Southern Ground Studios: Zac Brown’s Production Home on Music Row

When Zac Brown and producer/engineer/musician Matt Mangano began searching for a studio base for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label, they envisioned purchasing and converting a small house. Mang
The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 in Southern Ground Studios" />

Dave Grohl and the Zac Brown Band making the group’s The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 in Southern Ground Studios

When Zac Brown and producer/engineer/musician Matt Mangano began searching for a studio base for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label, they envisioned purchasing and converting a small house. Mangano trolled the Nashville real estate listings, and occasionally sent Brown a link to consider.

“One day I accidentally forgot to put a price parameter in the search, and I found the listing for what used to be Masterlink Studios at the foot of Music Row. I sent it to Zac as a joke: ‘Why don’t we buy Masterlink? Haha.’ But apparently he took it seriously, and we started looking at the place.”

The former Masterlink facility came with a lot of advantages and history. Built in 1903 as a Presbyterian church, the structure was first used as a studio in the late ’60s by Fred Foster’s Monument Records. Several years later, Chip Young and Scottie Moore bought and renamed the facility Young ‘un Sound. Then in the ’80s, Al Jolson Jr. acquired the studio.

“He modernized it, and that’s when the studio took on its current form,” Mangano says. “It was immediately apparent that it was going to be perfect for us.”

Mangano and Brown saw the 7,000-square-foot facility as a plug-and-play opportunity: The studios were well-equipped with a 60-input Neve V3 console, Otari, Ampex and Studer analog machines, Pro Tools, a full mic cabinet, loads of vintage outboard gear, plus extras like three EMT plate reverbs and a workshop full of audio treasures.

“There were probably 40 years’ of audio parts left from different incarnations of the studio,” Mangano says. “We spent a lot of time on inventory, figuring out what was there, what still worked. And the answer was, almost everything was in very good working order.”

SOuthern Ground

Mangano and Brown originally planned few changes to the facility. But that changed during a walkthrough with their builder, David Purvis, to discuss aesthetic improvements.

“The studio had 25-foot, fabric dropped ceilings, but there were a couple of little access holes cut into that ceiling,” Mangano recalls. “If you shined a flashlight, you could see a little bit of brick. Zac said, ‘We have to find out what’s up there.’ We bought some scaffolding and climbed up, and behind the fabric we saw huge 100-year-old pine beams, a beautiful brick archway, brickwork everywhere. We had to open it up.”

One change led to another, and Southern Ground’s studio renovation grew to encompass not only the restoration of the 100-plus-year-old sanctuary/tracking room, but also building out another partially developed space into a mix room, equipped with a 56-channel SSL 4000G console and ATC 300 monitors. Steven Durr helped tune the restored tracking studio, and designed the mix room acoustics.

“Steve does a lot of his work by feel, which was a big part of the spirit of this whole studio project,” Mangano says. “A lot of what’s right about this facility is because of his ears.”

Mangano says the goal was to create a welcoming, musically inspiring space that would be large enough to accommodate live band tracking but also feel homey. They chose warm finishes and acoustical treatments made of natural materials, including wood from Taylor Guitars on the floors, and porous, acoustically flexible pecky cypress on the walls. There’s a full kitchen run by chef and “studio mama” Rebecca Wood, who provides homecooked meals made to order.

And changes are still happening at Southern Ground: Mangano has left his job as studio director to play bass with three-time Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band, and Grammy-winning engineer Brandon Bell is now the studio director and chief engineer. There are also plans to begin making the facility available commercially to clients outside of the Southern Ground Artists label.

“The Wood Brothers with Buddy Miller producing were the first band to cut their record here from start to finish,” Mangano says. “They did a lot of live–around-one-mic takes, and their engineer, Mike Poole, put room mics everywhere; he was really using the tracking room to its fullest potential. If you listen to it, that record is really what our studio sounds like.”

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