(Joel Banner Baird - Burlington Free Press 2/21/10)

CHELSEA — Musicians who record at the Pepperbox Studio watch the weather through large, third-story windows.

Among them is Kristina Stykos, the studio’s owner, engineer and producer.

She’s got a great view of pastures, mountains and sky. She also keeps an eye on a chest-freezer-sized bank of batteries in the basement.

“For anything more than a four-hour session, I start to get nervous,” she said. “I’ll run downstairs and check the meter.”

Like most recording outfits, Pepperbox Studio runs on electricity, but here, in rural Chelsea, the juice is generated on-site with solar panels and a small wind turbine, take after take.

For extra-long sessions, Stykos will hit the wall switch, kicking on a distant propane generator, and the beat goes on.

Off-the-grid recording is not much more complicated than maintaining an urban studio, she said — and just might be the perfect way for musicians to create a healthy distance from day-job hubbub.

Stykos recommends studded snow tires to winter visitors.

Miles of unpaved road, some of it windy and steep, bid drivers to slow down and take in the topography as they make their way to Stykos’ home and studio.

Pasture and gardens soften and surround the large timber-frame house.

Coffee? Coming right up (propane also fires her kitchen range).

Chilly? Back up to the wood stove.

Wide stairs lead to the cathedral-ceilinged, top-floor studio.

"Excellent ears"

On a quiet day, the rustle of wind might intrude into a melody.

A rainstorm that rattles the skylights might delay a vocal take — or, included, the sound might add texture to the mix.

A sunset over the Green Mountains might occasion another coffee break.

“You can’t help but be more conscious of what’s going on outside when you’re in this studio,” Stykos said.

Some musicians remark to her about the “mystique” of creating an album out of thin air — one powered chiefly by solar panels and a wind turbine.

And other musicians, she said, don’t notice anything out of the ordinary about her supplies of electricity.

“Being off-grid is the cherry on top,” said Mary McGinniss, a Burlington singer-songwriter who is in the middle of an album-length project at Pepperbox.

“It’s like ‘Back to the Future,’” she continued. “It feels old-timey, and yet it’s the way things could be if we all took responsibility for our energy use.”

But, she noted, the substance and the sound of the studio derive from the energy of its owner.

“Kristina is a great engineer, and she has really excellent ears,” McGinniss said.

"Turn it off"

  Several other recent clients raved about Stykos’s ability to inspire, capture (and sometimes enforce) an elegant simplicity in their music.

There’s nothing simple about the equipment Stykos jockeys into life before every session.


A state-of-the-art, software-powered automated mixer shares desk space with winking pre-amps and hard drives, two computer monitors and all manner of power conditioners.

The piano in the corner is electric (a heavier, acoustic version stays on the ground floor).

When Stykos finishes a session, she turns everything off.

It’s a routine that predates Pepperbox Studio, a project she said she “backed into” in 2004.

An Ithaca native who moved to Vermont by way of Boston, Stykos has lived beyond the reach of utility lines for about 16 years.

Word of mouth and a healthy curiosity led her to explore homesteads beyond the reach of easy convenience.


She won’t admit to it.

“I never set out to live off the grid, although I had philosophical leanings that way, always,” she said.

“What determined my adopting the lifestyle had to do with where I found property that was available, affordable and adaptable to my needs,” she continued.

“That turned out to be the more remote, back-roads parcels of land.”

Chelsea still was close enough to Montpelier and Hanover, N.H., to allow her to perform in clubs; close enough to Barre for her to earn a living promoting shows at the Opera House.

The Chelsea home came equipped with a few solar panels and a modest-output wind turbine.

As a single parent, Stykos developed the habit of following around three kids who forgot all too often to turn off lights when they left a room.

Heating with wood?


Not a problem for Stykos.

How about keeping groceries cool, or keeping pace with her kids’ growing appetite for computing power?

She researched refrigerators, calculated wattage and added solar panels to her roof.

As her son and daughters grew up and flew the coop, they left her with an energy surplus — and space for a studio.

So she found more time for music.

"Just jump"

  In many respects, Stykos is what you might call unplugged: She plays a mid-20th century Martin guitar.

She also sings, and she thrives in the company of other musicians.

She’s a fool for a good fiddle in a tune that never had one before — so she made the decision to record and produce songs at home.

