Legendary recording studio in Lake Geneva, WI

Remembering the Legendary Recording Studio in Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva is a beautiful place to visit. A charming resort town with boat tours, golf courses, and fine dining. It doesn’t exactly scream rock & roll. What would bring musicians like Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp, Skid Row, Cheap Trick, Guns and Roses, Crash Test Dummies, Live, Adrian Belew, Robert Plant and Nine Inch Nails out to this part of rural Wisconsin?

A world-class music recording studio built inside the old Playboy Club hotel.

For a brief period of time from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, the biggest names in music came to Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva to lay down the tracks for their next platinum album.

As unlikely as it may seem, Lake Geneva is a fitting place for rock. The town was built on the tragedy of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (which coincided with the disastrous Peshtigo Fire) and later bootlegging and other mob activities throughout the 1920s and 30s. Not to mention it’s the birthplace of Dungeons and Dragons.

“Lake Geneva in the 80s was kind of a hair band hang,” someone said in a 2006 comment on the gearspace.com message board. “There where lots of chicks with white lace bobbie socks, tons of blow, the whole 80s thing.”

“We use to call it the land of White punks on dope,” another added.

Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, WI

Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, WI

Brief History of Royal Recorders

Lake Geneva already served as a summer getaway for Chicago’s wealthy elite like the Wrigley family, Maytag, Vicks, Schwinn, and more. Then, in 1968 Hugh Heffner opened the Playboy Club there (where this UFO Airbnb in the desert got its start) which brought in the biggest names at the time like Bob Hope and Sonny & Cher.

At the time, husband-and-wife duo Vern and Jan Castle were running Castle Recording from their home on the lake, where they recorded radio ads for brands like American Family Insurance, Wrigley’s, and Menards. They hired young musician and recording engineer Andy Waterman to help out on various duties around the studio.

At the same time, Waterman got a gig playing in the house band at the Playboy Club.

In 1977, Waterman convinced Playboy to let him open a studio. He bought Castle Recording and moved it into the hotel with a new name: Shade Tree Recording Studio.

Alpine Valley Music Theatre

Alpine Valley Music Theatre

Waterman believed the studio and the area could achieve much more success, considering the big names performing at the club, as well as at nearby Alpine Valley, the outdoor music venue.

And he believed in the Wisconsin music scene.

“Some of the most creative bands I ever worked with came out of Wisconsin,” Waterman says. “They were marching to their own drummer, and a lot of the bands that came out of Milwaukee or Madison had a fresh take on music, where bands in Chicago were just following the trends.”

Control room of the Royal Recorders studio

Royal Recorders control room

A few years after opening the studio, however, economic downturn began to take its toll. Interest rates were up, recording budgets were down, and Playboy was losing popularity.

Waterman left the studio in 1980. Then, in 1982, Playboy sold the resort and left Lake Geneva.

Shade Tree then became Sound Summit, headed up by Chicago producer Phil Bonanno, who had worked with bands like Styx, Survivor, and Enuff Z’nuff.

Bonanno brought in a coveted Neve 8068 console said to have been used by none other than John Lennon, to record his final album Double Fantasy before his untimely death in 1980. A picture of John Lennon hovering over the board traveled with it from studio to studio.

“First Neve console I ever saw in person,” one comment reads.

“It was a rock and roll paradise,” says audio engineer Jim Bartz, who got his start at the studio.

Neve 8068 console said to have been used to record John Lennon's final album

Is this the board that recorded John Lennon’s final album?

Bonanno was running the studio, but its primary investors were a group of dentists from California. In the summer of 1985, the dentists pulled out and employees stopped getting paid.

That’s when Ron Fajerstein stepped in and invested his money made from diamond importing into making the studio a world-class place to record music.

He changed the name to Royal Recorders, invested in a top-of-the-line 80-channel Solid State Logic production console (considered the “secret weapon of 80s pop“) and even bought a Rolls-Royce stretch limo to pick up artists from the airport.

“It wasn’t that they put a studio in there that was surprising,” Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos says. “[The surprise was] that it was as good as it was.”

That’s when Lake Geneva really became the unlikely home of a major recording studio.

Royal Recorders studio in Lake Geneva, WI

Royal Recorders studio in Lake Geneva, WI

Adrian Belew, known for his work with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson, and more, moved to Lake Geneva to be closer to the studio.

“They offered us to come and mix for free,” Belew says. “It was amazing. That’s the reason I moved there. It was for that studio, and I made a lot of records there.”

“I remember you living in Geneva back in the Late 80’s, early 90’s. You were always nice to us garbage men,” one commentor said in a 2017 Facebook post by Belew about meeting Sting at a restaurant on the lake.

“I attended the concert you performed at a small bar in Lake Geneva for the food bank charity there,” another added. “I was impressed by your performance but even more impressed with your decision to help out your community.

Watch trailer for upcoming Wisconsin music show »

Studio Memories

“The first album I did there was the first Skid Row record,” producer Michael Wagener said on the Gear Space forum. “That was/is one of my favourite projects, we were all young (well they were) and crazy (now that includes me) and we had a great time up there. It was in the summer and I got introduced to jet skis on Lake Geneva. The hotel was the old Playboy resort and the band’s manager used to stay in Hugh Hefner’s room. There is a big venue nearby called Alpine Valley (Stevie Ray Vaughan got killed there later) and during the time we did the record there was a great rock show every weekend (AC/DC, Judas Priest, White Lion, Guns And Roses etc.) and the hotel was one of two in the area, so all the bands would stay at ‘our’ hotel and all the kids would hang out in the parking lot. Needless to say we had an amazing time.”

