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After spending years as a singer, songwriter, touring artist, and recording engineer, Billy Crockett settled down in Wimberley, Texas, with his wife Dodee, and together they set up Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio, a facility designed to help artists turn off the world and fully immerse themselves in the creative process.
Over the past 18 years, Blue Rock has hosted artists such as Lyle Lovett, Christopher Cross, Jesse Winchester, Ruthie Foster, and even the popular podcast Song Exploder. Billy sat down with us recently to tell us how Vintage King helped outfit the space with classic analog gear and calibrated sonic tools, how he ended up becoming good friends with legendary audio pioneer Rupert Neve, and what he thinks stands the test of time even as the music industry keeps changing.
Take us back to when you were setting up Blue Rock–what was your vision for the space?
The creative life is transformational; so much springs from the discoveries in your life. Artists know this and I think everybody wants to experience it. Here's what happened–we spent a few days in the Texas hill country, a beautiful little piece of heaven, and we began to have some clarity about what we would like to do with the next phase of our lives. We imagined a place that would support the music creation that I do and also enhance the artistry of others.
Blue Rock is a destination studio for artists, bands, and producers, with old-world aesthetics, lodging, kitchens, and 27 acres of elbow room. We present a concert series and live broadcast for our community featuring renowned musicians and songwriters, and we also host a song school and an artist residency program – Blue Rock is equally about quality productions and quality engagement. We feel lucky to be doing this and sharing it.
The architecture and recording spaces were designed by Lou Kimball and Michael Cronin. We wanted audio production to be paired with great hospitality, lodging, and catering. The bandmates move in, often for weeks at a time, turn off the world, and dig deeply into the thing they do. And we have all the production tools, with large thanks to the team at VK, to do it well.
How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?
I had a friend in Nashville, Tom Laune, a great mix engineer and collaborator. In the early days of Vintage King, he became aware of you guys and a real fan. He began to tell me about Vintage King when I was beginning to set up our facility and introduced me to one of the founders, Mike Nehra.
Mike and I hit it off right away and I began to appreciate his knowledge and to trust him as one of my team, to help me make the careful choices in outfitting the place. Mike was my window to Vintage King for those first few years and he was incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. Without Mike, I'm not sure we would have a lasting relationship with a supplier.
Do you have a quintessential Mike Nehra story?
Well, at one point I got to the edge of my budget – dollars and time – and needed a cue system. So I said to Mike, “I need headphones for eleven–tell me what to get, who’s making the good stuff now?” [Laughs] He had always made great recommendations and this time I just said, “Thank you, let's do that,” rather than go to three other sources and read twelve reviews. He was fun and he brought more to the table than I would have reasonably expected. I didn't get to hang out with him and have a beer, but that would have been next!
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you have purchased from Vintage King?
The list is long! Some of our favorite pieces are the outboard gear: the Mercury EQ-Ps are so musical, we use them every day; the AMS Neve 33609 compressor; the Bricasti M7M reverb processor with the groovy remote, Shadow Hills GAMA preamps and Mastering Compressor; GML transformerless pres and EQs; a pair of LA-3As, Universal Audio 1176, Lexicon reverbs, Apogee clocks and converters, Aviom cue system, Barefoot Sound monitors, etc.
One of our latest acquisitions is the Antelope Audio Galaxy 32 converter. We did a shootout of sonics on modern converters; that was exciting. You guys were really helpful in sending us several alternates so we could make this choice.
How has Vintage King helped you with gear selection, purchasing, and servicing in the past?
When we needed monitors, you guys sent us four pairs of leading-edge monitors from major manufacturers, and we did maybe ten days of deep listening before we purchased the Barefoot MicroMain 27s and the ProAc Studio 100s. We had to say goodbye to some other beautiful monitors, of course, because that’s life [laughs] but this was a major step in our relationship with VK.