“I wanted to work without the big clock ticking every time I went through the door of a studio,” she said.

Via a satellite internet connection, she took online courses in recording techniques through the Berklee School of Music.

She added yet more solar panels to her roof, for a total photovoltaic capacity of 1.7 kilowatts.

She upgraded the inverters in her basement to deliver true (or “pure”) sine waves of AC power to her ultra-sensitive electronics.

“I take things on,” Stykos said. “If I need the skills to do what I want to do, I just jump.”


  Coupled with the single-KW wind turbine (and the 8 KW generator, which tops up the system only on peak-demand days), her home and studio’s off-grid power needs are about two-thirds less than that of the average Vermont household.

When her husband, luthier Michael Millard, moved a third of his Froggy Bottom Guitars operations to Stykos’s homestead, he built a workshop with similarly low energy requirements.

A separate, 1.6 KW bank of solar panels keeps his space lit and humidified to perfection.

A 10.5 KW propane generator accommodates the surges of his larger power tools.

It’s a sweet deal: Stykos gets to test-drive Millard’s high-end six-strings.

Neither of them consider themselves home-bound, however.

Millard, founder-owner of Froggy Bottom, pays frequent visits to his partners’ workshops.


"Roosters and rain"

  Stykos’s latest recording, a live performance at Montpelier’s Black Door with Jamie Masefield, Doug Perkins and Tyler Bolles, was made on the fly, with a souped-up Mac laptop.

The clarity of the recording, the ample voice given to each musician, has become a trademark Pepperbox “sound,” in or out of the studio.

Fifth-generation fiddler Patrick Ross, who lives in Groveton, N.H., said the “stripped-down sound” that Stykos coaxes from performers and equipment matches her intimacy with the Vermont landscape.

Even when the landscape enters the studio. “It’s a welcome ambient, exterior sound, with roosters, rain and grasshoppers instead of car horns, sirens and truck tires,” Ross said.

His experiences playing in Los Angeles, Nashville and Boston studios were, by comparison, “sterile.”

Ross remembers adjusting his chair in the Pepperbox perch to catch a better view of a sunset, while playing on Bow Thayer’s recent album, “Shooting Arrows at the Moon.”

"No microscope"

  That album, Thayer said, grew out of an informal picking session that Stykos, on a whim, decided to record.

The Gaysville musician said Stykos “reined in” his impulse to elaborate with richer textures.

“Getting that kind of simplicity can be really tough,” he said. “But I was really inspired — I felt like I was in my own living room.”

Isolation from outdoor noise, the industry standard in large-label studios, was not an option.

And so, he said, it became one less worry.

In 2008, Thayer recorded with his band, Perfect Trainwreck, an album at the legendary Woodstock, N.Y., studio owned by Levon Helm, former drummer for The Band.

It brought the band to new heights in the sophisticated layerings of sound — what he called “putting the music under a microscope.”

Pepperbox fills a different need, he said, one that hews to unvarnished spontaneity.

“I know I’ll continue to record both ways,” Thayer said.


"A windmill somewhere"

  When members of the band Don’t Call Betty decided to record their first album, they shopped around.

“It was for the most part a very cold process,” said Peacham guitarist and attorney Colin Benjamin.

“Everyone was willing to schedule us, but nobody asked us what kind of music we played.”

Stykos, on the other hand, attended rehearsals and interviewed the band.

“She wanted to meet us, hear us and figure if it was going to be a good fit,” Benjamin said. “She told us about her methodology, and within minutes we knew we wanted her to produce the disc.”

Was the ensuing album, “Route 100,” different because it was produced using renewable energy?

“The issue of electricity never really came into play.

We knew there was a windmill involved somewhere,” Benjamin said. “But we didn’t go there because she was off the grid. We went there because it was her.”

"Necessary evils"

  Stykos said the warm, stripped-down and sometimes-windy sound of Pepperbox Studio certainly would withstand the arrival of utility poles.

Nor would she mind the greater reliability and convenience.

“If the power line came up the hill, I would tie in and also keep my system,” she said.

“The expense of being off the grid — due to up-front costs, ongoing maintenance and the necessary evil of buying propane — still make it a financial burden for those of us who are not independently wealthy.”

Would she also press for upgrades to her long and winding dirt road?

Negative, she says:

“I can get people to come out here.”

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