “It has its limitations for sure, but that's how the magic happens sometimes. I've had more than one spiritual musical experience behind that console.”
Artists who dig it: Blands, Party Static, Blood Letters
Right behind Reno’s Chop Shop in Deep Ellum is Aqua Lab Sound Recordings — and they are punk as fuck. Opened by Aquaholics bassist Josh White and Street Arabs co-frontman/guitarist Matt Powers in the fall of 2014, this recording studio caters to the grittier, grungier varieties of rock, such as punk and noise. They’ve made it a point to open their doors to other local artistic ventures, such as King Camel Productions and Vice Palace, to help bolster the community.
Describing the studio, White says, “Let me put it this way, we don’t look fancy, but we do have fancy gear.” He adds that the idea for the studio was to be affordable with a “neighborhood studio feel” and a can-do attitude, which is more than enough to make an impact. To achieve this, White says they work with any artist’s budget and all recordings are done live, in one room. “I want everyone playing together, in the same room, pissed off or whatever. I like performance or vibe over sound quality, even if you mess up. If the vibe is there, it’s good — that aggression,” he says.
Artists who dig it: Kaela Sinclair, Dark Rooms, Sarah Jaffe
Denton’s Redwood Studios opened its doors at the end of 2012, co-owned by two Midlake members: guitarist Joey McClellan and Grammy award-winning drummer McKenzie Smith. Aesthetically speaking, Redwood’s interior looks like something out of Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines’ shiplap daydream: a heavy mixture of cedar and reclaimed wood, perfectly placed Edison bulbs and cozy, minimalist decor. But it’s the sounds coming out of this studio that make it worthy of a place on this list.
Redwood already has a hearty resume: 35 Denton-infused Redwood Sessions, intimate, live performances by 35 Denton artists, along with the likes of Sarah Jaffe’s 2015 album Don’t Disconnect, the Heavy Hands’ self-titled debut album and Kaela Sinclair’s highly anticipated sophomore album Second Skin. Sinclair even goes so far as to call this studio her No. 1 pick. “Redwood Studios in Denton is my favorite because it's all about creativity and good vibes. The people that you work with there have incredible taste, which is something I really value,” she says.
Artists who dig it: Leon Bridges, These Machines Are Winning, Nicole Atkins
Niles City Sound might be one of the best-known recording studios in Texas, let alone DFW. Considering it’s one of the newer contributions to the recording world, that’s pretty damn impressive. That no doubt has something to do with the fact that Leon Bridges’ knockout debut album Coming Home was recorded at Niles City.
Spawned from the minds of White Denim members Josh Block and Austin Jenkins, this state-of-the-art, full-service recording studio was designed to cultivate the best possible sound, with the best possible equipment — most of which is vintage. Hell, even the herringbone patterned floor is made from century-old oak. Some might brush off this type of setup due to the lack of sonic perfection, according to modern music industry standards. But to seasoned music aficionados, that type of attention to detail can’t be beat.
Artists who dig it: The Happy Alright, Claire Morales, Rei Clone
Macaroni Island was not-so-arguably the greatest DIY venue in Denton, maybe in the whole of DFW, and its closing was a painful blow to our community. But even though the Island is no more, its creator, music engineer Michael Briggs, carries on at his Civil Recording studio, offering affordable digital recording to the public. It's also the home to the Violitionist Sessions, a three-question, three-song performance by local musicians or musicians traveling through Denton.
Briggs has been known to record, mix and master around 50 albums in a year. Sterling Gavinski, lead singer of pop-punk band the Happy Alright, says that Briggs’ down-to-earth personality, combined with the inviting feel of the home studio, make for a relaxed, natural recording experience. Gavinski says that he’s met some producers that just want to get you out the door as quickly as possible, but with Briggs, it’s the opposite. “It just feels more personable there. Michael is such a great guy who knows how songs should work — and he puts a lot thought into putting songs together. And when it’s all done, he comes to our shows and support us,” he says.
Artists who dig it: Paul Cauthen, Larry g(EE), Matt Tedder
Right on the fringe of uptown Dallas’ suburban retail sprawl is Modern Electric — the most awkwardly, but awesomely, placed recording studio on this list. Back before owners Jeffery Saenz and Beau Bedford took over the space in 2012, the building was home to not one, but two of the biggest names in commercial jingle production: PAMS Productions and Thompson Creative. And its quirky history has added a timeless, enveloping aspect to the studio that has apparently helped to curate some of the most kick-ass local music to date.
