NASHVILLE—Located on Azalea Place in the creative hamlet of Berry Hill, Playground Recording thrives for many reasons, the most important being that its manager uniquely understands the needs of its clients. Playground Studio Manager Tim Coyle learned the studio biz in ‘90s-era Nashville, where he began as an intern at the Sound Kitchen in Franklin under the tutelage of owners/producers John and Dino Elefante. Assisting for a half-decade as the Kitchen grew around him, Coyle gained nearly 15 years of engineering experience there before a two-year stint at another Franklin-area studio, Dark Horse Recording.
“I then heard about this opportunity [at Playground] from a good friend Ben Terry, who worked there,” recalls Coyle. “They needed a studio manager and I wanted to focus more on managing a facility. I’ve managed here for just about four years now.”
Playground’s Studio A features a 1,500 square-foot live room with five isolation rooms, one large enough to include a Yamaha C7 grand piano. Historically, Playground has hosted many string and orchestral dates, something that Coyle decided to nurture and augment upon his arrival. Through a series of carefully chosen upgrades and improvements, Playground hosts a wider range of sessions today, smartly playing to Nashville’s recording scene and Playground’s own interesting share of its business.
“When I got here, Playground Recording was [mainly] known as a ‘Christian print’ studio,” tells Coyle. “Our print business clients, which we still have and greatly value today, are companies like Lifeway, Brentwood-Benson and Word Music Publishing. They are all on the same production schedules; when that business was slow, the studio was slow. I had to start thinking of things that would be appealing to other clients.”
It wasn’t long before Playground removed its old Neve 8232 console and replaced it with a Solid State Logic 4056 E/G Series (with G+ Computer) and VCA automation, originally from DARP Studios in Atlanta where it was used to mix releases from Michael Jackson and TLC, among others. “It was a great console with good-sounding preamps,” explained Coyle of Playground’s old Neve, “but it was on its last leg. We were looking at taking the studio to the next level. The owners asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I want to get rid of the console, upgrade outboard gear, update the control room so it looks different and feels different.’ I’ve always been a fan of SSL 4000 Series consoles. Price-wise, I don’t think there was a better console available than [a used] 4000. I did my research and found this console, we broke it down to the frame and cleaned every part of it and refurbished it.”
Having the ability to re-commission a used SSL allowed Playground to take advantage of an attractive price point. “We got this console for $35,000,” tells Coyle. “It needed a lot of work; we put another $10,000 into it. As I shopped, I noticed that even to buy two API 1608 mixers—put together just to get to where we need to be input-wise—would cost over $80,000. And we were already running low on inputs for bigger sessions, so we needed a higher channel count anyway. We could’ve also gone with a control surface and then spent a ton of money on outboard gear, but I still think there’s something about a studio where you walk in and see a large format console like the SSL 4000. To me, this feels like home. This is what a studio should be.”
A mid-sized 4000E/G studio is right up the alley of many engineers in Coyle’s generation. “We do a lot of tracking, so would it have been a better fit to put in an API, a ‘true vintage’ Neve, or something like that?” asks Coyle rhetorically. “Maybe, but [the owners] would’ve never made their money back. When the old Masterfonics, Emerald and all that [on Music Row] folded, there really were no SSL 4000 tracking rooms around here—a few private studios, but not a commercial studio like ours. There are a lot of folks that love to track on these consoles. Just in the last year, we’ve gotten in a lot of guys like [engineer] David Hall—who, like me, grew up in the industry during the early/mid ‘90s with that console. Our generation kind of gravitates toward it.”
A tech that Coyle had worked with at the Sound Kitchen, Chad Clark, accompanied him to a Nashville garage where the 4056 E/G was stored. “We couldn’t see it powered up, but we could look at the power supplies and modules,” explains Coyle. “If it was an old vintage Neve, we would’ve probably recapped every single module and our costs would’ve been much higher. We didn’t have to recap every module, but we looked at everything, putting every routing buss card, EQ card, etc., though a sonic bath. We recapped the center section and both power supplies were basically rebuilt. Next year we’ll probably switch out these power supplies and get the Atomic Instrument Co. [Atomic S1+] power supply, really just to save on powering the SSL. We had talked to [engineer] Reid Shippen about getting the first one and put a down payment on it, but it took a bit of time initially to get [the S1+] through R&D.”
Coyle had considered buying from an SSL reseller, weighing the pros and cons. “It was a smaller console,” recalls Coyle of the reseller’s desk, “a 40-input E/G in a 48-input frame; we would’ve had to buy more modules and it still wouldn’t have been as big as we needed. It was probably in better shape [than ours upon purchase], but they wanted more money, asking $15-20,000 more [than $35k]. Do we do the hard work, spend more time cleaning it and get a bigger console with some history? That’s what we did.”
The hard work paid off. “I started getting some rock tracking projects in here and more mix projects,” tells Coyle. “We easily got four or five mix projects immediately after putting in the console. Toby Wright mixed about three projects and J.R. McNeely mixed a project here, too. It definitely broadened our clientele.”
Meanwhile, saving substantially on a new-to-them console allowed Playground to invest in outboard processing, especially needed after losing its Neve front end. “When I first got here, we hardly had any outboard gear,” explains Coyle. “I asked most of the engineers here what they would like to see, and since most of what we do is orchestral and choir tracking sessions, it was important to focus on good quality mic pres and compressors. We went with several Wunder Audio PAFOUR four-channel preamps, several Vintech preamps, and—through a 500 Series rack—we added some API, Millennia Media and Daking preamps, too. A lot of people love the SSL 4k’s EQs, but we still added some extra flavor with a pair of Neve 1073s and a pair of API 560s for 500 Series.”
Studio: Playground Recording
Owner: Tony Sillyman and Regi Stone
Location: Berry Hill, TN