Founded in 1996, Athey Creek Christian Fellowship is a non-denominational fellowship and house of worship located in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. Recently, Athey Creek opened up a state-of-the-art recording studio called The Ranch House.
Vintage King Audio Consultants James Good and Sam Routheaux helped the team at Athey Creek outfit The Ranch House with an incredible array of gear. The studio features a brand new SSL XL-Desk console, Burl Audio B80 Mothership and a collection of world-class mics and outboard gear.
We recently sat down with Peter Elliott and Joey Meador, the Lead Engineers at The Ranch House, to discuss their new studio set-up, some of their favorite pieces of gear, and what sets The Ranch House apart from other studios in the area.
Tell us a little bit about The Ranch House, your recording studio at Athey Creek Christian Fellowship.
Athey Creek is our church here in Portland, Oregon. After writing and recording a few songs at different studios around Portland and Nashville, we started thinking, "We could do this on our own." Sometimes, we really connected with the producer while recording, which was awesome. But other times, it fell a little flat, like when they would ask us to change our song to suit their production style.
Plus, renting a space and an engineer can get really expensive. We wanted to be able to pursue our own vision and direction. After a few Google searches, we realized that for the same price as recording eight or nine songs in a studio with a producer and an engineer, we could purchase all of the gear and do it ourselves.
There's a house right next to the church and when the folks who owned it decided to move, we bought the building along with an SSL XL-Desk console, a pair of Barefoot Sound Footprint01 monitors and some outboard gear and opened up our own personal studio. We call it the Ranch House. Honestly, it was like a scene out of a horror movie. There were raccoons and cats and stuff all over the place. But, we remodeled the whole facility and converted the space into a proper studio.
In our research, we worked with a few different artists and studio pros to help us determine exactly what we needed. Then we brought our ideas to Vintage King, who helped us put everything together.
What makes the Ranch House different from other facilities in the area?
A lot of the studios I've used are in the basement. It feels like you're underground in this dark labyrinth with all of these weird levers and secret doors. The Ranch House has a lot of natural light from all of the windows and skylights, which can be really calming. Some of the windows do present challenges with sound, though, so we treated them with big theatre curtains that we can use for a really tight sound.
The Ranch House feels like a real house. Our main control room is in the living room with a window that looks into the live room, which is one big open room with a couple of ISO booths attached. The live room is probably 32' x 18', the drum iso booth is 10’ x 10’ and the amo iso room is 4’ x 10’.. There's a little kitchen, which always has coffee brewing. It's a really nice place to record.
There's also the fact that we believe in Jesus, which is at the forefront of everything we do. We don't exclusively record members of the church, but it does differentiate us from typical studios, which can kind of feel like punching a clock or spending all of your time looking for new clients. Most of the projects that we're a part of have a bigger purpose or direction. People put a lot of heart and soul into the songs that they record here, and we're able to appreciate that on a level that some studios might not be able to.
What drew you to the SSL XL-Desk console?
We spent three or four months researching consoles. It's a huge investment. It's something that you're going to use every day, so it's important that you choose a console that you're comfortable committing to. We were looking for a console with great sound quality and versatile features, but we also had a budget to consider.
We made the decision by reverse engineering the studio. First, we started with the converters. We knew that we wanted to use the BURL Audio Mothership to maintain that analog tone throughout the signal chain. Everyone that we talked to while researching loved the BURL converters. It was either that or Apogee converters, which are known for being really clean and accurate, but we wanted the huge, colorful sound of the BURLs.
However, a fully stocked Mothership took up a big chunk of our budget. We knew we wanted the BURLs to be the centerpiece of the studio, but we also needed a few staple pieces like API 512 preamps. In terms of standalone preamps, the API 512s are one of the gold-standards. Originally, we considered getting an API 1608 console, but we would have gone over budget, so we opted to get a few 500 Series module preamps instead.
It was also important for us to have something fairly modular, which is why we went with the SSL XL-Desk. We briefly considered going with eight 500 Series SSL preamps and a standalone Lunchbox, but that came out to be about the same price as the SSL XL-Desk, which has turned out to be a really versatile console for us. 16 channels is typically plenty for us on most sessions. Plus, if we need more inputs, we have eight additional BUL preamps for a total of 24 inputs, which is more than enough to record a standard three or four-piece drum kit. Plus, you can easily route signals back from Pro Tools and use the XL-Desk as a mixing console. It's a great hybrid console that you can do a lot with.
