Not far from the Jackson County mountain home WCU studio engineer John E. Wells shares with his wife and twin 3-year-old daughters is Cabin Creek Studios – a budding recording, mixing and video production business.
The 12-by-14-foot studio may sound like a small project for Wells, who has worked for Sony Electronics on national and international teams building multimillion-dollar broadcast facilities, recording studios, television stations and data centers.
And the evening and weekend work he and Dan Gonko, a WCU alumnus and assistant professor of commercial and electronic music, do at Cabin Creek Studios may not be as high-profile as some of Wells’ past projects. He recently won an Emmy for his work as part of an NBC team that assembled and operated temporary edit suites during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing – the largest high-definition remote broadcast ever attempted – and the Olympics became the most-watched program in the history of television.
But Cabin Creek Studios is where Wells’ heart is and where he put his earnings from the 12- to 20-hour workdays at the Olympics in Beijing. He and his wife wanted to build a life in the region, and he became attached to the WCU community while helping design and install Western Carolina’s state-of-the-art-studios in the Center for Applied Technology. Five years ago, the San Francisco area native began working at WCU as a studio engineer in the School of Music, maintaining equipment and assisting faculty and students with recording studio and edit rooms. Soon, he started to see a need for a high-quality studio outside of the university, too.
“There needed to be somewhere in our community for WCU’s highly trained graduates to actually do mix work and video editing, and our local musicians and businesses had a growing number of private recording needs,” said Wells.
His friendship with Gonko transformed into a partnership pairing their strengths – Wells’ instincts from 25 years of studio and industry experience and Gonko’s in-depth and academic understanding of technology and music. What attracted Gonko, a native of the Detroit area, to WNC was the high-quality of WCU’s commercial and electronic music program and the beauty of the mountains, he said. “I feel very fortunate to be living and working in this area,’ said Gonko. “There are so many talented musicians living in Western North Carolina. We want to help them share their music with others.”
So with a small construction crew, they began building Cabin Creek Studios in late 2007 and were able to start work about a year later.
“It is a very finely tuned room,” said Wells, “I was really, really picky about how it was built, from the precise dimensions to the strategic location of acoustic tiles.”
The studio initially was set up for overdubbing, voiceovers, advertising campaigns and film editing. With secure Internet capabilities, they have been able to receive and send files to perform mastering work. “Mastering is the final part of making a recording – making everything sound extremely coherent, taking away bad frequencies and making things shine,” said Wells.
Recent projects have ranged from recording, mixing and mastering a jazz record to recently recording lead vocalist Tim Bass, who came to Cabin Creek Studios from California to record for five days. A number of artists considering Cabin Creek Studios for projects stem from relationships Wells developed when he was signed to Interscope and Arista records, and Bass and Wells used to perform together in the band Cola, which toured with Counting Crows, Semisonic and Silverchair.
“My experience working with John and Dan at Cabin Creek was far and away the most pleasurable and productive studio recording session I’ve ever done,” said Bass. “I’ve worked with no finer engineers, and the intimacy of the space allowed us to quickly establish an easy, rhythmic workflow that felt natural. It was worth the trip from California, and we have quite a few options here when it comes to professional studios.”
In addition, Gonko and Wells are working on original recording projects too, such as The Fireside Collective, an audio-visual project featuring original music by Wells, Gonko and friends.
What makes this studio so special to Wells is more than the work that goes on inside. “It’s pretty amazing to be able to put your kids down at night and go and work on a project, or come in and have dinner with your family,” said Wells. “I feel like I have the best of all possible worlds – a studio near home, getting to work in the studios at WCU, having a family and owning a home. I can still go out and do things like work at the Olympics, and I’m lucky enough to win national awards. I feel very blessed.”
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