The term “game changer” might be overused these days, but there’s no better way to describe the Palms’ 2001 opening. In its early years, the off-Strip casino and resort hosted the rowdy cast of MTV’s The Real World and became the destination for the new millennium’s A-list celebrities.
The hotel has gone through many high-profile changes since then. The Fertitta family-owned Station Casinos bought the Palms in 2016 for $313 million, committing to a $620 million renovation. Artwork by Damien Hirst, a Fertitta favorite, populates the newly modernized resort. Once-buzzing nightlife spot Ghost Bar has been rebranded as the contemporary Apex Social Club and new restaurants have opened. The megaclub KAOS came with the renovation but shuttered a few months later. Throughout the property’s wild ride, one constant has remained: Studio at the Palms.
Actually, make it two: Zoe Thrall has been director of the studio since it opened in 2005. She has seen everyone from Beyoncé and Diplo to Celine Dion and Michael Jackson walk through her studio doors.
“Michael Jackson lived in the hotel for three months, and no one but the owner and I knew,” Thrall says. “It was an amazing feat that we pulled off.”
The studio—which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year—isn’t visible to the public; the magic happens in the hotel’s Fantasy Tower, up an elevator shaft and behind a pair of large doors. The studio has helped produce five Grammy winners (including works by Maroon 5 and Mary J Blige) and 12 platinum records. It’s also where hometown heroes The Killers recorded their second studio album, 2006’s Sam’s Town.
“The first two years were spectacular,” Thrall recalls. “On our first day, we had Joe Bonamassa [in one room] and Paris Hilton in the other room doing her first album. Immediately following Joe, The Killers started. It just continued from there. We did really well the first few years.”
Vegas indie-pop duo Almost Normal has tracked several sessions inside the studio at the suggestion of their engineer, Pat Hundley, who has also worked with artists like Diplo, Rick Ross and Lil Jon. “As a local band, you hear The Killers’ Sam’s Town and Panic! At the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. [also recorded at the Palms] and you’re like, ‘That’s out of reach.’ But I think [the studio] really does a good job of giving an opportunity to these younger acts,” says drummer and keyboardist Andrew Zakher. “[Zoe has] been so supportive, and the hospitality has just been top-notch. They really know how to make you feel special.”
The Studio at the Palms has always had a stream of elites, making it a near-guaranteed success. Other perks of having a studio inside a hotel? The venue’s back entrance makes it easy for artists to maintain their privacy while moving between the studio and their hotel rooms. And it features state-of-the-art equipment, including two Solid State Logic XL-9080K series consoles—something that even got nine-months-pregnant Beyoncé into the studio while Jay-Z was in Las Vegas to perform at MGM.
Studio at the Palms has always carried an element of mystery, with most artists recording in complete secrecy. “This is when an artist is at their most vulnerable. They’re working on material that may or may not make their career,” Thrall says.
But that’s starting to change, as musicians flock to Instagram and Twitter to connect directly with fans. “One of our mandates for this year is to embrace the whole social media thing,” Thrall adds.
Studio at the Palms isn’t always a revolving door of high-profile celebrities. Like so many U.S. businesses, the spot experienced a dip in business during the Great Recession, with many artists turning to bedroom production and home studios in lieu of professional ones. In 2009, NPR reported that recording studios faced an uncertain future, and that “the past decade has been a struggle for many studios” across the country. Several studios in New York closed and reopened … as high-rise apartments.
50 artists and producers who’ve recorded at the Palms
Christina Aguilera • J Balvin • Tony Bennett • Beyoncé • Mary J Blige • Nicolas Cage • Cardi B • Mariah Carey • J Cole • Celine Dion • Diplo • Dr. Dre • Eminem • Jamie Foxx • Future • Guns N’ Roses • Whitney Houston • Imagine Dragons • Michael Jackson • Jay-Z • Elton John • Journey • Toby Keith • The Killers • Lady Gaga • Lil Wayne • Madonna • Dave Matthews Band • Ennio Morricone • Conan O’Brien • Mark Ronson • Kendrick Lamar • John Legend • Maroon 5 • Marshmello • MGMT • Morrissey • No Doubt • Shaquille O’Neal • Panic! At the Disco • Katy Perry • Rihanna • Santana • Ed Sheeran • Nancy Sinatra • Britney Spears • Tiësto • Justin Timberlake • Tyler, the Creator • Pharrell Williams
But the tide is turning back. “Based on the last couple years here, I feel like the industry has had somewhat of a resurgence,” she says. “More artists, managers, producers and engineers are embracing this balance between working in their home studios and in commercial facilities. The technology is such that you can do a lot of things on your own, and I love that, because those creative juices come out when you’re the most relaxed in your bedroom and slippers.
“But then you can come into a facility like this and refine it,” she continues. “You see some magic doing it that way. So I think we’ll see a continuation of that trend. There’s a real need for both.”
Thrall, who once toured as an oboist with Steven Van Zandt, doesn’t get star-struck easily. What impresses her isn’t fame or celebrity, but hearing artists do something new, outside the box.
Recently, R&B singer Kehlani (who just dropped the collab “Get Me” with Justin Bieber) booked a session at the studio. “She spent a lot of time here working with some top producers,” Thrall says. “I had never heard of her, and boy, she was so refreshing, so good. I like surprises like that, [when] I’m not expecting something, and something like that happens.”
Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for artists to demo a track and preview it at the now-shuttered Moon nightclub. Jamie Foxx did that while he was recording at the studio in 2008. “He was like, ‘Let’s go test it,’” Thrall says. Katy Perry did something similar. “You get a little antsy after a while, so we all went up to the club.
“People don’t realize when [artists are] actually here, it’s business. It’s very serious,” Thrall says. “It’s very focused, and it’s not all fun and games. It can be very intense sometimes, because there’s a lot of pressure on them to produce a hit—and to get there is very difficult.”
Studio at the Palms has churned out a slew of hits over the past 15 years. Walls can’t talk, but the signatures that adorn them certainly do.
“You go in knowing that so many artists have created something great in there, [and] you’re just absorbing that energy,” Almost Normal’s Zakher says. He and bandmate Ashley Lampman recently tracked drums for their Valentine’s Day release, “Home,” at the studio.
“We actually tracked the drums in two other rooms and were not happy with how they were,” Zakher says. “The third room ended up being Studio at the Palms, and we got it done. I think it’s the best room in the city, especially for drums. It’s specifically designed for sound to bounce off.”
As the studio approaches its third decade, Thrall hopes to pass the mic to even more local musicians. She works with CSN and Las Vegas Academy, providing students with hands-on studio time each year, and on January 31, she’ll speak at the annual Vegas Music Summit, an event geared toward educating Vegas musicians about the industry. Locals also receive a discounted rate to work in the studio.
“Under both ownerships of the [original owners] the Maloof family and Station Casinos, these companies are very community-oriented, and we wanted the studio to reflect that philosophy,” she says. “A lot of people don’t have an engineer or anyone to help them … so I kind of walk them through the process, even before they walk in the door.”
The story of Studio at the Palms is a song still being sung, but there’s no doubt it has changed the music of Las Vegas and beyond. “Sometimes I forget the impact it has,” Thrall smiles. “It’s been 15 years, [and] the community has really grown in that time.”