Whitehouse Productions in Wausau has been the go-to pro even as the music scene changed. Now the studio is expanding.
There was a time when Marty Cheyka and his wife Shelby didn’t want anything to do with music.
It was 2004, they’d just moved back to his hometown of Wausau from Atlanta, where a very promising record deal went completely south and the album they’d put their heart and soul into got picked apart by too many musical cooks seemingly bent on spoiling the soup.
Anyone who knows Marty Cheyka knows how much he cares about his music projects. So they know how much it must have killed him to produce a record for a major music label, only to have it pulled apart as other producers tried to drastically reshape it into a product that wouldn’t compete with other releases coming from artists such as Sheryl Crow on the label’s other imprints. Ultimately the album was shelved and what would have been a multiple album deal fell through.
“Bands want to put more into their record because nowadays they have to do more themselves,” Cheyka says.
If it sounds like a could-have-been story, it’s actually a phoenix rising from the ashes story.
Today, hiding in plain sight on the outskirts of town, sits the Cheykas’ Whitehouse Productions. It’s a recording studio that’s attracting artists from around the country, as well as many local musicians who want a national level sound.
Now, roughly ten years since the studio was founded, Whitehouse Productions will expand to add a photography studio and a lounge area. Shelby’s the photographer and has done photo shoots for some of the bands that record with Whitehouse, and has shot some music videos for them as well.
The studio weathered the recession without much change. What has changed in that time is the music business itself. Pretty much gone are the days when musicians recorded a short demo in hopes of getting a record contract like the Cheykas once had. Today they’re recording full albums and marketing them on their own on multiple avenues: YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, just to name a few, Shelby says.
Full albums mean more work for the studio. It also means everyone spends more time in the studio, making a lounge helpful. “We’re a one-stop shop,” Shelby says. “I do album covers, graphics, all in one place.”
What music gets made
It’s not necessarily easy to get a studio spot with Marty Cheyka — you need to be vetted. And it’s not just about talent. The Cheykas are cautious about the people they let into their studio, which is in a separate building from their house. They also want to make sure it’s a good fit.
The vetting process also determines how hands-on an artist wants Cheyka to get — whether he takes on the role of producer, helping to shape the sound and making suggestions to improve the music, or simply serves as sound engineer.
Marty Cheyka has been quietly, but insider-famously, operating his Wausau area studio for more than 10 years, and this year is eyeing an expansion
Hearing the sound coming from the speakers on the latest track from an artist named Alex Neville, a gifted 15-year-old singer from Michigan (daughter of the founder of Neville Guitars, which Marty plays along with Paul Reed Smiths), it’s clear why musicians want to take advantage of Cheyka’s production chops. The recording sounds like anything that would be produced in music hot beds like New York, L.A., Nashville or Atlanta.
You’ll find no address on the Whitehouse Productions website. Other than a website and YouTube, Cheyka does no marketing. He doesn’t need to. Work comes in from all over the country, and not just bands coming in for full recording sessions but also mixing work, people sending him their work for some touch up. His reputation precedes him.
In fact, the bulk of his time is spent in the mixing/fixing stage of recording. Pro Tools, the universal software of the recording world, can do some incredible things. It can take a drummer who’s just a little in front of the beat and shift it to where it should be. It can take a slightly out of tune note and adjust it back on pitch. But that requires a sound engineer who knows what he’s doing.
Musicians who recorded with Marty told City Pages that he is that guy with that know-how, and in the do-it-yourself era, the importance of quality recording is even more important.
A home away from home
Walking into Whitehouse Productions studio for the first time is a little startling, if only in how cozy the place seems. Sure, all the accouterments of a recording studio are there: the big mixing board with all the knobs and dials, racks of sound equipment most people wouldn’t have the first clue how to use, walls of guitars including the aforementioned Paul Reed Smiths and Neville guitars, and glass windows behind which lies an impressive sound studio. The lighting is dim, with wood grained walls accented by red finishes.
Shelby and Marty Cheyka inside their Whitehouse Productions studio, which they plan to expand this year.
There are big cushy chairs to sit in and couches to lounge in between sessions or while your bandmates are busy laying down tracks. A little glowing guitar on top of the mixing board is a nice touch. It’s the kind of place a person doesn’t want to leave after a while.
“From an artists’ perspective, you need to be in a comfortable environment to be creative,” says Joe Ellis, a local musician who runs JEM Productions live sound and puts on the Toys for Tots fundraiser show at the Grand Theater every year. “The lighting, the vibe of the whole place needs to create an energy that inspires people. [The Cheykas] have done an awesome job to get the look one would expect from A-list studios. That’s the vibe they’ve got going on.”
And that’s important because you’re likely going to be there awhile. Recording takes a long time and it’s an even more meticulous process under Marty Cheyka—he pushes musicians to get everything just right, so at the end of the day it’s a polished project.
Needed quality in a DIY music world
Musicians are vetted for both talent and personality. “He’s so busy, you don’t go to him, you put your interest in, he will decide if you’re worthy of his time,” says Nick Bretl, drummer for Wausau band The Mad, Mad Ones.
