On the Cover: Dark Horse Recording

Jul 1, 2004 8:00 AM, By Heather Johnson


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Despite a volatile music industry and a proliferation of home/project studios, Dark Horse Recording has not only survived, it’s expanded to more than four times its size and remains one of the most comfortable studios on one of the most tranquil settings east of the Mississippi.

In a rural area of Franklin, Tenn., owner Robin Crow built the original Dark Horse Recording, now known as the Cabin, in 1992 to record his own music, but clients such as Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood and Neil Diamond put a halt to his personal plans. The natural light-filled studio now features a Trident Series 80 console with AMS Neve Flying Faders, two Formula Sound Q-8 systems and five isolated spaces, one of which includes a Yamaha C7 MIDI grand piano.

Two steadily booked years later, Crow personally began constructing the Lodge, which he initially envisioned as “the grandest of all overdub rooms. It took me three-and-a-half years to build, and by the time I finished, the entire industry had changed,” he says. “All of a sudden, overdubs had completely disappeared. Everybody was building home studios and recording to Pro Tools, so I had to immediately start changing things.”

With an estimated 75 percent of its business snatched away by the “rise of the computer chip,” as Crow calls it, the entrepreneur looked for new ways to serve his clients. “Because we are out in the country, I thought, ‘Well, the one thing we have is a lot of space,’” he says. “So I decided to enlarge the studios to accommodate tracking sessions.”

The largest of the four studios, the Lodge’s cathedral-like control room accommodates up to six musicians who can theoretically gather around the Trident and Martin Sound ACX 24-channel sidecar. The Lodge also features an 18x20-foot drum room and a third room with a second Yamaha C7 and a Hammond B3 organ.

To accommodate the studio’s DAW-friendly clients, Crow erected a Pro Tools|HD suite and the Barefoot Studio, which has a 32-input DDA CS-3 and Yamaha O2R consoles standing by, although most clients prefer to roll in their own workstation and take advantage of the studio’s Otari RADAR IIs, 24 I/O Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel mobile rig and a mic closet stocked with AKG, Neumann, Shure, Sennheiser and Sony options.

Although Dark Horse embraces the industry’s rapidly changing technology, Crow focuses less on having the latest “bells and whistles” and more on top-notch maintenance (courtesy of staff engineer Michael Modesto) and timeless vintage pieces. The studio is also one of the few middle Tennessee studios with guest accommodations, which adds to the facility’s indulgent, retreat-like atmosphere. Most lounges contain their own fully stocked refrigerator, and the main kitchen is packed with more snacks and beverages than a 7-Eleven. “It’s all about ‘What can we possibly do for you,’” Crow says. “We have barbecues every week. When people come to Dark Horse, there’s a bounty of abundance in every way.”

Apparently, that philosophy works well, as Crow claims 2004 “the best year they’ve ever had” and cites May as the most profitable month in Dark Horse history. Recently, the studio hosted tracking sessions for CCM acts Reliant K, Caedmon’s Call and Michael W. Smith, which is partly due to the studio’s Williamson County locale. “This is where CCM music lives and breathes,” says studio manager Bill Elder, referring to area labels such as Word, Reunion and Essential Records, among others. Guest lodging makes Dark Horse an attractive option for out-of-town bands, and package deals make the facility affordable for independent acts. “I can put them in a tracking room for a day and then move them to the overdub room,” Elder says. “They’re paying about what they’d pay at a [smaller] studio, but they get all of our amenities. We take care of them just like everybody else.”

In the midst of a banner year, Dark Horse is expanding again, albeit conservatively. A fifth room, to be patterned after the Barefoot studio, is in the works, which Elder sees as a viable alternative for homebound producers. “I’m seeing more of a demand for these production rooms,” he says. “Sometimes, producers want accessibility to the synergy that’s around here. Also, it’s becoming more apparent that recording studios, especially at this level, really have to focus and define themselves—be that thing and do it well.”

Meanwhile, Crow has even grander ideas brewing. “I’m real excited about adding some day spa elements to [Dark Horse]—a terrarium and a sunken hot tub—because once again, I ask myself, ‘If I were Madonna, what would be of interest to me?’ Those who embrace change will become leaders in every field.”

For more information, visit Dark Horse Recording at www.darkhorserecording.com.

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