In the News: Lake Geneva’s Shade Tree Recording Studio

World Class Lake Geneva Recording Studio 

Serves as Engineering Office Today

Lake Geneva was at the top of the music scene for over a decade and the state-of-the-art recording studio that was housed in the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, brought world class talent to our town. The Best of Lake Geneva visited the site of the former Shade Tree Recording Studio, which is now an engineering office, and was shocked to see that relics from the early days can still be seen. 

This highly respected studio made a big impact on the industry and pieces of its past are still used in music today. We pieced together the story with the help of the book “Grand Tale: History of the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa," SpringStation, as well as a forum for Mixing/Mastering Engineers where many shared their memories of the studio.

It all began in 1978, when a local musician, Andy Waterman, presented the idea to the Playboy Executives, including Christie Hefner, Hugh’s daughter, who owned the hotel at that time. He felt that since top artists frequently performed at the resort and with the hotel being a host to many performers from the nearby Alpine Valley Music Theater, there was a need for a recording studio in the area.

Playboy reacted quickly and, within a few weeks, Shade Tree Recording Studio was up and running. With it's tongue and groove ash paneling and Italian marble, according to String Station, it was esthetically pleasing to both the eyes and ears. The studio measured 35x24 and a 21 x 20 control room.  It didn’t take long before top recording artists, including John Cougar Mellencamp, signed on.

After a few years, the economy took a turn, record labels began to slash budgets and the studio began to suffer financially.  After Playboy sold the resort to The Americana, in 1981, the studio, although still intact, sat dormant until 1985, when it became the Sound Summit run by the late Phil Bonanno. After some of his California investors pulled their money, Bonanno aligned with diamond importer, Ron Fajerstein, who renamed the studio Royal Recorders. Fajerstein is said to be the longest and most heavily invested owner.  With an infusion of over $500,000 in high end equipment, including a Neve 8-68 Console (supposedly the same one used by John Lennon to record Double Fantasy), the studio became world class.

Bands including Survivor, T’Pau, Cheap Trick, Guns and Roses, Bon Jovi, Adrian Belew, Robert Plant of Led Zeplin, Enuf Z’nuf, Crash Test Dummies, Nine Inch Nails, Live, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more, began recording at this studio.

Bob Pucci, a bass guitarist from Chicago recalls “Royal rocked, I recorded there the whole summer of 1986 with my band The Ultraviolet, that Adrian Belew and Jim Bartz produced. The speakers were custom made Westlakes and the whole place was designed by Carl Yancher. The vibe was perfect… The other cool part was that it was right in the hotel. If you wanted a drink or food, it was right there and the even cooler part was its close proximity to the Alpine Valley concert venue… On any given night while doing my guitar tracks, I'd turn around and on the studio couch would be, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Starship, Mr. Mister... you name it. They all stayed at the hotel there which was called The Americana Inn then.”

According to Michael Wagener, a record producer for SkidRow, “The studio was very well equipped and the whole environment was just ideal for a creating a rock album.” He went on to say “They even had a stretched Rolls Royce limo for studio guests to use.”

Wagener recalled some of his memories he had about the time he was recording at the studio, including being introduced to jet skis on Geneva Lake, being able to stay in Hugh Hefner's room at the hotel, and seeing incredible rock shows at Alpine Valley every weekend (AC/DC, Judas Priest, White Lion, Guns And Roses, etc.).  “The hotel was one of two in the area, so all the bands would stay at "our" hotel and all the kids would hang out in the parking lot, needless to say we had an amazing time” said Wagener.

The studio’s production company traveled the world searching for new talent but eventually realized that the money it took to bring the bands to Lake Geneva was more than what the studio earned.  So in 1992, Fajerstein sold the studio to two of his engineers and the name was changed to Music Head Studios. Under their direction, Live recorded their ‘Throwing Copper’ album that sold nine million copies and Crash Test Dummies recorded their triple platinum album ‘God Shuffled.’

In 1993, the Americana was put up for auction and rescued by the Marcus Group, who revitalized the hotel and changed the name to the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa.  The studio continued to operate until 1994 when the business dried up. The studio was given back to Fajerstein who sold off the equipment.

Michael Tholen is an engineer who was working with Ministry at the time the equipment became available. He recalls that they “stripped the studio of pretty much everything including the glass and trucked it all down to the new Ministry camp outside of Austin, Texas and began to make the album Filth Pig.” The gear ultimately ended up at Chicago Trax that was bought by R. Kelley, who changed the name to The Chocolate Factory.

Grand Geneva's Marketing Director, Courtney Nobilio and Engineer, Randel Scheck, were happy to give us a tour of the department, which is now the Hotel's Engineering Department, and pointed out the elements that still remain. From the soundproofing foam on the walls and the marble flooring where the bands use to play, to the ash paneled soffits, you can get a glimpse of what once stood in the space.

Scheck said that many performers stop in to see the old studio space and share stories from their past.  Recently, when John Legend was performing in Milwaukee, his saxophonist stopped by the engineering office. “He told us stories about how his father use to record there and as a baby, he would crawl around the floors.” Scheck recalls. “We were also visited by Sebastian Bock of Skid Row about 4 or 5 years ago when he playing at an event in the area.” 

“You kind of wish these walls could talk.” adds fellow engineer Doug Andrews. So much history was made in this space and from the moment you walk through the reception area and into the studio itself, you can feel the energy.

More details and pictures can be found in the book “A Grand Tale: The History of the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa.” You can purchase a copy at the resort. Visit www.grandgeneva.com/timeline/ for more history on this exclusive resort. For details on the specific equipment contained in the Royal Recorders Studio, visit String Station.

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