Is it location location location? Or maybe timing is everything? Perhaps he made his own luck?
Better to can the clichés, and just chalk Velvet Elk Studios up to the great taste of its founder, Don DiLego. This singer/songwriter/banjo picker realized a few years ago that as much as he loved his East Village home base, sometimes you just gotta get away.
How he found his special place is a story best told by DiLego himself, and you’ll find it below. From there, Velvet Elk’s signal path from a Zen hideaway to a full-fledged studio is explosively inspiring, but here’s the best part: What was once a purely personal facility has become a destination studio open to all who understand its allure.
Blessed with big windows looking out to some truly great outdoors, plus a groovy analog gear list, desirable in-house instruments, and an extremely welcoming atmosphere it’s easy to see why artists are making the 90-minute jaunt from NYC to this audio haven in Pocono Lake, PA.
The benefits are also clear to hear: DiLego’s own recently launched solo album Magnificent Ram A reflects the natural vibe that comes in loud and clear from recordings made there. The instantly uplifting collection of Americana rock songs was released on Velvet Elk Records, the label DiLego co-founded with renowned downtown NYC rocker Jesse Malin.
If tracking by the fireplace in a room with a 30’ ceiling, an uncommonly creative environment, and even an Otari tape machine with a bizarre history sound intriguing to you, then point your eyes down to the joi de vivre of Velvet Elk. A ride on the interstate may very well be next.
Facility Name: Velvet Elk Studio
Date of Birth: 2005
Location: Velvet Elk City, PA a.k.a Pocono Lake, PA
Neighborhood Advantages: I had moved from Boston to New York around 1996-97. Most definitely a lost soul at the time. I had always been “the guy in the band” who would do the demos on the 4-track or have some sort of tiny recording set-up.
After being settled in NYC for a few years, I started to get the itch to get out, at least to a place in a more country locale where I could work on songs and do some recordings. Seeing as though I was essentially financially insolvent at the time, it was mostly a fool’s errand. But my girlfriend at the time’s family, who were from Philly, had a “little getaway cabin” in the Poconos and they offered to let me throw a few things in a back room there to use when they were not there.
I was totally excited, and also totally clueless about where, in fact, the Poconos were. We took a drive out one weekend and fell instantly in love with the place, which was neither tiny nor a cabin. But it was in the woods and tranquil and the perfect escape. Anyway – a few years later I found a way to buy it and came up with the foolish idea to start renovating the place into a fully functioning studio…that only I use.
I think what is most unique about the Velvet Elk, is that it wasn’t really built for commercial use in mind. So I spend endless hours crafting the minutia and details of the design to be exactly what I would want if I wanted to get out of the city and have a great recording experience.
The control room looks over the woods in the back, so there are often deer of turkey and if you’re lucky, the occasional black bear. It’s pretty incredible. And because I really didn’t have traditional sound dampening issues to deal with, there are windows in the recording space that let a lot of natural light in. You definitely feel a part of your outdoor surroundings while you’re working there.
Complete Retreat: I think the most appealing thing about The Velvet Elk is that what you’re getting is an entire experience, and not just “studio time.” You’re sort of giving yourself up to a lifestyle for the time you’re there.
There is definitely no, “hey let’s take a break and run outside to the bar.” More likely, you’re headed out to the hammock with a can of the local’s finest! Essentially, the rate you pay there includes the studio, the engineering and even the lodging. It’s an all-in kind of deal.
Facility Focus: Tracking, mixing and producing.
Mission Statement: Basically, I want to be the studio that you wish you had for yourself. Which is to say, not that it’s the glossiest or has the most vintage gear anywhere, but that it’s a comfortable, inspiring, non-stress inducing environment to do your best creatively.
I’d say if you’re a large band looking to do a “big budget” sound record, it’s not the first pick on the list. I get a lot of artists who have started something elsewhere, who want to come out, get away from the city, and focus on finishing their record. I love that situation…getting artists over that vital hump.
Of course, I’ve also done many records start to finish, but I like to keep the number of people out in the studio at one time as reasonable as can be, both for comfort and for focus.
Don’s Directive: In a nutshell, here is the story of how my studio came to be. After finding the house (as mentioned earlier), I had a room in the back with my humble collection of recording gear. I was tracking my own material and helping friends out with their demos and bits.
Jason, to whom I will forever be indebted, was out at my place doing a few songs. I mentioned how “one day” I will convert the garage and renovate this and change that, and basically described my grand vision for a perfect little studio that I knew somehow I would never be able to afford.
Well, Jason, who in addition to being a great songwriter is also a master carpenter, literally stands up and announces, “Well, let’s start now!” He walks into what at the time was the garage, grabs a ladder, and starts ripping down the ceiling. And that was it right there.
The next year and a half consisted of Jason dedicating untold hours of time coming out to the house and spending weekends creating a mess. Since there was no pressure or timeline to open the studio to the public, I just made sure every nook and cranny was built the way I’d want it if I had my own studio…which of course, is what was happening!
There are a ton of old vintage radios and non-working instruments and art that adorn the walls, and corners, and wood beams that I think all make for a creative environment. I’d be lying if I said every attention to detail was paid on the acoustic design, because that was definitely not the case. It was more “in the moment” decisions like, “Hey, let’s put a skylight there!”
Go Pack Your Suitcase – Don DiLego –
Paper Planes – Beautiful Small Machines –
All Bets Are Off – Jesse Malin