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Published May 21st 2017
Follow your dream, record like a star
The island of Santorini is one of the most famous images the world has of Greece. There's the blue domed churches, the white washed homes adoring the cliff-face overlooking the Aegean Sea, and the most majestic sunset in the world. But did you know there's also a hidden gem on the island?
If you're an aspiring artist, songwriter, musician, record producer or manager, have you ever felt the need to change your environment to unleash your creative side? I found the most inspiring recording facility known as Black Rock Studios on the island of Santorini, Greece.
Black Rock Studios
I was first made aware of this 'hidden gem' by Ilir Agoli a local guitarist/singer I'd often sing with on the island. While enjoying our 'frappe', soaking up the view at Kamari Beach and surfing the net for potential songs, he bought up a conversation about artists who had visited Santorini to record at this 'world class studio and villa'. What? A studio on this island? He had me at world class.
Outdoor pool at Black Rock Studios Villa. Photo: İAlexandros Maragos
Curiosity got the better of me and I searched for the studio online. The pictures spoke a thousand words. A luxury white villa built in a style that combined modern and traditional Cycladic architecture, sprawled on property to the south of the island. Intrigued, I wanted to crank up my moped, and go for a ride to find it. Asking Ilir if he was keen to join me, with a surprised look he reassured me it was very private and elite - that Lady Gaga, Metallica and U2 had been rumoured to have made inquiries, and that I was deluded to think I could turn up and hope to be let in.
Black Rock Studios night view
Deluded? Well, I was adamant to find out more about this studio, and tracked down its owner Kostas Kalimeris, who could best be described as 'music royalty' in Greece. His credits include Head of A&R for Universal Music Group International, A&R Director for Heaven Music Group Greece and chosen by the famous Sterling Sound Studios in New York as their e-mastering representative in Greece. He's worked in the best studios in New York and London, producing 200 gold and platinum records. Obviously well respected in his field, he was signed to the X-Factor series in Greece, where for three seasons he acted as their 'repertoire consultant'.
So what chance did I have contacting Kostas? Seriously, would I have any luck, and more importantly, would he be on the island? Being a determined soul, wanting to prove to my guitarist that I'm actually quite sane, gave it a go, believing my chances to be as slim as bumping into Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the local bakery.
Angelina Jolie fell in love with Santorini after filming Tomb Raider. She owns a Villa with Brad Pitt in Santorini. Photo: Efloch
I sent off an email hoping it wouldn't end up in a spam folder, while calling on the help and blessing of any Greek God lurking around the island that I get a reply. Well, Kostas was gracious enough to return my email, with a busy schedule ahead of him, he made time see me! I called Ilir, "We're visiting Black Rock, I'm not deluded", knowing full well he'll never doubt me when I set my mind on something in future!
Outdoor pool and jacuzzi at sunset at Black Rock Studios Villa.
Kostas Kalimeris. Owner, Black Rock Studios
I arrived at the Villa surrounded by a striking rock wall, and made my way up the winding driveway. While admiring the well maintained landscaped gardens featuring a range of wild-flowers, I noticed that pebbles and rocks were a main characteristic of the property. A variety of different shapes and sizes lined the driveway and others were strategically placed around the grounds.
Entrance to Black Rock Studios
Driveway at Black Rock Studios
I was warmly greeted by Kostas Kalimeras, a man of strong character, very well spoken and with an excellent command of English. He looked younger than I expected considering his decades of experience in the industry. Apologising for having to take a call, he asked if I didn't mind waiting in the Villa, while free to have a look around and help myself to a cold drink or coffee. So professional is Kostas at his job, he could have easily cancelled or rescheduled the meeting, but didn't. I understand why he's so respected by his peers, a man who definitely keeps his word.
Excited much? Me in front of Black Rock Studios Santorini
The Villa is built on a cliff-top area of 6,700 sqare meters, close to the famous Lighthouse of Santorini and engulfed by some of the most breathtaking oceanic views in the world. The beautiful white-stone building blends in well with other stunning residences scattered across the island.
Kitchen in the Villa.
