Al Sutton got into his chosen field close to 30 years ago almost by accident. A friend asked the young electrical engineering student to fix a broken P.A. system. As he started to fiddle with it, he realized that was what he wanted to do, to work with sound and electronics. Soon he was repairing gear, doing live sound, and eventually had the rudiments of a studio at Mike Nehra's house in Grosse Pointe. That first studio lasted about a year, until the parents who owned the house about lost their minds from having loud noisy bands in and out all day and night, and kicked them out.
Nehra's cousin owned a largely empty building in downtown Detroit, at Griswold and State Street, right by the Coney Islands. In the late 1980s, they rented their own floor of that building, 7,500 square feet, for a starting rent of $350 a month. They built a control room and console and hoarded sound gear, and it became White Room studios. They recorded many acts for labels like Sub Pop, AmRep, and Touch and Go, making albums with Laughing Hyenas, Big Chief, Don Caballero, Junk Monkeys, Six Finger Satellite, Thornetta Davis, and someone named Kid Rock. The studio dissolved in the mid-1990s, and so Sutton found a building of his own in Royal Oak, where he set up his own analog recording studio, Rust Belt. Sutton continued to work with Kid Rock on all of his major albums except for one, and today he splits his time between recording and producing acts and a new manufacturing venture. We spoke with Sutton on the future of the recording studio and more.
Metro Times: To get down to the grit of it, what's the future of your recording studio?
Al Sutton: I'm not going to quit — I love doing it, and I'll always make records. The concept of owning a large format console and tape machine in this day and age is almost a ridiculous one when you can do so much with a computer. But in Detroit, I still see a ton of bands out there trying to do it the way it's been done for a long time, in studios. This studio is about making a record and having a great time doing it. We don't do jingles in here. We don't rent by the hour, by the day.
MT: Is there anything fun that you're working on now, recording-wise?
Sutton: There's a young band called Greta Van Fleet from Frankenmuth, that place up past Flint where all the chickens come from. They're these little kids, like 16, 18, in that range. They have this big Zeppelin influence and are really into it. We've been working on an EP. It's coming out really great — they're super excited. They're not in here like 'We gotta make this record so we can make a deal.' I'm not 100 percent sure what their end game is, but it's obvious that the first and foremost thing is not 'we gotta be famous.' It's refreshing!
And, you know, I've been doing the audio thing, too. That's a little different. I've been doing the electronics thing.
MT: You mean, you're building electronics?
Sutton: Yeah, I started a company called Acme Audio Manufacturing a couple years back. I'm building electronics for studio industries — D.I. boxes and tube compressors — plus I have a few other things in the works. We're now selling a tube compressor limiter, and a re-issue of an old Motown direct box that was used back in the '60s and '70s.
MT: Can you explain what those things are for people who don't know?
Sutton: A compressor limiter is a piece of equipment that controls dynamic range. It takes peaks and valleys and brings them closer together so you can get more physical volume in your recording, but you get less dynamic range so it's a trade-off. A direct box is a replacement for a microphone in the sense of like a bass player can plug straight into it and go into the board without having to go through an amp.
MT: They look really nice.
Sutton: It's all handmade right here in Michigan, in my studio, out in the shop. I don't know if it's nostalgia or just a desire to create things that are gonna last for a long time. But I want to build it all here by people that I know are making it right, and make it to last 100 years. We try to keep the highest build quality we possibly can. Vintage equipment is worth a lot of money, and still exists, because it was built to last. We're going with a theme here, this sort of 1950s military-industrial look, with a thick powder coat of paint on the metal, and genuine bakelite knobs. There's a little bit of Detroit pride in that too, to make something here in Detroit that is of quality, even though it's a small market thing.