Life Is PeachyInside Atlanta’s Music Recording Scene 6/01/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
On a deceptively quiet street located in a pleasant neighborhood near downtown Atlanta, Butch Walker is staying ultrabusy at being loud. The suddenly ubiquitous, simultaneously incognito Walker — a successful rock producer, engineer, songwriter and artist — has spent the afternoon listening to his work with pop idol Avril Lavigne, discussing his upcoming Epic solo album and reminiscing about recent productions for Sevendust, A Simple Plan, Midtown and Default, all while deftly dodging a ringing mobile phone. Walker makes it clear that Ruby Red Recordings — his impressive two-studio, SSL-equipped recording spot — is not for everyone.
“This place will never be an advertised, fully commercial facility,” explains Walker. “It's going to be an invite-only studio. If I don't get a good feeling from someone, then they're not coming here.” Think that's an interesting business plan in this new recording industry? Don't question Walker, because it's working well for him in his favorite town.
Walker's is only one of the unique stories within Atlanta's music recording market. After visiting a variety of Atlanta studios, it quickly became clear that virtually every studio in town has an equally original compelling theme, each featuring an entertaining cast of creative, passionate characters. From the city's unusually large number of private production facilities (OutKast's Stankonia Recording and Dallas Austin's DARP Studios, to name a few) to vibed-out, fully commercial studios with conscientious business plans, Atlanta is a recording city unlike any other.
The impetus behind Atlanta's unique recording market has always been its dynamic music scene. Although most have R&B and hip hop in mind when thinking about the music of the ATL (an idea recently reinforced with the worldwide success of OutKast), the city boasts and hosts a huge collection of talented artists of all genres. While urban music producers glean lots of media attention in Atlanta, rock producers such as Brendan O'Brien also call the city home and frequently bring high-profile superstar artists like Pearl Jam, Korn and Bruce Springsteen to town. (The majority of Springsteen's Grammy
By being the unofficial “capital” and culture center of the South, Atlanta also attracts a variety of independent musicians specializing in blues, jazz, classical and every other style imaginable. While the recording scene isn't as large as it is in cities such as Los Angeles or New York City, the music created in Atlanta is arguably as diverse and does not perpetuate preconceived notions of musical style like, for instance, Nashville might. Simply stated, there's more going on in Atlanta than you're probably aware of.
Atlanta's role as an important secondary market for music recording poses interesting challenges to each of its studios. It is clear that this city has proven to be a hotbed of innovative and financially lucrative musical productions, but for the town's studio scene, operating like facilities in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville isn't, and never was, an option. As a result, the biggest complexes feel strangely “grass roots” when compared to equally built and equipped rooms in larger markets. On the flip side, smaller facilities seem to operate on a grander scale.
At Tree Sound Studios, one of Atlanta's larger, multigenre facilities, sessions run the gamut of possibilities: Superstar lockouts by folks such as Elton John and Whitney Houston happen alongside spec-deal sessions with unsigned local talent. At Tree, you can find private production rooms leased to independent engineers and producers, and on Tree's second floor, Atlanta-based A&R reps, management companies and other industry-related businesses inhabit offices.
This, according to Tree studio manager Nina Baldridge, helps make the studio a synergistic place to work. “There's more to it than the room and the gear,” she explains. “There's a community of music professionals here and it benefits everybody. [Local producer/engineer] Rick Beato was originally considering building a studio in his house. After thinking about it, he told me, ‘Let's do it here instead.’ It's a place where everybody is scratching everybody else's back.”
A somewhat similar arrangement is happening over at ZAC Recording, engineer Jim Zumpano's recording community, located near trendy Buckhead. While the studio was originally conceived as a fully commercial, multiroom facility, Zumpano has allowed his business plan to evolve. “During the years that I've built this place, the business model of recording studios has fallen apart, from the label structure all the way down to kids making their first recordings. I built my place on the old model.” Acknowledging this, Zumpano is leasing three studio spaces to indie engineers, while continuing to book his large SSL-equipped studio and a mid-size Pro Tools/ProControl room. “So I'm still ‘commercially’ working it, although I'm not the one out there searching. I've got the rooms rented, and I've become a bit of a landlord.”
Even the Atlanta recording studios with more traditional business models seem to offer more than “big room, big console” appeal. Legendary studio Southern Tracks has been rocking for more than 20 years, and studio co-owner Mike Clark considers the studio's unpretentious, relaxed environment as important as its extensive classic microphone and outboard gear collection. “It's not corporate,” Clark says, “and things aren't so palatial, like, ‘Oh, don't touch that.’ I hate to use the word ‘vibe,’ but that's what it is.” Southern Tracks' comfortable environment obviously works well for many; according to Clark, the one-studio facility with a 2,800-square-foot tracking room stays booked 300 days a year.
In 1995, Atlanta Falcon Bob Whitfield and business partner Curtis Daniel III founded Patchwerk Studios shortly after launching their own record label. The duo's studio quickly became the commercial facility of choice for many hip hop and R&B clients recording in the city, and has since hosted a wide variety of very successful projects. In Atlanta, a city with an unusually large number of private, producer-owned production rooms, Patchwerk built its reputation on being a world-class studio for everyone and is always ready to do what is necessary to make its clients happy, as many of them — or their producers — have facilities of their own. “This is everybody's studio,” declares Daniel. “And even though some of these artists have their own studios, they work here, too. It's all in the name: Patchwerk; we're ready to work. That's our image.”
