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Al Sutton, the GRAMMY award-winning producer, engineer, and founder of Rustbelt Studios, is a great person to talk to for our 30th Anniversary celebrations–after all, he had a ringside view of the early days of Vintage King. Along with Vintage King founders Mike and Andrew Nehra, Al set up Detroit’s legendary White Room Studios, and to hear him tell it, that was a time of creative freedom, learning the craft, and setting up the foundation upon which long careers in the music industry were built.
After White Room, Al set up Rustbelt Studios which has hosted memorable names over the years including Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Loretta Lynn, Black Eyed Peas, Bob Seger, and Greta Van Fleet. He also founded Acme Audio, which specializes in modern studio gear that delivers vintage sound.
Check out our recent conversation with Al, where we find out how he first met Mike Nehra, how the fall of the Berlin Wall introduced a whole new world of gear to the young enthusiasts, what Al considers the backbone of Rustbelt Studios, and what he thinks made Vintage King stand out from the rest.
How did you first meet Mike and Andrew Nehra?
I met Mike at a music store around 1986-87–he had just moved back to Detroit and joined a band that his brother Andy was in and I was a sound guy, working at clubs in Detroit. I was just getting started so I was very cocky and I just went up to him and said, “You need me to be your sound guy.” Mike thought I was the most arrogant kid he’d ever met. [Laughs] Like, “Who is this guy? I don’t even know him and he's coming up here telling me that I'm his guy.” But I ended up being the guy, so…
I think it helped that I owned a van and I could haul their gear around, so it was like a two-for-one deal and I started working with them. Mike and Andy had a little basement studio that they built in their mom's house where they recorded their demos; they had a half-inch, 16-track Fostex, I think, and a little Allen & Heath board. I was running sound for them and I'm like, “Let me run that studio in your basement. I’ve got all these other bands that I know, they all want to make demos and we can make some money.” We wired it a little more efficiently, made it easier to operate, started rolling, and I think within less than a year, his parents threw us out because we were booked solid and we had band after band that had to walk through their mom and dad's kitchen to get to the basement; it was awful! [Laughs]
That's when we started looking for a new location that became White Room 2.0–we rented the third floor in a building on Griswold Street and built the studio there. We put an API console and a 24-track machine in there and we were just up and running; the place got super busy. It had a really cool sound because it was a big cavernous room that had been a dance studio at one point; it was very lively, and it was the ‘90s–it was the perfect time and place for everything. Everybody wanted to sound like Led Zeppelin again, we had big, loud drums, and we got tied in really quickly with labels like Sub Pop, Touch and Go, and Amphetamine Reptile–we started getting all these bands in there and that was the start of my career.
This was also the time when the roots of Vintage King were being laid down, right?
Yeah, the whole time this was going down, Mike was always finding gear from these people in Europe that he knew. He had some friends over there that were buying gear post the Berlin Wall; that whole market opened up and whatever was there was all of a sudden available for sale to the West. So Mike was just buying stuff and bringing it over and it was crazy! Every month there would be a big box that came in, with gear we had never even seen in the States; we got to really audition all of that stuff and it was a good, educational time for learning what all this cool gear was. That was how he got started and that snowballed into what ended up becoming Vintage King.
What kind of gear were you seeing for the first time?
There was a lot of mastering stuff that came through, like Krohn-Hite filters, and all this German stuff, like Klangfilm equalizers that were all tube-based and were just really bizarre to us. We didn't quite get our heads around what the function was; I wish we still had some of that gear because it was very subtle stuff that had a specific purpose that we were not using it for, like, “Oh, this is a mastering equalizer, you know, not a kick drum equalizer.”
I think another interesting point was the whole East German, Neumann thing–all those UM57s and CMV563s were behind the Iron Curtain and we didn’t know of them in the West. Those things started coming over in droves; they were some of the best-sounding mics we'd ever heard and they were never available to the Western world because they were all in Soviet-controlled Europe. They flooded the market and they were great–that was like secret weapon stuff.
Mike scored a Langevin desk that used to be in the Johnny Carson studios in Burbank–it had the passive equalizers, big output transformers, and the AM16 preamps, and we didn't understand the greatness of that. We ended up keeping just the preamps and racking them up when we should have just kept the whole board! In hindsight, we laugh about how stupid we were. [Laughs] “Remember when we had that 16-channel Langevin board and we were still using this Allen & Heath desk?” It’s just so funny when you look back at what you didn't know.
