For all of the energy, creativity, and technology on display within, the exteriors of recording studios tend to be bare – no signage, no identifying features. You could drive down the same road every day, passing the same building, and have no idea that music, potentially a hit record, is being made within. But behind inconspicuous facades throughout metro Detroit – a former church in a historic part of Plymouth, a roadside motel in Waterford, a concrete box in a light industrial part of Ferndale – are some of the best recording studios in the Midwest, if not the country.
Like the studios it supplies, Vintage King Audio looks rather unassuming on the outside. Located on a stretch of Hilton Road in Ferndale amid wholesale auto parts warehouses and body shops, Vintage King has grown into one of the top professional audio equipment companies in the world, supplying studios near and far with the best gear available. Microphones, speakers, modules, consoles – you name it, Vintage King probably sells it. And they probably fix and refurbish it, too.
The making of a king
Brothers Mike and Andrew Nehra entrée into the pro audio game was something of a happy accident. As founding members of music group Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, the Nehras started a music studio in downtown Detroit called White Room Studios in the 1990s. As they bought, fixed, and sold one piece of recording gear to pay for another, a business emerged.
“We started based off our love for vintage recording gear. As we started to be able to humbly buy a little piece here and there from saving little monies from recording sessions, then we’d buy another little piece here and there,” says Mike Nehra. “The hobby of buying and selling to accommodate our needs turned into a business.”
A remarkably successful business, at that. Since its founding in 1993, Vintage King has grown into a company with roughly 100 employees worldwide, working at its headquarters on 9 Mile Road in Ferndale, its warehouse and technician facility on Hilton, and retail stores in Los Angeles and Nashville. The company saw a 20 percent growth rate last year and is quickly outgrowing its Ferndale facilities, where 65 of its employees work.
That has Vintage King looking for a building where it can consolidate its headquarters under one roof and have room to grow over the next 10 years. It could stay in Ferndale, it could move back to Detroit, Mike Nehra can’t say yet. As with any such situation, it will come down to finding the right building at the right price. But wherever they decide, it will stay be in metro Detroit, the place the Nehras and many of Vintage King’s employees call home.
A boon to the local music industry
At the heart of Chirs Breest’s Plymouth Rock Recording Company studio is a Nieve Custom 75 console, built in Australia and purchased through Vintage King. Everyone from members of Parliament to local rock bands have come through Breest’s studio. Royce da 5’9″, a well-regarded and highly accomplished Detroit hip hop artist, is a recent client.
Breest says that Detroit-area recording studios are fortunate to have one of the world’s top pro audio companies in the world located close by. Not many cities can claim that.
“Having Vintage King so close to us geographically has been essential,” says Breest. “I can go there and demo microphones, go there and have them look at gear; or they can send someone here. In the world of studio owners, it’s very isolated. You can’t always have experts within reach, so to have them so close and so accessible, it’s been invaluable.”
It’s also beneficial for Breest’s students.
Breest is the founder and acting director of the 4-year Bachelor of Science in Audio Engineering Technology program at Lawrence Technological University, which uses his studio as a satellite campus. What started with one student has grown into a full-fledged program today with an average of 40 to 50 students. With Vintage King so close, Breest is able to introduce his students to high-end equipment and other aspects of the field not easily accessible in other parts of the country.
Expanding in metro Detroit
The new Vintage King headquarters, wherever in metro Detroit it ends up, will also be home to the company’s third retail store. The first two, located in entertainment capitals Nashville and Los Angeles, are renowned among members of the music industry for state-of-the-art displays and state-of-the-art equipment, and the third promises more of the same. Vintage King is also planning on expanding its instrument inventory. It will be a more curated selection, says Mike Nehra, and not the brands of instruments typically found in bigger instrument stores.
And then there’s the warehouse and technician facility, which is an exciting site for any fan of music, gearhead or not. In one room, a handful of vintage studio consoles, each with a wealth of history, are waiting to be refurbished or shipped. The current inventory includes consoles that have been used to record albums by some of the most famous artists in music industry, including the Doobie Brothers, John Lennon, and Nirvana. It’s the kind of stuff they just don’t make any more, and that’s reflected in their price tags. Refurbished consoles can sell for between $100,000-$300,000. One vintage console awaiting refurbishment has already been bought and will be shipped to a recording studio in Austria. It’s a repeat client for Vintage King, one that trusts the company with the most precious of cargo.
Through an early warranty program on refurbished gear – rare for the industry, says Nehra – Vintage King built up good will among clients, which has been paid back in spades. Clients big and small know to seek out Vintage King for gear, and they keep coming back.
MJ Galbraith is development news editor for Metromode and Model D. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
Photos by Doug Coombe.