Recording studio wizard Don Salter talks Saltmine Studios, digital vs analog, and connecting with hip-hop artists

Don Salter

Written by Jason P. Woodbury Category: Spotlight Issue: August 2016
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Tucked away among toy boutiques, coffee shops and comic book stores in downtown Mesa, Saltmine Studios resembles something of a fortress from the outside. But behind the high walls, the recording studio lives up to its tagline, “an audio oasis in the Arizona desert.” Incense burns as owner Don Salter  points out gold records on the wall by Lil Wayne, photos of members of progressive rock band Yes, and a photo of his wife Maria (his “reason for living,” he notes) with her favorite singer, Alicia Keys, after a session. Housed in a 1914 building, the studio has been used by big names like DMX, the Jonas Brothers, Megadeth and more since opening in 2003, drawing artists and producers in with a blend of digital technology and vintage analog gear, like Salter’s 50-channel Neve mixing board. 

How did you get started in audio?

Growing up in L.A., it probably started when I was 6 years old, grabbing a guitar and wanting to be a Beatle. My older brother instilled in me a deep appreciation for the British Invasion. [But the first iteration of the Saltmine] was above my garage in Phoenix. I called it the Saltmine because the ceilings were low, it was dark, there was no air conditioning and we made no money. But the name stuck.

 

What is it about blending digital and analog that appeals to you?

It’s just the best of both worlds. You can record analog and capture the whole range of sound, and then edit digitally. There is a difference – you get a fatness and richness of the sound through analog, but you cannot get away from the superb nature of digital manipulation. It makes being able to use analog so efficient. It’s the combination of both that is the perfect answer. In all things, I love to say, “What’s better? Both.” 

 

What’s the secret to cultivating a good vibe with an artist? 

We love you first. If we love you first, it triggers a natural tendency for you to love us back. And when there’s love circulating between parties, it makes everything great. We believe it’s about loving people and embracing their artistry, trying to capture what they had in mind and bringing our professional skill set to nurture that with the tools we have. 

If an artist so desires, they can stay here while they’re recording, right?

We offer a 1,300-square-foot residence where an artist can eat, drink and live their music. [They] wake up refreshed –  at the time of their choosing – and walk into their session 50 feet through the front door. 

 

You’ve recorded a lot of kinds of music here, but hip-hop has been a big part of the history. What have you learned about being conducive to a rapper’s process? 

Hip-hop artists play hard, work hard, stay up late and love a place that caters to their needs, that will run and get food for them, and sometimes drink, and pump up the basketball and put the lights out on the court. It’s a different culture than the rock and alternative culture I grew up in, but it’s just about recognizing that everybody has the same need to create.