SnowGhost’s Sonic Appeal

By Beacon Staff

When indie rock legend Stephen Malkmus recorded his fourth solo album at SnowGhost Music, he asked to set up for the session in the great room, overlooking Whitefish Lake and the snow-marbled mountains, rather than in the plush in-home basement studio.

“He said he liked the view,” says Brett Allen, the SnowGhost studio owner, producer and engineer.

Even the closets bristle with wall-mounted microphone inputs, and bands can record tracks in the bathroom to capture a desired sound or effect. And some do.

In the decade that Allen has been running the state-of-the-art studio, nestled in the mountains of Whitefish, he’s recorded and engineered albums for luminaries in a diverse suite of genres – Kris Kristofferson, Yo La Tengo, Dan Deacon, Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Lytle, Peter Bjorn and John, The Avett Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, John Pizzarelli and Tim Kasher, to name a few.

Kasher, the frontman for indie bands Cursive and The Good Life and an early member of the Omaha, Neb.-based label Saddle Creek Records, lived in Whitefish for a year while recording his first solo album, “The Game of Monogamy.” Looking for a change of pace from Los Angeles, where he was living at the time, he was drawn to the idyllic setting as much as SnowGhost’s sonic offerings.

“For me, initially it was about the adventure of going somewhere I hadn’t been,” Kasher said. “I had toured in Billings and Missoula, and I was really enchanted by the whole last-frontier cliché. But I needed to have a proficient studio, and SnowGhost provided that.”

As stated on the SnowGhost website, the studio “marries sonic perfection with the comfort of your living room.” And while Allen, 35, has old school roots – he learned the business from the Grateful Dead’s recording engineer, Tom Paddock, and has a purist’s commitment to carrying on the classic art of analog synthesis and recording – he also displays a strong knack for experimental and electronic music.

Dan Deacon, the tweaky, psycho-synth, Baltimore-based experimental electronic musician visited SnowGhost for an 11-day, tour-de-force session to record his acclaimed 2009 album Bromst, and also played a concert at the Great Northern Brewing Co.

“SnowGhost Music prides itself on focusing on the natural ‘analog sound’ of the golden era of recording, while encouraging modern experimentation in the acoustic and electronic realm,” according to the studio’s website.

“The studio melds analog and digital, and it’s seamless,” Allen said.

He likens over-digitalized sound engineering to “reading Moby Dick on a Kindle versus reading the actual novel.”

This remote postage stamp of Northwest Montana might seem like an unlikely place for high-profile musicians to converge for a recording session, but Allen says the allure of Montana combined with his sound engineering chops and lavish digs isn’t a difficult sell.

Malkmus, best known for fronting the pioneering indie band Pavement, went hiking on nearby Big Mountain while in town for the recording session, and was comfortable bending an elbow at the local watering holes without any nettlesome gawking by fans.

“This is a place where people can get away from that, which means they can go out and don’t always have to feel like they’re working,” Allen said. “People feel comfortable here.”

The concept for SnowGhost was born of an idea that Allen shared with his dad and brother, who are both highly accomplished classical musicians.

“The idea was to start an artist-in-residence program and invite musicians to come stay for a week, record and play a show,” he said. “It was like a band camp.”

For its first six years, the self-described “SnowGhost Sessions,” in which the company records the band for free and pays them to play a live show that is both videotaped and photographed, were commonplace in Whitefish – a la the free Deacon show. Pitchfork, an online media magazine, even filmed Deacon’s recording session for a short documentary.

Until four years ago, SnowGhost’s services were all provided to the artist at no cost, and Allen didn’t keep track of studio time. The artists repaid SnowGhost with a 50-50 cut of future profits from record sales or other endeavors, and Allen offered downloadable tracks and video for purchase at SnowGhostMusic.com.

But the business model didn’t pan out, in part because the post-Napster music industry was in the middle of a dramatic shift. He started streaming the music on the site, and now charges an hourly or daily rate.

His sterling reputation in the music community continued to draw high-profile artists looking to record an album efficiently and with an analog aesthetic, but in the past two years Allen has also trended more toward recording local bands. He says about half of his work is now geared toward homegrown or transplanted talent in the Flathead Valley and throughout western Montana.

Local funk band 20 Grand recently recorded their first studio album at SnowGhost, funding the sessions through an online Kickstarter campaign.

“I get to see these people performing in the community, then come in and record, and then I get to see it leave and attend the CD release party,” Allen said. “It doesn’t have to be Lady Gaga to make it worthwhile. In fact, I’d rather record 20 Grand than Lady Gaga any day.”

The SnowGhost compound is a log-and-rock home that was designed with audio engineering as a principal priority. When he began conceptualizing the studio, he tapped the expertise of The Grateful Dead’s Paddock, for whom Allen worked for as a “Tea Boy” – a British term for an intern – when he lived in Santa Cruz.

“It was basically indentured servitude, but I learned everything,” he said. “He was eager to pass it on because he didn’t want to see it go extinct.”

Even though the entire house is wired as a recording studio, the main studio downstairs is housed in a soundproof concrete bunker geared to produce high-quality tracks in both analog and modern recording styles.

Among the quiver of high-ticket sound engineering equipment is an expansive 48-channel console that Allen purchased in Oxford, England, rows of guitars, amps and a full drum kit, and a gleaming Steinway piano.

Allen and his wife, Robyn, don’t live at the studio, but he’s at SnowGhost so frequently that it’s furnished as a home. Most days Allen is mixing, slicing and dicing in the studio, or cloistered away in the soundproof studio listening to one of his 5,000 LPs.

A passionate steward of music’s purist aural traditions and a master of a complex industry, Allen’s objective is simple.

“I just don’t want people to stop caring about the way things sound,” he said.

MORE FROM THE MUSIC ISSUE

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John Dunnigan: After three decades, still a staple of Whitefish’s bustling music scene

John Zoltek: A conversation with Glacier Symphony and Chorale conductor and music director

Erica von Kleist: Local phenom launches booking agency for local talent, kicks off nonprofit

Guitar Festival: Annual festival keeps growing through planning, perseverance and luck

Snowghost Music: Whitefish studio continues golden era of audio recording in a digital world

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