Success is measured in all kinds of ways, but it’s probably fair to say that when “sidemen” take the spotlight, the results are mixed; not every great musician has that intangible quality that draws crowds. But the Atlanta Rhythm Section came out of the shadows to score huge hits in the mid-’70s, and gave hope to session guys everywhere.
The Atlanta Rhythm Section came together in 1969, comprising former members of the Candymen and Classics IV who had become the most in-demand backing group in Atlanta (hence the name). They played on scores of other artists’ sessions, including many produced by Buddy Buie in Atlanta’s famed LeFevre Sound. Working day after day with the original ARS musicians—vocalist Rodney Justo, guitarist Barry Bailey, bassist Paul Goddard, keyboardist Dean Daughtry and drummer Robert Nix—Buie believed that this band could be headliners. He began working on songs and tracks with them in off-hours at LeFevre, and brought those tracks, the band and LeFevre’s engineer, Rodney Mills, with him when he moved his production work from LeFevre to his own facility, Studio One, in Doraville, Ga., in 1970.
“Buddy approached me with the idea of building a new studio, and that started my commitment to him,” Mills says. “I was 24, and I had very little construction knowledge, but Buddy had a few ideas he wanted to implement, and he left the building to me.”
The studio that Mills built for Buie facilitated the way Buie liked to work side by side with musicians. A large control room was fitted with a custom Luellen and Martin console with Spectrasonics components, to go with JBL mains. “Communication with musicians was one of the biggest things Buddy wanted, and the best way to do that was to have most of the musicians play in the control room,” Mills says. “We came up with a design where musicians could have their amps out in the studio, but they would sit in the control room, or if they were out in the studio, we’d place the console up in this front part of the control room that was shaped like a ‘V,’ so there was glass right and left, and Buddy could see them on whichever side they were playing, next to that glass ‘snout.’
“The projection out into the studio was also a natural divider to separate sounds,” Mills continues. “If people were playing Marshall amplifiers, I could put one amp on one side of that V and one on the other, and there would be no bleed.”
With plenty of glass and wood, the main studio was fairly live, but the drum room was a ’70s-style dead zone. “That booth would suck the complete life out of anything,” Mills laughs. “If you didn’t want any ambience at all on your drums, it was perfect! It was like sentencing the drummer to solitary confinement every time he went in there. He could only tolerate it for about 30 minutes at a time, because the ventilation in there was not great either. As time went by, we changed that, but having most of the musicians in the control room playing—that continued to be the way I enjoyed recording.”
After Buie and Co. were settled into Studio One, Buie negotiated a record deal for ARS with Decca and the group began dedicated album sessions. They put out an LP a year beginning in 1972. During that time, the lineup changed, with guitarist James B. Cobb joining in ’72. Justo left the band around that time, as well, and was replaced by Ronnie Hammond. With their new members, ARS finally cracked the Top 40 in late 1976 with A Rock and Roll Alternative, which included the Number 7 hit “So Into You.”
“So Into You” was written collaboratively by Buie, Nix and Daughtry. Mills says the recording process went much the same way as any session that the band would track with a visiting artist. “You would put them in the studio, play them a demo, and that would be the first time they heard the song,” Mills says.
“Barry Bailey would usually do chord charts for everybody, and Buddy would have some ideas as far as the arrangement, but there was a lot of give and take from that point. They would play, go and flow, and then stop to work on individual parts, with all the musicians except for the drummer in the control room.”
The group developed their album-rock-meets-R&B-jam arrangement, and began tracking basics to the studio’s Scully 8-track machine. The entire band would play together on basics, but they’d only keep the drums and some bass parts; everything else would be overdubbed later in individual takes.
During the early days of Studio One and ARS: Front and center are producer Buddy Buie (left) and rhythm guitarist J.R. Cobb, and in the back are engineer Rodney Mills along with other original bandmembers and studio personnel.
