A long-haired leaping gnome lives in a castle in the air, amidst dragon mosaics and a pieced-together statue of Kwan Yin that survived a raging wildfire. When you approach his lofty aerie above Lake Wohlford, you feel like you’ve found the top of Mt. Olympus, but if Mt. Olympus were a recording studio with a one-eyed, one-horned blue jaguar standing guard out front.
Psychedelic dream? Shroom hallucination? Nope. This is the Sanctuary Lab, a one-man recording studio and all-around art house inhabited by one Dave Michaels, recording engineer and musician, and his wife, Karen, a mosaic and sculpture artist.
Through a panoramic picture window, the view from their living room right off the recording studio offers a sweeping view of the lake with wispy clouds floating through a clear blue sky. Dave obligingly poses for a photo, noodling on a guitar as he tells the origin story of this most amazing place.
“I quit performing probably in about 2015 seriously and from 2015 until now I’ve been mostly just doing digital mixing for people in LA that I’ve known a long time—some people whose names you would know—so I’ve mixed people that don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I’ve had people sending me tracks that are just broken. What I do is I repair them and send them back. I’m a good editor.”
Dave showed up on the California music scene in around 1965, which seems like another lifetime; like many artists, he still feels young despite the years. “I did a lot of drugs so I was emotionally stunted for a long time but I still I feel like I’m stuck at 30 in my head. It’s a wonderful age, like peak time! You’ve got all your promise, everything’s working, and you’re like ‘I know how to do this, and you don’t have that ‘oh I’m not worthy’.”
Playing music in the ‘60s and ’70 was obviously a blast. But Dave decided that being a recording engineer was really his calling, and now he’s created a place where literally anyone can come, record a song, and refine it with his help into the shape of something worth listening to. If people can pay him for his time, that’s great. But if they can’t, if they’re struggling, he’ll still work on tracks because it’s his thing.
“I don’t care about the money. I don’t care about the fame. For me it’s always that I serve the tune.” He describes times when artists have come to him with the raw track for a song, and he spends hours writing instrumental augmentations or additions, and it baffles the artist when he neither asks for money or credit for co-writing. “For all these people that are coming to me now, they get flabbergasted because they’re going to put a song on their album. I say, ‘no, don’t worry about it! I wrote these parts for the tune—you can say you wrote them, I don’t care!”
His home studio (at least $50K worth of processing power is housed in the computers alone) is small but mighty, and many musicians have recorded there or sent tracks digitally for Dave to mix.
Cathryn Beeks, local songwriting legend, has never recorded at the Sanctuary but has good things to say. “Dave’s vibe is very groovy and chill, and his Sanctuary Lab is nestled in the hills near a lake. It’s the perfect place for first-time recording artists and pros alike to lay down their tracks.”
Even though she hasn’t personally recorded there, she recalls an event where Dave went mobile with his recording expertise. “I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the Lab in its home base but Dave brought his mobile Lab to one of my songwriting retreats! He set up shop in our guest RV, and our retreat guests were able to go in and record their new songs on the spot! It was such a treat!”
Bonnie Nicholls was one of those participants in the Songwriting Sleepover and became a repeat customer. “I’ve done four recordings with Dave. First, he asked me what sound I was trying to achieve with the recording. I honestly didn’t know, except that I wanted it to be spare and not overly produced. We recorded the piano first, and then the vocal. I did several takes on different sections of the vocal, and Dave was patient as I kept trying to get it right. Once we completed the session, I had a bandmate, Jessica Barlow, record the viola part and sent the track to Dave. Then he mixed it. I’m really proud of that recording.”
At the time that she met Dave, Bonnie was a new singer/songwriter who’d had less-than-stellar interactions with other engineers. “I felt like Dave saw something in me. For three other songs, ‘I’m Up, Dance of the Heart’ and ‘Time Zone,’ we collaborated remotely. And it was definitely a collaboration. He’d bring ideas, I would bring ideas, but he always made it clear to me that I had the final say. He taught me to listen carefully, to sit with a recording for 24 hours before giving feedback. It was a gentle lesson in patience, and I learned from it.”
His reputation as a gentle collaborator echoes throughout most of the stories songwriters tell about him. Rick Lee (Strange Brew Band) met him through Andy Robinson’s monthly songwriting workshop. “Several months ago, Andy invited Dave Michaels to one of his sessions. As usual, everyone in the songwriters circle played an original tune, including Dave.
“I loved Dave’s playing and his song, and I could immediately hear the harmonies that I wanted to add. I kept them under my breath at the time, but when it came time for me to play my song, I invited him to add any harmonies that he might hear. We hit it off that day and when I heard he was proficient at recording others’ songs, I made it a point to connect with him before we left. When we were all leaving, the three of us started talking outside the building, and the conversation just went everywhere. Music, experiences, wildlife… It was great. I also ribbed him about looking just like one of my favorite artists, David Crosby from CSN.”
Rick adds that although Dave resembles David Crosby, there is a difference. “Ironically, I met David Crosby years ago and Dave Michaels has the exact opposite demeanor. Dave Crosby was, well, a little curmudgeon when I met him…conversely, Dave Michaels was very approachable, and all conversations led me down a positive road.”
Patrick McCall, who goes by the moniker Lucky Wilde, has worked on several tracks at Sanctuary Lab, although he lives a thousand miles away in Oregon and has never been on site. “Dave is the perfect producer because he is a great musician and brings that to every song. He is very humble about how much he knows about the recording process—and he knows a lot—but he never lets the technology get in the way of the song. A brief visit to some of Dave’s YouTube videos will show you what a brilliant guitar player and vocalist he is.
“I knew Dave in his skinny rock star days in Hollywood. He was in a super popular band. We both appreciated each other’s music. But it would be 30 years before Dave and I found each other again. A mutual friend played Dave a very bare bones demo of one of my songs. Dave liked the song and contacted me. It was at the beginning of Covid lock down, so we began a wonderful video chat collaboration.
“The Sanctuary Lab’s approach is nurturing and tailor-made to each artist. No templates are used; each track is approached as an individual song rather than a product churned out at a cookie-cutter recording studio. “I’m teaching other people how to do what I do—I’m talking 60 years and going. I’ve been in the industry since it was invented so I’m like an elder now and have a responsibility to not commercialize it because it’s a spiritual journey. I have to do it by donations, or I’d cut out an entire raft of people, right? I can’t do that. I really, really love helping people.”
Or, as Rick Lee says: “To me, he’s like the Wizard of Oz, but he stands before you with encouragement instead of behind a shaking curtain.”
Rick Lee: The Strange Brew Band plays at The Landings in Carlsbad on Thursday December 14th from 5pm till 8pm; at the Roxy in Encinitas on Sunday December 17th from 5pm to 8pm.
Cathryn Beeks: http://cathrynbeeks.com/