What was the installation process like?
Honestly, Vintage King did an amazing job walking us through the installation process. We did quite a bit of research before we started the install, so we had a bit of knowledge going in, but Vintage King helped us out a lot with designing and configuring the patch bays and using the more advanced features of the XL-Desk. The turnkey service is a huge benefit.
Even just talking through how we wanted the studio laid out or the patch bay set up, they were never pushy. They were never like "You don't want to do that," or "There's a better way to do that." They heard us out and helped us reach the vision we had for the Ranch House. Now we're able to record just about anything, while still having the flexibility to set up for rehearsals with a full band. They walked us through the whole set up.
The Ranch House also has an impressive outboard gear collection. What are some of your favorite pieces that you’ve acquired?
I think both of us are really excited about getting to work with some real analog compression. Warm Audio has some really affordable pieces, which have been really fun to mess around with, specifically the WA76 and WA-2A.
As a guitar player, I love older gear. Digital effects are great too, but for me, if I'm playing into an iPad, all of the inspiration goes away. We have a couple of Universal Audio Apollos for recording, which are great, especially for the price. I love the kinesthetic feedback of physically turning a knob and watching the VU meters jump.
A lot of the plug-ins we're using in Pro Tools are amazing, but sometimes it can feel a bit sterile working in the box. I much prefer analog signal chains where I can physically adjust the gain instead of just clicking a mouse.
What are some of your favorite mics to use while recording?
Microphones can get pretty expensive, especially when you're looking at a vintage U67 with a new-old-stock tube. You could easily spend upwards of $10,000 to $20,0000 on one microphone. So we did some research and found that the Neumann TLM 67 offers a comparable sound at a lower price point. We use the TLM 67 on probably half of our recordings —everything from vocals to banjos, mandolins, acoustic guitar. We even tracked a harmonica with it once. It's a real Swiss Army knife.
We also use the Coles 4038 on a lot of recordings. Sometimes we'll set them up in an XY pattern to record the piano. We're really excited to experiment with some of the other mics in the locker too, like the Sennheiser 441 versus the Shure 545 on electric guitar. The Shure SM7b is a staple, too. We use that all the time on vocals.
What’s a typical session like at The Ranch House?
A typical session here at The Ranch House varies a bit from artist to artist, but generally we try to get the vibe down first. We have a big dry erase board in the control room where we keep a checklist for each song. It's got drums, guitars, vocal tracks and all that stuff, but the first thing on the list is “vibe.” We always start with a scratch track that's just vocal and piano or guitar, or sometimes just vocals.
Getting that “vibe” box checked off is important in order for us to move on with the song and get an idea of what the final product will look like. We start with the basics like vocal and guitar, but then we add something else, like a texture or a percussion loop, something that kind of solidifies where the song is going and what it can be.
If we're working on a project with multiple songs like an EP or a full-length record, we'll record a few vibe tracks per day. It's hard to describe what it's like checking that box, but you definitely know it when you hear it. Then we layer on drums, bass, guitars, keys and anything else the song calls for.
One of the plus sides of owning our own studio is that we can leave the drums up all the time. On the last project we did, we had finished the rhythm tracks and were onto tracking lead guitar. One of the producers had an idea for a cool tom groove, so we jumped in the drum room and laid down the part. The space is really conducive to experimentation.
What’s in store for the future of Athey Music and The Ranch House?
We want to be able to provide a welcoming creative space for artists. Some of the producers that we've worked with in the past have their own sound and kind of impose their ideas on the artist. We want to create a space where artists can capture their music the way they hear it in their head. That's pretty valuable to us.
With that being said, it's important for us to work on projects that inspire us. The Ranch House is a private studio that's by appointment only, but we want to be able to work with anyone we can, not just members of Athey Creek Christian Fellowship. We want to help other churches in the area with their recording needs.
Studio space can be expensive, which can make it difficult to find a good place to record. Our ultimate goal is to provide that service for other churches in the area, but we're also still trying to develop our skills as producers and engineers. We actually just finished up our first project, Goodness & Mercy, here at The Ranch House, which is due out November 5th. It will be available on all the major streaming platforms.You can check us out on instagram @atheymusic.