(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I saw something last weekend that I thought I would never see again. Namely, a new state-of-the-art recording studio in Nashville. Studios here as well as nationwide have been going belly up or into bankruptcy for years. The reasons are many: consolidation of the recording industry, fewer record labels and fewer new artist development deals, and — especially in Nashville — over-ambitious expansion in boom times. Nashville’s go-go breakout years in the early 1990s in the wake of Garthmania led to a studio glut. Then there’s the matter of home recording studios and such affordable technology as Apple’s GarageBand.
Peter Frampton showed off his home studio to me when he lived in Brentwood just outside Nashville and the guts of the studio — which was expensive — could fit in his briefcase. Technically these days, you can record music anywhere, anytime and on a limited budget. But you get what you pay for. And, as George Massenburg has long pointed out and proved in other studios he has built or consulted on, such as George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound, the room itself is vital. Sound, after all, is organic and not just a product of technology. Ear buds from an iPod sound perfectly adequate until you enter a true sound temple.
Now, Massenburg has built a new studio inside John McBride’s well-regarded Blackbird Studio complex in Nashville. It will open this fall. Massenburg’s multi-channel mixing room’s walls and ceiling are entirely composed of wooden rods of varying length standing perpendicular to the walls and ceiling themselves.
I can’t pretend to understand the technical explanation for what excellent producers and engineers can accomplish. But I can hear it, and last weekend, I could hear it as Massenburg played some CDs for me to demonstrate the room’s acoustic qualities. I have never been a big fan of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but hearing it in that studio was a whole new experience — akin to listening to stereo for the first time — and I could sense what Freddie Mercury had intended with that record. “That’s a 30-year old record,” Massenburg said, “but listen to that.” The sound floated around me — or rather I felt that I was floating in the sound. “There’s no resonance in this room,” he said. “You can’t tell that there are walls.” He was right. There was only sound, with no dimensions.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Massenburg is a Nashville treasure. He has produced albums for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Lyle Lovett, Little Feat and Aaron Neville and has engineered many other records. His latest production is the new Jon Randall CD Walking Among the Living. He has won Grammy Awards for production and engineering and won a rare Grammy for technical achievement. He has taught at USC, UCLA and Middle Tennessee State University and now commutes to Montreal to teach recording arts and sciences at McGill University. He’s an equipment designer, inventor and innovator with his George Massenburg Labs and was the creator of the parametric equalizer, an important studio development.
Nashville’s recording studio history itself began in the early 1940s with improvised recording sessions in office buildings and radio stations in downtown Nashville.
The first full-blown recording studio in Nashville was at 804 16th Avenue South, built in 1954 by Decca producer Owen Bradley and his brother, prominent guitarist Harold Bradley. The Bradley Studio opened in 1955 and was immediately successful. The Bradleys added a surplus Army Quonset hut in back, installing wooden floors and burlap insulation, and it became legendary as the Quonset Hut, home of recordings by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, among many others.
Until Sony’s recent merger with BMG, 804 16th was the headquarters of Sony Music Nashville. Sony recently vacated the premises to move in with BMG a few blocks away in a building that was a former convent. 804 is now for rent. Record executive Mike Curb is buying the property that houses what’s left of the Quonset Hut, as well as Studio A, and plans to restore and preserve it, for posterity as well as for a teaching tool for students at nearby Belmont University.
Belmont already owns the nearby RCA Studio B, built in 1957, where Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and many others recorded hits. It’s still a working studio as well as a teaching resource and a tourist mecca.
There are not many sites like that left in Nashville, as history gives way to the march of so-called progress. In the real world, the quality of sound still does matter, just as do the quality of the songs and of the performance making up that sound.
The other day, at a glitch-laden soundcheck for a taping of CMT.com’s Studio 330 Sessions, someone (well, me) joked that instead of insisting on an authentic artist performance, we could just cut corners by doing what so many others do and just have the artist sing to recorded tracks — or shave those corners down even more by having the artist lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks. Many vocally-impaired so-called stars do that every day, you know, and I hate to shock anyone with that news. But it ain’t happening at CMT.com. And it won’t happen here.
And I, for one, am thankful for staunch music idealists like George Massenburg.