Hillsboro Village is one of the most desirable commercial and residential areas in central Nashville. It's got great shops, restaurants and hotels only minutes from Music Row, downtown and Vanderbilt. Anyone who owns a house in that area knows they've got a piece of prime real estate.
Sweetbriar Recording (www.sweet briarrecording.com) is located there and has become a destination for those who are on a limited budget (and who isn't these days?), but desire something nicer than the average ubiquitous project studio found throughout Nashville. The facility is owned by producer/engineer/songwriter Mark Thompson, whose background includes working with The Judds, Wynonna Judd (collectively 11 years, most as bandleader), Jessica Andrews, Chely Wright, Billy Dean, Suzy Bogguss, John Berry and a number of other artists. Thompson also co-wrote the theme song for TNN's Prime Time Country. A sideline business he started about 10 years ago, Thompson Music Rental morphed into a full-time business. Then, in 2005, Thompson decided it was time to take his home studio and create a much more professional setting.
Sweetbriar owner Mark Thompson working on Tammy Cochran’s Where I Am with co-producer Anita Cochran.
Sweetbriar was originally a 1,200-square-foot pool house and two-car garage that was converted into a studio facility by a French publishing company, which has since left Nashville. Michael Cronin (Bop Studios in South Africa, Ocean Way and Blackbird in Nashville, Mutt Lange's studio in Switzerland) was brought in to design and build the rooms, which offer floating cherry floors, custom racks, Acoustic Systems doors and numerous equipment isolation cabinets.
“I think the primary function of excellent sound and an open, comfortable feel was successfully accomplished,” says Thompson. The primary format is Steinberg Nuendo 3 and Cubase 4, though there is also a Digi 002 rack installed. Monitors are Mackie HR824 and Yamaha NS-10s with a PreSonus Central Station.
The lounge, which features a stone fireplace, vaulted ceilings and lots of glass to the outside, also doubles as the Yamaha C7 piano room. The control room is spacious, so having players recording direct there doesn't cramp the flow of the studio. There is also a B3 in the control room with a Leslie wired in the booth.
Clients at Sweetbriar have included engineer/mixer Brian Tankersley (Brooks & Dunn, Shania Twain, Judd, Billy Dean), producer/engineer Mike Clute (Alan Jackson, Blackhawk, Faith Hill, Steve Wariner, Exile) and producer/songwriter Bobby Huff (Alaina Beaton, Tim Finn, BlackHawk, Mindy McCready).
“I'm simply aiming for a part of the market where I can offer savings to help keep budgets in line by paying a smaller price for a smaller room, instead of paying for a full-size studio when only utilizing part of it,” says Thompson, who charges $300 a day (which includes setup but no engineer). “To me, it makes sense for big projects to use one of the fine large-scale recording facilities for tracking, then bring those tracks to Sweetbriar Recording for vocals, solos or any recording where multiple rooms are not required.” That said, Thompson has recorded full bands at Sweetbriar with excellent results and has an upcoming month-long block-booking with a Virgin UK act.
Most recently, Thompson and co-producer Anita Cochran produced the latest effort by Tammy Cochran (no relation to Anita), Where I Am, at Sweetbriar. Cochran, who scored some sizable hits beginning in 2001, including “Angels in Waiting” and “Life Happened,” says, “From an artist's standpoint, Sweetbriar is a comfortable place to record. It has all the necessities of the big boys, while keeping it intimate and private. It's almost like walking into your best friend's home; there's no stuffy atmosphere and you instantly feel welcome.”
Where I Am was recorded with nearly all of the musicians in the studio, playing together and exchanging ideas. Thompson says, “I love the interplay of talented musicians taking a really good song and pumping life and dimension into it with fresh-sounding intros and dynamic arrangement suggestions. We had Steve Turner on drums, Dow Tomlin on bass, Tony Harrel on piano and Hammond B3, Anita Cochran on acoustic guitar, and either Mike Johnson or Peter Finney on steel, and Tammy singing really good scratch vocals — all performing together. We overdubbed electric guitars, solos, violins and all vocals. Anita and I played all electric guitars — she covers the clean sounds; I am mainly the overdriven and effected styles.
“We recorded 12 songs in a total of four three-hour sessions for the basic tracks,” Thompson continues. “Our original plan was to narrow it down to 10, but we liked them all, so all 12 are on the CD. Tammy wrote or co-wrote all songs. “We used a lot more than four sessions of time for overdubbing — Anita and I took our time and played around with a lot of parts. The string section is Paul Reissner performing four to six tracks, then we took parts from verse 2 and 3 and stacked them on verse 1 to sound like 12 to 18 players, then moved that to all the verses.”
For the vocal chain, Thompson found a combination that worked especially well on Cochran: “The Avalon 737 responded well to Tammy's voice, and no surprise that a 1958 Neumann U47 beautifully maintained by Mike Bradley of the Mic Shop was always used. The entire recording was made with Steinberg Nuendo 3, tracking to mixing completely in the box, other than a Yamaha SPX-990 used as an external effect through Nuendo.”
“After working at Sweetbriar, I have switched over to using Nuendo and Cubase in my home studio, too,” Anita Cochran notes. “This way, I can leave Sweetbriar with a computer hard drive, go home and do an overdub and bring the drive back the next day. The studio also has just about every plug-in you would need. When you spend half of your life in the studio, it becomes your home away from home.”
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