Rock Lititz Studio: Where Taylor Swift and Usher Get Ready to Play

Why are music superstars flocking to a small town in Amish country?
James “Winky” Fairorth inside his studio’s cavernous rehearsal space. Photograph by Eric Prine

James “Winky” Fairorth inside his studio’s cavernous rehearsal space. Photograph by Eric Prine

The ducks in the park, the old-timey clock at the town’s heart, the rustic storefronts and occasional horse-drawn carriage suggest time has stopped here. Lititz, Pennsylvania, a small town about nine miles north of Lancaster, recalls the Main Street USA of Norman Rockwell, a place where shopkeepers maintain odd hours and post little hand-drawn signs in the windows when they’re CLOSED FOR THE WINTER.

Yet there’s another side to Lititz, one that’s visible about a mile from its center: “The Cube,” a black box rising from an old cornfield like a monolithic spaceship, and symbolizing one of the most unique businesses in the entertainment industry.

U2. Katy Perry. Lady Gaga. Elton John. Maroon 5. Billy Joel. Justin Timberlake. Usher.

If they sing to the delight of millions, they’ve likely worked with one of the companies in this quaint community of 9,400, or rehearsed in that box or soon will. Lititz is home to a group of artisans who build the entire apparatus of a major concert tour — sound systems, stages, sets, lights and visual effects. Last September, that decades-old legacy culminated in the Cube — Rock Lititz Studio, a $7 million arena-like facility where the world’s most sought-after acts come to perfect their shows. (Among the most recent clients: Taylor Swift, who visited in April to rehearse for her summer tour, including two nights at the Linc this month.)

So how did a crucial part of the music business come to be associated with a town so redolent of 1950? The answer lies in a story about a perfect partnership — about the ways in which Pennsylvania farm country and rock-and-roll were made for each other.

I MEET ROCK LITITZ STUDIO co-owner James “Winky” Fairorth at Rouge, where the host greets him by name. He slides into a seat at the window, fresh from a personal training session nearby, looking very much like a rock star himself — fit at 50, bedecked in black jeans, bulky black boots, and stacks of necklaces and bracelets.

Fairorth started attending Millersville University in the early ’80s, but as a Philly kid, born in Germantown, he was a little freaked out by the open country. “I used to call my mother and say, ‘What am I doing here?’” he recalls. “‘There’s nothing here. Literally nothing!’”

Fairorth’s mother encouraged him to stay, and in time he learned of the local rock industry that flourished there. In the early ’60s, two Lititz-born brothers, Roy and Gene Clair, received a sound system from their father as a gift. They parlayed that present into a career, from parties at Franklin & Marshall College to gigs with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and eventually the Rolling Stones and beyond. As time passed, a scene grew around them. Michael Tait, an Australian who’d been a production manager for YES started a lighting company in 1978; shortly afterward, production designer Tom McPhillips arrived, and later founded Atomic Design.

Fairorth bum-rushed Michael Tait for a job without any great forethought. (“I was a college student. I was broke.”) He soon discovered that rock-and-roll is a “cottage industry” in which small bands of creatives conjure up new designs to make artists look and sound their best. The problem-solving DIY ethos of the music biz and the companies in Lititz inspired him, and he eventually became Tait’s right-hand man, partner, and now co-founder of Rock Lititz. In fact, this project represents the new Lititz Rock-tocracy. Gene Clair passed away in December 2013. (Elton John dedicated a subsequent performance of “Candle in the Wind” to him.) Michael Tait is semi-retired. Now Fairorth and Gene Clair’s son, Troy, are charting a course into new territory. (Clair Solutions is designing the sound system for the Fillmore, the new live-music venue in Fishtown.)

For decades, companies in Lititz built big, impressive stuff. The moving platform that slowly carried Justin Timberlake out past the front rows of the crowd on his last tour? The massive bank of video screens that surrounded Jon Bon Jovi in concert? The stage on which Janet Jackson suffered her Super Bowl nipple slip? Lititz’s informal family of firms made all of that and more. And Rock Lititz offers a new service — a place to work out all of the kinks, and the largest dedicated rehearsal facility in the world.

“ROCK LITITZ ISN’T NECESSARY,” says Fairorth. “It’s strictly a luxury. And that’s what makes it great. We did it because it’s the chance to do something really cool.”

Until now, major music acts have had little choice but to rehearse shows by renting some arena in a small market, loading in and out of the facility — at great expense and hassle — between tractor pulls and circuses. Even then, they often can’t erect the full splendor of their multimillion-dollar stage shows in those modest facilities. “The work gets done,” says Fairorth, “but it’s very stressful.”

Rock Lititz, with its ample space and luxury, converts that stress into a pleasant experience. Tech crews work for a month or more, honing visual and audio effects down to the microsecond before the stars fly in to rehearse the full show.

