Studio Tour: Key Club Recording Company
Nestled near the St. Joseph River off the southeast shores of Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor isn’t the first town that comes to mind for recording music – it’s best known for Whirlpool appliances, the religious community of the House of David and the golf course. Yet the small Michigan community is home to the Key Club Recording Company, one of the best and finest studios in the Midwest, founded by producer/engineer duo Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins.
In the 1880s, the Key Club building was a boarding house for sailors. It changed hands and became a lumber yard in the 1920s, and in the 60s the building was again remodeled and started life as a rock and folk venue called Unicorn Key Club.
“You had to buy a key [to attend] because there were zoning laws on cover charges,” says Skibbe, the founder of Skibbe Electronics and former employee of Steve Albini‘s Electric Audio. “So they just made it a private club. Question mark and the mysterious played here. Tom James [and the Shondells], The association, Neil Young– the place had a real history of being a place and being a place to play.
Now the Key Club is adorned with custom, vintage gear lining the walls of the control room, with tree bark panels and even more gear in the check-in rooms (which have housed people like Kill them, Franz Ferdinand, Adult, The fiery furnaces, The sea and the cake, name, Pit Er Pat, Six admission bodies, Sadness, and Chicago Underground Threesome). The studio’s Flickinger console could be considered its base, however. Not only is it the first piece of equipment Key Club acquired, it’s also a piece of rock history, once owned and operated by sneaky stone. Skibbe remembers finding the dusty relic at Paragon Studios in Chicago before the Key Club existed.
“Question Mark and the Mysterians played here. Tom James [and the Shondells], The Association, Neil Young – the place had a real history of being a place and being a place to play.
“I was leaning on this thing – it was under an expedition blanket, and I looked under the blanket and was shocked,” he says. “I knew the brand, but I didn’t know it was Sly’s. I casually asked how much for “that old mixing console”. He said he would sell it for seven thousand dollars, but I didn’t have it. I had two thousand dollars and I gave it to him to keep for me.
“Then I panicked and had to go out and try to find the money. That’s how we ended up here, actually.
Within weeks, Skibbe and Ruffins secured a loan to build their dream studio and purchase equipment, the latter of which was equally essential to Key Club’s sound and success. (With Skibbe’s custom shop in the building, the Key Club is gear heaven.) And, conveniently, the former sailor’s hotel is also where Skibbe and Ruffins call it home, meaning the pair can be productive at all times.
“One strange thing about our arrangement,” says Ruffins, “is that it’s about our record collection; it is our personal life. So when people come to work with us, they also live with us. It’s worth it, though. The record is worth it. »
“In terms of the record, it’s really fun,” adds Skibbe. “You can be creative whenever you want. There are no borders. One of the reasons we built the studio and came here is because when we were working in the Chicago studios, it was always a struggle. You were supposed to go home at the end of the evening.