Facilities

Sweetwater Studios

A New Production Model With Fort Wayne Roots
The full Sweetwater Studios team, in the Studio A tracking room, from left: Nathan Heironimus, Banner Kidd, Nick D’Virgilio, Nicholas Morrow, Jimmy Blankenship, Phil Naish, Jacob Culberson, Christopher Guerin, Mark Hornsby, Chuck Surack, Don Carr, Julie Doust, Justin Zellers, Dan Ankney, Nick Ehinger. Photo: Erick Anderson

It would be difficult to overstate or overdramatize the success story embodied in the rise of Sweetwater over the past 35 years. By any measure—financial, educational, professional, ethical, philanthropic or creative—the company and its people have a story to tell. And most of them at some point will involve the company’s enigmatic, confident, committed, optimistic and quietly driven founder/CEO Chuck Surack.

 

There’s a reason for that. The simple and important values that drive Surack in his personal life drive his professional life, and they permeate the culture in and around the 330,000-square-foot Sweetwater complex off of U.S. 30 West, just outside of Fort Wayne, Ind. In conversations across all departments, words like “credibility,” “integrity,” “honesty,” and “relationships” constantly come up. Surack peppers his talk with phrases like, “Don’t just do it, do it the right way,” “We’re only as good as our weakest employee,” and “I don’t care if we lose money on the deal, do the right thing for the customer.” He humbly offers that he knows these sound like clichés, and then he rattles off the Boy Scout set of laws, from his childhood, and explains how they are not such a bad guideline for a good life, or for a growing business. Every single employee, and they now number nearly 800, meets with Surack one on one on their first day, as soon as they finish their paperwork and get their badge.

 

It really does seem a little too good to be true on the surface, a combination of “Jimmy Stewart hometown rags-to-riches” meets “artist who followed his dream and never compromised and found success and happiness in the end.” Surack did start the business in his hometown, from the back of a Volkswagen bus, then mobile home, then converted two-car garage, then warehouse-type facilities, followed by a jump to the big-time in Platinum LEED-certified facilities with state-of-the art everything. He really does answer every phone call and email, and he has read every customer service comment card since the company’s founding, as he insists all senior management do. All that is true. Simple and true.

Studio C, with Pro Tools HDX mix environment. Photo: Erick Anderson

Behind the legend, however, is some very real business, sales and industry acumen. From the very first sale of Kurzweil K250 sounds and the evolution to dealer-distributor, then retailer, Sweetwater has enjoyed top-line and bottom-line growth year after year. For more than two decades now, the company has grown a minimum of 20 percent year over year, even through the recent downturn. In 2008, Surack famously called all 224 employees into the Performance Theater in the brand-new facilities and told them, rather arrogantly, he admits, “I choose not to participate in the coming recession.” Budgets were trimmed, but everybody pitched in and nobody got laid off. Sweetwater has never had a layoff.

 

Six years later, the company has nearly 800 employees, hailing from 48 states, and is putting the finishing touches on two new buildings to house the growth. Income grew 33 percent this year, with revenue from all units approaching $400 million. He has the largest music and recording online retail operation in the country, and trails only Guitar Center and is closing in on Sam Ash for total sales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 250-seat Performance Theater, with full camera, lighting and JBL Line Array. There’s an Avid Venue at FOH and a LARES system with more than 100 speakers around the room for changing the acoustic signature of the space to fit multiple needs. Photo: Erick Anderson

Retail has been very good for Chuck Surack and the team in Fort Wayne. Absolutely. He considers himself blessed and fortunate and that drives him to give back to the community in a substantial way—financially, through public speaking, or serving on boards—both locally and nationally. At heart, though, he’s a musician who simply found that he had a real talent in business and leadership. He still plays tenor sax almost daily, gigging professionally and at fundraisers up to 45 nights a year. And he still considers himself a studio rat.

 

Sweetwater Studios

To Surack, studio and retail fit hand in glove, and their relationship is core to the whole operation, from the 4-track rig in the back of the VW, through the small Bass Road control room, and on to the three-room, world-class, in-house facility designed by Russ Berger in conjunction with the building architect for the move in 2008.

 

“I’ve been involved with music and recording my entire life,” Surack says, “and I have always dreamed of owning a big professional studio. We originally had talks with Russ Berger back in the early 1990s to build these fabulous rooms on Bass Road, but we couldn’t make it make economic sense. When we started on the new building in 2006, I thought, ‘Well, now we can do it.’ We were very fortunate to have the retail side to support what we wanted to do, so there really was no limit. And I knew that the reputation of the retail side of our company could work very closely with the professionalism and quality that I envisioned for the studio.”

