Drive a couple hundred miles east from Los Angeles along Interstate 40, and you enter the high desert of Northern Arizona, where each small town is separated from the next by 30 or 40 miles of wilderness. Take an exit past an extinct volcano named Picacho Butte, and you find yourself on a rutted dirt road winding among junipers and red rocks. There’s no power out here, no phone lines, and no water. The primary residents are rattlesnakes and jackrabbits — yet when you turn onto another road that’s barely a track, you find, of all things, a solar-powered recording studio.
Audio quality that might have cost $1 million 20 years ago can be bought for maybe $10,000 today. Instead of laying down a 64-track master using Ampex tape decks the size of cooking stoves, you save to a hard drive. Mixing, EQ, and effects can be done with software, and by collaborating through the web, a bass player in Los Angeles can add a track to a beat that was recorded in New York — or in the Arizona wilderness. Even out here, a cellular connection enables internet access at 1.5Mbps. That’s fast enough to swap .wav files.
Bruce Baldwin didn’t foresee all this when he started building his little studio, but he’s not surprised. What other people regard as happy coincidences, he sees as “symbiotic catalysm.” He insists that “if you have a specific purpose and are pursuing it with a passion, you will be drawn to people, material — and most importantly, knowledge — to make it occur.
I have minimal construction abilities, but by relying on the structure itself to guide me through every step of the process, everything fit exactly the way it was supposed to.”
Formerly a technician and field engineer for a now-defunct major defense contractor, Baldwin reconsidered his vocation during the first Gulf War. “I became disenchanted by weapons people,” he says, “when I saw them celebrating that their system worked because it successfully targeted a hospital door.” Aged 37, he abandoned his house, put together his savings, bought a motor home, and spent the next seven years on the road.
Finally an Arizona real estate agent showed him slightly more than 40 acres for a mere $22,000. “She made me walk up the hill with my eyes closed,” he recalls. “When I opened my eyes I found I had a 60-mile view to the east, and 40 miles to the west.”
The location was right, and he liked the climate, so he parked his RV and started a small business installing solar power equipment for others like himself who wanted to live off the grid. A couple years later he decided to begin building.
Since Baldwin had never tried construction work, he started by reading books to find out how to do it. The one he liked best was Practical Pole Building Construction by Leigh Seddon. “I wanted a method that I could use completely and totally by myself,” he recalls. “I looked into straw-bale, Rastra, many options, but all of them were labor intensive and needed a lot of people. In pole building, an entire house can be supported on just 20 poles, and the rest of the structure goes up one stick at a time.” His initial studio space needed only six poles.
Baldwin rented a Bobcat with an auger attachment to drill the holes, each 1 foot in diameter and 4 feet deep. He poured hand-mixed concrete into each hole and set a 4×6 pressure-treated Douglas-fir post into the concrete. He attached joists between these poles, laid plywood as a floor, then put in rafters and added a roof.
Now he had protection from the weather as he set about installing the walls. He used bolts to attach all the structural members. The only time he needed help was when he installed ceiling panels: he couldn’t hold them up and screw them into place at the same time.
Since there were no formal building inspections at that time in his corner of the wilderness, he was free to construct the studio as he wished. Still, he says, it would meet or exceed all codes, including factors such as winter snow loads on the roof.
He bought lumber from the usual sources, but saved money on windows and doors by taking advantage of a policy that he found at Lowe’s stores in Phoenix. Anytime a customer returned something that was special-ordered, the store put it out on the floor at a heavily reduced clearance price. “There are 13 Lowe’s stores in Phoenix,” according to Baldwin. “I went to every one of them.”
Construction took longer than he expected, but he only worked on it part time (sometimes as little as one weekend in a month). As he refined the interior, he found himself getting into fine wood finishing. The whole process took three years.
On the roof are seven solar panels yielding about 800 watts. The primary inverter, providing 120 volts AC, is an Exeltech, which generates pure sine-wave output.
“They’re mil-spec,” Baldwin explains, “used in every war room, submarine, and battleship, normally $5,000 but I picked it up for $1,000. It arrived packed in acoustical foam, which of course was very useful to me.” There it was again: symbiotic catalysm at work. The universe was giving him exactly what he needed.
Baldwin has a Tascam mixing board, JBL monitors, a MIDI keyboard, and a Dell dual-Pentium PC running
Cakewalk Sonar Producer Edition as his primary software. He runs Rode and Shure microphones through an Aphex 107 preamp “which is obsolete but produces a slightly warmer sound.” He can save onto DAT (half-inch digital audiotape cassettes), although this too is becoming obsolete.
The wilderness location provides a unique benefit: total silence outside, without even a twitter of birdsong. Baldwin adjusts the resonance in his studio simply by opening the windows. Also, there’s the aesthetic payoff. “When you’re trying to sing an inspiring song,” he says, “you can be looking at a beautiful view instead of facing a cloth drape with a concrete wall behind it.”
The entire project cost less than $50,000, including construction materials (some of them scrounged and salvaged), solar-electric equipment, studio electronics, and the price of the land.
Although he pursued the project primarily for himself, he’s willing to advise others on what he learned (email him at email@example.com) and one day he may consider opening the studio to artists he admires who would enjoy the beauty of the location.
“I have a nice little campground at the bottom of the hill,” he says. “They can do what they like out here. There are no neighbors and no law enforcement to tell people to turn their amps down. I even have a perfect natural amphitheater for live performances.”
Of course, people will have to do some driving to get there. The nearest town, population 1,000, is ten miles away. And Baldwin may be away on business for a while. He was recently named head coach of the U.S. floor hockey team for the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Idaho.
But since symbiotic catalysm provided Baldwin with his studio, he has no doubt that when the time is right, visitors will be able to find it.