Hillsborough: A new haven for sound


By Laurie Paolicelli

Steven Raets, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Sonark Media.

Abbey Road, where the Beatles and James Taylor recorded many of their most iconic songs, is in London. Muscle Shoals, where everyone from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin recorded, is in Alabama. And Sonark Studio’s, perhaps the next great destination for musical recording artists, is in Hillsborough, North Carolina, nestled in the middle of what was once a sprawling farmland. Here, in a town that’s on the Historical Register, the future of sound is being made.

Steven Raets is the visionary who makes it happen. An ex-banker from Belgium, Raets came to North Carolina with his wife, Eva Labro, when she was offered a vaunted teaching position at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. He was skeptical about moving here, initially, but soon fell in love with the quiet magic of the Orange County countryside. They bought sixty-three acres of what once was farmland belonging to the Borland Family. And that’s where his dream of a state-of-the-art recording studio began.

Sonark Studios Media.

“The day I visited it was mid-summer, the high sun bouncing off the surface of a small pond just downhill from the farm’s original cabin, built in 1852.” If such a pastoral setting seems an odd home for a decidedly 21st-century operation, Steven says the contrast is central to his whole idea: creating a destination for musicians away from the constant hum of daily life while embracing what modern technology allows them to achieve.

First class recording studio in Hillsborough.

And the technology is astounding. The audio mixing console is a Neve 88R, the same board they have at Abbey Road and Skywalker Sound. The mixing board, along with the rest of the facility, represents a philosophy Steven and his partners have baked into Sonark Media: that the best technology, made accessible to artists, can change how music is made, experienced, and distributed. His goal is to help musicians make money the old-fashioned way: recording a clear record and delivering their music directly to an interested audience, without the large corporate middleman.

“The serious musicians I knew always looked up to those iconic places where they have these big boards,” Raets says. “There is this mystique about how that would affect their sound and how they played. And it matters, because when an artist comes to a studio and it is of a certain standard, it will make their game go up.”

The rural beauty of Orange County.

But it’s about more than just the right equipment. You have to take advantage of the setting.

“Creating music,” Raets says, “requires a certain environment, and this land in the middle of Orange County offers that environment: a magical, mystical sound, where people feel more at ease and the music sounds even better.” Steven says this place is a sonic haven, which is where the name Sonark came from — not unlike Muscle Shoals, the legendary Alabama recording studio near the banks of the Tennessee River, whose waters were said to sing.

Joshua Collins (Showrunner/Director) discussing the run-of-show with Jesse Fox and his band. Pictured (L-R) Kiah Well mandolin, Nick Allen bass, Jess Fox, Joshua Collins.

Today he and his partners work to host musicians, record, negotiate contracts, host a public audience, and offer a new path around the notoriously corporate music industry, where big business dominates and up-and-coming or alternative artists struggle to break through.

Pilot test show in 2023 shows, The Shoaldiggers (Hillsborough-based band), setting up for dress rehearsal before the live broadcast.

He describes the corporate structure of music as a pie, with bigger and bigger chunks taken by fewer and fewer musicians and labels. Sonark’s goal is to redistribute slices back to artists by making recordings and other vital services more affordable and accessible, with steep discounts for North Carolina-based musicians and producers and revenue-sharing opportunities through a proprietary music video streaming platform, fittingly called Pie® with a goal of rebuilding the music industry one slice at a time.

Some fifteen hundred feet downhill from Sonark’s recording studio stands a cavernous building they call the Barn, a hybrid video production studio and private concert venue, capable of holding about a hundred guests. The Barn is dressed to the technological nines, with professional lighting, cinema-quality cameras, and dollies, jibs, switchers, and gizmos galore. 

Custom Bar at Sonark Studio in Hillsborough.

The past 9 months Sonark has hosted musicians who record, with a live audience, a series titled “Sonark Sessions – Live from the Barn,” which has been delivered to PBS NC and will air on local public television beginning August 1st. Production of a second season will begin later this year.

The Jesse Fox band during dress rehearsal before filming Episode 8 of Sonark Sessions: Live From The Barn. Pictured (L-R) Adam Clayton camera operator, Phil Amalong Sonark co-founder and pianist, Glen Bounds drums, Kiah Wells mandolin, Eli Howell fiddle.

Sonark’s Media Sound will thrive here thanks to its dynamic start-up energy and the Carolina ethos of “Educate, Research, Prepare, Launch, and Leave a Legacy.” Steven Raets and his wife journeyed far to make Orange County their home, and they fit right in with this forward-thinking community.


Dress rehearsal for a pilot test shows featuring Crystal Bright and her band conducting rehearsing before the live broadcast.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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