"There's something about sounds of the past that I appreciate,” Fort Worth rocker and The Voice alumnus Matt Tedder explains. “When you walk into Modern Electric, it feels like you take a step back in time.” Adding to that, Kirk Thurmond says he sees Modern Electric as a sort of mecca for Dallas music. “Jeff Saenz has given us a place of expression, fulfillment and belonging,” Thurmond says.
Artists who dig it: Justin Bieber, the D.O.C., Rich Homie Quan
Run by producer Billy Syn, his niece Gabriella Zepeda and his mother Pat Zepeda, North Dallas’ Valley of the Kings recording studio started out in the family’s pool house in 2001, providing some of the best music production, recording and engineering services to the community. Since then, the business began to attract some serious A-list clientele and they were forced to relocate several times, including a stint at Deep Ellum’s iconic Last Beat Studios, to accommodate the demand.
With a focus on the rap and hip-hop community, Valley of the Kings has made a name for itself for going a step further for their artists — even helping them become ASCAP/BMI certified and helping them get placements. Rap battle champion and VotK enthusiast Bobby Fisha says this type of extra attention empowers artists like himself to take their craft to the next level. “When I work on my music at Valley of the Kings, I know that I’m working toward the bigger picture and they are helping me get there. That’s why this studio has been, and will always be my home,” he says.
Artists who dig it: N’Dambi, Alsace Carcione, 88 Killa
Headed by multi-platinum producer, songwriter and engineer Ty Macklin, Fort Worth’s Alpha Omega Recording Studios has been a hub for north Texas’ hip-hop, rap and gospel recording for over 20 years. In his formative years, Macklin was in the legendary hip-hop/noise group Decadent Dub Team and attended Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts with Erykah Badu. Since high school, though, Macklin has gone on to produce and write countless songs, even a few with Badu, and with the help of entrepreneur Al Gibbs Jr., opened Alpha Omega Recording Studios.
Rappers Alsace Carcione and 88 Killa count Alpha Omega as their favorite place to record. “It's the most organic place to create music,” Carcione says. “You feel like legends have recorded here and monumental music has been made in this space. Ty Macklin and Ish D are super amazing engineers, producers and emit nothing but positive vibes from the moment you walk in.” 88 Killa adds, “You can feel the soul and energy that lingers around in that place as you walk around and whenever you need a refill of inspiration you can talk to Ty and soak up all of the experience and knowledge he has to offer."
Artists who dig it: St. Vincent, Amanda Palmer, The Walkmen
Grammy award-winning producer/musician/songwriter John Congleton has created his own piece of musical heaven over in Oak Cliff. Congleton’s über-eclectic resume boasts the likes of Blondie, Marilyn Manson and Earl Sweatshirt — and that doesn’t even cover his own musical accolades. Somewhere in between engineering some of the best tracks you’ve heard all year, Congleton, formerly of alt-rock band the Paper Chase, has released new music in the form of his latest project John Congleton and the Nighty Nite.
One of the coolest things to know about Congleton and his Elmwood Recording studio is his understanding of the costs associated with creating music these days. So, in response, he teamed up with downtown Dallas’ The Joule hotel to help relieve some of the monetary stress artists have to consider when coming to Elmwood. Essentially, as an incentive to travel to Dallas to record with Congleton, artists are offered free luxury digs, with an eyeball view, at The Joule. Seriously. What’s not to like?
Artists who dig it: Erykah Badu, Sam Lao, Blue, the Misfit
Comfortably situated on Garland Road across the street from Hypnotic Donuts in East Dallas is The Kitchen. This unassuming studio has become a powerhouse recording and production studio for locals and Grammy award-winning artists alike. Hell, they were even given a shout out by UGK on the track ”I Know Ya Strapped.” But behind the impressive client roster, the Erykah Badu self-portrait and laid-back locale, lies something much more intriguing: its two-man team, owner/producer J.P. Painter and engineer O.Z.
One of the Kitchen’s biggest fans is Dallas’ own resident alchemist, Sam Lao. On the topic of the Kitchen, Lao says, “It’s always the go-to spot for me because O.Z. is such an incredible engineer. I don’t even know how to describe his ear. He knows exactly what levels and what changes need to be made and how a song needs to be balanced for it to suddenly just glow.” She adds, “I feel like mixing and mastering is almost like sorcery and that is so apparent with him.”
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE...
Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Molly is a Dallas/Austin-based writer who's been published in the Austin Chronicle, Phoenix New Times, Euphoria Magazine, Listen Hear and Nakid Magazine. When she's not writing about music, this diehard non-vegan is tirelessly searching for the city's best elotes, discussing East versus West Coast rap and forever asking for 10 more minutes of sleep. For a good time, tell her your favorite band is Muse and wait for the five million reasons why you're wrong.