Author: Cliff Bumgardner
When Steven Raets talks about his audio mixing console, his eyes light up. To the uninitiated, the contraption looks like something off the bridge of a submarine: a labyrinth of buttons,
toggles, faders, and lights. It’s ten feet wide and weighs over two thousand pounds. “It’s a Neve 88R,” Steven says, kindly assuming I know what a big deal that is. When he sees I don’t, he adds,
“It’s the same board they have at Abbey Road and Skywalker Sound.”
That I understand.
Proud as he is, Steven’s not showing off. The board, along with the rest of the state-of-the-art facility packed with gear and acronyms he’s been patiently explaining to me, represents a philosophy Steven has baked into Sonark Media, the Hillsborough, North Carolina audio-visual recording studio he started in 2020: that the best technology, made accessible to artists, can change how music is made, experienced, and distributed.
“I’ve been a musician since I was twelve, and as musicians, we always look up to those iconic places where they have these big boards… and there’s this mystique about how that would affect your sound and how you play. And I think it matters, because when an artist comes to a studio and it’s of a certain standard, they will play better because they get a little bit nervous. Even though they’ve had a lot of experience, it will makes their game go up.”
It's a standard he’s spared no effort or expense to bring to Sonark, whether through the Neve or their Dolby-approved Atmos surround-sound studio, the building of which involved a weeks long process just to make sure the speakers were positioned correctly (and aZer listening to a custom mix of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody that sounded like I was standing onstage smack between Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor, I can attest the painstaking work paid off). “We have something that, I’m not scared to say it, compares with any of the top studios in the world – and we have it right here in Hillsborough,” he says with a smile.
A “SONIC HAVEN”
As Steven settles in for our interview, propped on the console of the Neve like the world’s most expensive armrest, his contentment is obvious. And for good reason. Azer spent traveling the world (he was born in Belgium and worked in England before coming to the States), Steven followed his wife to North Carolina and settled in Hillsborough, which he describes as finally finding his home.
“I was very skeptical in the beginning because I didn’t really know the place that well, [but] I fell in love with it very quickly. It’s a hidden gem.”
He’s secured himself a sizeable chunk of that gem: 63 acres of what was once farmland belonging to the Borland family, whose ties to Orange County stretch back to the 18th century. The day I visited it was mid-summer, the high sun bouncing off the surface of a small pond just downhill from the farm’s original cabin, built in 1852. If such a pastoral setting seems an odd home for a decidedly 21st-century operation, Steven says the contrast is central to the whole idea: creating a destination for musicians away from the constant hum of daily life while embracing what modern technology allows them to achieve.
“To create music, it requires a certain environment,”
Steven says. He compares the property to Muscle Shoals, a legendary Alabama recording studio near the banks of the Tennessee River, whose waters were said to sing. “There are certain places on earth that are known for something magical, something mystical… Where people feel more at ease and things flow. I feel this could be one of those places.”
Steven has found inspiration in the environment himself. It was while walking the two miles of trails around the old farm where he thought up his company’s name, which he defines as meaning a sonic haven: a retreat for musicians to come, get inspired, unplug, and plugin. "Communication is so easy these days that in order to be truly inspired and take a step back, it could be beneficial to just get a little bit away from that busyness and that distraction,” he says. “That’s what we're trying to do here.”
From there, Sonark’s mission drifts from the ethereal to the practical. Namely, tackling the challenges of the notoriously fickle music industry, where big business dominates and up-and-coming or alternative artists struggle to break through. “I hate that system,” Steven says bluntly. “I can’t stand watching it.” He describes the corporate structure of music as a pie, with bigger and bigger chunks taken by fewer and fewer musicians and labels. Sonark’s goal is to redistribute slices back to artists by making recordings and other vital services more affordable and accessible, with steep discounts for North Carolina-based musicians and producers and revenue-sharing opportunities through a proprietary music video streaming platform, fittingly called Pie.
RADIO STAR, MEET VIDEO
Some fifteen hundred feet downhill from Sonark’s recording studio stands a cavernous building they call the Barn. Built from wood reclaimed from old structures on the property, the Barn is a hybrid video production studio and concert venue, capable of holding about a hundred guests. Like its sister studio up the hill, the Barn is dressed to the technological nines, with professional lighting, cinema-quality cameras, and dollies, jibs, switchers, and gizmos galore. The atmosphere is somewhere between your town’s coolest new microbrewery and a television soundstage.
And it’s here Sonark’s biggest bet plays out: full concerts streamed live on Pie to audiences all over the world. Viewers can watch from anywhere with an online ticket, with the funds split between Sonark and the artists they host. Thus far the Barn has been home to shows from North Carolina-based artists Dawn Landes, The Old Ceremony, and the Connells, creating a burgeoning streaming library Steven hopes will slot into audiences binge-watching rosters alongside giants like Netflix or Hulu.
“That’s a game changer, because now you can sit in your living room with your family, and you can say, ‘Hey, are we going to watch a documentary, Breaking Bad, or are we going to watch our favorite artist playing?’”
It’s an ambitious vision, but Steven is quick to point out he’s not going at it alone. Including Steven and his business partners, the company sports a core roster of around a dozen partners with varied backgrounds ranging from video production to film scoring. But no matter how different their experiences were, each one I talked to echoed the same sentiment: a passion for music and musicians mixed with a deep frustration with the status quo and the industry writ large. It’s start-up energy, a build-it-and-they-will-come approach perhaps more at home in nearby Research Triangle Park, put to work in this agrarian setting in the heartland of American musical tradition.
THE HIDDEN JOURNEY
Back in the studio, Steven fires up his beloved Neve to play me a few clips from the recent Connells concert in the Barn. As he does, he turns the topic back to the gear that makes it all possible, explaining how while the artists play onstage and the cameras capture the show, the music is piped across the property to the studio, where it’s plugged into the Neve, mixed, and sent back to the Barn for broadcast, completing the journey hidden in the company’s name–a perfect arc from the land, through the machines, and out into the world. It's a totality of vision Steven hopes will make a difference in the music industry in North Carolina and beyond, even if he’s aware he’s wading into turbulent waters that are traditionally unkind to those who swim upstream. He and his company welcome the challenge.
“I am not scared of change at all,” he says. “I try to embrace it as much as I can.”