Nashville's upper tier of studios is stabilizing after a long round of consolidation, but the city's baseline of facilities is growing again. Engineers and producers have shown an entrepreneurial streak and are carving out niches in response to the demand for different types of studios. Luke Wooten had a mostly personal-use studio called The Station in the Cummins station office complex in downtown Nashville for several years, when an unfortunate lightning strike chased off another would-be studio owner from a facility in progress in the Berry Hill section of Nashville. Wooten was able to pick up the studio, Soundscape, designed by Mike Cronin, and for the past two years has been completing it, developing it as both a commercial for-hire facility and as a base for his own production and engineering work, which recently has included engineering records for Richard Marx and Bob Seger.
Station West, as it's now called, has a sizable main studio fitted with a Trident 80B and Pro Tools. Wooten outfitted the B studio with one of the three beta models of the now-discontinued Otari Advanta digital console and a RADAR II system.
Rate-wise, at $800 for the main rooms and half that for the B studio, Wooten is realistic that he's not going to make the bulk of his living from the studio. "That's why I think this facility can work by being both commercial and my own base of operations," says the Belmont University music program graduate. "You don't want to go up against the few studios in Nashville that can get $2,500 a day. You can't compete with them. So you pick cost-effective but good-sounding technology that works for you and that the market seems to like, and you try to achieve a balance between your own work and renting it to clients. I think you can have it both ways, as long as you're realistic about what it is you want to do, and as long as you have something that can keep generating income, like your own career."
Recently, I received e-mail from Chip Woody, who owns Industrial Fire & Safety in downtown Nashville, a fire extinguisher business (on Ash Street, no less) above which he built Pro Bono Studios. Equipped with a pair of Yamaha 02R digital mixers, Tascam DA-88s and Digidesign Pro Tools|24 MIXPlus, the studio has a 24x26 tracking room and a 10x15 iso booth, designed by Cronin associates Rick Perry and Mark Winter.
Woody, who has been pursuing a songwriting career on the side for many years, is candid about the fact that, while music is a passionate vocation of his, he's in the studio business incidentally, not intentionally. "I lucked out in terms of getting a great-sounding room, no doubt," he says. "But this was really something I did for myself and used in off-hours. It just turns out that a few people have stopped by and heard it and wound up renting it because they liked the equipment and the sound and vibe." What had been a sideline and personal pursuit is slowly but almost inevitably turning into a business. Woody is discussing hiring an engineer to operate the studio during the day while he tends to his other business.
Woody readily agrees that it not so much the affordability of the digital technology that he uses as much as its accessibility that has made him into a studio owner. "It's not intimidating equipment," he says. "It would have been another story if it was a huge console. But this stuff is very accessible to me and to a lot of clients."
Woody even engineers his own sessions and sessions for others, having learned the craft by necessity. And that, too, is a by-product of the generation of equipment that has radically altered the studio business. Everyone can have a studio, and everyone, it seems, does.
During country music's boom years between '92 and '95, Nashville was relatively untouched (perhaps I should say "unscathed") by the project studio phenomenon. For the most part, the business here preferred the traditional way of making records: You rented studios when you needed them, and you hired engineers to record artists, who recorded songs written by songwriters. Everyone had a place and a purpose, and the machine chugged along like clockwork.
What's going on along Nashville's studio baseline at the moment illustrates the larger phenomenon of increased and widespread accessibility to the tools of making music. There is no good or bad to this landscape; it's the inevitable progression of what technology does to any art or craft.
However, there's still a bit of the Old South left in the studio business in Nashville. Come on down and see it while it lasts.