When you think of artists such as Nelly Furtado, King Crimson, Alicia Keys, Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler, Nashville doesn't readily come to mind

When you think of artists such as Nelly Furtado, King Crimson, Alicia Keys, Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler, Nashville doesn't readily come to mind as a recording destination. Old stereotypes of Music City being only a center for country and roots music seem to die hard, but the increasing pop, rock, urban R&B and hip hop activity in area studios and mastering rooms bears out another story — Nashville has truly become a full-service destination for nearly every kind of music.

I talked with engineer/producer Tony Black, who recently engineered a vocal duet session with quintuple-Grammy™ winner Alicia Keys and rapper Nas for “A Woman's Worth (remix)” at Emerald. The session was produced by Krucial Keys, a production team comprising Alicia Keys and Kerry Brothers. “Alicia felt comfortable at Emerald,” Black says. “We used the main room at Enterprise for vocals, because Alicia was more comfortable out there than in a booth. The staff was really cool, and I liked the privacy. You can sort of hide out and do what you do and not get distracted by a million different things.

“Even though we were tracking to Pro Tools,” Black continues, “I used a vintage Neve mic pre and a [Neumann] U47. I kind of warm it up with tube gear, like Manley, but we are still all-digital. I incorporate mixing with Pro Tools and with the SSL J.”

Black feels that Nashville offers the same caliber of facility and talent found in New York or L.A., but is more conducive to uninterrupted creativity. “When you work in New York or L.A., you tend to work in these multiplexes where there are four other sessions going on and you are kind of running into people all the time. Sometimes, that's cool, but you really want to be able to focus on what you're doing, rather than playing your work for everybody and stopping to hear their stuff. Sometimes, you're really wanting to zone in on your thing, and I think that Nashville is good for that.

“More urban and pop acts are starting to come to Nashville, because it's getting more of a reputation as not just being all country music. You've got all of the amenities of L.A. and New York, and it's definitely less expensive,” laughs Black, who is currently working with Canadian female artist Reilly Rowe.

Concerning Keys, Black points out that, while the artist has a studio in New York, they are “looking at doing her second album and seriously considering taking an exodus and hiding out in Nashville for a little bit” for some of the project.

Mark Knopfler has been cutting tracks for his third solo album at Emerald's Tracking Room with producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay. “We're tracking with dual 16-tracks locked up,” Ainlay says. “It sounds amazing. We're transferring from analog to Nuendo at 24-bit/96k using the Mytek 8×96 converters. Nuendo's reproduction of the analog is so faithful; I really love it. Steinberg just keeps improving it. I just ordered a laptop so I can run Nuendo on my laptop. That way, I'll be able to do vocal comps on the airplane,” he says with a laugh.

All the overdubs will be done in Knopfler's home studio with Nuendo and will be mixed at Air. “We love working at the Tracking Room, because it's so flexible, and it's an isolated situation where you don't have a lot of people coming and going. It's just us there,” enthuses Ainlay.

Another project booked for Emerald is the legendary progressive rock band King Crimson. Guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew lives in the Nashville area and the band has rehearsed and performed in town regularly. In fact, I caught a powerful show last year over at 12th and Porter, a popular showcase club in town. The room was packed with players, many from the cream of the studio community.

In the world of Emerald and country music, the Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek are wrapping up their latest efforts in mixdown with engineer Gary Paczosa working on the studio's Euphonix System 5 console. The Chicks album, co-produced by Lloyd Maines and the band, was recorded at Cedar Creek in Austin, Texas. Nickel Creek was recorded at 1700 Grand in Nashville, with Alison Krauss producing.

“The Chicks [album] was all done to Nuendo 24/96 on a PC,” says Paczosa. “I love Nuendo, which we set up to work the same way that we use Pro Tools. To me, it definitely sounds better, and the layout makes more sense.”