Producer Michael Wagener with Skid Row at Royal Recorders studio in Lake Geneva, WI

Michael Wagener with Skid Row at Royal Recorders studio

“The reason I picked the studio in the first place was that they had a monstrously big convention center right next door to the studio,” Wagener added. “I found out by a tip from Roy Thomas Baker, who had done T-Pau there. We recorded the drums in a room that had 120 cars for an auction in it the night before we started.”

“The next album I did there took place at the beginning of winter (don’t want to mention the artist),” Wagener continued. “The hotel had just changed hands and they found Asbestos during some remodeling, so the hotel was closed except for 3 or 4 rooms, it was DEAD up there. My ‘old room’ was all moldy and had rats in it. The town was dead too at that time of the year, it just started snowing. The studio was still fully functioning and as good as before, but the convention center was under water and the cool environment around the studio was not there anymore.”

Grounds around the Lake Geneva resort

Grounds around the Lake Geneva resort where Royal Recorders was located

“Axl Rose actually owned property on Lake Geneva,” one comment says, “and supposedly the Playboy Club inspired ‘Paradise City.'”

“I worked at Royal Recorders for a short stint as a second engineer,” Gear Space user Brian Halliday added. “I was there from Summer of 1989 until May 1990. As I recall, at the time the Bush1 Recession was setting. That coupled with a shift to smaller/better/cheaper digital options made a special place like Royal harder to book. But, it was great to be part of it. I worked there with Dave Kent and Dan Harjung – both great engineers. While I was there, Adrian Belew was recording Young Lions – which was amazing to witness.”

“Royal rocked, I recorded there the whole summer of 1986 with my band The Ultraviolet, Adrian Belew and Jim Bartz produced,” Bob Pucci said. “The speakers were custom made Westlakes by the way and the whole place was designed by Carl Yancher. The vibe was perfect, we were the first to use the SSL and recorded right to a Mitsubishi digital 32 track! The other cool part was that it was right in the hotel. If you wanted a drink or food, it was right there and the even cooler part was its close proximity to the Alpine Valley concert venue. Boy do I have stories. On any given night while doing my guitar tracks, I’d turn around and on the studio couch would be, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Starship, Mr. Mister…you name it. They all stayed at the hotel there which was called The Americana Inn then. The best was when Ozzy Osbourne and band came by after their show…with about 50 girls in tow. Needless to say, there was no recording that night!”

“It Was The Shining”

Trent Reznor worked on the 1992 Nine Inch Nails Broken EP there, but didn’t seem to have quite as much fun.

“We did some pre-production at my home in New Orleans at the time,” Reznor said, “and then went to a weird studio in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which is a great place—I guess—in the summer during tourist season, but in the winter when we were there it was The Shining. And it just led to this whole feeling of intense isolation, and, you know, you get out of the studio and want to go have a beer or anything, there’s no one around, there’s no place to go, there’s nothing to see, weather’s shitty. Just terrible. And it made for a really bizarre and strange—something I wouldn’t want to do again, you know. I didn’t look for that when it happened. I think it made the record better. It made it more true.”

End of the Road

Everyone involved seems to agree that Fajerstein’s heart was in the right place as a fan of music who wanted to do something different, and do it right.

But in the end, Fajerstein was spending more than the studio could make and it wasn’t working out.

“It didn’t belong in Lake Geneva,” Fajerstein said in a 2013 article. “It belonged in London and New York.”

He handed it off to Royal Recorders engineers Dan Harjung and Rich Denhart, who renamed it Music Head.

Despite working on Live’s Throwing Copper and Crash Test Dummies’ God Shuffled His Feet, which have both sold over 8 million copies each, the phone eventually stopped ringing and they had to close up shop. 

The studio's top-of-the-line SSL console

The studio’s top-of-the-line SSL console

“I did a couple of records there, a very nice joint,” engineer Mike Tholen said on Gear Space. “I was working for Ministry when the gear became for sale. Ministry bought the gear, we stripped the studio of EVERYTHING including the glass, but NOT the 2 Mitsubishi 32 trk digital shitboxes. We trucked it all down to the new Ministry camp outside of Austin, Texas, installed it into Al’s house and started to make Filth Pig. To shorten a VERY long story, the gear ended up at Chicago Trax after they moved to Larrabee St. NOT the Halsted location. R. Kelley ended up buying the studio and changed the name to The Chocolate Factory.”

R. Kelly eventually moved the studio into the basement of his house.

“Wow,” another comment reads, “from majestic Lake Geneva to R Kelly’s basement….”

What Remains?

The studio is now the engineering office of The Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

Engineering office of The Grand Geneva

The former Lake Geneva Playboy Club is now the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa. The legendary studio space still exists, but now it serves as the headquarters of the resort’s engineering department. wood paneling, acoustic foam, and Italian marble flooring can still be seen.

“I had remembered hearing about the studio before I got the job and when I came to check the place out before my interview I headed directly down to where the studio was formerly located,” a 2006 employee of the hotel wrote. “It’s currently the resort’s engineering office. Sadly it’s fallen into some disrepair and the inside is jammed full of hardware and tools. I was able to walk through it after I was hired and you can still tell by the layout of the rooms that it was formerly a studio.”

Grand Geneva employee Randel Scheck told BestofLakeGeneva.com that musicians often come to see the former studio space and share their memories.

John Legend stopped in while performing in Milwaukee.

“He told us stories about how his father use to record there and as a baby, he would crawl around the floors,” Scheck said. “We were also visited by Sebastian Bach of Skid Row about 4 or 5 years ago when he playing at an event in the area.”

Royal Recorders

Do you have any memories of the studio? Tell us about it in the comments below or send us a message.

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