Madison music studio hosted legendary acts gets makeover

MADISON, Wis. — A historic Wisconsin music studio is getting a makeover, becoming a home and Airbnb.

The Smart Studios building, at the corner of East Washington and Baldwin

Kenosha native Neka Allen lived in Los Angeles when the pandemic hit. It allowed her to work remotely, so she could live wherever she wanted. She started looking at real estate back home in Wisconsin.

Allen came across a building at the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Baldwin Street.

The day after she saw that listing, she couldn’t get it out of her head.

“I instantly loved it. It looked like it needed some work,” she laughed. “I just had a vision for what it could be.”

Her vision included turning the top floor into her home, and the bottom floor into an Airbnb for guests.

She texted her dad, expecting him to dissuade her from buying it.

“I said, ‘Dad, talk me out of this third-life-crisis of buying this building,’” she said. “He said something along the lines of, ‘That’s crazy. But that’s awesome, so do it.’”

That building holds decades’ worth of music history, although most probably would never know by the outside.

Wisconsin musicians Butch Vig and Steve Marker, later members of the band Garbage, opened Smart Studios in 1983. It was moved to Allen’s building in 1987.

Studio A, where musicians would play. It’s now set up as a living space

“This is Studio A down here,” Allen said while she walked through a space now set up as a living room. “This room would have been where they set up like the soundboard, the mixing boards. Then we have the big glass window so they could communicate with the musicians in that other room.”

Legendary music was recorded in that space. Most notable is likely Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” That was the first draft of sorts for the world’s most famous grunge album. Only one track from the Smart sessions made it onto the final cut, “Polly.”

The guest room, which incorporates the perfect shade of Nirvana yellow. The poster on the wall is the first thing Allen bought for her new home, before she even moved in. A copy of Dave Grohl’s book is on the nightstand.

However, it was all recorded in Madison first.

The upper level is Allen’s home, complete with more concert posters and a guitar-shaped cat scratcher for Garfunkel, her new pet.

Allen paid tribute to the band in the home. The iconic Nirvana yellow smiley face is present throughout, with pops of yellow in most rooms.

Luckily, it’s her favorite color.

Nirvana wasn’t the only big band to record there. Of course, lots of Garbage music found a home at Smart Studios. Other big records recorded there included The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish,” Fall Out Boy’s “Take This To Your Grave” and Death Cab For Cutie’s “Plans.”

The list goes on to include Everclear, Jimmy Eat World, Hawthorne Heights and Tegan & Sara.

Walking into former Studio A, the acoustics change so drastically, it feels like the air has shifted.

Allen points to music posters on the wall from bands that recorded in the studio.

“We’re right on East Washington, but you can’t hear outside at all,” Allen said.

She said she sleeps like a baby in her upstairs bedroom, which was Studio B, still equipped with soundproofing fabric on the walls.

The old Studio A control room on the bottom floor now serves as a dining room and lounge area.

The great acoustics are helpful upstairs, in the old Studio B. That’s now Allen’s bedroom. It’s super quiet in there too.

“I sleep so soundly,” she said.

There are remnants of the building’s history everywhere: Old exit signs, full-length indoor windows and audio ports built into walls.

Allen has done almost all the work herself. She’s documented it along the way on social media.

Allen said she hopes to have the lower level up and running as an Airbnb this summer.

Allen’s bedroom upstairs, which used to be Studio B.