While noted as the USA’s top online/catalog retailer of professional audio and musical instrument gear in the USA, Sweetwater Sound is also home to a unique and multi‐faceted suite of studios, with an equally versatile staff.
The equipment complement in the A room at Sweetwater Studios has been newly revamped to accommodate a wide range of workflow as well as a wide range of applications. Sweetwater Studios originally specialized in corporate work, including the creation of jingles for local and national clients. In 2012, then Nashville-based producer/engineer Mark Hornsby joined Sweetwater Studios. With the title of director of Music Production and Artist Relations, Hornsby was tasked with expanding the services available through Sweetwater Studios. “When I came on board,” Hornsby elaborates, “the mission changed, to extend the Sweetwater Experience to the studios—not only for our vendors and for people at GearFest and customers, but to make it a destination for musicians as well.”
The Russ Berger-designed rooms that are home to Sweetwater Studios were finished in 2008 as part of Sweetwater’s new headquarters. An Avid (then branded Digidesign) D-Control was the nerve center for the flagship Studio A.
The gear complement in Studio A was recently revamped to accommodate “all the needs of recording artists,” as well as the traditional business of Sweetwater Studios and the varied working proclivities of the staff of nine. “Everybody has different preferences,” Hornsby explains. “I grew up working on consoles and still have an affinity for that. Some of the younger guys on the team have grown up just using pieces of outboard gear [along with Avid’s Pro Tools]—you want this sound on the kick, use a tube preamp here or a FET compressor there. That’s a different preference. Some people like mixing in the analog domain. Some people like just working completely in Pro Tools. That’s also true of our retail customers. So, when Avid came out with the new S6 control surface, we talked about how to incorporate the new technology into a room that can fit the preferences of 90 percent of the people that walk into it.”
The answer is a unique hybrid console that’s been informally dubbed the “Neve 6”—a 15-foot Sterling desk that houses, in part, an Avid S6 control surface, two Rupert Neve Designs 5059 Satellite Summing Mixers and a Portico II Master Buss Processor. There’re also 36 channels of the new Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Series modules— 27 Shelford 5052 mic pre/ EQs and nine Shelford 5051 EQ/Compressors—that combine select circuits from both Rupert Neve’s modern designs and the venerable classics. The Shelfords are “special preamps” with a broad range of flexible features, says Hornsby. In Studio A, the Shelfords are wired to be used as a front-end or as 36 channels of processing, meaning the combined RND gear can serve the sonic function of an analog console for tracking and mixing.
The Avid Pro Tools | HDX rig is 64 channels in and out. “If you want to mix in Pro Tools and use the 36 channels of Neve EQs as inserts, you can do that,” says Hornsby, “or put the EQs of the Neves on the inserts of the summing; take your pick.” There’s also a host of premium processing available—Universal Audio LA2A and 1176s, an SSL XLogic G compressor, an API 2500 compressor, ELOP and Vari-MU compressors and a Massive Passive EQ from Manley Labs and two 500 series racks with a variety of processors and pres from the likes of API, Shadow Hills, Chandler Limited, Focusrite, SSL and Millennia Media. Another rack of preamps includes the Daking Mic Pre EQs, Focusrite ISA430 MKII Producer Pack, a Universal Audio 4-710d, and a pair of PreSonus ADL 700s. “It’s a plethora of solid-state, transformer and tube gear,” Hornsby says of Studio A’s 81 channels of analog processing.
The Avid S6 is the driving heart of the system, says Hornsby. “The S6 is a very powerful, very fun-to-use work surface, all the way down to the meters where you see the wave forms moving in real time. It also banks extremely fast, making navigation of large sessions a breeze.” The customizable S6 control surface spec’d for Studio A sports 24 faders, nine rotary knobs per channel strip and the touchscreen master section.
As in other rooms in the facility, monitor control is via a Dangerous Monitor ST controller. The ST outs in Studio A feed a 2.1 ATC 150 array as main monitors. “I’ve always been a huge ATC fan,” Hornsby confesses. “The mid-range is phenomenal. With the sub, we have it dialed in to be a full-range monitoring system.” A pair of Focal SM9s are also fed by the Dangerous Monitor ST. That makes three available speaker systems, counting the SM9s as two since they operate in both two- and three-way modes.
The main business of Sweetwater Sound is sales, and sales training is taken seriously, including the storied Tuesday and Thursday morning sales meetings where vendors come in to highlight their products. “Our sales engineers come to our studios to ask questions about gear, to see the gear in use,” says Hornsby. “It’s important from that aspect as well. We’re educating our sales engineers who in turn are educating customers.” Some of the manufacturer presentations even include live sessions in the studios, with audio and video piped into the main theater—all of the studios and the theater are interconnected.
“In the studios, we do anything,” says Hornsby. “We work with everyone from Grammy Award-winning artists to local singer-songwriters.” One example is a recent “proactive project” with Counting Crows. Co-producer Shawn Dealey brought in live tracks from Crows tour performances. The live tracks were mixed, and a 90-minute video was shot on the mixing process for the song “Mr. Jones.” Avid and Telefunken sponsored the video project, with the video available through Sweetwater’s YouTube channel, and multitrack mix sessions for “Mr. Jones and “Hard Candy” available for free download on Sweetwater’s website. Social media is “a big component” of Sweetwater’s educational efforts. “We have over 36 million views on YouTube and 174,000 followers on Facebook,” Hornsby reports. “That makes us unique. In that sandbox, nobody can do what we can do.” Sweetwater also hosts recording workshops and songwriting workshops.
Sweetwater Studios’ production team boasts “300 years combined experience in recording and producing music in all genres” says Hornsby. “There still is a corporate element to what we do—national jingles, for example. There are guys on our staff that can lock themselves in a room and come out hours later having played every part on a song.”
Hornsby emphasizes that Sweetwater Studios are not in competition with their customers, but rather actively seek out opportunities such as the Counting Crows project to provide educational content for its customers. Hornsby concludes, “It’s a win-win for everyone.”