By Julie Horner
The inspiration came while he was reading the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin at Felton’s White Raven, savoring the morning ritual with a cup of Larry’s Famous Chai. I got the invitation that day: Would I like to visit local recording engineer/producer, Justin Mayer, owner of legendary Bear Creek Recording Studio, for a tour and a chat? I thought I could find the time.
A quick drive from Boulder Creek via Jameson Creek Road, I found the red barn off a short gravel lane, tucked among the trees along a serene stretch of Empire Grade on the western ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was warmly hugged by an energetic guy wearing a ponytail and flip-flops and welcomed into the uncluttered quiet of the studio. I immediately felt like playing music.
I’ve known of the studio for years and the record label often associated with the recordings, Gourd Music. I’ve even played music with or just plain admired many of the local artists who have recorded at Bear Creek: Guitarist Bill Coulter, Barry and Shelley Phillips, Lee Ann Welch of the all-woman bluegrass outfit, Sidesaddle, piano player Paul Machlis, bagpiper David Brewer, eclectic composers Laurel Thomsen and Dan Frechette, to name just a few.
Justin has been engineering and producing fine recordings in and around the valley for over three decades. When he started recording, he was living in a rental cabin at a Christmas tree farm off Bear Creek Road in Boulder Creek. He bought some equipment to record his own music, then a friend asked to have his music recorded, too. He said, “I didn’t ask the landlord…I put a window between the two rooms and away I went.”
Not wanting to rent anymore, he bought the land in Bonny Doon about 20 years ago and designed and built a new studio. “I got some friends together and said, hey, let’s build this place, and went at it!”
On Justin’s Bear Creek Studios website, Rick Walker, former Arts Commissioner for the City of Santa Cruz wrote, “Bear Creek is in one of the most beautiful and serene locations one could imagine, nestled on a mountain top amidst the pines and redwoods and yet a scant 15-20 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz. To my knowledge it is also the only studio in the Monterey Bay area that was built from the ground up as a recording studio and as such, has beautiful natural acoustics in the main building that was specifically designed for acoustic recording.”
Sound isolation is built by design between three recording rooms, one big one and two smaller ones. Justin points out that different room sizes make certain sounds better. The control room where the music is digitally recorded and mixed contains a tidy central console featuring state-of-the-art equipment where Justin says he “controls the mix from day one, mixing as I go.”
He’s recorded everything from electric jazz to acoustic folk. I asked him his favorite genre. “I get into all of it…and I do like well-crafted songs. I’ve had a long relationship with acoustic instruments…also electric…as much of that as acoustic guitars and penny whistles.”
“I have 36 years of experience working with people doing their art, who push themselves to do well…I’m here to help them in a relaxed yet efficient atmosphere.” He likes to say that he creates “painless, awesome recordings.”
Justin works with seasoned professionals and people who have never recorded before, straddling the differences in experience by being a good listener. “I listen on all kinds of levels…who they are, what their vision is, how good a musician they are…the technical end.” He might say, “Hey your G-string is 3 cents sharp,” or “You’re in tune, on time, but I don’t believe you.” He likes to get inside the character of a song to support not only the individual playing but also to support the song itself.
I asked Justin where an artist might start to make a professional recording to sell or to use as a demo. He said, “Come in with your favorite tunes, what you’re best at to represent the whole sound…be as rehearsed as you can be.”
Some sessions are recorded old-school, live in their entirety, for a vintage sound. With other sessions, “You are crafting something and taking your time to do it. So you can go in and record a foundation, then build on top of that. You’re basically adding textures, like a painting, adding color to it…I love doing that.” You can add an instrument to embellish the emotion, “to push it over the top…make the emotion even more present…I live for goosebumps,” he says.
And there are techniques to account for mistakes…we’re human, there are going to be mistakes.” Maybe the band might have liked it to be better, he can work with that.
Justin maintains a steady recording schedule at Bear Creek but in his down time he enjoys reading biographies. He just finished one about Janis Joplin, which left him heartbroken, he said. He also spends time getting back to nature in Oregon (“I love Oregon, I’m such a hippie”); hiking the “worlds where nobody goes” in the Santa Cruz Mountains; or letting it all hang out at Harbin Hot Springs. “I’ll lay there in my tent and let the impulse to go to breakfast go…no cell phone, no laptop, I’m just here in my tent, the river’s right there…”
Justin is an electronic tinker, an inventor and song writer, and he plays the traditional music of Zimbabwe with Kuzanga Marimba of Santa Cruz. “What blows my mind about it is the polyrhthyms.” They have a CD called “Living Life, Free from Fear” and perform throughout Santa Cruz and beyond.
(c) 2015 Julie Horner
Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org On the Web: leap2three.com