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Nashville Skyline, April 2008

Asked to close the door, I'm having trouble. Heavy, isn't it? asks Kevin Kritch, the Great American Country cable network's VP of studio operations. Uh,

Kevin Kritch (left), VP of studio operations, and Mike Nichols, chief engineer, of the Great American Country network

Photo: Peter Cooper

Asked to close the door, I’m having trouble.

“Heavy, isn’t it?” asks Kevin Kritch, the Great American Country cable network’s VP of studio operations. Uh, yes, it’s heavy.

“See, the weakest point in the studio is right here, where these doors are,” he says. “They lead to our loading dock, and the back alley is here and you can hear traffic noise. This being the weakest spot, we had to put some money in it.”

Money is not normally this cumbersome. But when GAC moved into this Music Row building, it was clear that the best studio space for live taping was located right near the back door, and it was clear that the back door let in a bunch of noise. So Scripps Networks — the group that owns GAC — evaluated the situation and determined that the best thing to do would be to install two massive, sound-dampening doors in the corner. If sound somehow makes it through one of the doors (we’re talking car alarm or street preacher sound levels), then it will be trapped in between and won’t make its way in.

“Make the world go away,” sang Nashville great Eddy Arnold, and that’s one of the goals of any good studio for television or otherwise. You don’t want honks or voices or anything like that bleeding into the audio. But GAC had more than that to overcome when it opened its new television studio on Music Row. With Country Music Television occupying a building near the Cumberland River and away from the Row, GAC becomes the Row’s first full-service television studio and first HD-ready television facility. The new operation opened up on February 18, and an Alan Jackson special was the first live performance captured at GAC.

GAC began as a confirmed second-tier country music cable network. CMT had (and has) corporate connections to MTV and parent company Viacom that helped immensely, and it also had (and, again, has) a propensity for delivering sound and video that are sharp and smart. For a few years, GAC looked and sounded like a cable access channel: muddy, indistinct, etc. When E.W. Scripps Co. bought GAC from Jones Media Networks Ltd. in 2004, the network was an iffy proposition. Since then, Scripps has invested in sound and video technology that allows GAC to compete with CMT, and suddenly the country music cable television world is akin to some old two-newspaper town. Currently seen in 53 million cable-viewing homes, GAC now has a facility that enables a file-based workflow, from taping (what do we call “taping” now that there’s no tape?) to delivery of the programming.

All of this is of significance to a country music industry that’s in dire need of outlets for exposure. Country radio play-lists often feature fewer than 20 current songs in rotation, most all-genre awards shows ignore or downplay country performers and slots on the three country awards shows — the CMA, ACM and CMT Awards — are precious. Plus, the sound quality of the country awards shows tends to be wildly uneven, leaving labels to wonder if it’s an advantage to get their artist on television if the sound doesn’t reflect the artist’s talents. Is being on television worth sounding like a bad karaoke mix (which is exactly what we’re sometimes dealing with as they’re usually singing live over pre-recorded band tracks on those awards shows)?

So GAC’s newfound seat at the country-television grownups’ table accomplishes a couple of seemingly simple but undeniably important things: It puts people on television and assures them that they’ll be able to sound like professionals. The 7,200-square-foot GAC building also houses a studio dedicated to the GAC Nights syndicated radio show, which doubles as a high-definition-ready television studio, with a Wheatstone Evolution 6 console and cameras around to capture what Kritch calls a “Johnny Carson-meets-Don Imus” atmosphere.

Sound for the television network is routed through a Solid State Logic C100 digital console, currently configured for 48-channel operation. “On the SSL board, the tool sets are laid out so you can go in and find what you need, quickly,” says chief engineer Mike Nichols. “It’s extremely versatile.”

The SSL sits in a small room just to the left of a production studio. When Nichols and Kritch sit for a photograph, it’s difficult for them both to squeeze into the room. But the C100’s size belies its flexibility. It’s a little delegation monster, with a DSP rack and a back panel that can handle more than 500 inputs and outputs. GAC runs Pro Tools, and if an artist or label wants to hear a mix before something hits the air, then Nichols can send the file over and it can be altered and re-input with ease.

“If we have a performance-based project, we’ll multitrack that with video,” says Kritch, who took charge of the new studio’s technical space and technical integration. “If the artist or label wants to sign off on that mix, we get them the individual multitrack. They can mix it the way they want. It’s timecode-generated so we can marry it back up with the video. So if they like our mix, fine. If they want to remix it, that’s fine, too.”

Nichols began working in television 25 years ago, in the analog days. While good, thick analog tape can still sound wonderful as a means of capturing music in a recording studio, it’s tough to argue that going digital hasn’t been a huge leap forward for television studios.

“The whole gamut changes,” Nichols says. “The transmission medium is tolerant of different mixes now and you just don’t have to worry as much. Oh, and there are fewer cables, which is much better.”

In the main studio, Kritch points out that the doors aren’t the only substantial elements. Sound-dampening was a major issue all over the studio. They’ve dressed the walls in more layers than would be worn at a late-December Green Bay Packers game. “We spared no expense making sure that whatever walls we have in this environment are acoustically sound,” Kritch says. “So with these walls, there’s concrete, then metal studs, then insulation between the studs, then plywood, then fiberboard, then another layer of plywood and then Sheetrock on top of that.”

All along Music Row, a perceptible nervousness has taken hold. Record-label executives are fretting over the decline of physical album sales and the inability of digital sales to make up for the losses. Studio owners are fretting over the decline of record labels and the inevitable shrinking of recording budgets that goes along with that. The music television business, though, doesn’t seem to be waning. Either that or Kritch has a heck of a poker face.

“I’m not a bean counter, but I believe we’re fine,” he says. “Scripps tends to be a conservative company. They’re not necessarily the first to jump in the water: They might be second or third. This building is a huge investment, and I doubt very much that we would have invested in this kind of a facility if the powers that be didn’t think it would make business sense. This was a business decision, strategically and economically.”

And so a couple of mammoth, heavy doors have opened for country music.

Send Nashville news to Peter Cooper at [email protected].