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Studio Showcase: Sweetwater Studios

By Steve Harvey. From its humble beginnings as a 4-track mobile recording studio in the back of musician Chuck Surack’s Volkswagen Samba bus in 1979, Sweetwater Sound has become a juggernaut, morphing into the largest online pro audio and MI equipment retailer in the United States.

Fort Wayne, IN—From its humble beginnings as a 4-track mobile recording studio in the back of musician Chuck Surack’s Volkswagen Samba bus in 1979, Sweetwater Sound has become a juggernaut, morphing into the largest online pro audio and MI equipment retailer in the United States. Yet as Sweetwater has evolved, the recording studio has remained a constant, initially moving into Surack’s house, then to various commercial properties before settling into its forever home inside a Russ Berger Design Group-designed space on the Sweetwater campus in 2008.

The campus—and studio—were considerable then, and they’re still growing. In October 2018, Sweetwater began a $76.4 million expansion at the 163-acre campus that will add a 350,000-square-foot warehouse, a 30,000-square-foot event center and eventually more than 1,000 jobs. Sweetwater added 400 employees in 2018, finishing the year with more than 1,500 people on its staff, almost half of whom relocated to Fort Wayne.

Talk to Mark Hornsby and you’ll be ready to pack your bags and move to Fort Wayne, too. Hornsby, who joined Sweetwater Studios, the company’s recording studio division, as vice president of operations and senior producer/engineer in 2008, is a booster for the city and its conveniently accessible Midwest location. “It’s the cheapest place to live in the United States, and we probably have more musicians per capita than any other town. Everybody who works at Sweetwater is a musician. It’s a music city on totally different terms than Nashville, L.A. or New York,” he says.

“Then you add the Sweetwater campus into the equation—the restaurant, coffee shop, fitness center, doctor’s office,” he says. Fort Wayne’s nightlife includes the 2,150-capacity Clyde Theater, recently renovated with contributions from Surack and his wife and Sweetwater co-founder, Lisa.

Hornsby, who was previously involved with studios in Nashville, Florida and Las Vegas, oversees a staff that includes Grammy and Dove Award-winner Phil Nash; Dave Martin, who is in the Western Swing Hall of Fame; guitarist Don Carr, who toured with the Oak Ridge Boys for two decades; and renowned prog rock drummer Nick D’Virgilio. “They’re Swiss Army knives,” he says. “Week to week, we’ll be working on a hard rock, jazz, country or contemporary Christian record.”

Sweetwater Studios houses three traditional facilities that are interconnected with each other, as well as a 250-seat performance theater that doubles as a recording space. “There are drop-down screens in A and B,” says Hornsby. “We can have a live rhythm section in Studio A, with a chamber orchestra on the stage in the performance theater, and musicians in both Studios B and C—with video, so everybody can watch each other in real time.” The stage, coffee shop and all the conference spaces across the campus are also connected back to the machine room, he reports.

Pro Tools HDX2 systems with MTRX IO boxes are common to all three studios, as are ATC reference monitors. Studio A, the main tracking and mix room, which includes a couple of iso booths, features a pair of SCM150s and an ATC sub. Studio B, a mix room with an overdub space large enough for a drum kit, offers a 5.1 setup with three SCM45s across the front and powered SCM20 rears. Studio C, a mixing and mastering space that also accommodates guitar and vocal overdubs, includes a pair of ATC SCM25s.

Studio B is outfitted with an SSL AWS 948 Delta desk. Studio C is tricked out with a lot of Dangerous Music gear, says Hornsby: “All their routing and mastering stuff, and their converters, if you want to use those instead of the MTRX.”

Studio A houses a hybrid console designed by Hornsby and the team that they call a “Neve 6.” It’s a mash-up of an Avid S6 24-fader control surface flanked by double-wide console racks housing 32 channels of Shelford input modules from the Rupert Neve Designs 5088 desk, plus that company’s summing and master bus modules. The racks are also populated with a variety of outboard preamps and processing, from tube to solid-state.

“The idea of putting everything in one desk was to accommodate anybody’s workflow,” Hornsby explains. The Shelfords are there for those who prefer to cut drums or an entire rhythm section through a console or the same preamps. Conversely, he says, if you prefer to mix things up, run the bass through a Shadow Hills unit, the drum overheads through Daking devices for their Trident A Range EQ sound, and the kick and snare through API modules.

Related: Sweetwater Studios Records Hometown Songstress, May 9, 2018

As for mixing, he says, “You can stay completely inside Pro Tools with an Avid S6 control surface, or you can use the keyboard and mouse. And there’s every plug-in known to man on the computer.” Or patch in Shelford modules for their EQ, and SSL, API or Manley compressors for a hybrid workflow, he says.

The equipment choices in the 8,000-square-foot production complex might seem limitless, but there’s more. “When you’re recording in a facility that has 150,000 square feet of warehouse, you have access to more gear than anyplace in the world,” says Hornsby. “If you want to use a ’59 Gibson Les Paul Reissue on a certain track and we’ve got six in stock, then the question is, What weight and color would you like?”

That might seem like an unfair advantage over other studios, or even competition for Sweetwater’s clients. “We’re not interested in competing with them or taking business away from people,” says Hornsby. “It’s not the cheapest place in the world to record; we did that intentionally.”

For the right situation, the setup is perfect. From the beginning of Sweetwater’s recording master class program, Hornsby called on his session player friends. “The goal was to give our customers an opportunity to sit in the studio with people who make records for a living,” he says. Artists including Robben Ford, Chester Thompson, Peter Erskine, Oz Noy and Jonatha Brooke have recorded projects at the facility, some of which have been released on Sweetwater’s own imprint.

Related: Oz Noy Chooses Sweetwater Studios to Record Latest LP, Booga Looga Loo, March 26, 2019

The events also offer opportunities for vendor participation, of course, while providing content for Sweetwater’s YouTube channel, which has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of views. “We’ve got a revenue model where the studio time is paid for. We have customers who are thirsty for knowledge. So now there’s a line out the door of artists who would love to do master classes; they get paid to record their own record,” says Hornsby.

“We can do these projects in a lot of different ways that check a lot of boxes for a lot of different people. We can make vendors happy, customers happy, artists happy, and do it in a way that makes financial sense for us. It’s a proactive new model.”

Sweetwater Studios •