The Reno Collective building had a former life as a recording studio
The house at 1515 Plumas St. has never been a casino, but many people have placed bets there—most of them on their careers.
Today, the building is home to the Reno Collective, a co-working space that opened in 2009. Its members—freelancers, startups and telecommuters—are the kind of people who are familiar with the notion of gambling on success.
The Collective moved from its previous location to the house on Plumas Street a year ago. According to co-founder Colin Loretz, one of the members saw the house as a chance for the Collective to have a “forever home” and purchased it to lease to the organization. Now, writers, programmers, podcasters, software developers and others put the building’s 6,000 square feet to a variety of uses. Spread over three floors, it contains quiet rooms used for telephone calls; café-style work spaces with large, communal tables; rooms for storing extra computer hardware; office spaces for small businesses; a maker space with a 3D printer on loan from one of the members for use in prototyping; and a full kitchen stocked with at least a half-dozen means for making coffee, from percolators to French presses.
From the outside, it’s easy to imagine a time when the house would have been filled with a family, children playing in the front yard—but that’s nowhere near the truth.
Its Victorian-style façade belies the fact that this house was never intended to be a home. Inside—where the building hums with the quiet energy of Collective members working and placing their bets on new products and ideas—there are clues pointing to a time when people gathered there to wager on new ventures of a more specific, much noisier variety.
Home sweet sound studio
When late musician Robert Forman and his wife Linda, together with other business partners, had the mansion on Plumas Street constructed in 1985, they envisioned it as a sophisticated recording studio melded with a bed-and-breakfast—and Reno as a place where big-name acts would come to escape urban pressures and make albums in peace.
Granny’s House Recording Studio was a big dream, and one that seemed poised to come true. It was built with huge, state-of-the-art recording spaces and top-of-the-line equipment. Within months of it opening, artists had begun taking chances on recording in Reno. On April 26, 1986, Billboard Magazine ran a photo of Motown artist Rockwell—best known for his hit “Somebody’s Watching Me"—with Forman in studio. The photo was headlined “Better than chicken soup,” and its caption said the artist had been well taken care of while recording his latest album there and made mention of the new studio’s high-end “SSL 6000 Series E console.”
As record producer and engineer Tom Gordon remembers it, unlike with the musicians, it was the studio that took a chance on him—in part thanks to that console. Gordon, a drummer, had started out as a drum major at the University of Southern California but switched paths when the school started a new recording arts program. He was the 13th person to enroll in it. And shortly before graduating from the USC in 1991, the Reno native was given some advice by famed A&M Records chief engineer and vice president Shelly Yakus.
“On a tour of that studio, he told the students, ‘If you’re not from L.A., you may want to go back to your hometown,'” Gordon recalled.
According to Yakus, for engineers, it might be easier to be a big fish in a small pond.
“I knew about Granny’s House,” Gordon said. “And I was like, ‘Well, let’s see if I can go back to Reno and see if I can land a gig at Granny’s House.'”
He did, about five months after graduation.
“They needed some help, and, amazingly enough, we had the same recording console and tape machine at USC that they had at Granny’s House,” Gordon said.
At the time, the studio was in the middle of recording an album for disgraced Milli Vanilli members Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, whose lip-syncing on their previous album had sunk their careers. The album, called Rob & Fab, took up the first 10 months of Gordon’s time at the studio but was ultimately unsuccessful. According to a 1998 VH1 Behind the Music special, only 2,000 to 3,000 copies were ever pressed.
But by then, Gordon said, the studio had already recorded stars like Ronnie James Dio and Whitesnake. And more were to come.
“The people who owned the vast majority of the business took it over sometime around 1992, and those were Jerry Roth Junior and Senior—who own Bulbman, the light bulb shop, over on Sunshine Lane,” Gordon said.
Around that time, he recalled, the studio and its equipment got an upgrade. Contemporary furniture replaced stuffy Victorian pieces in the bedrooms and living areas. And more big artists came through the doors, including Ozzy Osbourne, Merle Haggard and Collective Soul—whose 1995 self-titled album was recorded at Granny’s.
But even for big-name bands, recording could be a gamble, and Gordon recalls several times when songs and albums recorded at Granny’s were unsuccessful—or sometimes never even saw the light of day.
