Nashville Skyline

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Rick Clark


Education Guide

Mix is gearing up to present its longstanding annual Audio Education Guide in its November 2014 issue. Want to have your school listed in the directory, or do you need to update your current directory listing? Add an image, program description, or a logo to your listing! Get your school in the Mix Education Guide 2014.

I recently got a call from Jim Jordan, who manages Starstruck Studios, Reba McEntire and Narvel Blackstock's entertainment industry compound that offers world-class recording and broadcasting services. One of the things that always struck me about Starstruck was how it was so self-contained with its studios and office space, which houses publishing, management and even a record label — Tim Dubois and Tony Brown's Universal South.

The last time Jim and I hooked up was when he generously offered space at Starstruck for many of us in the community to hold a wake in memory of our friend and mastering legend Denny Purcell. BMI also pitched in to supply food and drinks. It was a special night and a statement of how so many in this community really pull together. I'll never forget it.

Jim recently gave me a buzz to catch me up on what was going on at Starstruck. It was evident that so much was going on, I had to head down and see what was happening. Upon arriving, I caught up with Dolly Parton and John Guess, who were checking out Guess' mix of a duet that Parton had penned and just recorded with Kenny Rogers called “Undercover.” It was the first time they had recorded together since their huge '80s hit, “Islands In the Stream.” “Undercover,” which was recorded at the Sound Kitchen, was mixed at Starstruck's room The Pond.

“I don't even know that they'll release it as a single; I'd imagine they will! Kenny's clawing at my door everyday saying we are!” Parton says with a laugh. “But anyhow, ‘Undercover’ is about undercover lovers. Just risqué enough to be playful and cute. It was good to sing and work with Kenny again, and, of course, John engineered and co-produced it.”

Guess had also just worked with Parton, mixing her patriotic album produced by Tony Smith and Kent Wells, For God and Country. “I'm sick of John now! I want a divorce!” Parton jokes. “We've been together night and day now for weeks! But seriously though, John's great.”

Before we parted, we also talked about Parton's tribute album called Just Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton, which features contributions by a number of female artists, including Alison Krauss, Melissa Etheridge, Norah Jones, Joan Osborne, Shelby Lynne, Mindy Smith, Emmylou Harris, Shania Twain with Alison Krauss and Union Station, Kasey Chambers, Sinéad O'Connor, Allison Moorer and Me'Shell N'dedgéOcello, as well as a new recording of the title track by Parton. The album features fresh, new versions of many of Parton's all-time classics (“Coat of Many Colors,” “9 to 5,” “Jolene,” “Two Doors Down,” etc.), as well as interpretations of some of her best recent material, including “The Grass Is Blue,” “Little Sparrow” and “Dagger Through the Heart.”

“A lot of the girls produced their own tracks and just brought 'em in,” says Parton. “There is a new artist named Mindy Smith whose version of ‘Jolene’ is spectacular, and that's gonna be the first single off of it. And then they're releasing my single, ‘Just Because I'm a Woman’ because a lot of the girls sing toward the end of that. So that's a lot goin' on, which is fine. You know me, I've always got a lot goin' on!”

While I was there, I got to hang with Buddy Cannon and some of the studio players (John Hobbs, keyboards; Eddie Bayers, drums) who were taking a break from working on Kenny Chesney's next album. Cannon also produced (with Norro Wilson) Reba McEntire's latest Universal album at Starstruck, Room to Breathe. “We cut the whole album in three days,” says Cannon, adding that they tacked on an extra session for a duet with Vince Gill called “It Just Has to be This Way.” Other tracks that Cannon, Beyer and Hobbs pointed out as session highlights were “If I Had Any Sense Left At All,” “Senses” and “Moving Oleta,” which Hobbs says was, “an incredibly emotional song. We were all sitting around sobbing. It was that sad. It is really great.”

Of McEntire's song-selecting, Cannon adds, “I think that she picks songs that move her emotionally. Even though she's listened to the songs probably 100 times each or more, the lyrics still get her when she listens to them. She really connects with the song emotionally, and you know when you hear her singing, she's there. You know, the players can feel it and we can feel it in the control room.”

Concerning McEntire's vocal performances, Cannon says that “She got in there and nailed all the vocals on the tracking days, no vocal overdub days — not one! A few of the songs are scratch vocals, and a couple of them she didn't even sing any additional passes on 'em. I told her she screwed our whole plan up,” Cannon says with a laugh. “She got us five days off schedule by not having to do any vocal overdubs! I had to move everything up a week!”

