Recently, while I was at Belmont University catching up with David Herrera, he handed me a CD of Latin American music and told me that it was the first release on the University's new Acklen Record label, a co-venture with Curb Records. Not only is Musica Caliente de Nashville a well-produced effort, it is a further statement of the increasing diversity that can be found in the area. Music ranges from rootsy numbers to high-gloss, big band performances by Nashville's finest Latin artists.
Most recently, Acklen/Curb has been producing a project with Fisk University showcasing that institution's world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. The project was produced by Wesley Bulla, Mike Curb and Pamela Browne, with Herrera as associate producer.
Fisk University was established by the American Missionary Association in Nashville in 1866 to educate former slaves. In 1872, it became the first African American college to receive a Class-A rating by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Over the years, Fisk has become one of the country's leading educational institutions and has trained a large number of important leaders in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1871, the school's musical director (George L. White) assembled two exceptionally talented and well-trained quartets and a pianist and began touring throughout the world to raise money for the struggling school. The group quickly gained notoriety for its emotionally stirring renditions of traditional spirituals, and their tours took them all over North America and Europe with audiences including the President and Queen Victoria.
“The Jubilee Singers are the first to introduce the Negro spiritual to the whole world, and one of our assignments is to preserve this music,” states Jubilee Singers music director Paul Kwami. “It's the music [that] was sung on the plantation, and the Jubilee Singers brought this to concert stages and made it an art form. Of course, there are different kinds of arrangements. Some are basically changed, but I'm very careful about what arrangements we perform. Basically, we are continuing what the original singers did performing the Negro spirituals.”
My initial awareness of the Jubilee Singers came a couple of years back when I got a call to play a small part in a PBS television special on the group. While it was fun running around in 1800s doctor's garb tending to a sick Jubilee singer, the real payoff was the chance to absorb the passion and sacrifice of those historically involved in the group.
When I got home, a cursory search didn't turn up any commercially available recordings of the group; so it was with special interest that I attended one of the Jubilee Singers recording sessions at Ocean Way Nashville. Upon walking into the big room, the group gathered in a slightly curved line in front of Kwami and began warming up. Those initial sounds were wondrous, and by the time they finished running through their first song, I had “chill bumps” from their meditative performance.
“It has been great working with Paul Kwami,” enthuses Belmont faculty member David Henson, who engineered the project with fellow teacher Dr. Wesley Bulla. “This group is so well-rehearsed that the artist part of it has been a plus. When they sing, it is ‘chill bump’ time, and we have now been able to capture those chill bumps.”
While I was there, Belmont University president Dr. Bob Fisher and Curb president Mike Curb dropped by to catch the proceedings.
Curb enthusiastically stated, “I always loved the Jubilee Singers, and just through conversations with Dr. Fisher at Belmont and Carolyn Reid-Wallace at Fisk, we decided this was a much-needed project, and this was the time to do it. I think that the way this is being recorded is just magnificent.”
Belmont's Bulla shares Curb's enthusiasm, adding, “We have been able to do something that no one else in town has been able to do, which is essentially put about $13,000 worth of studio time into the Fisk Jubilee Singers. If there is any choir that should have that treatment, they are.”
To that end, Belmont's staff, along with Ocean Way engineer Bryan Graban, recorded the event in surround and filmed it for a DVD release.
“We are using a very minimal mic signal path. We are really just going from the microphone to these Millennia Media HV-3D mic pre's straight to tape,” explains Graban. “One of the cool things about this project is that they are trying to keep it quite traditional and not Pro Tool anything and Auto-Tune vocals. The only thing that we are using that isn't ‘traditional’ is we are going into an iZ RADAR and using a Sony 3348HR as a backup.”
The recording process included AKG C12s set up in a Decca Tree configuration. “In pre-production, we actually had Bob Bradley down at the Mic Shop in Franklin redo the main C12s,” says Henson. “They've been rebuilt and have his proprietary hot-rod power supplies with cables and connectors that he hand-made for them. We approached this to make it the best it could be.”