Blue Rock is out in the boondocks – the nearest city is Austin, an hour away, and the nearest recording industry town is Nashville. So what we were able to do, together with Vintage King, was get our ears and eyes on some gear that would have been hard to test, or to commit to, if we had to buy it prior to hearing it.
We had so much to decide and to accomplish quickly and Vintage King was so helpful in this way. The idea that we could return something if we needed to was liberating. If, upon close inspection, it was not a great fit for us, we could start again. Super helpful.
What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?
Well, you've been around 30 years, that's something! [Laughs] Congratulations on that accomplishment. What sets you apart is customer service – you are good at relationships, and you provide a remarkable combination of great pricing, also. Another thing is the curating that your team does in the world of manufacturing and design.
I learn a lot from you guys about what is happening in the design world, I learn a lot from your website as well. I don't spend my life thinking about gear, I only do so when it's time to get to the next level and then I totally immerse myself in design, manufacturers, options, specs, and reviews. When I want to have information that I can count on, and if I want a conversation with an informed pro, I count the Vintage King team as a rare source.
We each work at various ends of our industry, and it’s rare to feel understood by the suppliers of the gear. Your landmark of 30 years of assisting, supporting, and often guiding the creative community is really something to celebrate.
You developed a great friendship with Rupert Neve as you built Blue Rock. Tell us about how that came to be.
Rupert became a good friend over the last 20+ years as we built, launched, and operated Blue Rock. We had each moved to the little town of Wimberley, Texas; Rupert was from Devonshire, England, and he, and his wife Evelyn, arrived here just before Dodee and I did.
It's a wonderful bit of kismet. Rupert was on a consulting assignment in Dallas and decided to visit an old friend in a little hill country town. As he tells it, there was a choir singing on a flatbed trailer out on the square, and he called home and said, “Evelyn, if we ever get the chance, we're going to move to Wimberley.” They did, and we soon met, and he began to re-establish his audio design work from here. Now, it’s our great delight that we got to be friends with the wonderful man, arguably the greatest-of-all-time audio designer and father of modern recording. It is just as grand as that. A local mastering engineer put it this way, “Being an engineer in Wimberley when Rupert Neve comes to town is like being a math teacher and Einstein moves in next door to you.” [Laughs]
He began to design a new round of beautiful things like the Portico series, the 5088 console that we have, and he’d do the beta testing at our place. Blue Rock Studio is privileged to have a control room full of gear that reflects this chapter – I’d say the pinnacle – of his design work. I know Vintage King distributes Rupert Neve Designs to the world for so many reasons – it's robust, elegantly simple, and sonically gorgeous.
Mr. Neve passed away two summers ago and we remember fondly the many celebrations, sessions, and conversations about life and the creative people in it – like the afternoon we sat out on the back porch with Jimmy Buffett and Mr. Neve talking about a console that was commissioned by the famous British producer George Martin. When it was complete, they had to ship it to Montserrat and Rupert told the beautiful, terrible, wonderful story about the ship capsizing and the console falling in the ocean! But they had insulated it so it could float, and the people standing on the shore waiting for it to arrive all dove into the water to retrieve it and bring it to shore. Buffett then made records there. He was fun and loved meeting Mr. Neve. All told it was an unexpected joy to be at the creative crossroads that day.
Let’s talk about some of the memorable artists you’ve worked with at the studio.
We were privileged to make a great project with Lyle Lovett, and Nathaniel Kunkel producing. Eleven of his large band were onsite, working simultaneously. Our facility is large enough that we were able to achieve beautiful sonic spaces with good isolation on all eleven of them. The record, Release Me, is now a piece of history and, of course, we're very proud of that.
The final, GRAMMY-nominated, album by the late Jesse Winchester was made at Blue Rock with producer Mac McAnally and was a musical/spiritual hallmark for them and us. We have a commemorative tree out in the circle at Blue Rock with wind bells and the bench he sat on, so songwriters can spend a little time with Jesse and his singing tree.
