On the Cover: Ben’s Studio, NashvilleIts official name back when Chet Atkins built it in 1965, in a building owned by Atkins and Owen Bradley, was RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios, but around town it has always been simply RCA Studio 5/01/2013 5:00 AM Eastern
Its official name back when Chet Atkins built it in 1965, in a building owned by Atkins and Owen Bradley, was RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios, but around town it has always been simply RCA Studio A. Elvis, Waylon, Willie, Roy Orbison, George Jones, Tammy Wynette…Dolly recorded “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” in the big room on the same day in 1973! There is a whole lot of history hiding in these nooks in crannies, a whole lotta dirt in the walls, as a friend used to say.
Ben Folds first walked into the room back in 1992 when it was run by producer Warren Peterson under the name Javelina. A North Carolina native, Folds attended University of Miami and had come north to make a go as a session drummer, backed by a publishing deal facilitated by Paul Worley at Sony/ATV. As part of that deal, Peterson opened up the room for free at night so that Folds could work on his own material, which would the following year become the Ben Folds Five. A little more than 20 years later, he sits for a Mix cover, back in his home away from home.
“This space has always been real special to me,” Folds says. “I was 22 years old, and they let me go in there late at night to record. To me, it was just the best room in the world; it feels like being outside. Writing in there at 2 in the morning, I know it’s a luxury. You don’t have to be spiritual to feel the history.”
Jump forward 10 years, and Folds, having achieved some success, is living in Adelaide, Australia, and starting a family. He decides to move back to Nashville, and while driving around town on one of his first days back, sees a sign outside the 30 Music Square West advertising Studio Available. The doors were wide open, he recalls, so he pulled in and was met by the Bradley’s original building manager, a woman named Michael. “I’ll take it!” Folds said, on the spot. “Don’t you want to think about it?” Michael replied, skeptically, looking him up and down. “Then she Googled me, I think,” Folds says with a laugh. They soon came to terms; he’s now been there for 10 years. At this point, it is truly Ben’s Studio.
The first five years or so, until late 2008, it literally was Ben’s studio, as he was the only one to really use it. It was a giant man cave for a quirky, somewhat geeky mad genius musician-type, with instruments and gear piling up in the studio, a single long snake for inputs, and a loose order-within-chaos vibe. There was a classic Neotek console, a Studer A800 24-track, and a growing collection of esoteric mics and outboard gear. Songs for Silverman was recorded around this time, in a style perfectly suited to the way Folds works. But once he decided that he would open the room up to outside clients, it was apparent that changes had to be made.
“It was this big, great-sounding historical room filled with this incredible collection of gear, instruments, you name it that Ben had collected!” says Sharon Corbitt-House, who teamed up with Folds in early 2009 to help make the studio commercially viable; today she co-manages Folds with Mike Kopp and also runs the studio. “It was so densely packed. We started with inventory assessment and found there were no wiring blueprints. So we started by rewiring the entire studio to bring it up to date, putting in mic panels and things like that. Then we started to look for a console.”
Before that, however, Corbitt-House hired Leslie Richter, whom she had worked with at Ocean Way Nashville, to come onboard and help with technical housecleaning. While the infrastructure was coming together, Folds would often pepper his conversation with the line, “When we grow up, we’re going to get an API console.” It was what the studio had once been known for, and in October 2010, Corbitt-House, recalls, Folds phoned her and said, “It’s time to grow up.”
“Ben had found a classic 1976 API 3232 owned by Rich Costey out in L.A. and brokered by Jeff Leibowitz at Vintage King,” she says. “It had a pedigree and had been well-loved. The ¼-inch patchbay was still installed! But we took that out and installed phantom power. Then we had Mike Rhodes of Skinnyfish Studio Services here in Nashville build a sidecar with patchbay, and he matched it down to the Formica top.” Richter helped commission the board.
Over the ensuing years, there have been countless other additions added to the recording chain. A late-’70s MCI JH-16, with transformers, was reconditioned and brought in; countless tube mics were added to the closet; ADAM S3A monitors replaced the B&Ws; and recently, producer Scott Litt left behind a 10-channel 1954 Collins 212-A tube broadcast mixer that Folds subsequently bought—he and his main engineer, Joe Costa, are just starting to experiment with it.
The Big Room
While the backbone of the facility entered the modern age, albeit with an analog bent, the walls were never touched. Though two iso booths had been added by Peterson in the early ’90s, the signature RCA walls, with their rolling-humps rising to the 30-foot ceilings, remained intact. In a very real sense, along with the original parquet floor, they are the sound of the room.
“We worked hard to keep the space itself true to form, true to the original intent of the studio when it was built,” says Richter, something of a house engineer and fix-it tech who has had recent success engineering an Elizabeth Cook EP, a Malcolm Burn-produced Alyssa Graham project now in mastering, and the last two John Hiatt records. “It is the largest unbroken floor space in Nashville, and it has always been a place where people want to play together, in the same room, where leakage is your friend. This feels like a place where people want to make records, and not just have sessions. We didn’t want to mess with that.”
That penchant for live tracking, band on the floor, was the norm back when the studio was built, and it’s been a main selling point for the studio lately, with projects by Steve Earle (his first Nashville record in nearly 10 years), Justin Townes Earle, John Hiatt and Kacey Musgraves all taking advantage of dynamic, in-studio interplay. It wasn’t that long ago that Tony Bennett stopped in for a couple of tracks on Duets II, singing live in the main room, with band and a monitor setup. Old-school.
“I’ve been using more omni mics than I’ve ever used in my life because of this room,” says Costa, who besides being Folds’ engineer has had recent success with Brendan Benson, Cory Chisel, The Greenhornes and others. “Even omnis for overheads. On Ben’s most recent record, I put up a couple of these Neumann M582, the pencil tube mic. This room is so good with leakage, and the players discover that. The drums bleeding into the piano mics can become a big part of the sound. Ninety percent of the time I mike drums pretty standard, but I have put up a pair of spaced omnis and gotten great ‘drums in the room.’
“And piano can sound amazing from a lot of different spots in the room, depending on the song,” he continues. “Ben has five grand pianos right here, all voiced differently, and he uses them all. But his favorite lately has been a Steinway B that came from a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Ann Arbor. [It was one of two purchased by Wright himself, Corbitt-House discovered when tracing its lineage.] It didn’t need to be voiced; it just has this beautiful midrange. I just stick my head in and do a low-high spacing with a pair of Neumann CMV 563 tubes with M7 capsules, and he can hit it hard or light. It just pops in the track.”
RCA Studio A is truly a one-of-a-kind room. It’s not for everybody, and Folds and his team know that. But it sure is right for others, and it is proving to be a most versatile piece of history, having hosted everything from full-blown orchestral sessions to video shoots to live in-studio performances, not to mention the recent string of fully-booked album projects. For Corbitt-House, it has been a real treat to watch the vision come together, and it’s been fulfilling in ways that are hard to measure.
“I can remember getting a phone call from Kris Wilkinson near the end of 2008, saying that Ben was thinking of opening up RCA Studio A,” she recalls. “She knew I was freelance and set up a meeting between Ben and I. I was at a time in my career when I really needed to reconnect with why I got involved in this industry. I hadn’t been in the room in probably 12 years, and when I walked in I got chills. I recorded my first album at 18, I have 30 years of managing studios, and here I was in the room where Elvis recorded. Waylon’s first recordings. Willie, the Outlaws, the whole Monument Records era. Dolly doing ‘Jolene.’ Those records were such a part of the fabric of my life, and I could feel it in the room. Needless to say, I was re-inspired!”