Nashville Skyline, October 2008

Read Mix's Nashville Editor Peter Cooper Columnist Who Writes About Gary Belz's East Iris Recording Studio

Clockwise, from left: Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), Mike Paragone, Bobby Shin and Heather Sturm during sessions for Islam's latest album

Photo: Courtesy East Iris

When Gary Belz opened East Iris Recording Studios in the country music capital of the world, the first big hit album mixed at the place in the late 1990s was the Barenaked Ladies' multi-Platinum Stunt. That album served sonic notice that East Iris was, as studio manager Mike Paragone puts it, “not your typical Nashville studio.”

Since that time, there have been country clients including Vince Gill, LeAnn Rimes, Alan Jackson and Faith Hill, but the roster of non-country clients has been as or more impressive: Avril Lavigne, John Mayall, Bob Seger, Trey Anastasio, Rush and other luminaries have used East Iris, which is located in the Berry Hill section of Nashville, far from the bustle of studio-heavy Music Row. In July, East Iris played host to Yusuf Islam, the singer/songwriter who gained fame in the 1970s under the name Cat Stevens.

“There was a creative flow to the whole session,” says East Iris assistant engineer Heather Sturm. “Yusuf was very in the moment with the music and very experimental. It was a free-flowing sort of session, and not at all Nashville in terms of, ‘Let's crank out 10 tunes in three hours.’”

East Iris isn't that kind of place. Belz — who once co-owned Ocean Way on Music Row, and who owns the Kiva family of studios with locales in Los Angeles and Memphis — believes the vibe of a studio is as important as the gear. At East Iris, recording artists can lounge amidst Asian-inspired accouterments before and after recording on an 80-channel SSL 9000J console in Studio A.

“When I began renovating the Peabody Hotel in Memphis back in 1981, it had a real residential feel compared to what most hotels felt like,” Belz said. “I wanted to do an interpretation for Memphis of the Four Seasons or the Ritz. I carried that forward at Ocean Way in Nashville, and now I've carried that forward at East Iris. If you come here, you'll see a vibed-out studio. It's more comfortable to people than what they get in most other studios. Art, to me, is an important thing. I try to create a place where people want to be. Some studios want to try to be vanilla, for some reason.”

Islam recorded most of his latest album in Los Angeles at Belz's House of Blues studio in Encino, Calif. But he wanted to record strings, horns and backing vocals in Nashville, and he enlisted contributions from the studio-savvy Nashville Strings, as well as harmony vocalists Holly Williams, Michelle Branch, Gunnar Nelson and (former Hollie) Terry Sylvester. The musicians convened in East Iris' Studio A, with Bobby Shin engineering, Sturm assisting and David Davidson arranging and leading the strings.

East Iris' extensive microphone selection was well-used for the sessions. Shin and Sturm used Coles 4038 ribbon mics on violins, AKG C 12s on violas, a Neumann U47 on the cello and various microphones for sounds in the room. For horns, U47s were used for trombone and tuba, and the C 12 recorded the E-flat horn. For vocals, Sturm says she and Shin used a C 12 and a U47 and ran the signal through a combination of API and Neve preamps.

“Yusuf was there the whole time and he had most of the hand in producing,” Sturm says. “He was enjoying it, for sure.”

Part of East Iris' appeal for a reclusive artist such as Islam is the ability to work and relax outside of any spotlight. Music Row remains a place to see and be seen, but Berry Hill is less traveled and East Iris is its own island. Belz owns the property adjacent to East Iris and the property across the street (where he's building what he calls “a Pro Tools super-suite”) and clients are assured some buffer from any prying eyes.

“Clients are looking for privacy when they're trying to be creative,” Paragone says. “When you're here, there aren't any spaces that you're going to walk into that are open to the public. And the courtyard is around the corner and in the back, so you can get outside and have fresh air and enjoy that without being seen. You can even park a tour bus in the driveway and it won't be seen from the street.”

East Iris has in-house engineers and technicians, two SSL consoles (Studio B has a 40-channel 4000E), Pro Tools HD4 Accel and HD2, and a bevy of outboard units, but Paragone says many of his clients are more impressed by the feel of the place than anything else.

“The robustness of the boards, the sound quality, is fantastic,” he says. “These are great desks. But, in reality, all of the equipment is just a pathway to getting your end result, which is great sounds and great mixes through great performances. Take out one piece of that puzzle and it will yield a lesser result, but the studio is just a venue. And the compliment I always get is, ‘It's comfortable here.’”

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