The thing is, even though most of that stuff was weird and eclectic, Mike found a home for it–none of it sat around very long. Mike would buy gear, and then keep some and sell some, and I was just glad to be making records. There were some pretty fun times and some pretty stressful times, but it was all good–great memories and always fun. We were three early 20-year-olds that basically had control of a 10-storey building in downtown Detroit. The rest of the building was completely vacant, except for the ground floor, which was like a dollar store for the most part. Downtown Detroit in the ‘90s was completely desolate and we basically had a city to ourselves–not a lot of 20-year-old kids today will have that opportunity. This building was massive and we had a few parties and we slept there a lot–it was like this crazy time of your life, you know, the freest time ever.
Tell us about setting up Rustbelt Studios.
Mike and Andy were focussing on vintage gear sales and moving away from the recording studio side of the industry; they wanted to shut White Room, and I don't blame them because owning a recording studio is not a fun business to always be in. I already had the location where I'm at because I was renting the space and using it as a rehearsal studio for a band that I was in. Over time, I built Rustbelt as a necessity because I needed a place to work with my clients and it went from, ‘I'm just going to build this temporary place’ to 30 years later, here we are… [Laughs] It’s in its third iteration, as it stands–the first iteration was the rehearsal studio, then it became Rustbelt 2.0, which is the studio I had until 2019, and then we did a whole new remodel, with a new control room and everything, so it's 3.0 now, and we'll see if it keeps going.
The backbone of Rustbelt for me has always been that all the gear works when you go in there; if it doesn't work, it's not in the room, you don't get to see it and it goes and gets fixed. I've always prided myself on maintenance and that’s the mentality of everybody who comes through here–we’re going to do the best job we can possibly do for you and we're going to let you decide how deep you want to go. If you don’t have a huge budget, we'll still do a great job. My theory–and I try to teach this to the new interns and engineers that I train through the studio–is that you're only as good as your last record and if you make a shitty record, that's your reputation. You need to keep that mindset.
I try to focus on what the artist is doing: Can this be a better song? Is that the best lyric, the best performance, chord progression? It’s about really digging down into that minutiae, which is what producing is–it's not rocket science, it’s about trying to get that out of the artist.
What was it like working with Vintage King in the early days of our business?
It was easy; I had a good relationship with Mike, so he would be like, “Hey, I got some gear–can you check it out, see if it's good?” If there was something eclectic and new that he didn't know about, he would send it over to my studio. We’d do quite a few things out of Rustbelt–we’d do some testing over there, and we would shoot little promo videos and stuff until they eventually got their own setup going. It was fun because if I needed something, I'd call Mike and be like, “You got a C12? I need a C12 for a vocal session.” He'd be like, “Yeah, come get it.” It was pretty easy.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you've purchased from Vintage King?
I purchased mostly everything from them, but I'd say the API console that I have is probably my favorite piece of gear–it’s a 48-channel API Legacy that I bought about ten years ago. It’s a great piece of equipment for me because I still mix analog, I don't mix in the box, so I use that console all the time and it's a very important part of my workflow.
How has Vintage King helped you with gear selection, purchasing, and servicing in the past?
It's pretty easy, because you just say, “Hey, I need something–I have an issue I'm trying to overcome.” And they'll throw a bunch of stuff at you, you can mess around with it, see if it fits your needs and if it doesn't, you send it back and try something else.
What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?
I think in the beginning–when they were just a vintage supplier–I don't think anybody had the inventory of vintage gear that they had. I always joke with Mike and tell him that I think Vintage King has probably recapped every Neve 1073 on the planet by now! The availability of the most eclectic, expensive, cool stuff that you could ever get is just staggering. I know that Mike did a lot of outfitting for Blackbird Studios down in Nashville–you go in there and see all the stuff they purchased, like all the EMI gear and all the Telefunken mic pres; Mike was able to find all that gear and find really rare stuff that you would never find at a store that sells new things. Nobody really had the kind of vintage inventory. I know they sell new gear now, too, but the vintage thing was the thing that set them apart from everybody else.
You’ve worked with some memorable artists in your career–what projects stand out for you?
