In the Alpha Studios control room with (l-r): Andy Colquhoun, lead intern/assistant engineer; managing engineer Creston Heltzel; and Pied Piper Records business manager, Justin Morey.by Frank Wells
Nashville, TN (July 3, 2008)–Alpha Studios is nestled in a heavily wooded suburban area south of Nashville proper, on a large tract of land with a front-porch view of the community’s private lake. Managing engineer Creston Heltzel is an Ohio-born transplant, with Nashville studio market experience from various internship and staff work at Paragon, Masterfonics and Fireside studios. At age 13, Heltzel “started hanging out with the studios and just really bugging the piss out of engineers…just kind of watching everything they did.”
With a fair degree of experience already under his belt, Heltzel relocated to Nashville for some formal schooling, where he met his partner in Alpha, Australian Craig Cumming. Heltzel traveled to Sydney to help with the install of Cumming’s studio, which led to their partnering on Alpha Studios. Open since last November, planning began in the spring of 2007 with Heltzel moving in shortly after to begin the remodeling of the studio area of the house, originally built as Cedar House Productions by songwriter Johnny Pierce. (Heltzel calls it both a blessing and a curse “to be able to walk across a breezeway to get to work.”) The studio area consists of a single control room, two studio spaces and vocal booth. There’s also a pool, sauna, kitchen and the basement is a furnished apartment with kitchenette and shower. “Basically, our goal was just to keep it affordable,” says Heltzel, “for independent musicians, independent bands.” Card rate for Alpha is $35/hour, $300/day or $1,250/week for a 5-day/10-hour-a-day session, including the apartment.
Alpha Studios’ 48-channel Neve 8128 console.That dedication to independent artists is key to Alpha’s activities, including Pied Piper Records (www.piedpiperrecords.com), a label based onsite with Justin Morey running things day-to-day as label business manager. “The label is here to support independent music,” says Morey. “The studio is definitely here to support independent music; we’re trying to work with any band–we want to support independent music as much as possible.”
Alpha Studios sponsors a weekly live performance evening at Christopher Pizza at the gateway to Nashville’s Music Row. The Wednesday night events are produced with Music Society International, a loose organization devoted to providing exposure to independent and up-and-coming artists, along with established artists stretching their wings a bit. Morey describes the evenings as like “playing in your best friend’s basement”; playing live to an enthusiastic and supportive audience.
The heart of Alpha’s control room is a 48-channel Neve 8128 console that was once housed in Cherokee Studios in L.A. Heltzel says, “I like something about a big analog desk. I think it’s something when, as an artist walking into a studio, you see a big desk and a bunch of rack gear.” The racks at Alpha are fitted with a broad array of character inducing devices, including nameplates like Universal Audio, API, SSL, ADL, Empirical Labs and Lexicon. An ample Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 rig serves as the primary recording platform and an MCI 24-track analog 2-inch recorder also remains from the studio’s Cedar House origins.
The headphone system at Alpha Studios is built around Aviom gear. Since he was working with an existing physical structure that had limited cabling access, having only to drag a Cat-5 cable run for 16 channels of cue capability was a big plus for Heltzel. The Neve has a single stereo aux send, which Heltzel uses to send drums to channels 1 and 2 of the Aviom system, with individual instrument feeds patched into the rest of the tracks for the musicians to use in building their own customized can mixes. U.K.-based pop/rock/punk band Koopa spent five straight weeks at Alpha, developing songs and doing preproduction work as well as recording. The plethora of available channels on the Aviom rig was a boon to the process–even with all the individual instruments on dedicated channels, enough channels remained for Heltzel to, for instance, provide a stem from earlier pre-production tracks sans drums for the drummer to perform to for the new recordings. Heltzel adds, “I love the fact that the headphone output is also a line output,” for use for tasks like re-amping guitars.
The pastoral setting, homey amenities and vintage gear at Alpha Studios set the mood for an immersive experience, with the project the focus– promoting a communal creative experience while supporting comfortable downtime. “Personally, I’ve been on both sides of it,” says Heltzel, “working with independent bands and working on label projects. I’d rather work with independent artists who just want to take the time and make good music.”
Craig Cumming, Creston Heltzel
Johnny Pierce, Creston Heltzel
Neve 8128 (48-ch w/GML Automation)
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 v.7.4, Digidesign 192 I/O (24 in/48 out), Digidesign Sync HD; Apple Logic Studio 8
MCI JH24; Alesis MasterLink ML-9600
Focal Solo 6 BE; Yamaha NS-10M; Dynaudio PPM3 (mains); Aviom cue system
API 512C (3), 550B (3), 2500 Bus Compressor; Echoplate II plate reverb; Empirical Labs Distressor (2); Lexicon MPX1 reverb (2); Manley Massive Passive; Neve 8128 preamp (40); PreSonus ADL600; Radial DIs; SSL E/G series EQ (2), Super Analogue Channel (2), Channel Compressor (2); Universal Audio 1176LN (2), LA2A; Urei LA-5 (2); TC Electronic D-Two (2)
Digidesign HD Pack; McDSP Everything bundle; Waves Diamond bundle, SSL Collection
AKG D112 (2), C414 XL-II (2); Audix D6 (2); Blue Baby Bottle, Neumann KM184 (2); Royer R-121 (2); Sennheiser MD-421 (x2); Shure KSM27, SM57 (5), Bullet mic
Bogner Shiva amplifier; Hammond organ w/ Leslie; Nord Electro keyboard; Wurlitzer electric piano; Various guitars and basses