Gear for The Raconteurs sessions in Blackbird Studio D On the professional recording scene, there are certain studios and related businesses that, for recordists infected with a severe case of gear lust, are the definition of Utopia. Paradise, Wonderland, Elysium — these mystical names are evoked when considering the almost unimaginable list of equipment available to anyone with the time and budget to revel in it.
Needless to say, Nashville has its share of such hotspots, and in particular, Blackbird Studio and its Blackbird Audio Rentals division are presently perched at the top of Music City's recording infrastructure. Other studios in the area, such as Paragon, in nearby Franklin, also claim an enviable ability to satisfy an engineer's deepest yearning, via hard- or software.
"It's unbelievable," says Rolff Zwiep of Blackbird Audio Rentals' exploding business, which serves the entire U.S. as well as the local community. "We all know there are studios closing. There are businesses related to the industry closing, too. Obviously, budgets are down; big-project budgets are as much as split in half now. So rather than investing in the gear, people are renting for a fraction of the cost, and leaving the maintenance and upkeep of the gear to the person who owns it. We don't have a problem with that, because we've got our own tech shop within the studio complex. They maintain all the gear in our inventory, except for a few select microphones, which we send to a local mic tech."
Like Blackbird Audio Rentals, Blackbird Studio boasts an equipment list that would fill this magazine and then some. "We have one of the largest selections of outboard gear in the world," says Blackbird's chief recording engineer, Vance Powell. "Things that get used often, we have a lot of. I had to look it up the other day; we have 28 [Urei] Blackface 1176s. I think we've got about 40 Pultecs." When it comes to the tools people use to make records, he says, "We have a lot of some of them, and some of a lot of them."
Blackbird Burgeons with Choices in Hardware
Located in the Berry Hill community, Blackbird Studio, says Powell, is more than likely to have whatever boutique item one could want. DW Fearn compressors? Check. Great River preamps? Check. Universal Audio LA-1A, BBC compressors, Decca compressors? EMI Curve Bender, Eventide 2016, Quantec Room Simulator, Marshall Time Modulator? You get the idea. There is a near-infinite supply of standard and boutique processing gear at the studio and Blackbird Audio Rentals, owing to John McBride, owner, longtime live-sound engineer and spouse of country superstar Martina McBride. "I think John has $3 million in vintage guitars," says Powell. "Forty vintage Gretsch drum kits. We have a storage building onsite, and a 13,000-square-foot warehouse that has two [Sony] Oxford consoles, a Trident 80B, a Neotek console, several tape machines that were just overflow, and all of Martina's touring gear. We have a lot of stuff."
At Paragon Studios, owner Fred Paragano has observed clients using his studio's outboard equipment less and less, in favor of their own hardware or software plug-ins. For all the gear, however, the tried-and-true, meat-and-potatoes processing equipment remains at the top of many a Nashville audio pro's wish list. For the contemporary paradigm, in which basic tracks are recorded in a studio and overdubs often completed in a smaller studio or a home, a rental company allows artist, engineer, and producer to replicate the recording chain they enjoyed in a high-end environment without paying a potentially prohibitive rate. Often, says Zweip, clients will rent a small tracking package, or simply a vocal chain comprised of microphone, preamp, compressor/limiter, and perhaps EQ. "Neves, Universal Audio, and all the typical brand names," he notes. "It seems like Nashville has a 'safe spot,' where Martech pres, Pultec EQs, Tube Tech compressors, and [Universal Audio] LA-2As are real popular. Those seem to be pretty hot items, but that may be hot for one week and something else takes off next week. It's unpredictable — that's why it's really great to have such a deep inventory.
"I think we have 10 [Fairchild] 670s and two 660s," Powell adds. "I'd have to look it up, but it's more than 10. [Neve] 1073s. I love Daking mic pres for certain things. Chandler stuff is great; I love the Germanium series, love the Zener [limiter]."
