Berry Hill is an incorporated community in the heart of Nashville and Davidson County that is probably no more than a square mile in size. Besides having

Berry Hill is an incorporated community in the heart of Nashville and Davidson County that is probably no more than a square mile in size. Besides having a vigilant police department known for clamping down on speeding locals, this area is probably best known for its sizable concentration of recording facilities. In fact, “Music Hill” (as it is called by some) is a preferred work location for those who don't want to be right on the Row. Like Music Row, Berry Hill's industry is located in old houses — in this case, an abundance of ranch homes.

One of the earliest facilities in Berry Hill was Treasure Isle, which has been in business for 22 years this month. To me, it is one of the classic Nashville studios, with its large, high-ceilinged tracking room and a great vibe. Over the years, the studio has attracted quite a client list, including Steve Earle, James Taylor, Paul Simon, B.B. King, Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, John Hiatt, Isaac Hayes, David Crosby, The Byrds, Beach Boys, Dolly Parton and Alabama.

Treasure Isle recently upgraded its already solid control room with the Trident 80 5.1 console with 48 inputs and Audiomate Flying Fader automation. The console contains nine inputs of ProOram24 mic pre's and EQ, and 39 modules of the traditional 80 Series pre's and EQ. Other new gear includes API (pre's and EQ), SSL stereo compressor, GML EQ, Drawmer 1969, Universal Audio 2-610s, Masterlink, Apogee PXS-100, iZ Radar 24, Pro Tools, Yamaha C7 Grand, Manley Gold Reference mic, BLUE Cactus mic, Tannoy Series 800As, Dynaudio BM 15, and Audio-Technica 4033s and 4051s.

“I love the new console,” states producer/engineer Peter Coleman, who has worked at Treasure Isle steadily for 12 years. “It still retains all of the things that I loved about the 80 Series Trident, in that it has a real simple signal path and it sounds really good.” Coleman's many producing/engineering and mixing credits include Pat Benatar, Blondie, AC/DC, Echo & The Bunnymen, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, The Knack and Icicle Works.

One of Treasure Isle's repeat clients is Rodney Crowell, who just completed his latest effort, Earthbound, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed Houston Kid CD. It is Crowell's seventh album project at Treasure Isle as either a producer or an artist. The album was co-produced with Peter Coleman.

When I asked Crowell about the inspiration behind this new album, he mentioned that one of its themes concerned “articulating the spirituality of being a man in the middle of his life. Moving into the later part of one's life is a vulnerable proposition, and the wisdom and confidence and patience that come with getting older don't remove the vulnerability you are facing.

Earthbound came after a conversation I had with a friend of mine, who said, ‘I love my daughter and my wife and my life. I would be happy to leave here tomorrow and die, but I'm going to choose to stick around.’ We were kind of sitting around looking at each other going, ‘Yeah, at some point, it does become a choice, doesn't it?’ That being ‘Earthbound’ is a choice. That is how that song came and with it trying to articulate the vulnerability of mid-life.”

Coleman, who also worked with Crowell on Houston Kid, feels that Earthbound is one of the singer/songwriter's best. “I think that this record is so deep,” he says. “It's really good from beginning to end. Rodney did an unbelievable job writing and singing.”

Coleman and Crowell opted for an uncluttered, rather spare approach to presenting the songs, creating space for the material to breathe. Much of the album ended up being recorded live.

“A lot of it was live on the floor, including his acoustic guitar and vocal,” states Coleman. “Some of the songs have no overdubs at all. There are a handful of tracks that we just cut live and maybe put a background vocal on it or something like that.”

Crowell feels that the more organic live approach helped him to more accurately get to the material's emotional truth: “I think being on the floor is a good thing for me, because I don't get to think about making a record. I have to be about making a record. It seems like recording live on the floor affords me a more connected reading of the song. It's in that spur of the moment where I'm at my best and I get it right. I'm responding to myself, and Peter is really good at capturing the sonics of a live performance.

“Pete is an excellent recording engineer, and we have the kind of relationship that works really well for me,” Crowell adds. “He has taught me things about sonics that have been of great value to me as an artist, and he has helped me frame myself better than anybody I have ever worked with.”

Coleman liked the whole spare dynamic of the arrangements for this project. “There is a lot of space, which is, of course, an engineer's dream, and it was mixed really dry. The album is relatively simplistic in approach and organic-sounding. It is like a breath of fresh air. It suits what Rodney does so well.”

The engineer recorded Crowell's voice with “a hot-rodded 87 that Fred Cameron modified,” a V76m Telefunken mic pre and a little compression with an 1176.

