Tucked into downtown Mesa, behind a nondescript steel door, sits an oasis once shared by the likes of DJ Khaled, Mike Posner and Megadeth.
The Saltmine Studio Oasis is a three-building compound with five recording studios, two live-in facilities and a live venue.
Upon passing through the gate into the massive courtyard, it’s clear why this is dubbed an “oasis,” with its three Mexican fountains and ample space.
The many pictures and plaques covering the walls of the interior coupled with the scent of incense are invigorating and inviting. At the center of the operation is Don Salter, the man who has cultivated the evolution of this studio from its inception.
Born into a family of musicians, his interest in music began when he learned to play the guitar and started writing songs in his teen years while attending University High School in Westwood, California.
“It started in a bedroom in my house, and moved to the dining room of my house,” said Salter, a Gilbert resident.
The studio was subsequently moved to a rental house and then two industrial spaces before finding its home in 2003.
“Over the period of 17 years, we’ve been here and built an unbelievable, almost resort-style studio oasis,” Salter said. “It’s designed to be a chill space and a workspace for four different independent projects.”
While all five of the studios are equipped to complete every part of the recording process, three of the studios are specifically tailored for the individual parts of the process: tracking, mixing and mastering. One of the two studios with live-in facilities also doubles as an Airbnb.
Scattered throughout each studio are a myriad of vintage microphones and Salter’s lifelong collection of world-class analog instruments.
“Our cup of tea is we have an enormous amount of the top-shelf equipment because that’s what people want when they’re trying to get a top-shelf sound,” he said.
He’s earned a reputation for his stellar sound and abilities.
“(Don) knows how to get to me — he has all the good amps and guitars,” said Josh Kennedy, singer/guitarist of The Black Moods, who recorded its first EP at The Saltmine in 2005. “We’ve been in every crack and crevice in that place. You always find something new there,” he said.
The courtyard of The Saltmine doubles as the Oasis Venue, which can fit 300 to 500 guests. But shows are sparse because noisy shows would disrupt studio business. Most of the time, the venue serves as a hangout spot for Studer the Studio Cat.
Equally as impressive as The Saltmine’s facilities is the star-studded list of visitors who have utilized the studio including DMX, Mac Miller, Alicia Keys, Rev. Louis Farrakhan and Steven Segal.
The pictures of guests and plaques of successful albums like Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” and DJ Khaled’s “Major Key” leave little negative space on the wall. The average rate is $85 an hour.
“Beyond the fact that we’ve actually had people who are in different states or countries all over the world come here specifically to work with us at The Saltmine, the lion’s share of famous and world-famous artists is on tour,” Salter said, adding:
“When they’re on tour they look for the top studio to do work at. We are generally considered the top studio in Arizona, which we are very happy and humbled by the thought.”
Local country singer Ryan Sims can attest to the studio’s standing.
“I have recorded in some of the finest studios in the United States, including the House of Blues in Nashville. “Don’s place stands up to everything,” he said.
Sometimes artists will bring their own producers and engineers to The Saltmine, which Salter sees as a learning experience for both parties. When the artist leaves, Salter said, The Saltmine’s engineers and producers can take those ideas, shortcuts and suggestions, and pass them on to the independent acts to whom the studio caters.
“You don’t have to be a five-star artist to receive five-star treatment at The Saltmine,” Salter said.
He takes pride in giving first timers and independent acts the same treatment as the celebrity guests and competitive pricing for those without label representation, starting at $65 per hour.
“We’re still going to treat them like royalty,” he said. “That’s what helps keep our reputation great. If you love your fellow man and your fellow artist first, they’re going to retrieve and send back that same love.”
Sims recalls using every piece of equipment possible and accruing knowledge and techniques while recording an album with his band EastonAshe in 2006. “If you ask (Don) his two cents, he’ll give you three,” Sims said.
Added Salter, “We keep a really positive vibe here. That’s our greatest secret weapon, is fantastic, creative vibes.”
Salter and his studio have adapted to newer styles of music creation while not compromising on quality. According to Salter, about half of his calls are from people wanting to work that day, while the other half adheres to the practice of booking studio time in advance.
“We have to do both — both styles of artists are out there,” said Salter, who credits his three-decade tenure and success to his wife of 28 years, Maria. “The planned, advanced-thinking and the spontaneous. We try to take care of all of them.”