As they walked into the Seattle recording studio, members of the Willamette Singers couldn’t help but stare at the walls in awe. Glittering gold and platinum albums bore the names of Nirvana, R.E.M. and Heart.
“It was an emotional experience,” says Grace Graham ’18. “It’s an honor and a privilege to walk in there.”
In May, Willamette’s acclaimed vocal jazz ensemble recorded its most recent album, “Image on Image,” at Studio X, the hallowed birthplace of the grunge era and host to some of the world’s most iconic and influential musicians: Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Radiohead, R.E.M., Neil Young; the list goes on.
The historic studio, originally owned by Anne and Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, closed Oct. 31, making the Willamette Singers among the last groups to record there.
The Singers’ path to Seattle started in 2010, with the closure of the Salem recording studio they used. When Wallace Long, director of choral activities, mentioned the ensemble might not be able to record that year, soprano Kirsten Ruddy ’12 offered a suggestion.
Her father, Reed, was the longtime manager of Studio X. Would they want to record there?
Long says, “It was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
For the past eight years, the ensemble has darted up to Seattle to record its album in a hectic few days before graduation. Seniors sacrifice sleep and end-of-year celebrations to spend three days in the studio before returning to Salem to perform at commencement. Students lay down instrumental tracks first and then tracks for soloists and vocals for 12 to 13 songs.
One song can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two-and-a-half hours to record, and students sometimes pull 12-hour days.
Few university-level music ensembles can claim this kind of opportunity, says Graham, an alto who has recorded at Studio X three times. She says, “To step into a place like that and picture who has been there before you is incredibly humbling.”
From college student to professional musician
Recording at Studio X gives undergraduates a chance to step into the shoes of professional musicians, and that includes learning how to use high-caliber equipment. Each microphone alone is worth $10,000–$20,000.
“You’re incredibly aware of how precious their equipment is, and you’re so careful,” Graham says. “The microphones are so sensitive, we have to turn our heads to the side when we breathe so it’s not recorded.”
Last May, she completed her final performance with the group.
“We became so close over the course of a year,” she says. “I’ve grown a lot with the Willamette Singers, and I was happy to be with them during those last few days.”
While future university singers won’t be able to step into that exact same space, the ensemble’s legacy with Studio X will continue. Willamette Singers will follow the studio to its new location inside an old Baptist church in Seattle.
“Reed is excited to get us in there and let us christen it,” Long says. “We won’t be the first group, but we’ll probably be the first vocal jazz group to record there.”