NASHVILLE SKYLINE

The steel guitar had barely been invented when J.R.R. Tolkien churned out Lord of the Rings nearly 50 years ago. Nonetheless, one of only two officially
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The steel guitar had barely been invented when J.R.R. Tolkien churned outLord of the Ringsnearly 50 years ago. Nonetheless, one of only two officially sanctionedLord of the Ringsrecordings comes out of Nashville. Paul Whitehead, owner of The Iliad Studio, was a pioneer in developing links between music and marketing, the most well-known being his nearly two-decade stint choosing, arranging and recording lush romantic symphony recordings for sale at lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret. Whitehead is a regular client of the London Symphony Orchestra, using them for most of the classical recordings he does, then bringing the tracks back to The Iliad for editing and mixing.

That was the case with Symphony No. 1, written by Dutch composer Johan De Meij, a haunting symphonic piece that Whitehead describes as being “kicked around for years” in search of the right application. The Tolkien estate apparently found the piece to its liking to make it the official work for what's shaping up as a season of Ring-mania. The score to the film was written and produced by veteran film composer Howard Shore (using the London Philharmonic Orchestra), but Whitehead's recording of Symphony No. 1 essentially acts as the soundtrack to what is likely to be the marketing event of the year.

Whitehead usually records the LSO at Abbey Road or CTI in London through the Neve consoles that are used heavily for classical work. When he was approached for the Ring project, he chose to bring the LSO to a lesser-known London venue, Golders Green Hippodrome, home to occasional BBC orchestra broadcasts; in this case, the first non-BBC orchestral recording use of the venue in over 50 years. The recording was done on an SSL 9000 J console, the first time Whitehead has used one for a classical-style piece, he says, adding that he found it sonically competitive with Neves for classical work. The music was recorded to a Sony 3348 digital multitrack. Whitehead produced, with longtime classical engineer David Hunt engineering. “The place is an absolute treat to work in,” says Whitehead. “It's an old theater, and it's just perfect for classical recordings.”

Whitehead brought back the tracks to Nashville and played back off The Iliad's Studer D-820 digital deck (which is DASH-compatible with the Sony). The tracks were mixed, in stereo, through The Iliad's Harrison Series 12 MPC console by Iliad staffer Bob Wright, and edits were done by staffer Phil Barnett on the studio's Sonic 96/24 hard disk system, which was also the mixdown format. (A 5.1 surround mix of Symphony No. 1 is being contemplated, Whitehead adds.)

Whitehead and The Iliad are prime examples of how studios and studio owners can adapt their facilities, talents and ambitions in a changing studio business landscape. And though I've known him and the studio for years, and have written about its unique music/marketing niche, the release of the Ring recording gave me an opportunity to ask Whitehead if having the studio in Nashville conferred any advantage over it being in, say, Sheboygan, given that it's not a commercial facility. Whitehead's response underscores what has kept (and which will continue to keep) Nashville a music Mecca. “There are very few places on Earth where you can tap into such a deep and talented pool of musicians and arrangers and engineers,” he explains. “And do it affordably.”

Though Whitehead is the studio's sole client, to call The Iliad a project studio is a misnomer. The Tom Hidley-designed, Michael Cronin-built studio is sizable, but Whitehead regularly uses commercial facilities for tracking, mostly in London but occasionally elsewhere in Europe and in Los Angeles. He actually might be spending more money on studio rentals than many Nashville country music producers would. But not in Nashville. “You can get a lot out of the Nashville music industry infrastructure, you can rent any piece of equipment you want here,” he says. “But the studios aren't oriented to the kind of music I'm doing. You can't walk into a studio that does rock 'n' roll and country records and expect them to understand the needs of classical music. The London studios do classical day in and day out. They understand what you're trying to accomplish. I think that's critical for any specific type of music. That's why people make country records here — Nashville knows country. And it knows rock 'n' roll. It just isn't that familiar with Mozart.”

Neither is much of the rest of America. Classical music is continuing to lose ground as a radio format and remains single-digit in terms of sales market share. Nashville has a reputable symphony orchestra, which, if not exactly world-class, is still capable of fine work, such as its joint performances with Mark O'Connor and Yo-Yo Ma (another wonderful Nashville/classical pairing). The Nashville Symphony's conductor, Kenneth Schemmerhorn, has rightly gotten significant credit for keeping the symphony respectable, but Whitehead is arguably just as responsible for keeping classical music a working part of the Music City's musical palette, and in the process connecting Nashville to other music capitals.

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