At Sixteen Ton, you get (from L to R:) Kevin Teel, Cerys Matthews, Chad Brown and Danny White (behind the console)
photo: Rick Clark
I was at a crazy East Nashville art gallery party last Halloween, taking in the collective nuttiness when a buddy of mine (and fine singer/songwriter), Warren Pash, came over and began raving about this new studio that was opening called Sixteen Ton. Not a guy to loosely bandy about praise, Pash described the studio like it was some fantastical creation for those who yearned for a place that embodied the spirit of those legendary studios where great music was captured through consoles with big knobs and meters and the warm glow of tubes was everywhere. While Pash continued visualizing how it would be this incredible place to cut great rock 'n' roll, I became very intrigued.
I asked a few other seasoned session folks around town about their knowledge of this place and no one had heard of it. Just when I was about to chalk up Pash's enthusiasm to some pumpkin-induced hallucination, I bumped into someone who told me that engineer/producer Chad Brown was beginning work on Cerys (pronounced Karas) Matthews' second solo album at Sixteen Ton and, before the night was over, I was in the art deco-ish control room looking at a gorgeous console unlike any other I've seen in Nashville — or anywhere else, for that matter.
Sixteen Ton, the brainchild of Danny White and his father, Bill White, is clearly a very personal labor of love. Danny White, who once owned a studio in Phoenix called Formula One, put in his share of years as road warrior bassist for Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers before deciding to move closer to home to be with his family and get off the gig grind. “I left the band and jumped into this project,” he says. “It was a dream of my dad, who was a singer, and I to do this studio, and he, as well as the rest of my family, helped to get this done, whether it was demolition, painting, drywalling, framework — whatever was required. My father and mother did all the tile work in the control room, fireplaces and restroom,” says White.
The attention to detail and quality is clearly evident thoughout Sixteen Ton. You get a feeling that everything mattered in the realization of this dream. Then I found out that this very personalized environment also had a heartbreaking tragedy toward the end of its completion.
From left: the late Bill, Danny and Joe White, working on a “Sixteen Ton” project
photo: Nancy White
“My dad and I were very close during this project, and a week before we had our open house in September, he passed away suddenly and didn't get to see it done,” says White. “So I guess this whole thing has taken on another dimension entirely for me and has made me work harder than ever to provide a great place to work and to make it successful. That's about as good an answer as I can give about why I did it and why I am still doing it. It certainly isn't to become rich or famous. My dad loved great songs and great-sounding recordings, and so this is a part of his legacy as far as I am concerned.
“We could have put the studio in a lot of other areas around town, but we wanted to be on the Row,” White continues. “Music Row has had some tough times over the last few years and we want to be a part of reinvigorating all the great things about Music Row in any way that we can.”
At the heart of Sixteen Ton's control room is a visually stunning, custom-built console, inspired by the Art Deco era. Sitting in front of the board almost feels like being in the cockpit of some classic WW II — era B-52. “We even went to the point of finding new old-stock Bakelite knobs from the late 1940s for the controls,” enthuses White, adding, “The curved mahogany legs are also very 1940s and the perfect complement to the control surface.”
The guts of the console, which took three years to design and build, feature pure Class-A discrete tubes on the input side, and the monitor section is Class-A discrete transistor, based around the John Hall — designed (Langevin, Altec, etc.) SPA 690 amp block. There are more than 130 of these blocks in the console! The inputs employ 6072A tubes on the input and output stages, balanced by custom-wound transformers by Tom Reichenbach of Cinemag Inc. (Los Angeles). The design and electronic topology was done by Ian Gardiner of Boutique Audio and Design and Steve Firlotte of Inward Connections, also in L.A. The console is driven by a tube power supply designed by Steve Barker in L.A. “The design philosophy was minimalistic: straight-ahead hi-fi tube/transistor hybrid with minimal signal path, all hand-wired to boot,” says White.
The control room was designed by Michael Cronin, who did a fantastic job throughout, and the woodwork is by Rick Perry. The room was tuned by Carl Tatz of Carl Tatz Acoustics in Nashville.
Even though Sixteen Ton has barely been open six months, there have already been some great initial projects, including Robert Reynolds and Scotty Huff of The Mavericks, Steven King (Keith Urban) and Tony Newman (David Bowie), as well as Howard Livingston.
All of this leads me to engineer/producer Brown, his production partner, Kevin Teel, and the very distinctive artistry of Matthews, the folks who connected the dots in my search for Sixteen Ton. Matthews was once the lead singer of Catatonia, a very popular band from Wales that enjoyed some sizable hits in the UK. After leaving the band, she set out on a musical/spiritual journey that eventually led her to Nashville and producer Bucky Baxter. The result was a critically acclaimed, mostly acoustic record called Cockahoop, an old English term for “over the moon.”
“I came here mostly on a whim, but it also had some sort of logic to it,” says Matthews. “I had a huge collection of old folk tunes and I didn't want them to have that British folk flavor. I wanted to put them in a different environment, so I fancied following them across the sea and I ended up in Nashville because it was close to the Appalachian mountains from where these songs originated many years ago. That was really the romantic idea behind it.” Cockahoop did very well overseas and Matthews remained in town, setting up residence in East Nashville.
For the latest outing (which is co-produced by Brown and Teel), Matthews, Brown and Teel wanted to get as much tracked live as possible, but be more electric guitar — oriented in nature. “Teel plays these beautiful flourishing electric parts, so a lot of that will be based around him,” Brown says. “It will be a bit more lush in that respect.”
Matthews also feels that the new material reflects the grounding she has experienced since settling in Nashville and having a child. “There was a lot of change that was going on in my life at the time of my last album, so there was a lot about oceans and movement — there are a lot of ship references and stuff,” remarks Matthews. “On this one, it is more to do with being rooted in one place and getting settled and there are a lot of things about trees and plants and seeds and things. It just seemed to happen that way.”
Part of Sixteen Ton's appeal was also the large, homey lounge space that allows Matthews to work and be a comfortable space for her daughter and husband to spend time on occasion. “This is all about the musician and the song at the end of the day, and we are proud of being a musician's kind of studio — nicely done but still feeling like home,” says White.
Seth Carolina, who is Matthews' husband and also head of A&R for Rough Trade (Matthews' label in the States), shares White's sense that the studio dignifies the creative process. “Sixteen Ton is a place where you want to stay a month or two and make the best thing you've ever worked on,” says Carolina. “When I first got there, I thought, ‘This isn't just a place to go record music. It is where you go record something you really feel passionate about expressing.’ It's a great vibe.”
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