On the Cover: Ben’s Studio, Nashville

May 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Tom Kenny


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Five on the floor: Ben Folds at one of his grand pianos, with room for many more.

Five on the floor: Ben Folds at one of his grand pianos, with room for many more.

Over the ensuing years, there have been countless other additions added to the recording chain. A late-’70s MCI JH-16, with transformers, was reconditioned and brought in; countless tube mics were added to the closet; ADAM S3A monitors replaced the B&Ws; and recently, producer Scott Litt left behind a 10-channel 1954 Collins 212-A tube broadcast mixer that Folds subsequently bought—he and his main engineer, Joe Costa, are just starting to experiment with it.

The Big Room

While the backbone of the facility entered the modern age, albeit with an analog bent, the walls were never touched. Though two iso booths had been added by Peterson in the early ’90s, the signature RCA walls, with their rolling-humps rising to the 30-foot ceilings, remained intact. In a very real sense, along with the original parquet floor, they are the sound of the room.

“We worked hard to keep the space itself true to form, true to the original intent of the studio when it was built,” says Richter, something of a house engineer and fix-it tech who has had recent success engineering an Elizabeth Cook EP, a Malcolm Burn-produced Alyssa Graham project now in mastering, and the last two John Hiatt records. “It is the largest unbroken floor space in Nashville, and it has always been a place where people want to play together, in the same room, where leakage is your friend. This feels like a place where people want to make records, and not just have sessions. We didn’t want to mess with that.”

That penchant for live tracking, band on the floor, was the norm back when the studio was built, and it’s been a main selling point for the studio lately, with projects by Steve Earle (his first Nashville record in nearly 10 years), Justin Townes Earle, John Hiatt and Kacey Musgraves all taking advantage of dynamic, in-studio interplay. It wasn’t that long ago that Tony Bennett stopped in for a couple of tracks on Duets II, singing live in the main room, with band and a monitor setup. Old-school.

“I’ve been using more omni mics than I’ve ever used in my life because of this room,” says Costa, who besides being Folds’ engineer has had recent success with Brendan Benson, Cory Chisel, The Greenhornes and others. “Even omnis for overheads. On Ben’s most recent record, I put up a couple of these Neumann M582, the pencil tube mic. This room is so good with leakage, and the players discover that. The drums bleeding into the piano mics can become a big part of the sound. Ninety percent of the time I mike drums pretty standard, but I have put up a pair of spaced omnis and gotten great ‘drums in the room.’

“And piano can sound amazing from a lot of different spots in the room, depending on the song,” he continues. “Ben has five grand pianos right here, all voiced differently, and he uses them all. But his favorite lately has been a Steinway B that came from a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Ann Arbor. [It was one of two purchased by Wright himself, Corbitt-House discovered when tracing its lineage.] It didn’t need to be voiced; it just has this beautiful midrange. I just stick my head in and do a low-high spacing with a pair of Neumann CMV 563 tubes with M7 capsules, and he can hit it hard or light. It just pops in the track.”

RCA Studio A is truly a one-of-a-kind room. It’s not for everybody, and Folds and his team know that. But it sure is right for others, and it is proving to be a most versatile piece of history, having hosted everything from full-blown orchestral sessions to video shoots to live in-studio performances, not to mention the recent string of fully-booked album projects. For Corbitt-House, it has been a real treat to watch the vision come together, and it’s been fulfilling in ways that are hard to measure.

“I can remember getting a phone call from Kris Wilkinson near the end of 2008, saying that Ben was thinking of opening up RCA Studio A,” she recalls. “She knew I was freelance and set up a meeting between Ben and I. I was at a time in my career when I really needed to reconnect with why I got involved in this industry. I hadn’t been in the room in probably 12 years, and when I walked in I got chills. I recorded my first album at 18, I have 30 years of managing studios, and here I was in the room where Elvis recorded. Waylon’s first recordings. Willie, the Outlaws, the whole Monument Records era. Dolly doing ‘Jolene.’ Those records were such a part of the fabric of my life, and I could feel it in the room. Needless to say, I was re-inspired!”

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