Patrick Hills: one-man studio
How the founder of Earth Tone Studios became one of Sacramento’s most sought-after producers
Like a lot of sound engineers, Patrick Hills learned how to mix and record in his parents’ garage—and out of necessity.
“I played in bands for a long time,” he says. “I always loved documenting stuff that I made, but my friends and I didn’t have $5,000 to record at a really nice studio.”
And now, Hills, who runs Earth Tone Studios, has decided to take on sound engineering full time, still out of necessity, though of a different kind—his phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
“I was getting so much work that I couldn’t keep up,” he said. “I had to make the change.”
Right now, Hills is booked for the next two months, producing new projects for neighborhood bands like Keres, (waning) and Battle Hag. He quit his job teaching private guitar lessons at the Music Store in Rocklin to catch up on his deadlines.
The one-man studio recorded some notable Sacramento artists over the past eight years, including Chrch, 7Seconds, King Woman, the Moans, So Stressed and Sun Valley Gun Club. That’s a fraction of the names. Hills built his rep mostly from word of mouth.
“I’ve literally never taken out an ad or anything,” he says.
His enterprise used to be called In My Garage, an appropriate Weezer reference given his first workspace. Hills eventually moved into his parents’ attic, and his earliest professional recordings date back to 2007, when he produced a set of demos for an experimental punk group called bygones, featuring Zach Hill (Hella, Death Grips) and Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos).
At some point, bands started asking what studio to credit on their albums, and Hills brainstormed a new name. He settled on Earth Tone for simple reasons (he wears a lot of earth tone colors, for example), even though it was already taken.
“Other people have it, but I’ll just use that until someone sends me a cease and desist letter,” he says. “There’s a million Patricks in the world. I don’t know why every Patrick doesn’t get a cease-and-desist letter.”
About a year and a half ago, Hills moved the studio into the backroom of a building on 18th Street in the New Era Park neighborhood of Midtown. The space is dimly lit by a corner lamp suspended by a statue sporting a sinister grin, a chubby golf caddy with a red and black beret. Guitar pedals scatter across an electronic keyboard, with more stuffing a bookshelf. The walls are painted light brown, and a massive tree stump props one of three computer monitors surrounding a mixing board.
“I might be sort of nailing the Earth Tone thing to a ridiculous extent,” Hills said.
A narrow window peeks into the live room, wood pallets and paneling lining its walls for better acoustics and creative ambiance. There lies another bookshelf (this one of amplifiers), an abandoned piano from down the street and a “tree” of hanging guitars.
Before Hills took it over, the building was called Erich Musical Enterprise. A framed calendar sits on a studio wall, hinting at its history. Penciled in between all sorts of faded scratch is Deftones, slotted for a Monday and Tuesday.
In the ’90s, the band rehearsed in one of two practice spaces down the hall. So did Papa Roach, at some point. Really, too many bands to name. Hills put out a Facebook post recently, calling on artists who practiced there in the past to share their memories.
“Hundreds of bands came through these doors,” he says. “It would be cool if some people wrote down their stories, and we turned it into a book.”
When bands aren’t practicing or recording, it’s just Hills, and it can get eerily quiet between mixing. Nights may get unpredictably long, and it can be hard to manage time. Some projects take three weeks. Others, four months. A couch in the hallway is a place reserved for occasional naps, but not too many.
“I’ve tried to not to get super-comfortable here,” he says. “Otherwise, one night might turn into two.”
Some bands are just starting out and don’t always have it together, so the process lengthens. But, he’s been there. Two of his bands, the Hanover Saints and Bastards of Young, have done well locally, but he still remembers what it was like in his first middle school band, Acillatem.
“We thought we were super clever because it was Metallica spelled backwards,” Hills says. “And yeah, it was pretty bad. You have to spend a few years figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
Regardless, he takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to recording, offering ideas and gear to make the music sound its best. Most bands welcome the expertise.
“Sometimes it hurts people’s egos when I tell them that their drum set doesn’t sound like a million dollars,” Hills says. “But, they also didn’t spend a million dollars to get the drum set.”
But again, he understands. Most artists don’t have a million dollars.
Matthew Woods, a guitarist in Keres, first worked with Hills when he was still in the attic. They needed recordings for Bog Oak, a black-doom metal band Woods used to play in.
Back then, cheap, quality production was hard to find. There was the Hangar, which closed in 2013, but recording costs were upwards of $2,000 for a few songs recorded on a tight deadline.
Corey Wiegert, a guitarist for Peace Killers, referred Woods to Hills. The recording process was surprisingly quick, and after listening to the finalized tracks, and how Hills had layered the music to sound massive and otherworldly, Woods was adamant about going to him to record for Keres years later.
“It costed less than a quarter of anything I had ever done and sounded probably 20 times better,” he says.
Being flexible with money is a must these days, as most bands don’t have large recording budgets backed by labels, Hills says.
“Some bands don’t have a lot of money and want to record,” Hills says. “So I have to say, ’Hey, let’s just figure out something that’ll make us both happy. That way I’m not making you eat Top Ramen for the duration of the recording.’”
It’s not without its sacrifices, but Hills relishes the unpredictability of his work days. And, to the city’s credit, he’s produced everything from J-pop to heavy metal.
“Between two weekends, I can go from recording doom bands to uptempo, poppy-sounding music,” he says. “And that’s all within Sacramento, which is a tribute to the scene that we have. It’s really diverse.”