“Right after Milli Vanilli, actually, there was a group named Nelson—the two twin sons of Ricky Nelson,” Gordon said. “They were two twin boys with platinum blond, long hair who had a massive hit. So we did their sophomore record at Granny’s—but the label thought it was too progressive. So they shot it down and redid the whole thing.”
On another occasion, country music legends Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Johnny Rodriguez came together to record a song for the Special Olympics called “Everyone Has a Chance to Win.” It was written by Freddy Powers. But it only ever got a limited release on cassette.
“I heard later there were disputes with Willie’s management over the release of it,” Gordon said.
However, successes and failures are both natural in the recording business, according to Gordon, who stayed at the studio even after it changed ownership and names in 1995.
Striking a deal
Like Gordon, Tim Tucker is another Reno native. Local newspapers clippings he keeps from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s document his record as a champion high school and college swimmer with Olympic aspirations. For Tucker, however, there had always been a personal debate—whether to wager his future success on his swimming career or go all-in on his lifelong passion for songwriting.
“I almost got signed to Polygram Records in the early ‘80s,” Tucker said.
In fact, he explained, it came down to a choice between attempting to make the 1980 Olympic swimming team and making additional demos to send to the record label. He chose the demos. He made the first one in Tucson where he’d studied computers and been a swimmer for the University of Arizona team. The second, he made back at home in Reno.
“I kept sending the vice president my music, and he’d call me back and say, ‘Send me another one, I really like your stuff,'” Tucker recalled. “So, finally, I’m like 24 and I’ve got a degree in computers, and everyone’s going, ‘What do you think you are? Some rock star?’ I just want to be a songwriter. There’s nothing about being a rock star involved in any of this. It’s, ‘I want to be a successful songwriter.'”
Tucker was supposed to send a third demo to the record company but ended up getting a job in Reno selling computers. Later, he owned a mail-order wildlife photography gallery. And in the late 1980s, he caught a break that led him into a career as a land developer and, eventually, into enough money to pursue his musical ambitions with new gusto.
“My brother Scott and I bought 1,200 acres in Spanish Springs, from the savings and loan bailout of 1989,” Tucker said. “So we bought it from the federal government. And it was unbelievable. My brother and I were not wealthy. We bought it for a nickel on the dollar. … I knew when I bought the property, I was a multimillionaire. Now, I thought, ‘I’ve just got to hang in there and do the right thing.’ I learned how to become a land developer.”
When Granny’s came up for sale in the mid-90s, Tucker had built enough wealth to consider buying it. He was already familiar with some of the people at Granny’s and had at one point worked on an ultimately unsuccessful deal with the studio’s in-house label.
“The studio, we knew, was up for sale,” Tucker said. “And I went in with Bjorn [Thorsrud, a long-time Granny’s engineer], and I talked to Jerry Roth Jr. We went in and we talked to Jerry Roth, and he wanted 2 million dollars for the studio. I left the meeting, and I just said, ‘There’s no way I can afford it.’ And number two, I really didn’t have the time, right at that time. But I couldn’t afford that. I couldn’t pay that.”
But, eventually, a deal was struck—for a lower amount that Tucker said he did not want to disclose. And on Sept. 15, 1995, Granny’s House became Sierra Sonics Recording Mansion. For the next two decades, the studio’s fortunes were tied to Tucker and his to it.
Ups and downs
The last half of the 1990s and the early 2000s were good times for the studio. It brought in big names, from Michael Martin Murphy to P-Funk All Stars—and, perhaps most notably, Dr. Dre.
Both Tucker and Gordon have fond memories of the rapper and the 16-person entourage he’d bring to Reno with him any time he recorded.
But phases of good fortune for the studio were often punctuated by rough spells. Among the first, Tucker said, was the period following the death of his brother, Scott, in 1997.
“That was my god,” Tucker said. “I idolized that man to no extent. He was an all-state football player. He was a doctor. He taught me how to play a guitar. … I was in such sorry shape. And I remember, we were in the middle of developing—putting lots in—out in Spanish Springs. We were partners. … All hell broke loose. And it took forever to get it fixed.”
Back then, Tucker and Gordon were in a band together called the Desert Dudes. The record they were working on featured Mike Tramp of White Lion, whom Tucker explained had seen the band at the Blue Lamp on Sierra Street and wanted to join. Tramp’s backup vocals appear on several tracks from the album, which was never released.