On the new Nickel Creek project, Paczosa comments, “This album seems to have flavors of The Beatles and Crowded House and some progressive vocal arrangements and string parts that are very wacky. Chris [Thile] got a lot of input and he had been listening to a lot of Radiohead,” laughs Paczosa. “So it's acoustic, but there is this pop influence. It's outrageous. It is really phenomenal. It has gotten me more excited than anything I have worked on in a long time.”

Although Emerald has been busy of late, it is still in entangled in a complicated Chapter 11 situation. To learn more about the studio's current status, I contacted Andrew Kautz, president and COO of the Emerald Entertainment Group. “As far as our Chapter 11 proceedings, I can say that we are pretty much at the other end of the tunnel and staring at daylight,” he said. “As I am not sure many are aware, Chapter 11 does not get rid of debt — it simply allows you the breathing room to restructure it in a manageable fashion. I am pleased to say that our credit partners have worked with us and allowed us to put together a plan that gets us back on track. These proceedings have also allowed us to put a magnifying glass on our operations and truly evaluate what was and was not working.

Kautz pointed out that January was an all-time record month for Emerald, and that every month since has been very strong. He also noted that there is a lot of noncountry music business booking the rooms and mastering services. “The downturn in country recording has allowed us an opportunity to host many out-of-town sessions and pop projects that, prior to now, would not have been able to be scheduled in. The response has been amazing once they come and work and find out how much Emerald has to offer in the way of facilities and service that was only perceived to be available in New York and Los Angeles facilities.”

Emerald's mastering division, Masterfonics, is doing great business these days, not only with its usual load of Music Row country, but attracting a significant percentage of R&B and hip hop. “We don't just master country any more,” says Andi Miller, division manager for Masterfonics Mastering/Emerald Entertainment. “I'd say more than 50 percent of our client base is now pop, rap, R&B and rock.”

Benny Quinn, who has been mastering for 22 years, has a large hip hop and urban R&B client base from Memphis, Atlanta, St. Louis, including Rap A Lot Records, Hitman Entertainment and Raw Deal Records, to name a few. Jonathan Russell has made a name for himself working with many artists on the pop and rock side. And Tommy Dorsey has a large volume of clients in the alternative, rock, pop, techno and dance markets.

“Because each engineer has an ear for different types of music, we can focus on R&B, hip hop, pop and rock, and it enables us to really compete with L.A. and New York mastering facilities, not just Nashville,” states Miller. “Music Row has dramatically changed, and I see things definitely moving in the right direction.”

Down in Cool Springs, an area south of Nashville that is exploding with development, is The Sound Kitchen Recording Studios, a huge 27,000-square-foot facility located at 112 Seaboard Lane. Besides throwing great parties and providing some of the best Italian food anywhere, the Sound Kitchen has been going gangbusters with all seven studios for weeks on end. Recent clients have included Columbian folk/alternative artist Junaes and Nelly Furtado (producer: Anibal Kerpel; engineer: Joe Chiccarelli), Jewel (producer: Dann Huff), Bruce Springsteen (producer: Brendan O'Brien; engineer: Nick DiDia), and country artists Vince Gill (producer: Vince Gill; engineers: Justin Neibank, Steve Marcantonio and Steve Bishir), Brooks & Dunn (producer: Mark Wright; engineer: Greg Droman), SHeDaisy (producer: Dann Huff; engineer: Jeff Balding) and the legendary Ray Price (producer: Fred Foster; engineer: Billy Sherrill).

The Juanes and Furtado session happened during a rare window when Furtado had a day off and she happened to be in town, and so was Chiccarelli (Beck, Tori Amos, U2, Elton John), who happened to be producing By the Tree at Sound Kitchen. Chiccarelli worked on Jaunes' last Surco/Universal album, which won a Latin Grammy™ for Best Rock Album.

The intriguing pairing of Bruce Springsteen and Brendan O'Brien (with engineer Nick DiDia) was for string overdubs in the studio's Big Boy room. Jennifer Rose, general manager of Sound Kitchen, says, “Nick paged me right before they left and said, ‘Man we are blown away. We love the room and the console and the assistant!’ Thank goodness it was a success. Nick liking the room was really important.” The assistant was Melissa Mattey.

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