VALLEY CITY, N.D. - In a tiny room above a coffee shop on Valley City’s Center Avenue, Aaron Hochstetler strums a couple notes on his careworn blue acoustic guitar and turns a tuning peg.

Across from him, perhaps six feet away, sound engineer Philip Reves checks sound levels on several flat panel computer screens as he prepares to record the 30-year-old Fargoan.

They look at each other, and Hochstetler starts playing.

The song that flows from his fingers and throat is called “Ready.”

“It just took a really nasty breakup, and it was written within an hour or two,” Hochstetler said.

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It’s what a songwriter does at 3 or 4 in the morning and the emotions are still “raw, which is hard,” he said.

“It’s 100 percent feel for me … If you want to write good music, it has to be relatable,” Hochstetler said.

And what is more relatable than heartbreak?

Aaron Hochstetler records an original song “Ready” during a session with recording engineer Philip Reves on Monday, May 6, 2019, at the Vault Coffee Shop and Center for the Arts, Valley City, N.D.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Aaron Hochstetler records an original song “Ready” during a session with recording engineer Philip Reves on Monday, May 6, 2019, at the Vault Coffee Shop and Center for the Arts, Valley City, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

At the same time, if you want to put out an EP, and you don’t have a lot of money, laying out $600 or more for each song is a budget breaker, Hochstetler said.

Which is pretty relatable, too.

That’s why Hochstetler signed on to be The Vault Coffee Shop and Center for the Arts’ first paying customer.

The Vault, 233 Center Ave. N., now offers a bargain venue for artists to record, says David Brekke, who co-owns the building with Paul Stenshoel.

Brekke and his business partner offer use of the new-kid-on-the-block recording studio space to artists free of charge. The only cost is to pay the sound engineers.

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For example, Reves charges by the number of musicians involved in a recording session. A single musician pays $125 to record a track. Two musicians pay $200 to record a track. Three or more musicians pay $276 to record a track.

To keep costs down, The Vault kicked in some cash to underwrite part of the recording fees, Brekke said. He hopes future grants can further lower costs.

According to Recording Connection, a full-length album can take 90 to 150 hours to record - longer for conceptual or experimental albums. If the record takes 100 hours to record and mix from start to finish, that could add up to $3,000 to $5,000 in studio time for budget studios, and a minimum of $10,000 for more upscale studios. A good engineer to oversee tracking and mixing can run $200 per song, and mastering the music for duplication can run $100 a song.

The Vault Coffee Shop and Center for the Arts is seen Monday, May 6, 2019, in Valley City, N.D.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
The Vault Coffee Shop and Center for the Arts is seen Monday, May 6, 2019, in Valley City, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Brekke and Stenshoel started building the recording studio three years ago with help from the Bridges Arts Council and a $16,000 grant from the estate of Sharon Clancy. The grant paid for most of the $25,000 in renovations needed to convert parts of the Stavenger Building (built in 1920 as The Bank of Valley City) into a place to save sound.

The rough space that is the ground floor “live” recording studio includes amps, speakers and equipment to record 16 channels. Stairs lead up to the second floor soundproofed studio and audio mixing area, where individual instruments and vocals can be re-recorded. A closed-circuit television system and intercom link the two rooms.

“I’ve been learning as this thing is built,” Brekke said.

Reves, who works full-time as an audio technician at Concordia College in Moorhead, said the studio is a great opportunity for learning while doing.

The focus is on providing a place for people to record “without paying a lot of money,” Reves said.

“It’s less of a recording studio and more of a place that people come to learn, a learning lab,” Reves said.

Philip Reves prepares to record Fargo singer songwriter Aaron Hochstetler at "The Vault" in Valley City, N.D., on Monday, May 6, 2019. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
Philip Reves prepares to record Fargo singer songwriter Aaron Hochstetler at "The Vault" in Valley City, N.D., on Monday, May 6, 2019. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)(Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

Hochstetler, who works as a bartender in Fargo, says his music is “just a part-time gig” for now, but he has 40 songs that he’s written, and he would like to have an EP ready by the end of summer, with his three or four best songs on it.

He says the studio is “a great opportunity.”

“It’s a great way for me to learn,” Hochstetler said.

Musicians interested in recording music for distribution can call Brekke at (701) 840-3512 or email DavidBrekke@BrekkeConsulting.com.