The Villa is spread across three large floors, with several living and dining areas, three open lounge areas, an open plan kitchen and a choice of secluded indoor hangouts.
Games area in the Villa
Office area in the Villa
Every room from the living area to the secluded hangouts are tastefully decorated by talented interior designer Voula Gogorosi. She designed the five bedrooms to be different in style from one another, as they all have different views depending on their location. They each have their own en-suite bathroom, satellite TV, CD player, direct dial phone and mini-bar. The two largest suites are on the lower-ground floor, with three slightly smaller rooms located on the two upper floors. The Villa is fitted with modern quality fixtures throughout, and the decor Voula has chosen is exquisite.
Voula designed each bedroom in a different style
The outdoor area is equally as magnificent. Four decked terraces line different sides, where guests can relax, sunbathe, or dine, while savouring the tranquil blue waters of the Aegean and its breathtaking evening sunsets. Guests can also make use of the outdoor pool, jacuzzi and BBQ area.
The view of the best sunset in the world
The sunset by the pool area
Outdoor patio area
This Villa is definitely five star quality also providing daily concierge and housekeeping services. A private chef and waiter is available upon request, as well as groceries delivered to the premises. Other additional services include onsite massages, laundry and pressing, and the private transportation to and from the island's port and airport.
After Kostas finished his call he whipped up two five-star frappes (Greek iced coffee) where I thought, is there anything he isn't good at? He immediately made me feel relaxed and comfortable, making our way out to the pool area, I was curious to hear what was behind his motivation to built a residential studio facility.
"Santorini is a place that enchants you at first glance. The landscape you never get bored with, and it never ceases to amaze you. There's a 'special energy' on the island that you feel throughout all seasons of the year, and that 'vibe' is what helps to create, compose and record music. Some artists before starting to record, have been inspired to write songs that were later recorded and released." He said.
As our conversation progressed, it was clear his passion and vision to build such a facility was a childhood dream. He opened up about his journey to turn the dream into reality. Initially, he was to build the studio on another island, but after some research decided Santorini was to be its home. The island was voted as Best Island in the World in 2011 by Travel and Leisure Magazine, is a well known Greek island, and easy to get to by sea and air.
I could see the island is close to Kostas' heart, believing the location can inspire and influence artists and musicians in a positive way. He also feels the location of a world world class residential studio in a 'resort style setting' is what attracts artists to leave big cities such as LA and New York to record in Santorini.
The studio opened its doors in June 2009, the same year it was nominated and won an award by Audio Pro International for 'Best New Studio in the World'.
Kostas' first project was with Kevin Shirley legendary producer of successful rock bands and artists such as Journey, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith,The Black Crowes, Joe Bonamassa, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Dream Theatre, Mr Big, Europe, and Australian bands Silverchair, Cold Chisel, Divinyls, Hoodoo Gurus, Olivia Newton John, and Baby Animals to name a few. It was clear the way he spoke about the experience while showing the memorabilia on the wall, that both share an admirable respect for one another. I asked if Kevin Shirley had sat in the chair I was comfortably relaxing on - which at that moment I'm sure Kostas like Ilir, thought I was deluded! His reaction? With a smile that lit up the room, "Let me make you another frappe, I'm enjoying this chat".
Kostas Kalimeris and Kevin 'Caveman' Shirley
Sitting on the balcony enjoying my second frappe while admiring the yachts sailing on the crystal blue waters of the Aegean sea, Kostas told me about Kevin Shirley wanting to record American blues rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa at Black Rock Studios. He opened up about the pressure he felt at the time as to how it would go and whether it would run smoothly. It was so successful Shirley and Bonamassa decided to name the album after the studio, and include a photo of Santorini on the front cover. Asked how he felt about that, he humbly answered, "It was a great honour."
Joe Bonamassa and Kostas Kalimeris. Photo: Joe Bonamassa
Having recorded in a few studios, I was absolutely blown away by the size of the console, and the top of the range equipment. I was so tempted to ask if I could go into the studio booth to say 'check one two' into the microphone, just so I can hear the quality sound through headphones. I wondered, how did such a monstrous console fit through the door, and how hard was it to build a studio on the island?
