Back in the 1970s, the standard operating procedure for record labels was to squeeze artists and bands for all they were worth. They’d put a successful band or artist on the road and run them year-round in support of the latest album's release. In the song "Life's Been Good," Joe Walsh sings, "I have a mansion, forget the price. Ain't never been there they tell me it's nice." That's based on a true story. When asked to explain the song line-by-line, Joe related that while he was in the James Gang, he closed on a house, left on a tour, and didn't see the house for an entire year. Back in those days, once a year the artist would be sent to a recording studio for a few weeks to write and record their next album before hitting the road again. Talk about stress. They only stopped the cycle of tour-record-tour when the band fell from the charts. It complicated things that the big recording studios were usually located in urban areas where there were numerous distractions that both got in the way of creativity for the road-stressed bands and prevented them from getting any rest during their short times off the road. Thus was born the idea of the “destination recording studio,” an all-in-one retreat that combined a secluded, beautiful place to rest, a hotel, and a first-class, state-of-the-art studio. The groundbreaker, the very first destination studio, was Caribou Ranch Recording Studio in Nederland, Colorado.
James Guercio, producer for the band Chicago, bought up a huge, sprawling tract of land that included a ranch and a mountain and set about creating a state-of-the-art creative retreat there. The studio itself was built into a barn. There were also several cabins, a lodge, and a dining hall. Guercio and his family lived at the ranch and his daughters worked in the dining room. The first clients to record there were Joe Walsh and his band Barnstorm, who recorded their eponymous album there in 1972, before the studio was even finished. That was actually an accident – producer Bill Szymczyk’s console broke down in nearby Bolder and he and the band were desperate for a place to record. Guercio allowed them to move to the ranch and record. At that point the control room was finished but the studio still had a dirt floor! Once the recording room was built-out, the studio became known for its deep and throaty drum sound. In some cases I could discern that an album had been recorded at Caribou just from the drums. In fact, I did that with Sheena Easton's 1981, #15 hit, You Could Have Been With Me, for instance. Listen to those toms!
Over the next decade the clients of the studio formed a who’s-who of top-rank artists from around the world. Chicago, Elton John, Supertramp, Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Stills, U2, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, Sheena Easton, Michael Jackson, and many others, stayed there, rode the horses, hiked in the mountains, swam in the lake, and recorded their music. Dan Fogelberg liked the area so much that he bought his own ranch nearby.
At the same time that Joe Walsh was inaugurating the studio back in 1972, I was a teen, visiting another ranch a few miles away in the mountains near Buena Vista, Colorado. That August, I would wake up every morning with a dusting of snow on the ground and by afternoon could be enjoying temperatures in the '70s while hiking in the mountains. Beautiful! That trip made me fall in love with the Front Range of the Rockies. Then in the early '80s, while I was getting established in my own career as a recording engineer on the East Coast, the zenith of the studio's career loomed large in the background. Caribou Ranch was one of a handful of front line studios I looked up to as "big brothers" in my field.
The last artist to record at Caribou Ranch Studio was Amy Grant, whose album, Unguarded, was the resultant product. Recorded two years before, her A Christmas Album featured a picture of her standing in the snow in front of the Caribou Ranch lodge. In all, she recorded three albums there. The studio was active until March 1985, when a fire in the control room brought productions to an end. Guercio rebuilt the barn but didn't re-open the studio after the fire because he had begun to question the wisdom of raising his daughters around the rather exotic clients who frequented the place.
Two of the studio's classic recording consoles, an Olive and a Neve 8016, were given to the University of Colorado at Denver where they served for a while. After the turn of the century they were sold and refurbished and they are now serving other studios. Guercio eventually sold and donated a good portion of the ranch to the local community as a park and common space. The studio gear and any interesting building contents were collected up by the family, researched and furnished with provinance, and sold at a couple of auctions held on January 24 and February 1st, 2015. I had intended to bid on a few items but ended up spending those days on the road and away from the Internet. One item I had followed closely was lot 371, the studio’s cowbell and striker. I knew a couple of songs that the cowbell had been used on and thought it might be fun to use in my work. It turns out that a guy over on the GearSpace forum bought it and uses it in his studio. Bravo!
Another item I considered was a property boundary sign in steel and enamel with the studio's logo. Unfortunately my schedule prevented me from even virtually attending the auctions so I missed out entirely. The lots were sold and distributed. End of story.
Since 2015, I've been idly running searches for “Caribou Ranch” on eBay and other sites, hoping that some little memento would show up that I could keep around my studio as a reminder. I searched on-and-off for six years. Recently, a few items from the studio showed up for grabs again. One item in particular was of interest to me: an “asset tag” for studio equipment. Now, we have asset tags on all our gear here at the studio, but they are pretty utilitarian. They are sized about a half-inch by an inch-and-three-quarters with just space for a small logo, a scan code, and asset number. By contrast, Caribou chose to make theirs quite elegant, a two-and-a-quarter by two-and-three-quarters inch brushed aluminum plate printed with borders and the studio's script name and Caribou logo. These plates were affixed to all their studio gear to identify it as their own. Like my company, they had enough plates made to have extras stored in the engineering shop to be placed on any added gear as it was acquired. This was an item that combined all the characteristics I wanted: it was small, functional, had been in the studio (though the one available was unused), and was elegant. So, I bought one. I’ll probably have it matted and set it in a tiny frame to remind me of a venerated place and time in the history of the recording world.