ATLANTA, GA—John Driskell Hopkins—Hop, to those who know him—is a sucker for Christmas music. So much so that one of the first releases to emerge from his new private recording facility, Brighter Shade Studios, is a holiday album, You Better Watch Out!, featuring him with the Joe Gransden Big Band.
Music fans perhaps know Hopkins better as a founding member of the multi-Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band. He’s quite the multi-hyphenate: a singer, songwriter, engineer, producer and multi-instrumentalist; a movie actor, with two film roles to his credit; and an active member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Atlanta Chapter, having been elected as advisor in 2015 and voted to a Governor Seat for the 2015-17 term. And now he’s a studio owner.
Not that this is his first studio. “My first studio was in my garage, in the early ’90s, with my little analog 8-track machine,” Hopkins recalls. He subsequently worked at a variety of professional facilities, most recently at Atlanta’s 800 East, until 2010. “That gave me a good 10 years of knowing what things are supposed to sound like,” he says.
Zac Brown Goes Barefoot on the Bus, Nov. 24, 2015
Brighter Shade—the name comes from the band he formed in 1996, which still performs occasionally—is on the upper floor of a building in the suburbs of Atlanta and spans about 2,500 square feet. The facility was constructed in consultation with Nashville-based Steven Durr Designs. “He did a lot for Zac’s place up in Nashville, Southern Ground Studios, and did a great job of helping me design and realize the vision,” says Hopkins.
The large and airy live room, under a 20-foot A-frame roof, easily accommodated Gransden’s 17-piece jazz big band. The control room, which is approximately 350 square feet, can also hold plenty of people, plus there is an iso booth, lounge and a bar area. “It’s very well lit,” he says. “We’ve got eight-foot doors that are all glass. It’s just a really wonderful space.”
For the holiday album, “We had all 13 horns in the big room, drums in the lounge, the bass player in the booth, and the keyboard player in the control room with me singing into the wall. It was 25 guys up here going bananas on Christmas music,” says Hopkins.
It’s not Hopkins’ first Christmas release—that would be 2015’s In the Spirit: A Celebration of the Holidays, which featured the Atlanta Pops Orchestra—and it won’t be the last. The next one will feature local musicians from the ATL Collective, he reveals. “We’re going to be focusing on R&B songs. And I hope to have two more [albums]; I’ve got some ideas for those.”
There are some stories behind the wood finishes throughout Brighter Shade. A large diffuser in the live room came from Atlanta’s now-defunct Southern Tracks Studio, where the likes of Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen recorded. The bar counter includes a section of sapele, a tonewood, that came from Taylor Guitars via Zac Brown’s warehouse. “The floors are oak and the ceiling is pine, so it’s a lot of Southern woods,” says Hopkins.
The control room features The Box by API, a console choice informed by a past studio. “When I was downtown with my buddy in a commercial space off Cheshire Bridge Road, my first full-time gig as a recording engineer, we had an API 24x8, an old-school console. I really got accustomed to the 512 pre’s.”
He has a handful of outboard API preamps, but adds, “I wish I had a few more of those, and I hope to build them up. I continue, like every other studio owner, to buy and sell and trade and morph the tones. But right now I’m kind of on a spending freeze—as you can imagine, after all this construction.”
There are plenty of other options: “I’ve got four Neve pre’s and a rack on the side that I will fill up eventually with an 8-channel rack, and I have 10 Radial pre’s that are in a 500-series rack.” The 10-slot Radial Powerhouse rack is fully loaded with duplicate Jensen Twin-Servos, Power Pre’s, Power Tubes, JDV Pre’s and EXTCs (reamping guitar effects interfaces).
The JDVs are particular favorites. “They are so very convenient,” he says. “I love the interface and the way I can pop into these awesome pre’s right from the control room. They are super quiet and have been delivering warm, consistent sounds for acoustic guitar, bass and keyboards, so I’m Class A across the front right away. I can get drums on all my Class A pre’s, and then just overdub everybody on Class A. I’ve got a lot of great flavors in here—and some cool outboard in the rack on the back wall, too.”
Plus, he says, “I’ve got a Midas Venice [console] that I use to fill in the gaps if I’ve got a big band in there. The Midas stuff is super clean, and their EQs are accurate.”
Hopkins is a longtime Pro Tools user: “I’ve been on Pro Tools for coming on 20 years. I got Pro Tools in ’99—Pro Tools 4, I think—right when they went 24-bit. We had been doing digital recordings on ADATs and DA-88s, and it was all 16- and 20-bit, so 24-bit was big news.”
Hopkins is prepared for any power issues. “I’ve got Furman everywhere,” he says. “I’ve got one of their conditioners in every rack, and I’ve got two of their battery backups on my hard drives, and my computer.”
The list includes a pair of Furman F1500-UPS battery backups/power conditioners, plus two Furman P-8 PRO C power conditioners featuring an uninterrupted power supply. He also installed three Furman PL-PRO DMC power conditioners with Furman’s Linear Filtering Technology (LiFT), which reduces the AC noise. A Furman P-1800 PFR offers a stable, protected and filtered low-impedance power supply for his connected electronics.
“I’ve had Furman stuff since I was in high school,” he says. “I was amazed at how much cleaner everything was after plugging into the Furman stuff. They’re an amazing company that has always been on the cutting edge of what people need in terms of power conditioning.”
In between live appearances, Hopkins has had time to work on a variety of projects at Brighter Shade, including material by the John Driskell Hopkins Band, Alex Guthrie, Mike Rizzi, Katie Deal and others. Even if the studio isn’t busy, he says, “It’s another awesome place to put my guitars. As you can imagine, you start living on top of them after a while—and only so many of them will fit under the bed!”
Furman • www.furmanpower.com
Radial Engineering • www.radialeng.com
Brighter Shade Studios • www.brightershade.com