A perfect example of a premier Atlanta private facility is R&B superproducer Jermaine Dupri's Southside Studios. Originally built for Dupri by Sony Records, the studio, with a reported $5 million price tag, is more like “a cool hangout,” according to studio manager Brian Remenick. Besides its Studio 440 design and an SSL 9K console, Southside boasts creature features such as a 2⅔3-scale indoor basketball court, two bedrooms and a private garage. “Since we don't take outside clients, Jermaine can just pull into the garage, walk in and start working without having to see anybody,” Remenick says.
The private setup is similar at Ruby Red Recordings, albeit on a slightly smaller scale — and without an indoor basketball court. “Honestly, it's the same basic situation for both me and Jermaine, except we're from two different worlds musically,” Walker says. “We just work on more of an ‘indie’ rock budget, which goes to show how much money is in R&B and how much is in rock 'n' roll!”
However, Ruby Red is not so private that Walker doesn't find ways to get involved with Atlanta's up-and-coming musicians and bands. The studio's full-time engineer, Rusty Cobb, is a producer in his own right, and works at the facility on non-Walker productions when scheduling allows. “Half the reason I got this place was to give bands a place to record using their own money,” says Walker. “I give special rates to struggling musicians whenever there's time available.”
While not private, engineer John Briglevich's Sonica Studios is a place where the owner is often involved in the sessions. If a client is working at Sonica, you can bet that Briglevich is interested in the music. “I'm not the absentee owner,” he claims. “I'll do whatever it takes, from playing on records to helping out with the engineering. I have a lot of pride in this place, and it is basically a reflection of me.”
While this sort of owner involvement in a studio usually happens in smaller, project-type studios, Sonica is far from a project facility. It features a custom API console, large rooms and mounds of classic gear, amps and microphones — all of which are proudly “not on lockdown,” according to Briglevich. This laid-back philosophy echoes the recurring theme of the relaxed, yet serious Atlanta studio: “In Atlanta, we know where our place is. It's a secondary market and none of the studios are ostentatious. They are all predicated on function, first and foremost.”
No matter who you talk to, if you're discussing Atlanta's music industry, the subject of “Southern hospitality” will arise. It clearly isn't just a cliché, because many involved in Atlanta's studio business find it to be one of the most appealing aspects of working in their town.
“Southern hospitality is real,” exclaims Baldridge, a veteran of the Los Angeles recording scene. “L.A. has a real clique as far as studios are concerned, and while there's a clique here, there's a big difference in how we deal with each other. For instance, I know that I can call Mike at Southern Tracks if I need something. I'm here for him, and he's there for me. Also, I may say to someone, ‘I can't get you in right now, but Jim Z at ZAC might be available.’ We all know what our capabilities are as far as sessions are concerned, and we all help each other out.”
The camaraderie even extends to lending each other equipment as needed, as both Briglevich and Ruby Red studio manager Christie Priode point out. “It's always, ‘Hey man, I've got this high-profile client coming in. Do you have this particular mic?’” says Briglevich. “There's a lot of that, and I think it filters from the top down.”
“I don't know about other studios, but I feel that we're all friends,” says Priode. “It's just one big community and we all feed off of each other.”
Baldridge often sees the hospitality and relaxed atmosphere positively affect her clients at Tree. “It's that vibe that totally sets Atlanta apart,” she explains. “We sit outside all the time. The Indigo Girls would sit out on the lawn, reading books until, ‘Oh, it's time for my overdub.’ I sat out on the lawn and played guitar with Ed [Kowalczyk] from Live while they were here. That doesn't go down in L.A.!”
Of course, not everything is peachy in the Atlanta studio scene. They've been dealing with the same economic woes and business challenges facing other recording facilities throughout the industry. Particularly in Atlanta, commercial studios aren't competing with each other as much as with private facilities, many of which comprise artists and producers operating out of their homes.
The problem isn't really about producers such as Dupri or Walker having their own recording spots. According to Baldridge, it's the sheer number of workstations in the hands of those who really aren't engineers (or who don't employ adept ones) in the first place. “When the economy shifted and when more people started to build studios in their basements, we had to diversify. It is a concern now — it seems like everyone has a Pro Tools rig at home. Thankfully, many of those people realize that a professional studio environment is priceless.”
Daniel agrees: “For the longest time, the standard was yourself. You're up against yourself until they say, ‘We're going to build a place like this at home.’ Once they get that, and when they have a bad experience, that's when they appreciate us, our work, sessions starting on time and real engineers.”
Filling open calendar dates became a little easier for Zumpano when he started focusing a bit more on indie and unsigned artists. While he admits that his studio ignored this potential income stream in the past, it is now an integral part of his business. “This is now my plan for survival, and it helps me shield myself from the down time. I used to be just a label guy, a big-dollar dude. The little guys couldn't afford me, and it didn't really matter because the label thing sustained me. With less of that source now, we've gotta do this.”
While many have re-evaluated the way they attract business, most feel that business is better in Atlanta than in other markets. With an ever-increasing amount of music being created and less commercial facilities compared to other cities, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel and, hopefully, enough to go around.
“The grass-roots music industry is thriving in Atlanta,” says Baldridge. “New bands are forming all the time, and so there's a ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ kind of attitude prevalent with a lot of the studio owners. We're hanging in there to see what happens.”
Strother Bullins is a North Carolina-based freelance writer specializing in the professional audio and entertainment industries.
Tree Sound’s massive live room
• For more on Jermaine Dupri’s Southside Studios, click here.
• Click here to read up on Sonica Recording and Patchwerk Studios, and check out more pics.
• Click here for more Ruby Red images and studio info.