Every time I'm asked this question, I’m never prepared for it and I have to really think about it. I should probably have looked at my discography. [Laughs] The Laughing Hyenas record is probably one of the most favorite records I've ever made. I did the first two Greta Van Fleet records and I'm really proud of those. I met those kids when they were around 15 to 17 years old. It was a really fun project that exploded in a way that you can never anticipate–I knew they were great, but I didn't think people would resonate with it the way they did, because I’m old and it sounds like music that I listen to and the young crowds really like them! [Laughs] I was actually going to quit producing until Greta Van Fleet came through my door and started playing. I was just blown away; I went, “What do you guys want to do? Do you want to make this sound like Creed, like everybody else?” And they were like, “We don't care if we're popular, we just want to play these songs the way we play them, the way we wrote them. We're not here to try to play any games.” I thought, “I like these kids!” They laid that record down and won a GRAMMY!
The last thing I recorded at White Room Studios was Kid Rock’s Devil Without A Cause. There are a lot of stories about that record out there and they're probably mostly all true. [Laughs] It was a writing/recording session that just went on–Kid Rock just moved in, bought a hot tub, and had it delivered to the studio; he just lived there for two months. I would leave at night, come back in the morning, and there would be a new song written–like Bawitdaba or Cowboy or something like that. He would just write all night, and we would record in the day–it was this crazy thing. That record did well for Kid Rock; I think he did alright with that! [Laughs]
How has the industry changed since you first opened your doors and how has your studio adapted to those changes?
Pro Tools is the biggest change that I've ever had to make–I was probably the last studio in Michigan to actually get a Pro Tools rig. I was running tape at Rustbelt and I finally got to the point where I was losing work because I didn't have a Pro Tools rig. People wanted to bring their sessions in to finish, and I'm like, “Nope, dump it to tape and bring it over here”, and I was really stubborn about that. Then I had to buy a Pro Tools rig one day and it just annoyed me because it sounded so bad, compared to my tape machine–we’re talking about early Pro Tools.
It’s a great tool, I will say that, but it makes it too easy for artists to be artists at this point because you can fix anything. When White Room was running strong or when Rustbelt just started, bands were used to saving money to spend a week in the studio to do a record and they were so rehearsed–all that stuff I did in the ‘90s, there was no fixing drum beats or tuning vocals, although some of them probably could have used some tuning [laughs], but bands came in prepared. It meant something to them because they were spending a lot of money to be there to make a record and now I just don't see that level of preparedness because they all have Pro Tools at home. It got to a point for me where I felt like I was doing more work for the band than they were doing for themselves because I was fixing so much in Pro Tools; I was like, “I am so done doing this. I'm never doing any more records with bands that have to be manufactured in the box.” So I think that Pro Tools was the biggest change in the industry and it does make things easier–I use it a lot, in fact, I try not to overuse it at this point, I try to treat it as a tape machine for the most part.
I do have to say, the whole electronic music thing that's come out of not necessarily Pro Tools, but DAWs in general, is unbelievable. I listen to these guys who are doing all the EDM stuff and those sounds are just insane–you would never be able to manufacture that stuff on a tape machine, so there’s a pro and a con to all of it.
Looking back on the last 30 years, what are you most proud of or excited about in terms of your studio's history?
All of it. I'm proud of the whole studio–I can't say that there's one record that I'm more proud of than the other. There are the big records like Kid Rock or Greta Van Fleet, but there are a lot of great records that I've made that nobody's ever heard of, and I think that is some of the best work that collectively–myself and the people in there working on them–have done. There was a time at early Rustbelt when there was just so much rock and roll coming through there; it was such a blast and we did some great stuff–not all of it got to see the light of day but I can listen to it and go, “Dang, we really killed it on that record!” Too bad the label dropped the ball, or maybe nobody understood it because we were just too far in our own heads with it, perhaps–that’s a possibility.
What are your plans for the future of your studio?
I recently finished working with a band called Mac Saturn that just got a record deal and I'm really proud of that–their record comes out at the end of the year; I found a kid from Canada that's a phenomenal singer and guitar player that we did some recording with; and another kid from Detroit that I'm going to start working with, who has a more ‘70s sound. I have a few other clients that I'm going to be working with later in the year that I'm excited about, but I'm not going to give names–they’re young guitar players that are doing good things. I split my time between Acme Audio and the studio so there's a lot going on and I just try to find projects that really resonate with me more than it being about a paycheck.