The Desert Dudes quit playing together sometime during 1998 or ‘99, and both Gordon and fellow engineer Thorsrud departed from the studio around the same time.
“At the beginning, when, you know, Bjorn [Thorsrud] and Tom [Gordon] and some real talented engineers were there—it had a chance in hell to make it, but once the talent split, it was never going to make it,” Tucker said.
Thorsrud, according to Tucker, “split with Whitesnake.” And Gordon left to try his hand at freelancing.
“So many of my college friends were going that route and getting attached to some great stuff,” Gordon said. “I certainly had worked great stuff at Granny’s and Sierra Sonics, thanks to the likes of Robert Forman, Jerry Roth and Tim Tucker, but it was a good time to spread my wings a bit more.”
For Tucker, it wouldn’t be long before selling the studio became a consideration. “When was my first deal? I think it was 2003,” Tucker said. “The partners got in a big financial fight, and it never closed. … What they wanted to do was get paid by the state—troubled teens would live there and be trained as recording engineers.”
Tucker said he liked this idea, in particular because the deal would have included a promise that he could record there any time. And—in the end—he said, becoming a studio owner was something he’d done in the hopes of having a space from which to launch his own musical career.
When the recession hit, Tucker still owned the studio and was in no position to sell it. And business continued to flag in the years to follow—with fewer big names coming to record.
“And the local bands—most of the musicians—just didn’t have very much of a budget to record,” Tucker said. “And so it was really a heartbreak. I had this—it’s a big aircraft carrier.”
On Jan. 1, 2015, Tucker announced on the Sierra Sonics Facebook page that the studio was closing. In 2017, he sold the building.
“After owning it for 22 years, I’d never go back to that—ever,” he said. “I would have stayed more focused on my music and kept it right there.”
Odes to the past
The days when the Plumas Street mansion was filled with recording artists, producers and engineers are gone. Now, for the most part, music plays through Collective members’ headphones—and the old studio spaces are filled with the quiet clacking of keyboards. But according to Loretz, the Collective has found ways to honor the building’s history—and, to some degree, keep it alive.
The speakers and banks of lights that run high along the walls in the old control room are there to stay, he explained—as are other reminders of the past, like a gramophone that was cut in half and affixed to the wall in what was once Studio-A, now a café-style workspace.
“We don’t need to come in and completely erase what was here before,” Loretz said. “We have a lot of musicians and artists in the Collective as it is.”
And according to Loretz, some of the recording spaces in the building are actually still used as such. In particular, there’s a podcasting room—a serious boon for Collective members like Chris Webster, a historical resource management specialist and founder of the Archaeology Podcast Network. In the Collective’s last home—the large, glass-fronted space on the ground floor of Arlington Towers—there was no space for him to record quality audio.
“I tried in both conference rooms we had,” Webster said. “Neither was conducive to recording, for various reasons. … But then we moved into this space, which is a former, world-class recording studio. Talking to Colin and one of the managers, we decided to basically carve off one of the isolation booths around the main studio and dedicate it to podcasting.”
Now, Webster uses the space to produce his podcasts and teach others, including clients and Collective members, to do the same.
Looking to the future, Loretz sees no reason to worry about the Collective’s sustainability in the Plumas Street mansion. For the last several years, he explained, the Collective has maintained equilibrium at around 100 members.
Like the artists who recorded there in the past, some of the people who use the space now will succeed and keep coming back, some will fail and not return, and some will move on to new spaces and different projects. And like the studio before it, the Collective will occasionally draw in new people. It already has.
When entrepreneur and Collective member Phil Dhingra moved to Reno from Austin, Texas, he was drawn by a similar dream to the one that fueled Granny’s—a place to escape the urban grind and focus on work. Reno, he said, is smaller and more affordable than many other thriving startup hubs with co-working spaces.
He said he moved here specifically for the Collective.
“For me, living in casual, creative environments, like Austin 10 years ago and Reno today, gives me the necessary space to explore ideas for years without having to worry about a return on investment,” Dhingra said. “It’s enabled me to work on a multi-year book project and to spend years hacking on iOS apps. For other creatives, high-pressure environments are better, because they force them to generate revenue or fundraise quickly. Bay Area entrepreneurs have to make their ideas work, whether or not they have a perfect one, whereas I like to take my time daydreaming until the right idea comes along, and then go all-in.”