Before agreeing to sit down with the band, Cheyka sent someone to go see The Mad, Mad Ones first, Bretl says. They even did some pre-production to make sure it was a good fit before going into full recording mode.
The process from there was “easy as pie” Bretl says. Cheyka was a blast to work with, Bretl says, and his input and musical ear was invaluable.
And that wasn’t The Mad, Mad Ones’ first experience recording. Their earlier EP was done through Terrarium in Minneapolis. That studio had just finished recording Prince’s latest album at the time.
Cheyka’s recording chops were as good as that Minneapolis studio, but better because Cheyka gave a personal touch. “He’d just done Prince’s album, he didn’t give a shit about us,” Bretl said of the Minneapolis studio. “In the end we were just another band to him. With Marty, if he records you, he wants to record you. If you’re there, he wants you there.”
Quality was important when recording The Mad Mad Ones’ Down the Rabbit Hole because it’s not a demo; it’s the band’s first full album and their selling point. It’s available in forms such as Spotify, iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon music.
That’s reflective of where bands are going: They no longer want just a demo, they want a finished product.
Heavy metal band The Will, based in Wausau, recorded its EP with Cheyka and plans to record a full album in January. This is another good example of needing quality. Their self-titled EP is available on iTunes, and so they need a finished product that will serve as some people’s first introduction to the band. Having a quality recording isn’t just a nice-to-have thing. In today’s do-it-yourself world, it’s a must.
There was a time when the Cheykas had what every musician dreams of. They were signed to Interscope Records to a five-album, nine year deal. They had the ear of Jimmy Iovine, one of the most influential music executives of the time. They were working directly with famed producer, singer, songwriter and rapper Timbaland.
It’s exactly why Marty Cheyka had moved to Atlanta in the first place. His favorite metal bands were from Atlanta, such as Sevendust, and getting in a metal band was his goal. He got a job doing work at Mars Music in the recording department, and that’s where he met Shelby.
They spent months and months working on Shelby’s album, getting everything just right, part of Marty Cheyka’s perfectionism that carries over to this day. “With her record, we spent a year and a half, two years writing tons of songs, getting them just right,” Marty Cheyka says. “Then things get taken away. It’s like someone is picking away at parts of your body.”
The realities of how the music business works at that level kicked in. Producers and executives started getting wind of the record, and starting putting their own spin on it. Changes were made to avoid sounding like other artists set to release albums around the same time.
It started out sounding like early Sade, Marty Cheyka says; by the time other producers were done with it, it sounded like something unrecognizable, something they didn’t like. The more Cheyka protested, the more things went south. Their per diem was cut off, and the money stopped flowing in. They left just about everything behind to come back to Wisconsin, bitter with the music business.
They moved to Wausau in 2004, and neither of them touched music for a good year. They lived with Cheyka’s brother, and much of their stuff was in storage anyway. A year later, they bought a house, and after that started the studio that’s still going on today.
Starting the studio was a business decision, Marty Cheyka says. He still has the masters from Shelby’s ill-fated record, and he does listen to the music on occasion. It was a disillusioning experience, but he met Shelby during that time, and it directly led to the life they lead now. “I wouldn’t trade any of it,” Marty Cheyka says. “For one, I met her. We have a wonderful family because of it, learned a lot, met a lot of awesome people, and met a lot of snakes. The stuff we learned, you can’t get that type of knowledge unless you go through it.”
The business has pretty much hummed along since then. Fall, winter and spring are typically busy recording times, as bands prepare albums for their upcoming playing seasons in the summer. Cheyka says he’s hardly in the studio during the summer months. He occasionally gets requests to install music rooms. And he and Shelby play in two local bands, Whitehouse Players and Hip Pocket, which fills their summers with music performance.
Local music and the recession
There’s no doubt the Great Recession and the long recovery years hurt the music scene, as bands saw live gigs dry up. But when asked how Whitehouse Productions weathered those down years, Marty Cheyka has to think long and hard. He doesn’t recall it having the slightest impact on his business… until Shelby reminds him about live sound. Yes, many of the festivals they once did sound for disappeared—he mentions Weston Fest and Why Not Wausau. Eventually they gave up the live sound business.
“That’s what was hurt the most, the live production business,” Marty says. But inside the studio, the music stayed strong.
Other than adding new equipment that helps his studio, there haven’t been many changes until this year. The Cheykas will expand the white studio building on their property out 16 feet, creating space for a photography studio for Shelby’s business, and a lounge to keep the studio feeling less crowded.
The expansion will help accommodate musicians who now are spending more time in the studio to meet today’s demand for a finished product that’s quickly sent out to fans.
“These bands want to put more into their record because nowadays they have to do more themselves,” Cheyka says. “That means they spend more time here.”
To learn more about the Cheykas’ recording studio, go to whitehouseaudio.com and check out their YouTube channel Whitehouse Productions to see some of the artists they’ve worked with.