Tucked away in a sheltered nook behind the Canary Hotel hides the newest addition to Santa Barbara’s recording-studio scene: Hidden City Studios. Founded last year by UCSB grad Elliott Lanam, the musical enclave serves as an affordable space for music-makers of all kinds to record and realize their creative dreams.
Lanam, 25, opened Hidden City when he sensed a lack of affordably priced professional recording and engineering studios in Santa Barbara. Area musicians, he said, had only high-end options to choose from, with studios asking for upward of $150 an hour. An hour at Hidden City goes for $50, engineer included. Lanam said he hopes “to give musicians a place that doesn’t break the bank, but with the same professionalism and pleasure” as other S.B. studios.
Lanam cut his teeth into some of the city’s top studios. He got his start interning at Santa Barbara Sound Design while a student at SBCC. In his spare time, he experimented with looping and recording with a synth sequencer at home and taught himself compositional principles. He advanced onto UCSB to study ethnomusicology, where he juggled his studies with a bartending job and a position at Playback Recording Studio as a producer and engineer.
The positions helped him take his production skills to a new level. “It really just taught me professionalism. In music, there’s a fine line between having fun and really taking it seriously, and I always stress professionalism,” Lanam said. His is not a partying style of production — he gets right to work. “Sometimes people just wanna get drunk, and I never do that. If someone’s paying for that time and working on their dreams, then let’s take it seriously.”
It was also at Playback that Lanam had the chance to join Katy Perry’s production team. Working directly with producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin, Lanam assisted in engineering the platinum hits “Roar” and “Dark Horse,” the Prism songs that earned the production team Grammy nominations in 2014 and 2015. He remembers hearing Perry walking through the Playback halls, teasing out the lyrics of her soon-to-be hit, singing, “I’ve got the eye of the liger …”
Though small, Hidden City Studios is packed with gear, from a variety of synths and a 1955 Hammond organ to a ukulele and a flight of digital audio workspaces such as Pro Tools, Ableton, and Logic. Lanam lets the artist guide the experience and is as hands-on or hands-off as the client likes. When asked, though, the piano-proficient Lanam can readily combine his thorough knowledge of music theory with his keen intuition for imaginative possibilities to rattle off ideas for a song’s direction, and he lets the musician decide from there. “I give them exactly what they want, and they give me the final say. I can only hope to give them the right option or try for whatever they’re going for,” he said.
Above all, he abides by the simplicity of KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid — and knowing when enough is enough. He quotes famed guitarist and friend Tariqh Akoni, who said, “You never finish a mix; you just sort of stop.”
In his spare time, Lanam pens commercial jingles and sound-alike songs to help pay the bills and sharpen his sense for melodies. “When it comes to songwriting, catchy stuff has always been something that has been interesting to me,” he said. He reads pop hits on a formulaic level, studying the structure of all kinds of genres — rock, EDM, hip-hop — in order to maximize the potential of the works he writes or edits. He hopes to build up a healthy roster of jingle hits and gradually expand Hidden City’s size and capabilities.
So if you seek a grassroots venue to grow your musical dreams, your answer may be hiding in plain sight.