Paragon Plugs In
Paragon Studios is comprised of three control rooms and an Apple Final Cut Pro picture editorial space featuring SSL 9080K, SSL C300, and Digidesign Pro Control consoles and Dynaudio monitoring. The facility offers recording, mixing, mastering, post-production, and various additional services, including audio restoration and DVD authoring. Owner Fred Paragano notes the increasing popularity of software-based processing. "We've got a fairly stocked rack of stuff in Studio A," he explains, "but I've watched it get used less and less, significantly less. Plug-ins, at this point, have started to take over. This is the trend I'm watching."
The staggering array of plug-in choices, says Paragano, means a lack of consistency with regard to "go-to" products in that realm. "We encourage people to bring their own iLok, because they may have their own set of plug-ins that they like to use." That said, "Waves and the [Waves] Platinum bundle are pretty standard. I see those all the time. As far as bundles that I'm using, the [Waves] Restoration and 360 [Surround Tools] are must-haves for what I do. Typically, I'm using ZNoise. If I'm in a situation where maybe something was recorded with hum, buzz, anything of that sort, Z-Noise, to a good degree, allows me to transparently isolate and remove it, in most cases. For noise reduction, I'm using C4, which is not part of the Restoration bundle, but I think people overlook that plug-in quite a bit. There are some pretty amazing things it can do.
Rackmounted beauties from Blackbird Audio Rentals, ready to roll "Beyond that, there are some people who love it and some who, I don't think, have experimented with it: Altiverb [by Audio Ease], which is really great for very specific applications. It's not my go-to reverb, but if I'm looking for something that sounds very real and natural, that's what I'm gravitating to."
In the plug-in world, Paragano observes, it's not only the trendiest or costliest products at the top of the heap. "I've seen people, when they don't have the money to dig into high-priced plug-ins, operate primarily using Digidesign stuff, getting along fine with it." On the other hand, he adds, "A lot of people go to their esoteric things that most people wouldn't gravitate to. I think there's dual reason for it. One, I think the convenience of having a plug-in — knowing it's there and doesn't have to be reset — sometimes outweighs the sonic effects of what outboard gear does. I see that with myself: It's not necessarily a lazy thing, but when you're on a time crunch and don't have time to start messing with patching and recalling, a lot of times you just need to work fast. The plugins afford that. And two, I think a lot of them sound great. I'm not one of those people that think, 'Plug-ins, they're digital, they don't sound good.' I rely on them."
Perennially Popular Tube Mics
Like Paragano, Blackbird Studio and Blackbird Audio Rentals see a very broad spectrum of equipment in use. "It varies from project to project," says Blackbird Audio Rentals' Zwiep, "although tube microphones are always very popular, just because of the cost, the maintenance and all that. Some of the modern tube mics are pretty popular, but it's mostly your typical [Neumann] 47, 67, 49, 269, [Telefunken] 251, and so on. We've got a pretty good variety of unusual tube mics, too, that frequently win a shootout just because nobody's heard it before and it stands out a bit more than the traditional tube mics."
In fact, Martina McBride's 2005 Timeless, a set of 18 classic country songs, spurred demand for a specific vocal chain that became popular with other artists and engineers in and around Blackbird Studio. "They wanted a 'modern vintage sound' without going to an RCA," says Powell, "so they tried this R-F-T, which is a large-diaphragm, large-body bottle mic. I believe it's from the late '30s, early '40s. It uses an M7 bayonet-style capsule, so basically it's a U 47 capsule. And they've been modified: The 220- volt power supply was physically inside the microphone. Tracy Korby [of Korby Audio Technologies] has been modifying ours to run on an external power supply, so they're much quieter. And they're line level; they have another tube after the microphone preamp tube, basically a line driver. You can come right out of that microphone into the front end of the Fairchild 660 and it would have enough gain, between the two of them, to get this amazing, clean, clear, vintage vocal compression. If you had a mediocre M7 capsule, the microphone didn't sound mediocre. If you have a great M7 capsule — and we got very lucky and had one that Tracy tweaked — that just makes it unbelievable. I'd put it up against any vocal mic."
Like Nashville itself, which, in addition to country music, has long been a mecca for rock, hiphop and other genres, the near-limitless gear choices will satisfy any audio pro. "That's John's thing," Powell summarizes. "He wants to be able to have every color in the palette. If you want to experiment, the world is wide open."