The project, which is tentatively titled The Fisk Jubilee Singers, is slated for DVD and CD release this fall.
Back in the '80s, when Norbert Putnam, producer for Jimmy Buffett and Dan Fogelberg, opened up the Bennett House in Franklin (a quaint town 20 miles south of Nashville), who would've thought his prediction that this area would become a hotbed of recording studios, production houses and record labels would materialize. Twenty years later, the countryside is dotted with facilities producing quite a range of music. Sound Kitchen alone has Faith Hill and Insane Clown Posse working in two of the studio's seven rooms.
The latest newcomer to the area is Paragon Studios, a huge 22,000-square-foot, multi-tenant complex that is the vision of Fred Paragano, most noted for his work in the pop and contemporary Christian music.
Paragon is located in the middle of the Cool Springs area just north of Franklin on the less commercially developed side of I-65. It is a block away from the Provident Music Distribution label offices, one of the most successful Christian music enterprises and one of Paragano's main clients. In fact, if Music Row is the center of the country music industry, then the Brentwood/Cool Springs and Franklin areas are the centers of the Christian music industry. Just about every label in that market is within 15 minutes of Paragon.
It was the concentration of the contemporary Christian music industry that lured Paragano to Nashville from New York seven years ago.
“I just liked what was happening here,” says Paragano. “I like the music scene, and I wanted to be more involved in the contemporary Christian market than I was in New York. I took a chance and came down, and thankfully, I was able to get involved in that.”
While many professional engineers have moved their work into home studio environments, Paragano felt it was time for him to move his studio out of his house and create a more dedicated commercial audio space that not only addressed his needs, but also raised the bar for what he felt a great studio needed to provide.
In order to assure the studio's sonic performance, as well as aesthetics, Paragano hired the world-renowned, Dallas-based Russ Berger Design Group. “I felt that Russ was the only designer that fully understood my specific needs and was able to integrate those requirements into the design of the rooms,” Paragano says.
The facility has three rooms: two matching 5.1 mix rooms with recording spaces ranging from an array of iso booths to a tracking room large enough to handle an orchestra date. The third room is a production suite/MIDI room. There is also a central machine room that houses all of the patching that interconnects all of the rooms in the facility, including ancillary spaces, offices and a tape library. The facility also features extensive Pro Tools HD systems built into each room. Monitors are custom-designed Dynaudio systems.
Studio A features an SSL XL 9000 K Series 80-input console for 5.1 mixing, and the room is set up for mix-to-picture capabilities. The entire facility is networked via a Fibre Channel network by Studio Network Solutions, which Paragano says, “will improve performance, workflow and storage, as well as minimize down time for backups and restore.”
“I spent a lot of time with cartage supervisors, engineers and assistant engineers, questioning them as to what would make their lives easier and help their sessions run more smoothly,” Paragano says. “There were several instances where changes were made during the construction to accommodate a good idea.”
In mid-April, Berger was a guest speaker at a local AES chapter “hard hat party” at the unfinished facility, where he conducted an animated “fly through” that played in the main room. For many, this was their first chance to get a sneak peek inside the new building and studios. By some accounts, it was one of the best turnouts for the local AES in a couple of years.
One of the three studios will not be open for commercial bookings because Paragano is retaining the right to use it as a private room to work on his clients' projects.
It's obvious, from looking at this substantial new construction on some of the most prime property in Tennessee, that Paragano has come a long way since his decision to move from New York. Up to 11,000 square feet of the structure has been designed as leaseable space for media-related tenants.
“I'd like to create a synergistic environment for everyone who uses this facility,” says Paragano, who adds that he has already received significant interest in the available space.
During this year's Nashville NAMM show, Paragano is planning on throwing a grand opening party. Just like the studio, he seems to do everything with a distinctive twist. One of the highlights of this year's local AES golf tournament was the Paragon/Studio Network Solutions-sponsored sushi tent at the 15th hole.
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