“The Telefunken is the best mic pre that I've ever heard for doing most things,” says Coleman. “I wouldn't run drums through it, but for vocals and acoustic guitars and bass and electric guitar, it is really warm-sounding with a nice, open top end that doesn't bite too hard.”

As I was leaving Treasure Isle, Fred Vail told me that I should go next door and check out Blackbird Studio, the new facility owned by John and Martina McBride. To say that the multi-Platinum artist and her husband have gone all-out to create an exceptional, world-class facility would be an understatement.

“I truly believe we are building one of the finest audio recording environments available,” says John McBride. “From an equipment point of view, from a wiring and power point of view, from the design of the control and the other rooms, I believe we can be competitive with any studio anywhere.” To achieve his goal of a great facility, McBride obtained the technical services of Arthur “Midget” Sloatman, whose credits include working for Frank Zappa for 10 years and designing his studio. McBride also hired Graham Lewis to co-manage the studio with Vance Powell, who also runs the Pro Tools side of the operation. Jeremy Cottrell was hired to assist in running the facility, which is now open for business.

George Augspurger, who originally designed the room (formerly Creative Recording) in 1973, was brought back in to improve the facility, from the control room and tracking spaces to designing new speakers.

“We wired the entire studio with solid wire — even the patchbays,” says McBride. “Tim at Audio Accessories [who built the patchbays] informed me that in 23 years of building patchbays, he had never been asked to do a patchbay in solid wire, and they did an incredible job.” The control room features a retooled Neve 8078 console (the one used on Donald Fagen's Nightfly album) from River Sound in New York. The console, which has 72 channels of Flying Faders automation, was completely re-capped with Black Gate and Nichicon Muse caps. There is silver Veristrand wire utilized from the console's dual stereo buses, all the way to the A/D converters and the 2-track. In the spirit of going “all out,” there are over 80 channels of Telefunken tube mic pre's, as well as some Telefunken solid-states. If that isn't enough, there are also 48 API Legacy Plus 212 mic pre's, some GMLs, custom BBCs, a pair of Pultecs and some Vox Boxes. But wait, there's more — how about 10 channels of Neve 1081 outboard and four channels of 1073?

“We bought a beautiful pair of Studer A827s and had Steve Smith relap, replace and re-do anything that needed it on those machines. He also has rebuilt two of our Studer half-inch 2-tracks, and we have a wonderful Ampex ATR100 half-inch 2-track and a Studer B67 ¼-inch 2-track,” says McBride.

“We also have two of the new Pro Tools HD systems — each with seven cards and 48-in and 48-out analog and digital. We have the SNS SAN network with 360 gigs of hard drive at 15,000 rpm, and fiber-optic cable running around the building able to transfer info at 200 meg per second. We have 72 tracks of Radar II and lots of DATs, CD burners, and a wonderful Z Sys 128-by-128 stereo matrix digital router that ties everything AES together and routes it perfectly. We bought the dB Technology AD/DA converters for going to stereo, and we love them.”

Blackbird features a complete assortment of MIDI patchbays, AES patchbays, video/wordclock patchbays, timecode patchbay and two iZ UFC 24 universal-format converters — and more than there is space to list. When I took a look at the mountain of classic mics — a mint pair of Telefunken 251s, Elam 250s, U47s, U48s, M49s, M50s, U67s, 87s, C12s, a C24, Neumann 582s, RCA 77s, matched Coles, Royers, Brauners, Brauner KHE's, Soundelux U95s and compressors, equalizers, etc., all I could surmise was that McBride and company stopped at nothing to deliver the goods required by any world-class engineer or producer. The entire building is covered by Apple Airport Wireless Network tied to high-speed Internet, and there are Apple computers available for guest use.

Anyone who is a fan of The Beatles will love being in Blackbird, which is named after the song from the White Album. There is Fab Four memorabilia throughout the facility, and the opening lyrics of “Blackbird” are inscribed on the floor of the tracking space. Over the weekend, A-list bass-playing session ace Michael Rhodes mentioned Blackbird to me, exclaiming, “Have you seen John McBride's place? I would imagine that John will have a hard time getting to use it, because anyone who goes there is going to want to camp out for a long time with projects.”

I mentioned to Rhodes that this stretch of Berry Hill, with Blackbird's arrival and Englishmen Peter Coleman and Richard Dodd working full time on the same block, the British influence has gone up quite a few notches. Rhodes, with his usual off-centered cool, quipped, “They should call it Abbey Row.” Not bad, Michael.

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