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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Music

Musician Joe Puerta owns The Exchange Recording Complex, a 2011 WAMI Award-winning recording complex right here in Milwaukee.

In Music

The building has been a working recording studio since the '70s when it hosted a variety of names, including David Bowie.

In Music

These days, the business has been renamed and the building has been revamped with updated technology and an attractive new look.

The Exchange re-establishes world-class recording in Milwaukee


Listen carefully and you may hear a star forming on National Avenue. At least, that's what Joe Puerta, owner of The Exchange Recording Complex in Milwaukee, is hoping.

"I've always said I want to be the Sun Studios of Milwaukee," Puerta said. "I want the next Elvis to walk through the door."

The Exchange Recording Complex is an unremarkable brown-and-orange building with no signs and nothing to set it apart from the other buildings on its block. You've probably driven past it many times without realizing what it is. Meanwhile, music magic has been going on inside.

The building has been a working recording studio since the '70s. In those early days, the owners put a lot of money into creating a top-of-the-line recording space. David Bowie even thought it was worth a stop and recorded some music there on a swing through Milwaukee around 1975. Over time, though, it passed to new owners and lost a little of its original luster.

Today, the business has been renamed and the building has been revamped. It is currently owned by Puerta, a founding member of the hit '70s band Ambrosia and bass player and vocalist for Bruce Hornsby and the Range. He traveled the world with his bands but settled his family in the Milwaukee area in the early '90s. In 2002 he bought the studio and turned it into a 2011 Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award-winner.

"Being a musician and being sort of the overseer of what was done here, I'm not a designer and I'm not an engineer but I just listen to the engineer and I try to make a place that as a musician, I would feel comfortable in," Puerta said.

Puerta worked with local recording engineers to bring in new equipment and update the technology for recording, as well as clean up and clear out some of the old-school elements of the building. Musicians say what Puerta's done for the main room, like tearing out old carpeting and putting in hardwood floors, makes it a great place to record.

"I loved it," Milwaukee artist Jeanna Salzer said of her experience at the studio. "I loved that it was so open and the wood inside had such a cool feel."

The studio has a piano in the main recording space as well as a number of other instruments available for musicians to use on-site. There are isolation rooms to provide more sophisticated sound. There is also space for mixing and writing music as well as lounging and grabbing a cup of coffee. And there's Joe Puerta, a well-respected musician with years of award-winning writing and recording under his belt.

Ben Waisbren, a singer/songwriter who is based in Whitefish Bay and Los Angeles, records regularly at The Exchange Recording Complex, often with Puerta on bass.

"I've recorded in L.A., not the real famous (studios) because it's not worth it, but of the studios I've been to in L.A., The Exchange is a better environment for me," Waisbren said. "Joe is a world-class bass player; he's excellent at arranging vocals. I'm lucky to have this amazing bass player playing on my tracks. From my perspective, it works for me."

It works so well that three of Waisbren's songs were picked up for use in TV movies. Salzer also said Puerta's expertise is part of what makes The Exchange Recording Complex attractive to musicians.

"Just getting to know him and having his motivation, and having him behind us and getting his feedback and getting his ear was so cool," Salzer said.

Puerta said business at the studio has been steadily picking up with some bigger-name acts and with regional artists who are figuring out they don't have to go to Chicago, and pay Chicago prices, to get professional-quality recordings. He also plans to bring a couple of bands from bigger markets like Los Angeles to The Exchange to record and, hopefully, make it big with his guidance.

"We've got a lot to offer as far as equipment, personnel, the space," Puerta said.

Maybe even enough to attract the next Elvis.

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