Nashville Skyline

Every now and then, I need a good dope slap upside the head. Today's cosmic dope slap was brought to me courtesy of every Middle Tennessee State University

At MTSU, from left: Belize’s Justin Dinger, MTSU’s Cosette Collier, Belize’s Davis Cox and MTSU grad Courtney Blooding

photo: Rick Clark

Every now and then, I need a good dope slap upside the head. Today's cosmic dope slap was brought to me courtesy of every Middle Tennessee State University intern I've plumed from the school's Mass Communication and Music Industry programs for the past eight years, each of whom has practically begged me to pay attention to the vibrant scene located 20 miles south of Nashville in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

My “awakening” happened thanks to former MTSU intern Courtney White (and her steady stream of indie releases from bands she supported in the clubs around campus) and Georgetown Masters' John Baldwin, who also stopped me dead in my tracks with a “full-tilt studio monitors blasting” listening party celebrating all things Murfreesboro. Later, White organized a field trip, with her as my able guide. She also had me as a captive audience when she plopped CDs from one band after another into the car's player. So all the way to Murfreesboro and throughout the trip, I received a full baptism.

It is apparent that the spark of this scene is MTSU, which has turned out graduates who have gone on to production and engineering careers or who have been in bands that have emerged from a vibrant scene to land major- and indie-label deals. MTSU has also just started a new graduate degree program in which students pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in Recording Arts and Sciences. “This degree is designed to focus on both the art and the technology,” says Cosette Collier, graduate coordinator and professor for MTSU's Department of Recording Industry. “Our graduate students have all sorts of different artistic backgrounds coming into this program. We're hoping this program will attract talented students from all over the country who want to further their creative and artistic visions.”

MTSU has five recording studios. Studio A offers a Studer D950 digital console, Pro Tools|HD, DASH and analog multitracks, and 5.1 mix and monitoring capabilities. Studio B has an Otari Series 54 analog console, Pro Tools|HD, DASH and analog multitracks, with stereo monitoring capabilities. Studio C is centered on an SSL G Series board, Pro Tools|HD, DASH and analog multitracks, with stereo monitoring. Studios D and E both have Sony DMX-R100 digital consoles and RADAR 24 multitracks with stereo monitoring. MTSU is constructing a 5.1 mix room that will be DAW-based, with an integrated console and 5.1 monitoring.

The Protomen’s Panther prowls over a mix.

photo: Eric Blevens

During a visit to the MTSU recording facility with Collier and members of a popular local band, Belize (who are getting ready to record their next release), I met Murfreesboro hometown girl Courtney Blooding, who graduated from the program and is now working in L.A. with producer David Foster. Everyone I talked to was effusive about the amount of fine music and good will down there. “There are so many notable bands I could mention,” says Justin Dinger of Belize. “One band, The Protomen, have become a Murfreesboro spectacle, with choirs, masks, costumes and video.”

I had heard about The Protomen from a few of the band's enthusiastic fans for a while, but I had no idea what I was missing until White inaugurated our trip with their incredibly passionate hardcore “rock opera” CD. The emotion, the music and performance's power certainly landed intact on tape. (Yes, tape!) It also sounded like they had a blast making it.

This seven-piece group may comprise somewhat normal MTSU recording program grads by day, but as The Protomen, they are Commander (synth), Panther (vox and synth), Murphy (synth), Heath Who Hath No Name (guitar), Scartoe (guitar), Doug Fetterman (guitar) and Demon Barber (drums). “The band initially formed as a result of class deadlines and the need to record for our grades,” says Lance McDonald, who produced/engineered the CD. The Protomen recorded in five different facilities, including MTSU's Studios A, B and C, during the course of two years, and all eight tracks were mixed in analog at McDonald's studio in Murfreesboro, with what he describes as “equal parts fury and an MCI JH16 machine.”

McDonald (who also plays guitar as Heath Who Hath No Name) and the band elected to imbue many parts of the album with some very heavy distortion. One track, a bizarre, heavy crash-and-burn blend of Spaghetti Western distorto-rock and dark country called “Unrest in the House of Light,” reminds me of the menacing Sack Full of Silver — era Thin White Rope kind of cinematic Americana.

“The great part of MTSU's program was the amount of unsupervised time we all got in the studios just to experiment. After we found the magic of Eventide H3000s on vocals layered over distorted drum tracks, we knew we couldn't go back,” says McDonald. “The art of recording ‘improperly’ quickly became the album's soul and shaped the way we wrote our songs. We used three mics on the drums, used analog on everything possible, made 2-inch tape edits and really tried to squeeze the biggest sound out of ‘limiting’ gear.”

Next month, I'm going to return to Murfreesboro and take a look at several other bands and studios there.

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