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SOUND KITCHEN: Watching the Dough Rise

For the past two years the Nashville-area studio market has been characterized by consolidation and contraction, which makes Sound Kitchen a rare success

For the past two years the Nashville-area studio market has been characterized by consolidation and contraction, which makes Sound Kitchen a rare success story. The studio started as an 8,000-square-foot, two-room facility in 1993 in the Nashville suburb of Cool Springs, but has since tripled in size. In the past year, Sound Kitchen has added to its original pair of Neve VR studios two matching mixing/overdub suites, each fitted with Ultimation-equipped SSL G Plus consoles, a mid-sized tracking room with a refurbished 1983-vintage Neve 8108 with Flying Faders, and a large tracking room (on this month’s cover) with a Neve V3 console. The four new studios are situated in a completely new structure adjacent to the original studio. Monitoring in the new studios is by Quested, and there are vintage Kinoshita-designed TAD speakers in the big tracking room. The four rooms, like the original pair, were designed by L.A.-based designer Chris Huston.

Owners (and brothers) Dino and John Elefante have deep and successful roots in the Christian music industry-Dino as a producer, and John as an artist. Between Dino’s productions-he has produced records for major CC artists, including Petra, Carmen and Nikki Leonti-and John Elefante’s success as an artist in the growing genre, a significant percentage of the studio’s initial revenues came from that sector, which was experiencing growth even as country music, the staple of Nashville’s studio community, was dwindling.

Another reason for Sound Kitchen’s success is its location on the edge of Williamson County (which is Tennessee’s wealthiest and is third in the U.S. in per capita income after Fairfield and Marin Counties), perfect for those affluent producers who don’t want to make the trek all the way to Music Row and face the city’s growing traffic congestion. “This is the Valley, man,” says Dino Elefante of the area. “Just like when we watched everything move to [the San Fernando Valley] in L.A. in the mid-’80s.”

Just as important to their success, the Elefantes showed fiscal conservatism in their approach to expansion, preferring cash and equity to leases and loans. “Our debt ratio is 60 percent lower than the average for most studios,” Dino Elefante states. While the 72-input VR was purchased new when the studio opened in 1993, the VR 60 was bought used, as were both of the SSL G Plus boards. The Neve 8108 was part of Pakaderm, the two-room studio the Elefantes owned in Long Beach, Calif., for the eight years before they moved to Nashville; the V3 in the large tracking room (nick-named the Big Boy) had been in storage for some time. Dino Elefante is a self-confessed technological pack rat. “We never sell anything or trade up,” he says, adding that he tries to buy vintage value or very cost-effective modern equipment. “We have eight Otari RADAR systems, which means I can offer clients 48-track digital recording for $1,000 a day or less,” he explains. “We’re scavengers. We learned that from our parents.”

A combination of financial savvy, service-each room has a private lounge, and its kitchen rivals that of any Italian restaurant in the area-and highly functional rooms has built the business. Country music now accounts for 30% of the facility’s revenues, with pop and rock projects making up another third; Christian is still strong at 20%, and miscellaneous other music projects complete the picture, according to a business plan survey the Elefantes conducted earlier this year.

The Elefantes have also learned the value of relationships in Nashville’s music business social structure. Dino Elefante says several major Nashville producers, including Mike Clute, Brown Bannister and Michael Omartian, have been guaranteed availability at the facility regardless of when they book, which also helps alleviate the sting of the growing number of producers who build their own studios. And with so much of Nashville’s work channeled through a relative handful of producers, the Elefantes say that approach is going to be expanded. The studio is expected to announce an exclusive agreement with five busy area producers, which will be supported by another planned facility expansion: a 4,300-square-foot extension housing two more control rooms and post-production and Pro Tools-based mastering facilities, all expected to come online by February of next year.

Dino Elefante is aware that the facility’s rapid success has engendered some envy on Music Row, where many studios continue to struggle with country music’s changing fortunes. His response is at once conciliatory and characteristically full of hubris. “We challenge any studio on Music Row to a charity fundraiser meatball contest,” he says, quite seriously. In that department, he knows the Sound Kitchen has a definite edge.