The session team enjoyed the production chemistry between Wilson and Cannon. “They have a really great, really balanced relationship that works great,” enthuses Hobbs. “Norro's an old piano player and a really fine musician in his own right. He hangs with the musicians. He has a set of headphones and his own station on the floor out during the sessions and he keeps the excitement up. He's the roaming ambassador of goodwill and keeps everybody loose and makes his musical suggestions. Buddy's the nuts-and-bolts guy. He's in the control room listening hard and deciding if we need to go for another take, and doing the fix-its when we select a take.”

Cannon was also producing the next Chesney album at Starstruck. While I was there, I spent some time listening to a new track with Chesney, Cannon and engineer Billy Sherrill in The Gallery control room.

“We've cut about seven songs,” says Cannon. “We're just trying to take it a step further from where we were and keep it geared toward his audience. Kenny is so connected with his audience and it's something to see when you see him playing for them. It's a pretty big audience these days.”

After hanging out with Cannon, I spent some time with Jim Jordan who took me around the studio. Both of Starstruck's recording studios — The Gallery (which is the primary tracking room) and The Pond (the main mixing room) — share a common machine room that houses two 32-input/64-output Pro Tools|HD systems, two Sony 3348 digital multitracks, two Mitsubishi 880 digital multitracks and two Studer A827 analog multitracks with Dolby SR. Comprehensive audio and machine control patching allow easy access to any of these formats.

The Pond control room is virtually identical to The Gallery control room in design, dimension and technology. Featuring an SSL 9072 J Series console and the same complement of outboard equipment, The Pond differs only in decor and design of the studio space. One feature of Starstruck concerns the facility's impressive machine room, which offers an assortment of well-maintained analog and the latest digital gear. The machine room also contains the SSL power supplies and computers, and the air is cooled and filtered by three separate air-conditioning systems. Audio Precision test equipment is used for calibration and alignment, ensuring that all of the studio's gear is performing to its maximum potential.

While we were checking out the machine room, we began discussing surround and the need for labels to stay on top of their multitrack assets. “When I first came here, it was all 3348, 2-inch and a little bit of Mitsubishi 32-track digital and we haven't gotten rid of anything, so we still have a complete machine complement,” say Jordan. “Having everything centralized in the machine room makes it really easy to do transfers. I'm hoping down the line the labels will wise up and realize that there are masters here that are core assets, and anything on 1-inch dig, you're gonna be lucky in five years to find a machine that'll run well enough to play it back.

“I'm seeing more and more [masters] released for SACD or DVD-A surround, and for that you're going to have to go back to the multitracks,” says Jordan. “I think the sooner the labels can migrate their data off the dead formats into Pro Tools or something — broadcast .WAV or whatever they decide they want to be the standard — I think it'd be smart to get it off before all the machines disappear! We have two of everything, it's like Noah's Ark: two 9Ks, two Pro Tools rigs, two Mitsubishi x880s, two 3348s, two Studer 827s. So we're in a pretty good position to do the transfers.”

One of the marks of a good studio, though, isn't its gear, but the awareness that you have to have personnel who are committed to making the experience a problem-free and creative one. “This is a great facility, but I think the staff is key. We've done a lot to try to retain people rather than run on interns,” says Jordan. “I think a lot of places see an intern as a free warm body, which I don't think is what internships should be about. You're supposed to be mentoring; people did it for me, so I'd like to do it for people. But on the other hand, having a staff that doesn't change every couple of months and that knows the drill is something that our clients really appreciate. There isn't a new face every time they walk in the door.”

“Gear minus talent equals zero. Just because you have an 02R or a Pro Tools rig doesn't make you a recording studio! It's always been people and we're very pleased with ours. Recording studios are a service business, so we always try to keep that in mind. I mean, that's the deal: just try to make the clients feel at home, and have a staff who knows what they're doing — people they can trust so they don't leave at night and worry about what's happening with their files.

“We like to get a good feel goin', and people come in with the goal of getting two songs on a given day and they'll walk out with four. With Reba, I think we did about 11 songs in three days, and they were just killer tracks,” enthuses Jordan. “I always like it when they get more than they came in to get. That's a nice feeling, when everyone's smiling and leaves early. Then we know everything was cool.”

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