 

They are definitely world-class rooms, and for the first few years they were, perhaps, underutilized. They were in daily use, for sure, following roughly the same mission as the previous space on Bass Road: mostly regional artists and production, jingles, corporate work, ad agency spots, and support for the in-house needs, including training and education—all the while working to boost the local recording community rather than compete with it. But Surack had bigger goals in mind when he built the rooms, and by 2011 found himself talking more regularly with independent producer/engineer Mark Hornsby.

 

At the time, Hornsby was based out of Nashville, though his work, which had migrated toward independent artists across all genres, took him regularly to New York, L.A., Miami, Chicago, London, even Costa Rica. He knew how records were being made today, and he knew what artists needed when they booked a studio. He also had been a Sweetwater customer for almost 20 years by the time Brad Lunde of Transamerica Audio Group asked him to step in and demo some of his product lines (ATC, Daking, Tube-Tech, et al) for the Sweetwater sales engineers in live-engineered sessions, piped by video feed from Studio A into the Performance Theater. He did a few of those, and found himself hanging out a bit more at the studio, familiarizing himself with the space, meeting upper management, absorbing the culture. He had known Surack for many years. They found themselves having more lunches and talking more regularly about the state of the industry. Hornsby soon became a de facto consultant to the studio team, and soon after that Surack asked if he would come to Fort Wayne full time and help make the studios a destination for artists.

 

“When I first came onboard, I was the producer and engineer, working on artist relations,” Hornsby recalls. “At the time, they had a different mission and had primarily carried over work from the Bass Road facility. These Russ Berger rooms rival anything in New York or Los Angeles, so the opportunity was there to do something bigger. They had talented people in-house, but to become a destination, they needed someone who could combine bringing in perspective from the outside world and integrate it into the Sweetwater culture and experience. I felt comfortable in both worlds and in some sense became that glue to bring them together.”

 

Within months, following some changes internally, Hornsby was also running the studios. His first order of business was to upgrade the equipment packages to reflect a more current and high-end hybrid model of digital/analog production. Surack backed him, and over the next two to two-and-a-half years they embarked on a room-by-room revamp, with full interconnectivity, the intention being to create a diverse yet simple workflow to suit any style of production. “The jewel in the crown,” Hornsby says, “was the desk we put into Studio A last May.”

Surack at the Kurzweil K250 keyboard, 1979.

The flagship Studio A now houses a one-of-a-kind hybrid console, affectionately dubbed the “Neve 6.” The front end incorporates 36 channels of the new Rupert Neve Designs Shelford modules, which combine the definitive 1073 feature set, complete with mic pre, highpass filter, and 3-band inductor EQ, while adding updated capabilities such as Neve’s variable Silk and Texture control and simultaneous pre/post “tape” operation. The control, or center section, of the desk is the Avid S6 control surface in one complete 24-fader/touchscreen package. The back end is a 32x4 Rupert Neve Designs analog summing master section complete with the Rupert Neve Designs Master Buss Processor. In essence, it’s a 36x32x4 Rupert Neve Designs console driven by an Avid S6.

 

Outboard gear is housed in a massive 15-foot Sterling Modular custom desk and includes more than 80 channels of analog processing from API, SSL, Universal Audio, Focusrite, Shadow Hills, Avid, Millennia, A Designs, Daking, PreSonus, Drawmer, Chandler and Manley, just to name a few. The monitoring system is a 2.1 set of ATC 150s and a set of Focal SM9s, all driven by the Dangerous Music Monitor ST. The Pro Tools rig is a 64 in/out HDX system (all Avid HD I/Os); and the system runs off an Antelope Audio Isochrone Trinity clock.

 

“We are always striving for diversity and flexibility in the types of artists and productions we bring in,” Hornsby explains, “and that is also reflected in the studios. That desk is something all-new. It’s one thing to put in a control surface with outboard gear, and it’s another to put in a console with a Pro Tools section. That’s been done. Here you can work all analog if you want, all-digital, or any combination you can think of. Any visiting engineer can walk in, take a look and in five minutes can be working in whatever their comfort zone is.”

 

Studio B received the most recent makeover with the installation of an SSL AWS48 with SSL X Rack housing eight stereo dynamics modules, along with Pro Tools HDX and 48 channels of Focusrite Rednet I/O. Monitoring is through a JBL 6328 5.1 system, along with ATC SCM250 ASL Pro mk2s.

 

Studio C offers Pro Tools HDX mixing, with Avid Artist Mix control, Dangerous Music analog summing and ATC 25A monitoring driven by a Dangerous Music Monitor ST.

 

Still, Surack and Hornsby both knew that despite the world-class rooms, the lure of the Sweetwater complex and the access to a seemingly endless supply of gear, anybody with money today can build a high-end studio. It would take something more to make Fort Wayne a real destination. The Sweetwater model is all about exceeding expectations. As Surack is fond of saying, “We want our customers to go away utterly thrilled.”

