State of the City

May 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Peter Cooper



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“One argument in favor of those real recording rooms is that you go there knowing you'll have the possibility of creating a different sound,” says King Williams, a longtime studio engineer who is the Grand Ole Opry's broadcast engineer. “In Javelina, you could put a 75-piece orchestra in there or a six-piece band, and it was designed to sound good under different circumstances. Now you walk into a guy's home studio, and if you get great results, you're surprised. It's, ‘This guy's kitchen is great for vocals? Fantastic.’ Whereas at Ocean Way, you know it's going to be great for whatever you want.

“What we're talking about is the last 10 percent,” Williams continues. “Especially in country, you're forced into a specific platform that has a specific homogenous sound, and unless you really break the rules, your stuff is going to sound like Pro Tools. With production budgets being low and time being short, you throw a plug-in up, you hit a preset that's there, it sounds just like everything else you've heard and now you're competing. Go! Render it down! Ta-da! So everybody can get to 90 percent. It's rarified air when you get something beyond that, and unless it was a really happy accident, getting beyond 90 percent means it's done by professionals in a professional space.”

Williams' job at the Opry finds him in a role that's reminiscent of great studio engineers of the past, such as RCA's Bill Porter, who was forced by the technology of the 1960s to mix Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison records in real time, on the fly.

“We have a great time because the Opry is kind of in-between a recording space and a live venue,” he says. “We have a blast making it sound as good as we can in the moment. It's performance mixing, and it's close to the old days.”

Twenty minutes south of Music Row is the heart of the contemporary Christian music industry. John Styll, who runs the Gospel Music Association, says many of the issues affecting country — corporate consolidation, online piracy, etc. — are also challenging the Christian business.

“The most irritating thing is that Christian music's consumers seem to share the same lack of concern for intellectual property rights as anyone else,” Styll comments. “As near as we can tell, they are downloading illegally and making copies of CDs for their friends at approximately the same rate as consumers of other genres.”

Mixer, producer and engineer John “Yosh” Yaszcz has worked on Grammy-winning productions in the contemporary Christian industry and from gospel heavies Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker and others. He has happily transitioned from large studios to smaller, home-based environments.

“I have a buddy and producing partner who has this maxed-out, great studio in his home,” Yaszcz says. “I am able to work there regularly, and it doesn't compromise what I do and essentially deliver to the record company. It also gives the record company a break on studio costs. For me, as a working engineer on projects with shrinking budgets, having his studio down the street from my house is a true blessing. I am able to pick my kids up from school and go back to work.”

Yaszcz says his three decades in recording have made him into something of an audio consultant. “The artist and/or producer know the direction they want to go in, but they make some major mistakes in getting there, and I have to come in and figure out a way to clean up the mess and get them to their final destination without being caught in the act of making a bad record,” he says with a laugh. “Staying in touch with changing technology but remembering what is useful from the past makes for the best recordings. I don't think that aspect will ever change: It's been that way ever since I started.”

While Nashville is usually linked with the country and Christian industries, Fred Paragano of Paragon Studios has found plenty of profitable work outside of those realms. When building Paragon five years ago, Paragano sought to accommodate changing technologies and changing business models. Figuring that music projects alone would not support the business, Paragano branched into post-production sound services for film, broadcast television, DVD and the Internet. Paragon, the first Tennessee facility to install a capable digital film console, also offers archival services and picture editing, and Paragano leases space in his Franklin, Tenn., building to tenants.

“Just like the labels that aren't willing to change their old business models to a new one, there are studios with that same mentality,” Paragano says. “This attitude will eventually put them out of business. Only the studios that find new revenue sources outside of the ‘music basket’ will continue to survive.

“It has been a bit of a struggle to find Nashville-based talent that is actually interested in doing anything other than music,” he continues. “I have been surprised that most editors and mixers here don't want to be involved in film or TV. They do not want to divert their attention to anything other than music. Unfortunately, it is very hard to make a living with blinders on.”

In its five years, Paragon has worked with clients including Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Kenny Chesney, and with television outlets including Saturday Night Live, Dancing With the Stars and the BBC.

“Approximately 75 percent of our work now is focused on post-production services,” Paragano says. “Music alone cannot financially support us. I have now become very selective about the music projects I take personally as an engineer. I usually go into a music project knowing the rate will be less, but I selectively take it because it satisfies my creativity.”

While the methods of harvesting inspiration are anything but stable in today's Nashville, creativity itself is a constant. Nashville-based acts Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts offer technologically innovative live shows that consistently land them in year-end ranks of top-drawing tours. Those outings typically use personnel and equipment straight out of Nashville. Engineers and producers are working in ever-varied styles, a point underscored each time an outside-of-country act records in Nashville. In 2008, blues master Buddy Guy has been here working with producer/guitarist Tom Hambridge. Pop star Kelly Clarkson is slated to record this summer, and she'll likely be singing over at Starstruck. Tennessee-based rock band Kings of Leon has been making music at Blackbird. And then there are hundreds of other sessions, in bluegrass and Americana and R&B and pop and just about every other genre.

“The good news is that the creativity and quality of Nashville recording has never been better,” says bass man Pomeroy. “Our stylistic diversity and the high level of songwriting [John Prine, Rodney Crowell, Tom T. Hall and others live and write in the area] continue to flourish even as the business of making records is going through growing pains or perhaps more accurately ‘shrinking pains.’ Nashville is still ‘Music City, USA,’ and dreams still do come true. Perhaps the dreams are a little more reality-based, but they are still meaningful and possible.”

Peter Cooper is Mix's Nashville editor.

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