It’s clear once you enter Hen House Studios that owner Harlan Steinberger is proud of his musical home. He’ll tell you how the late renowned acoustician Vincent van Haaff designed it. He’ll show you his mix of digital and analog gear, including a 24-track tape machine from 1979.
“The young artists I work with,” Steinberger, 58, said, “they love tape, but they don’t have the patience for it.”
Then beyond the control room, he’ll show you the live room, a high-ceilinged, naturally lit room littered with musical instruments. There’s the keyboard room, then the drum room, which reminds him of Santa Davis. Nearly every corner of Hen House reminds Steinberger of musicians he’s recorded over the past 20 years.
“[Davis] blows my mind,” Steinberger said of the Jamaican drummer who’s played with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. “I love the whole Jamaican Rasta scene.”
In the basement, underneath flat New York-style doors on the live room floor, Steinberger keeps the studio power supply and stores tapes in the climate-controlled environment. A bass chamber also allows musicians to place their bass amp in the basement but play upstairs, letting the low-end sound permeate the studio.
Back in the control room, Steinberger played a sample of that technique from a recent Ras Michael album he recorded. The father of Nyabinghi drumming and a key reggae figure, Michael’s music boomed through the speakers as Steinberger smiled proudly.
Steinberger’s journey from rural Wisconsin to recording reggae’s elder statesmen in California seems inevitable. He knew he wanted to work in music and dropped out of University of Wisconsin after two years. He considered New York and Nashville, but he had family in Los Angeles, so he stayed with his uncle and then a cousin who lived in Venice. Finishing his education at UCLA, he studied classical percussion.
“Like most kids that come west,” Steinberger said, “you just don’t go back. The minute I got here [Venice], the first time I came here when I was 20, I knew that this was the place for me.”
Steinberger started gigging, playing drums in a reggae band called Inner Secret.
“That was a real Venice band,” he said. “We all lived in Venice, and everyone knew us.”
Steinberger started recording music with cassette decks, even as Inner Secret fizzled in the early 90s. He experimented in his apartment above the Fig Tree Café with one microphone and a digital audio workstation.
“I was always interested in recording from being in the studio with bands and paying attention and watching,” Steinberger said.
He finally got his first full studio space in 2001 on Glencoe Avenue, near where Costco is located. Steinberger said the area used to have a small commercial dairy farm in the 1940s. He bought a building that used to house the chickens.
”It was really bad on the outside,” Steinberger said, “and we made it nice on the inside. You would have never known there was a studio in there.”
When he told a friend the building used to be a hen house, she said that should be the name—and Henhouse Studios it became.
With a new studio and wanting to hone his recording skills, Steinberger had a novel plan: he offered to record three songs for free if a band would let him film the performance and keep the film rights. He met “hundreds” of musicians and had “super fun.” Although it was too cost-prohibitive and exhausting for him as a young father to continue for long, Steinberger said he learned a lot about the psychology of recording musical artists.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the artists,” Steinberger said. “‘Now we’re in the studio so be great now.’” I’ve learned a lot about making the artist feel relaxed, which is what you want.”
“Harlan is a great producer to work with because he is very patient and open-minded,” War said. “He’s also very good at defusing frustration that comes up when you’re not performing as well as you intended.”
Steinberger moved Henhouse to its current location on Pacific Avenue in 2015. He said the new space was a “game changer,” giving him more room to record and accommodate musicians. Aside from the studio, the building has a workspace for his wife, Randi Malkin Steinberger, a photographer. (The Steinbergers have two sets of twins—a .0014 probability.) A small loft, kitchen and an additional bathroom are available as well, since Steinberger said recording involves “a lot of waiting around” between takes for artists.
Steinberger said the building is over 100 years old and used to house the original Bank of Venice. A banker once built a tunnel underneath it to cross over to his house, and in the early 1980s a Szechuan place offered cheap breakfasts to surfers, he added.
Aside from recording artists, Henhouse is also a record label, with 32 releases so far. In addition to War and Ras Michael, Henhouse has released music by Milo Gonzalez, Ellyn Maybe and Particle Kid. Particle Kid is the musical name of Micah Nelson, whose father, Willie, has also recorded at Henhouse.
“He’s amazing,” Steinberger said of the elder Nelson. “When you work with people like that, it’s that old saying: experience is the best teacher. He doesn’t need a lot of takes. You have to be very prepared for him. When he walks in the door, he should be able to start if he wants to.”
Willie Nelson isn’t the only big name Steinberger’s worked with. He worked with the late Kobe Bryant on music for a short film, Ray Manzarek of The Doors and recorded bands for a Game of Thrones mixtape. Although Steinberger said he doesn’t do much for-hire work, he threw out a high number and HBO agreed to it. As the sole employee of Henhouse, Steinberger mainly records musical acts he’s familiar with or through referrals instead of taking cold calls.
Reflecting on twenty years of Henhouse Studios, Steinberger said the studio has become his instrument.
“I feel like I have an understanding and the experience of being able to work with artists who don’t have that experience and figure out what they’re trying to say,” he said. “How they want their music represented sonically. And they might not know how to do that. Helping artists achieve their vision—I hope people think we’ve done a pretty good job.”
“We’ve learned how to make records,” Steinberger continued. “There’s definitely an art to making records.”
While he’s glad that recording equipment is getting cheaper and people can record at home, Steinberger dislikes the “homogenization” of music with people using the same effects from the same recording programs and said he prefers a more organic approach.
“I love recording bands,” he said. “I love having people in the room together interacting.”
Steinberger spent the past year working with some artists remotely and going through his musical archives. He discovered a vocal demo from late reggae musician Trevy Felix he’s going to work on with Felix’s son, who is a guitarist.
Now that he’s double-vaccinated, Steinberger said he’s ready to fire up the recording console with face-to-face interactions.
“I’m excited to get back to work,” he said. “I’m used to working a lot.”
Steinberger said he thinks Venice is a special place for music. He said listeners used to be able to tell if music was from New York City or Nashville or the West Coast. Specifically, he said Venice has an indefinable quality that flavors its artistic expressions. He acknowledges Venice has its problems—he raised his kids and lives in Santa Monica—but says it’s his favorite place in the world.
“There’s something about Venice that has that energy,” Steinberger said. “It feels like it should and can be a place for everybody. There’s something really mystical and magical about this place. It feels like a great place to be making art and making music.”