Recording’s Great Escapes: Photos of Washington’s Bear Creek Studio
Nestled in a forest just outside of Seattle stands a cathedral-like barn with huge windows that allow sunlight to soak the structure’s interior. But Bear Creek Studio stands apart from traditional, stuffier recording spaces in another key way: its atypical business structure.
“Because this has been my family’s place, it has a real family vibe to it,” says Ryan Hadlock, whose parents Joe and Manny Hadlock built the studio in 1977. “It’s a home studio that was built the right way.”
After purchasing the former “dilapidated” dairy farm on 10 acres in Woodinville, Wash., Joe and Manny, both producers, “built a house here and they’d travel downtown to rent studios and work” on ads and short-film soundtracks, says Ryan, who followed his parents into the world of music production and now owns Bear Creek.
“Back then, there were only really two or three real studios in the Northwest, and they were very expensive,” he says. “So, my parents got together with a bunch of their hippie friends and built the studio in like six months.” Initially, Bear Creek wasn’t considered a residential studio, but rather a space where touring musicians could record day sessions. “It has been constantly expanding since then from its original setup of just a console and tape machine,” says Hadlock.
Today, Bear Creek is staffed with engineers and producers and has become a go-to recording spot for acts such as Foo Fighters, The Lumineers and Brandi Carlile, who loved Bear Creek so much that she named the album she recorded there in 2012 after it. But it came into its own as a residential studio in the late ’80s, right as Seattle’s grunge movement exploded.
“We hadn’t had a residential project until then, which was when bands started coming out here,” Hadlock says. “Soundgarden was really the first band to stay here for like six weeks when they recorded Badmotorfinger [in 1991]. Once people figured out you could book it for months, things changed for us. It was all pretty much word-of-mouth, so the growth was organic.”
Despite its quaint and rustic aesthetic, Bear Creek is very much a modern recording facility. Its studio loft comes equipped with preamps, digital recording gear, vintage microphones and instruments that range from a 1970s Camco drum kit to a 1968 Gibson SG guitar. “One of the beneficial things is that we’ve been around since the ’70s, so we’ve been collecting instruments since then,” Hadlock says.
The property’s pièce de resistance: a treehouse behind the barn that stands 18 feet off the ground. The two-level, cabin-like cottage (with two twin beds) is another fully functioning studio where artists can record vocals or guitars. The Hadlocks added the treehouse in 2013 — “The only thing in the property that was built by professionals,” Hadlock says — because “we wanted to keep growing and the clients kept coming.” (There’s also a producer’s cabin and a farmhouse for lodging on the grounds.)
“Aside from being a beautiful space in a verdant location with excellent gear, Bear Creek holds a special place in my heart,” says Robin Pecknold, frontman of indie folk band Fleet Foxes, “as my dad, a musician and luthier, played bass on the first album recorded there back in the ’70s, Linda Waterfall’s Bananaland. I believe he even helped carry the recording console into the [studio] space.” Fleet Foxes tracked its second EP, Sun Giant, at Bear Creek. “Getting to follow in his footsteps and record there myself for some early Fleet Foxes songs was a thrill. My dream now is to produce his first solo album and record it at Bear Creek to complete the circle.”
With nearly 30 artists recording at Bear Creek annually, Hadlock (whose parents are still involved as consultants and producers) hopes that when people walk into his family’s studio, “they feel at home and comfortable. I hope they get a sense that this is a different and unique place that was really built for them. A lot of care has gone into having an amazing world-class facility but not having it necessarily feel like you’re working, because you’re removed from the city and urban environment. That can be quite inspiring.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2022, issue of Billboard.