Kostas explained that building the recording studio was no easy task. He called on the services of Roger D'Arcy from Recording Architecture who I tracked down in Paris. Roger had to start from scratch, by firstly viewing the property assessing the feasibility for such a project. While having to take into account the existing architectural style, he planned out the spaces, adding new rooms built out of the local black volcanic rock, as well as designing the acoustics for all the recording areas. Interior designer, Voula Gogorosi not only added her touch to the Villa, but also the studio area, selecting colour schemes for the acoustic ceiling panels.
I was intrigued as to how Roger had taken this career path, finding out he drifted into the music industry after completing six years of architecture studies at Sheffield University, and stumbling onto this niche outlet for his design skills in the early 80's. Roger's experience of designing and building studios around the world has been outlined in RA:The Book - The Recording Architecture Book of Studio Design.Black Rock Studios became one of the main featured studio projects in the book.
Kostas opened up about the many difficulties he had to face when constructing the studio, and how the operation had to be carefully planned to schedule. The transporting of the console was a mammoth task as it was accidentally sent to the island where the studio was initially to be set up. It was stored in a warehouse, then later transported to Santorini by boat which was challenging. When fitting it into the studio, part of the wall had to be knocked down to move it in, and then rebuilt.
Kostas pointed out the many reasons why an artist would be attracted to record at Black Rock Studios. It's about leaving a daily routine and problems behind, going to a place, and focussing on a project. Artists reside in the Villa without having to go home each night and return the next day. The moment an artist gets inspired, to be able to leave their bedroom to go to the close-by studio is a bonus. It's a serene and beautiful environment to compose, or prepare work for an album.
During a break there's nothing more pleasant than a swim in the pool, back inside to record, enjoy a glass of wine, or watch the most beautiful sunset in the world. It's about experiencing a different lifestyle that fits perfectly with the production of an album.
The studio at Black Rock is located on the western side of the Villa on the ground floor. It's a beautifully designed and crafted creative space, featuring a variety of different areas, making it a first-rate facility for both tracking and mixing projects.
Access to the studio is through its own external entrance, which leads into a large 40 square meter day-lit control room looking out over the sea. At the centre of the room is a pristine SSL 9080 J Series console with Ultimation and Total Recall. The desk is joined by an impressive monitoring set-up, comprising Genelec 1035B speakers and a choice of KRK E8 and Yamaha NS10 nearfield monitors. A Protools HD2 rig runs on an Apple MAC PRO. There's a good selection of outboard including Neve 1081 Classic pre-amps, Manley, Focusrite and Avalon dynamics, and a variety of FX processers. Clients have access to a great choice of microphones, including several Shure, Senheiser, Neumann and AKG models.
Photo: İAlexandros Maragos
Situated next to the control room is the main recording area, which measures 25 square meters. This long and tall room features a unique 6 metre high arch-shaped ceiling which helps produce a fantastic sound. At one end of the room are some sea facing windows letting plenty of natural light into the space.
On the other side of the live room are two good-sized recording booths. The first is a specially designed 15 square meter drum booth, capable of producing a fantastic range of colourful drum sounds. At the back of the booth is another window facing the sea and the outdoor pool, and at the front is a large glass divide into a smaller booth, which serves as a great isolation space for recording vocals or guitars. This small booth is adjoined to the Villa's kitchen and dining area, providing an additional entrance and exit to the studio.
The design of the studio has allowed for fantastic visibility between all of the separate areas, through a number of soundproof windows and thick glass doors. Each of the studio's rooms has the benefit of natural daylight. An additional unique feature which the studio provides is special tie-lines connecting to Black Rock's bedrooms and outdoor spaces, providing artists with a whole host of other recording options.
Iron Maiden's Steve Harris and producer Kevin Shirley have recorded at the studio, as well as American pop rock band One Republic.
Kostas Kalimeris, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, and Kevin Shirley
I hope this story has inspired you in some way, the same way I was when I visited the studio. Kostas pulls no punches when he talks openly about his childhood dream and how it became a reality.
"Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it." Raymond Chandler.