Wilmans' already successful music-recording studio is expanding to include a record label and a second studio housed in the former Fletcher School of Dance building. At the same time, Wilmans and partner Mike Healy are transforming an old Lexington Avenue building into a new craft brewery, restaurant and music venue.
"I didn't mean for this to happen all at once," says the 42-year-old Wilmans. "These opportunities kind of fell into my lap. It all started when I found the church."
An experienced sound engineer who had owned a recording studio in Seattle before selling it to a Microsoft executive, Wilmans spotted a Methodist church for sale on N. French Broad five years ago. He liked Asheville's vibe and deep musical roots, and he recognized that the church would make a remarkable recording studio.
Echo Mountain Recording's opening in 2006 created a buzz in the music industry. The studio's impressive equipment list, combined with its unique atmosphere, draws bands from all over, making Asheville a destination not only for leaf-peekers but for serious recording artists.
A building with a history
Echo Mountain Studios bought the 9,600-square-foot Fletcher School of Dance building in 2006 from the school's director, Ann Dunn, for $850,000, according to tax records. Scores of Asheville girls (and quite a few boys) danced there during its 34-year tenure at 175 Patton Ave.
The second-floor dance area that endured years of pounding from pointe shoes will now feel the stomping of boots and pounding of drums as musicians perform and record their work in Echo Mountain's new studio -- which happens to be next door to Echo's original location.
"I was mostly interested in her parking lot," Wilmans says. "Ann Dunn told me, 'You have to buy the building if you want the parking lot.' So I did."
Taking down the Fletcher School of Dance sign uncovered the engraved words "Salvation Army 1883" -- the building's original use. Echo Mountain staff members now call it "The API Room" after the vintage sound console that serves as the studio's centerpiece. The American-made API console hails from Hollywood's A&M Recording Studios and has recorded musical greats such as Tom Petty, George Harrison and U2.
"The board has a good genealogy," Wilmans says.
He also notes the API complements the British-made Neve console in the original Echo Mountain studio.
"Ninety-nine percent of record producers want to work on either an API or a Neve. Now we have both," Wilmans says.
Renowned acoustic designer George Augspurger designed the new studio, which will host its first recording session on Jan. 26. He set up the original Echo Mountain studio as well. Augspurger-designed rooms are a draw for musicians and their producers.
Wilmans and his staff will move their offices to the top floor of The API Room, and plan to rent the building's remaining new offices.
The LAB: Lexington Avenue Brewery
Healy and Wilmans are old friends and distant cousins. Now they're also business partners.
"We used to sit around and drink beer and joke that it'd be great if we had a bar, so now we're building one," Wilmans says.
The twosome bought 39 N. Lexington Ave. for $1,385,000 in 2006 (the same month Echo Mountain Studios purchased the Patton Avenue building). Built in 1916, the building originally served as a livery stable and then as T.S. Morrison's -- one of Asheville's longest-running retail stores.
The bottom floor of the building is in the process of becoming Lexington Avenue Brewery or the LAB -- a craft brewery, restaurant and music venue. The second floor will house a new hostel, and the third will feature apartments.
The youth hostel probably will open in late spring, with the LAB to follow soon after. Permitting, particularly from the city of Asheville's water department, has slowed renovations, says Healy, a former film editor who moved to Asheville from Los Angeles.
Although the LAB joins six other craft breweries in the Asheville area, Healy thinks the traditional brew-pub design, where bar customers can see the fermenting tanks behind glass, plus the location, will help the business succeed. The LAB also will feature patio seating, mid-priced gastro-pub food, eclectic music, and an experienced brewer, Ben Pierson.
German-trained Pierson has been brewing beer since 1982 and plans a number of traditional brews for the LAB, including a white ale, a lager, a pilsner, an IPA, a Marzen and a chocolate stout.
Sweet Peas Hostel will offer 44 beds, showers, a kitchen, wireless Internet and a 10-percent discount at the LAB. Beds will cost around $35 to $45 per night.
Wilmans hopes that some of the studio's clients will want to play at the LAB's 99-seat capacity music venue.
"We want to pick up the slack left by Vincent's Ear," says Wilmans, referencing the now-defunct avant-garde coffee shop and music venue. "We want to showcase underground, indie and punk rock -- stuff like that."
Surviving today's economy
Expanding a business during an economic recession can be daunting. How will Echo do it? Part of the draw is Wilmans' vast collection of vintage equipment.
Echo Mountain has been booked pretty solidly over the past year, except during the summer (typically slow for recording because many bands are touring), Wilmans says. Both studio spaces are currently booked most days through March. Jessica Tomasin, Echo Mountain's studio and label manager, keeps a list of local musicians who want recording time, and she offers them a discounted rate whenever there's an open day to fill.
"We're fortunate to be where lots of musicians are, because it gives us flexibility," she says.
Wilmans says many mid-level recording studios are being hurt by the economy, even those in the recording meccas of Nashville and Hollywood. Despite their recent expansion, Echo Mountain's two-room studio is considered small, which is how Wilmans wants to keep it.
"Steve has built a world-class studio, which certainly has put him at a competitive advantage," says Wayne Kirby, professor and chair of UNCA's music department. "His pricing's competitive and he's amassed some of the most sought-after instruments and electronic equipment available."
Wilmans also credits his large vintage equipment list as a reason for his success. "We're in the top 10 studios in the country in terms of equipment," he says.
The studios' daily lockout rates (24 hours with no interruptions) are $1,000 for digital recording and $1,200 for analog. Echo Mountain also offers a "band" house that sleeps eight in nearby Montford for $150 a night.
"It's a heckuva lot less expensive than renting eight hotel rooms for a month," Wilmans says.
Analog recording typically costs more than digital because the tape that musicians record onto is pricey ($275 for 16 minutes of tape) and because there's more wear and tear on the tape.
However, vintage analog equipment is one of the studio's top draws.
"Most people prefer the sound of the tape," Wilmans says. He estimates that 60 percent of the musicians his studio attracts want to record on analog tape.
"It has a warmer sound to it. It's not so stale. It's what I grew up on," says Echo Mountain recording artist Malcolm Holcombe.
Echo Mountain also offers the use of its equipment and staff to local schools and nonprofits when times are slow. Vince Floriani, a fourth-grade teacher at Claxton Elementary School, brings his class in to record songs they've written about history. Brevard Middle School students recently recorded their new school song at Echo Mountain as well.
Kirby, formerly head of audio technology at New York University, says Asheville is lucky to have the studio.
"Echo Mountain's an incredible resource," he says. "Our music technology students can get the experience of a world-class internship without leaving town."
Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.