Nashville Skyline

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


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While many people are content to simply label Nashville a country music town, one thing I like about it is the depth of the artistic community and how the range of expression in the area is so rich. Country, Americana and roots music may be a given, but there is so much more.

Venus Hum, a synth-based trio comprising Tony Miracle (synths, guitars), Kip Kubin (synths) and vocalist Annette Strean, has done quite well for itself during the past few years. The band ( released a major-label effort, Big Beautiful Sky (on Geffen in the U.S. and BMG/UK for the rest of the world), and have toured almost nonstop for the past year-and-a-half, playing numerous shows in England. The group has also opened for Blue Man Group's tour in the last six months, playing sold-out theaters, sheds and arenas in almost every state in the U.S.

“We call our music ‘folktronica,’ a word we stole from a Momus record of the same name,” says Miracle. “The sound is very electronic, but the songs are pretty old-fashioned. It's a bit like Kraftwerk being fronted by Rosemary Clooney. Annette is a big fan of show-tune music and '80s post-punk; Kip loves Tomita and current producers like Timbaland and Missy Elliot; and I love the Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach, as well as Thomas Dolby and recent experimental electronica. If you mix it all up, you get a bit of what Venus Hum sounds like.”

Their self-produced debut was cut and mixed at Chessington Synth Labs, a studio housed in Miracle's basement. “I picked the name because it sounded like one of those old studios where they'd make Switched on Bach-type records, and we have a fetish for old modular synths,” remarks Miracle.

“We are pretty self-sufficient in that we write, produce, record and mix everything ourselves. The jobs bleed into each other so that sometimes it's hard to draw the line between sound design, mixing or the writing process. So instead of hiring a producer and a big studio, we took our recording budget and bought a few pieces of equipment we needed for our studio — namely, a good vocal chain.”

Some of the key pieces utilized by Venus Hum are modular synthesizers: Roland System 100m, Doepfer A100 and ARP 2600 and two virtual Nord Modulars. “We're big on old analog synths and have quite a collection,” says Kubin. “We use these to make sounds, of course, but we also like using them as processors. Many traditional and even acoustic sounds get filtered and modulated with these old synths and transformed into something otherworldly!

“We do a lot of laptop-based work and are very excited about the new digital gear, like Native Instruments Reaktor, Ableton Live, and Cycling '74 Pluggo and Max/MSP,” Kubin adds. “We do like to use the more experimental VST instruments alongside old analog gear and acoustic instruments.”

The band uses Pro Tools|HD for recording. For their mic chain, they use a Blue Kiwi, SM58 or a C12 for vocals. The mic pre is an Amek 9098, which is usually run through a Tube-Tech compressor to a Mackie 32×8, used primarily for monitoring. They also use Emagic Logic for sequencing and sometimes audio.

The band did go outside of the basement studio for a couple of elements during the making of their album. “We cut strings with our good friend Shane Wilson engineering at Pentavorit Studios Nashville on one song,” Kubin explains. “We also did a string session for three songs in London at The Dairy, working with engineer Fulton Dingley and string arrangers Sean O'Hagan and Marcus Holdaway of the High Llamas, Tony's favorite band.

“We had the luxury — or curse, depending on your view — of being on two major labels, so we spent some money on a real rock 'n' roll experience. We took five songs to London and mixed with Steve Fitzmaurice at Astoria, the studio owned by Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd. The studio is in a renovated Victorian houseboat that used to be owned by Charlie Chaplin's manager, who used it as a party boat,” Kubin continues. “The studio was amazing, and they had someone to cook meals for us! Steve Fitzmaurice did a great job mixing those songs and was a total thrill to work with, but we only ended up using two of his mixes. It's nothing against what he did, and we'd love to work with him again, but there was just something right about those cheap basement mixes.”

Most recently, Venus Hum has been involved in writing and recording a new song for the TV show Alias. “J.J. Abrams, the show's creator, who is also a musician and wrote the show's theme, approached us,” says Miracle. “He bought our record from Apple's iTunes store and just became a fan. He sent us the theme song as Pro Tools stems and invited us to mess around and see what happened. We sampled some elements from the theme and wrote a brand-new song around it. They've decided to use it in the show, which is a total blast because it's such a great show and the working process was so low-key and fun. I'm glad it came out of that spirit instead of it being some marketing guy at the record company's idea.”

Meanwhile, across town in Berry Hill, you wouldn't think that the music industry was in any kind of a slump, judging from new studios that are being built or opening in that neighborhood. One new facility is The Blue Room, which is owned by engineer/producer/nice guy Tom Fouce. The Blue Room was designed by Christopher Huston, built by Marco Lima and Mike LeBlanc of Tri Star Builders, and the wiring was done by Jason White of White Noise Technologies.

I drove over to The Blue Room and spent an early evening hanging out with Fouce, who moved to Nashville several years ago from his hometown, L.A. During his years working in L.A., he was a staff engineer at Kenny Rogers' highly regarded Lion's Share studios, where Fouce had the opportunity to work with Rogers, Richard Marx, Julio Iglesias, Christopher Cross and a host of other predominately mainstream pop artists.

Like many recording industry talents who have relocated from L.A. to Nashville, Fouce was attracted to the quality of life and pace that the Music City offered for him and his family. “We wanted a place that was a little slower and a little more sane in terms of raising kids; Nashville is pretty family-friendly,” says Fouce. “It's amazing what's going on in Nashville musically. Really just about anything is happening here, from the Nashville Symphony to rock and blues and hip hop and bluegrass and jazz and country to the Christian market.”

Many of Fouce's old L.A. peers have also moved here, and now some of them have become his clients at The Blue Room. Among those are Bob Bullock, who also was a staff engineer at Lion's Share, producer Michael Omartian, Marx and engineer Eric Rudd.

Rudd recently has been in The Blue Room with producer Rick Chudacoff cutting sides on pop-country artist Halie Loren. “The drum sounds, as well as the Yamaha C-7 piano, sounded great, and all vocals and overdubs [which were recorded from the center of the main room] came out beautifully,” admits Chudacoff, who also mixed the tracks there on the Trident console. “Honestly, it is one of the best-sounding control rooms in Nashville; very nonfatiguing. It is an extremely comfortable environment to work in.”

Recently, Bullock has been in the studio engineering overdubs on country band the Great Divide with producer Chris Leuzinger working on the facility's Pro Tools system. Michael Hanson was the assistant engineer. The project, which was tracked at SoundStage's Frontstage on Pro Tools, was eventually mixed on Nuendo at Bullock's own studio, The Dining Room.

When I asked Fouce about why he relocated to Berry Hill, he says, “It seemed to have a kind of hip factor to it. I had had an office on Music Row for a long time, which is fine — I'm not anti-Music Row — but I didn't feel that if I were going to have a recording studio, it needed to be on the Row. I didn't think that was important, and apparently 30 or 40 people who are located in Berry Hill feel the same way [Laughs]. It is nice over here.”

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