I drove into the old cornfield to tour the 100-foot-tall, 52,000-square-foot facility in February, just after Nicki Minaj had exited. Inside the Cube is an operation in which every detail is maximized for convenience and downtime caused by technical hiccups is minimized. In a small-market arena, any malfunctioning laser or faulty pyrotechnic effect might start a chain of phone calls and FedEx shipments. At Rock Lititz, the local craftsmen who built all this gear can be on hand in 20 minutes, fixing the problem.

Rock Lititz also includes snazzy amenities: a studio for dance rehearsals, a massive A-list dressing room, and an inviting catering hall, all outfitted in furniture created by area artisans. Most of the facility beyond the cavernous rehearsal space features big windows that showcase the lush green fields outside and admit great washes of natural light. For talent and tech crews used to working like salamanders in the windowless bowels of an arena, Rock Lititz is heaven.

The studio draws business from across the live entertainment industry, but roughly half its clients are rock musicians. “These are the leading sound and staging companies — they knew how to get it right and they did,” says Jake Berry, a veteran production director for the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and U2, who recently used the Cube to finish all the technical work for their tour. “The facility is beautiful, the natural light was a welcome relief, and they got all the specifications right to make working there easy. When you’re not in New York, when you’re not in the hustle and bustle, you get a lot more work done.”

Usher, pop music’s reigning song-and-dance man, used the mirrored studio to choreograph new moves in privacy, then emerged, took the few steps necessary to reach the stage, and tried them out. Few stories like this ever surface, because one of the key services the Lititz companies offer is privacy, through strict nondisclosure agreements. But Fairorth says he knows Usher well enough to feel comfortable sharing an insider tidbit. The experience of rehearsing at Rock Lititz was special, the singer told him. Out here in the country, there’s no media, no promotional appearances, no radio stations to visit or hands to shake. The rolling green grass outside the window, the quiet, allowed Usher the sense of space and peace it takes to be creative in the first place.

“The show could be his whole focus,” says Fairorth. “ Now, is all of that necessary? No. But it is really cool.”

OF COURSE, “COOL” and Lititz wouldn’t seem to fit, but they do. Voted the Coolest Small Town in America in 2013 by Budget Travel, Lititz offers a vibrant collection of charming antiques shops, high-end foodie stores, and pubs serving craft beers. Its white rural population screams conservatism, but the shirtless, tattooed and pierced can walk the quaint Main Street without garnering a single frosty glance. (The funniest joke I’ve heard about Lititz from the locals is that its name is French for “the tits.” Now really, how conservative is that?)

Rock Lititz is the anchor for future development, including new restaurants, a luxury hotel, and a series of offices for other companies — from lasers to pyrotechnics — with a desire to be near the industry of rock. There was a small kerfuffle when the studio first opened — of the “Usher’s bass is rattling my teacups” variety — but with those sound issues resolved, the people here seem ready, even eager, for the sort of change to which small towns don’t usually cotton.

“People are very accepting of the Rock Lititz project,” says Dan Zimmerman, manager of Warwick Township, which surrounds Lititz. “There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that there is a strong entrepreneurial streak here, a history of artisans and craftsmen and companies where people make things. I think people recognize that Rock Lititz is cut from the same cloth.”

Viewed in a wider context, Rock Lititz isn’t just the business for which the town is most famous, earning big stories in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. It’s the town’s fullest expression. “I like to say we take ideas sketched on cocktail napkins,” says Fairorth, “and make them reality.” (For Bon Jovi, they did exactly that — took a drawing made on a cocktail napkin and, in 10 weeks, built one of the biggest spectacles in rock history, in which the video screens alone cost $3.5 million and took more than 20 computers to operate.)

The idea of such sophisticated projects happening out here seems shocking, at least to us tourists, who think of Lancaster County as an Amish retreat from technology. But Fairorth has come to understand the true nature of the relationship between his business and the region. “It’s been a very natural process,” he says, “the way all of this has grown into what it is today — from the Clairs and Tait to Rock Lititz. And I know this sounds clichéd, but I really do believe this could only have happened, in the way it has, in Lancaster County and Lititz.”

This nod to the country is more than just sentiment. The ideal stage set for a rock show actually operates like farming equipment. Concert tours must set up and break down quickly to maintain a nightly performance schedule. The machinists, designers, metalworkers and craftsmen who populate Lancaster County carry this concept in their blood.

“When farming equipment breaks down, you don’t see guys stopping to go get a set of tools,” says Fairorth. “The rig on a tractor snaps into place, intuitively. Rock shows are built the same way. Nothing requires tools or fastening equipment to assemble.”

In this sense, Fairorth, as an outsider, understands why every story about Rock Lititz focuses on just how unlikely this whole operation seems: Imagine, Taylor Swift rehearsing near a field of cows! But the kid who once looked out from Millersville and saw vast expanses of nothing has come to understand that the big black box he built in the cornfield is, fundamentally, a new crop — another kind of produce, yielded up by this place and raised from the ground.

Originally published as “Lititz Rock City” in the June 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.