“Ronnie Hammond always sang scratch vocals when we made the basics, but later we would spend a lot of time experimenting,” Mills says. “Robert Nix, the drummer, participated in a lot of the harmony parts on some tracks, and so did J.R. Cobb, but Ronnie sang all the leads and harmonies on ‘So Into You.’”
Mills always miked Hammond with a Neumann U 87. “I liked doing vocals with Ronnie, because he was a bit of an engineer himself, and he was really good at working the mic. He understood how to get close and when to back away. When he did long vocal sessions, he would compensate for any loss of vocal power by moving even closer to the mic, and it would become really intimate. The proximity effect of that mic was perfect for that, and to this day, that’s the first microphone I bring up.”
The Neumann went through a UREI 1176 as well as an outboard Spectrasonics compressor. “Those Spectrasonics were more like limiters,” Mills says. “The 1176, I’d use just to softly compress the vocal, and if I really wanted a stop-gap limiter-type thing, I’d go into the Spectrasonics. We also doubled most everything we did on Ronnie. He was amazing at being able to double himself—phrasing, timing, everything. He was a joy to work with.”
The signature sound of “So Into You,” however, is Dean Daughtry’s electric Wurlitzer part that runs all through the track. “We started with Dean playing an electric piano in the control room at that time to keep isolation,” Mills says. “We had a grand piano in the studio, but the guitar amps were in there, and they were so loud that we couldn’t cut piano because of the leakage. But on this particular song, we carried that Wurlitzer through to the end, because we realized it was one of the most unique things on the whole album.”
Mills captured the keyboard direct—the core sound is that piano itself—but he also treated it with a Harmonizer during the mix.
“I EQ’d it quite a bit coming into the console, and I think I also had an outboard Langevin passive graphic EQ on it, but a big part of that sound was from a Lexicon Harmonizer H910,” Mills recalls. “They brought that piece of gear out in 1975, and I remember reading the audio magazines at that time and thinking, ‘Ronnie is forever doing these harmonies, and they’ve got a device now we can set to a harmony part so he won’t have to sing all the parts.’
“But the practical side of it, of course, was the digital harmony wouldn’t sound natural. We got the thing in, and I was trying to make all these harmonies, and I was thinking, ‘I hope I didn’t ask Buddy to spend all this money on something we can’t even use.’ But I kept experimenting with it, and when we were mixing, I’d detune the Harmonizer just by the smallest increment below unison. I realized it would detune the piano, and it was like magic. The sound of that piano, to this day, is instantly recognizable.
“Another thing that the Harmonizer helped with was the limitations of the console,” Mills continues. “We only had one reverb send per channel, so if you wanted reverb, you sent it out of each individual track. I didn’t have enough inputs to do things any other way. So I took the reverb send from the only source on every input and patched it into the reverb chamber we had, and then, on everything where I sent a signal to the reverb chamber, I also sent a signal to the Harmonizer. So on that song, anything that has reverb on it also has Harmonizer on it, including drums, and the guitars. It’s more noticeable on Dean’s electric piano than anything, but even when Robert Nix plays that ride cymbal on the end of the song, I can hear that Harmonizer because it always had a little delay and a weird sound to it.”
“So Into You” actually became Studio One’s ticket to a new, less limited console. The song and the Rock and Roll Alternative album was so successful for Buie that he was able to upgrade most of his equipment. Mills’ career received a huge boost as well; he became an in-demand engineer/producer, working with artists including Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special and the Doobie Brothers. However, in the early ’90s, Mills decided his work was taking him away from his family too often, and he built his current studio home, the busy Atlanta mastering facility Masterhouse.
There is still an Atlanta Rhythm Section band, though personnel have changed, and sadly Ronnie Hammond, Robert Nix and Paul Goddard have passed away. Daughtry remains the only continuous bandmember since the beginning, and fans can hear his iconic keyboard parts live when the band tours this summer.