We also made a GRAMMY-nominated record with Americana/bluegrass artist Sarah Jarosz who has had a meteoric rise; and we’ve worked with Americana heroes Chris Smither, Mary Gauthier, and Eliza Gilkyson. The great audio innovator George Massenburg was with us for a Texas GRAMMY event, and we have worked with so many artists who are on their way, aspiring to write better, sing better, and make better records.
How has the industry changed since you first opened your doors and how has your studio adapted to those changes?
The industry continues to accelerate and change and there are lots of ways to make good records, but my favorite way is with the large analog console and plenty of active inputs–everybody's connected and listening and creating. There are a few things that make this process fun and fluid–and true all of my creative life–and one of them is the collective, creative act of a group of artists. At Blue Rock, we look for this, support it, and try to inspire and enhance it. There's a sacred thing we call ‘flow’ and the choices that I make are intentional–to assist and sustain flow for everybody.
As a studio owner and producer, I have learned that it is far more beneficial, especially from deep in the hills of Texas, to offer gear that is in the prime of its life. Our preamps and compressors are not antiques that may or may not power up today, or if they do power up, get noisy. We are always listening, troubleshooting, and calibrating to keep gear performing well, and yet, part of our success has been an array of equipment that you guys have helped supply, that is in the prime of its life. Some of it follows classic designs, like our Wunder Audio large diaphragm microphones, for example, which are fashioned, part for part, after the U47, the U67, and AKG C12. The result is confidence – things work, sound great, and often with better signal-to-noise than the originals. I’ve got to have that.
We have a team of freelance engineers and producers that work at Blue Rock and, when they come in the door, a huge priority is that the gear is solid. It helps that we aren't nursing a bunch of old heirlooms – fun to look at but always in need. There is, however, more value in our collection of very old instruments and the character they bring to the recordings. This combination is the best value proposition as I see it.
Looking back, what are you most proud of in terms of your studio's history?
Ahh, thanks for asking. I am proud of our place in the lives of the creative community, being able to grow and change, yet stay vital to each other; I'm proud of the records that we've made. There are songs, stories, friendship, and flow in the world that would not have been there otherwise – that gives me a great sense of accomplishment.
I'm proud of the community that revolves around the artists and their participation in it. We're in our 18th year of operation. My wife and I walk through the studio after a big day and say, “So, how are you doing? You still happy out here in the hills running a place for artists?” The answer is a big ‘yes’. Yes, we are.
I especially love it when I meet younger artists who have something to say, something to impart to the world. They are making deep discoveries in their creative lives and, when they come our way, we can begin to do some of that work together; it renews my place in the world. I continue to feel proud of our expanding circles of community and influence.
What are your plans for the future of your studio?
We’ll keep championing the essentials of communication and sound, expanding our producer and engineer base, and training young engineers. Incidentally, I’ve invited an artist to play a session with a full video broadcast tonight so our new tech team members can set it up and produce it completely. Always preparing for the next season, the next opportunity.
So it's about continuing to build good teams and do the essentials. Honestly, I get philosophical about it – I would like to continue to make Blue Rock a meaningful destination in the modern world. I think this genuinely requires attention to the quality of the sonics, the spaces, the process, and the relationships.
Making a record is also about creating and telling a great story; artists need images and videos to introduce the new album or EP to the world. There are opportunities to develop audiences, fund a project, and promote it while being immersed in music production. We have our sights on helping artists develop all these tools and assets.
For example, the artist Donavon Frankenreiter – heroic in this way–made ten songs over ten days here and broadcast the process to his audience every day, all day long and it was thrilling for everybody. When he got done on the tenth day, he had a beautiful album, The Heart, already mixed; he had all of the promo assets needed for this thing, and he had already promoted it because his audience was with him every step of the way! One of the opportunities that we have now is to help artists do more of this story-building and full array of asset production.
Want to learn more about Billy Crockett and Rock Artist Ranch And Studio? Check out our interview from 2016!