Studio A, pictured on the cover, with “Neve 6” console/control, Pro Tools HDX, more than 80 additional channels of high-end analog front end, and ATC and Focal monitoring. Photo: Erick Anderson

The Production Team

All the while the studios were undergoing the equipment upgrades, sessions were taking place, on a larger scale than previously. There were artists who visited Sweetwater, and Hornsby had started working his contacts to bring in a wide array of projects, from singer-songwriters to prog rock to metal crunch to Contemporary Christian. Session musicians were flown in regularly. He eliminated the notion of an hourly rate and began focusing on package deals that included everything from airfare, hotels, pre-production, tracking, overdubs, mixing, mastering, distribution, packaging and marketing. Any and all of the above. If an artist wanted a Skype and SourceConnect session with strings from Prague, they could do that, too. But something was missing.

 

From the beginning of their professional relationship, Surack and Hornsby had batted around the concept of a Muscle Shoals, Motown, or Memphis-style of in-house production. “My goal has always been to be involved in the production of great music,” Surack says. “How can we make it sound better? What can we bring to the project? One day it just clicked to bring Mark on staff, and then hire world-class musicians to create that sound. There’s a term from down South, lagniappe, which means giving a little bit more than what is paid for. Provide more to the customer than what they expect. That’s been my motto since I was a boy.”

 

Hornsby has a vast list of contacts from all aspects of the industry. But he definitely knows musicians. And he particularly likes those who have a broad range of styles and a creative flexibility that could enhance any project. He started talking to a few of his favorites.

 

“We started looking for a way to bring in musicians, but to have them also contribute to the overall Sweetwater experience,” Hornsby explains. “We came up with a model that helped contribute to marketing, through product videos and tutorials to help the customers, while also working in the studios with artists. It’s been a good combination, and luckily Don [Carr] and Nick [D’Virgilio] became available at the same time around July, followed by Phil Naish in August. We had all worked together before, and they saw what was going on here. It was a subtle pitch, but they knew we were building something more than a studio. We were building a production team, and we were bringing in these guys as musicians to help create a sound. It’s not just the gear, the studios have an extremely talented production team.”

 

D’Virgilio is a drummer who was based out of L.A. and had been touring with Cirque du Soleil for the past five years, his gig coming to an end. He had worked with the likes of Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Tears for Fears in his career, along with his own band, Spock’s Beard. He is today the in-house drummer, and he doubles up on product tutorials and video. You can see him, and his colleague Don Carr, all over the fantastic Sweetwater website.

 

Guitarist Carr hails from Nashville, and besides 30 years of session work and performing with the likes of Lorrie Morgan, Mark Chesnutt, Larry Stewart, Tommy Tutone and James Brown, he has for the past 23 years been lead guitarist for the Oak Ridge Boys, leading to gigs at the Mormon Tabernacle and the White House, among many others.

 

Producer Phil Naish is full time in the studio. He also hails from Nashville and is best known for his work on Steven Curtis Chapman’s first seven albums, resulting in three Grammy Awards. His discography also includes work with Elton John, Kenny Rogers, Boz Scaggs, Kenny Chesney and countless others. Today he and Hornsby work hand in hand. He also loves the Yamaha MIDI grand in Studio A.

The Sweetwater Bass Road Studio, which offered production services and test facilities until the move in 2008.

All have moved to Fort Wayne, admitting that while it is different than Nashville or L.A., it has its appeal at this point in their lives. They like the restaurants, the quality of life, and the opportunity to grow something new. Something that has no defined boundaries.

 

“The opportunity and the range of what we do here is huge,” Naish says. “We can make up our own projects, from progressive rock to Christian. We always have a bunch of ideas in the works, and those are totally open ended, where we can call in different artists. On the other side of the coin, people can come in off the street and you get to play on their records. There’s always something new. And unlike Nashville, we’re not constantly on the clock trying to get a first take.”

 

Fort Wayne is not likely to be confused with Memphis or Motown or Muscle Shoals anytime soon. The folks at Sweetwater acknowledge this while pointing out that it’s the concept they are emulating. Fort Wayne is a town that’s “just starting to get its swagger,” Surack says, and with 800 Sweetwater employees, all of them musicians, it’s a town with a heckuva lot of live music. That impact is starting to be felt in the clubs, the schools and the arts organizations throughout the area, and it’s encouraged by the spirit of giving back to the community that runs through the Sweetwater culture, starting with Surack.

 

“People come to work at Sweetwater to be around other creative, talented people,” Surack says. “We’re close to a number of big cities, the quality of life is fantastic, and there is so much live music that you don’t have to pay to play when you’re here. Fort Wayne is my home, and I’ve been very blessed. I feel like I haven’t had to really work a day in my life!”

 

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