I’m squeezed between guitar cases on a leather couch in the back of Studio X’s control room, trying to make myself a fly on the wall. Although hidden in a sound booth, Dan Reynolds’ throaty Modest Mouse-esque vocals still reverberate into the room. The other members of his band, Imagine Dragons, are scattered in various glass-windowed isolation rooms, allowing everybody to see, but not hear, each other. Each separate voice and instrument flows into the control room, uniting sound into music. My eyes come to rest on the mixing console, which spans the length of the opposite wall. Hundreds of shining knobs and dials blur under my gaze as the distinctively pure sound of Reynolds and his band washes over me.
That purity is the result of the vacuum silence of the Studio at the Palms, which produces an oddly disorienting space where there’s no such thing as an echo. Everything in the studio—the geometric shape of its rooms, the absence of corners and parallel lines, the multilayered ceiling, and the springy wood floor—was designed to create and maximize sound quality. For example, the wooden RPG wall panels diffuse sound. And the entire facility floats, physically isolated from the Palms building—a shell inside of a shell, a room sitting on pucks.
At this moment, that sound is the Dragon’s catchy new song “Tokyo.” They play it over and over again, starting, stopping, tweaking this and that. And even though I’ve never heard the song before, I find myself humming along.
The Studio at the Palms is the best in Nevada. But when it opened in December 2005, it was intended to be a mere service for artists staying in the hotel, like an elaborate equivalent to the famous Palms suite with a basketball court. However, according to studio director Zoe Thrall, “It has evolved into a destination studio for artists, providing them with services they can’t get anywhere else—from hotel perspective, food and fun.” Occasionally when an artist is in town or playing a show at the Pearl, they pop in and record some tracks. In case the artist packed light, the studio provides everything they could need, from vintage gear to state-of-the-art equipment. (Artists who have played the Pearl then recorded songs at the studio include Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Maroon 5, John Legend, Usher, Ciara, Mary J. Blige, Chevelle and Hinder.) The studio’s also hardwired to the Pearl, allowing for shows to be recorded live with little notice. Live concert recordings can also be sold after shows with a new USB technology called Aderra. Reclusive musicians who don’t want to use Studio X (or its sister, Studio Y) can record from any room in the Palms, thanks to the studio’s technology. Although many techno toys stand ready for visiting artists, the majority of the work done at the Studio is actually long-term record projects.
The Dragons have five days in the studio, which is shorter than a long-term project, but just enough time to record their seven new songs. That is, if they work efficiently.
“What we like about this band is that they work hard and are really prepared when they come into the studio,” Thrall says of the classically trained musicians who each play multiple instruments. “Those are the things I want to tell local artists that they need to do.”
Back in the control room, Dragons’ producer Brandon Darner listens to the band play, turns up the volume on Andrew Tolman’s drums and comments to Mark Gray, the Studio’s in-house sound engineer, that they should speed them up a bit. Darner is pushing the band to shake off the solemn recording vibe and instead produce an organic, natural performance. Bassist Ben McKee hopes that with Darner’s help, “This next group of songs [are] more close to what a live Imagine Dragons performance is—on an album.”
Few local bands record at the Studio at the Palms because it costs about $1,500 a day. But the Studio does support the local arts scene. In addition to the annual recording of the Las Vegas Academy’s big band, Thrall handpicks local artists “to help them get into a studio of this caliber.” Imagine Dragons were selected to record in the Studio.
When I’ve nearly memorized “Tokyo,” the music stops and the Dragons cram into the control room to decide which track they like best. Sprawled on random flat surfaces (one has even joined me on the couch), the musicians retreat to their inner world while listening to imperceptibly different versions of the same song. Their faces are all so serious, but I’m having fun, enjoying their energetic mix of synth-pop and powerful lyrics. Although the Dragons aren’t sure if they’ll turn these songs into an album, the recordings are still crucial for the year-and-a-half-old band. McKee says it’s the “best group of songs so far … potential for breakthrough … lots of buzz. Some ears [who are] receptive to what we are doing are offering help to get them done.” After a few hours it’s hard to fathom that there’s a casino full of slot machines clanging below. Perhaps that’s why the Las Vegas location doesn’t actually distract artists. “Once the artists are in here, they camp out,” Thrall says. “And the other distractions they usually have—like managers and record producers popping in—they don’t have because we are isolated from the music industry. But when they finish at 4 a.m., they can still go get a great meal and the streets aren’t dead—no other city has that to offer.”
Five hours have passed and I’m exhausted, but the Dragons have a long night ahead of them. Closing the control room door behind me, I can still hear the muted sound of the band. And as I walk out, I admire a corner where the wall has been autographed by famous musicians. Lady Gaga signed one wall as “Government Hooker.” Katy Perry signed “a.k.a. Kitty Purry.” Wayne Newton wrote around the fire detector that he’s “on Fire.” And the first to sign one of the walls, Celine Dion, drew a giant pair of lips. I marvel at how many hours of hard, repetitive work each signature represents.
Back on the casino floor, the everyday noise of life is shocking. I stare toward the Fantasy Tower and can’t imagine that somewhere up there is a floating studio.
The Studio at the Palms has won the prestigious Mix Magazine Tech Award for Outstanding Studio Design, but the music that’s recorded there has also gone on to win awards. Here’s a sampling:
Best Rap Album: Eminem, Relapse.
Best Contemporary R&B Album: Mary J. Blige, Growing Pains.
Best Pop Performance by a Duo or a Group: Maroon 5, “Makes Me Wonder.”
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Tony Bennett, Duets: An American Classic.
The Killers, Sam’s Town, multi-platinum.
Maroon 5, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, multi-platinum.
Tony Bennett, Duets: An American Classic, platinum.
Timbaland, Shock Value, platinum.
Celine Dion, Taking Chances, platinum.
Journey, Revelation, multi-platinum.
Gun’s N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy, platinum.
Jamie Foxx, Intuition, platinum.
Eminem, Relapse, platinum.