AES’ Audio Wonders of the World: Blackbird Studio

AES’ Audio Wonders of the World: Blackbird Studio

Written by John Seetoo

The AES (Audio Engineering Society) Show Fall 2020 was of necessity an all-virtual affair. This season’s marquee event was “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” which featured in-depth video tours of seven landmark recording studios that between them are responsible for countless records, films, and TV programs we have come to know and love. Past issues of Copper featured Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, CA, Galaxy Studios in Belgium and The Village in West Los Angeles. Number four on the 7 Wonders list was Blackbird Studio in Berry Hill, Tennessee.

Mark Rubel, Director of Education at Blackbird Studio/ Blackbird Academy, hosted the virtual AES tour.

Nashville has long been a mecca for singers, songwriters and musicians. Berry Hill is a community within the Nashville city limits and is home to over 50 recording studios. The uber-level of professionalism and musicianship is reflected in the community, where there is a refreshing lack of pretension and hierarchy since so many artists from all genres of music choose to record in the area. It is not uncommon to see icons like Alice Cooper buying a burrito at a local restaurant, the mom picking up her kids in the SUV having a slew of gold records in her living room, or the guy in overalls causally having a smoke being the guy who played lead guitar on three of the year’s top selling records.

Blackbird Studio has its origins in the Creative Workshop, founded in 1970. Creative Workshop was the first recording studio to be established in the Berry Hill area. When a large adjacent lot became available, Creative Workshop acquired the space and then sold it to Blackbird sound engineer John McBride and his wife, Grammy-winning country music star Martina McBride, in order to build their own studio.

All images are of Blackbird Studio D and courtesy of Marian Matthis/Blackbird Studio.

Blackbird offers nine world-class recording facilities, The Blackbird Academy, an audio production teaching academy, and Blackbird Rentals, a vintage gear rental service. Blackbird also has two producer’s offices, additional technical space, tape transfer facilities and an R&D facility used by musical instrument manufacturer Yamaha, all under one roof.

Owner John McBride justifiably takes great pride in making Blackbird Studio a place for artists to have unlimited creativity in translating the sounds they envision to be realized. And the facilities cannot be simply “good”; they have to be great, since McBride’s motto is, “Either You Rock Or You Suck.”

McBride, with collaborators such as recording engineer George Massenburg, has made Blackbird a top-flight recording facility on par with any other in the world, as the diverse artists whose albums recorded there line the walls of its front lobby can attest. On the floor in front of the original main live recording room. McBride added a granite floor, customized with sandblasted lyrics from the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”

In addition to Martina McBride, artists who have recorded at Blackbird include Keith Urban, Styx, the Stray Cats, Greta Van Fleet, Taylor Swift, The White Stripes, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Stevie Nicks, Yo-Yo Ma, Mariah Carey, Buddy Guy and the Black Eyed Peas, just to name a few.

The maintenance and repair shop have three full-time tech staff who not only maintain the studio but are constantly on the lookout to cannibalize parts from discarded, non-functional, or no longer manufactured units in order to keep Blackbird’s collection of vintage gear in top condition. During the virtual tour, among other items we were shown a Lexicon 250, the first-ever digital reverb (nicknamed, “R2D2”), and a drawer of spare European parts for Telefunken V72, V76, and V78 preamps. Blackbird has 100 (!) of these units since John McBride is a huge Beatles fan.

Studio A is constructed around a 72-input Neve 8078 mixing console custom-built in the late 1970s for Motown’s Los Angeles studios, which was subsequently sold to Donald Fagen of Steely Dan for his solo projects (including The Nightfly), and then bought by John McBride. Geoff Tanner, the original engineer on the Neve blueprints, was brought in to rebuild the console. Among other refinements, it was rewired with solid copper and solid silver wiring. The speakers in Studio A are ATC300 monitors, Genelecs and Yamaha NS-10s. The room offers digital recording and analog 24-track Studer 2-inch machines.

The outboard equipment used in the various studios is duplicated in all of the large rooms and also on rolling racks for use in the smaller studios as needed. Notable vintage gear includes Pultec equalizers; Neve 2254, Urei 1176 and 1178 compressors, Teletronix LA-2A and RCA compressors and limiters, Lexicon digital delays and reverbs, a vintage Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects processor; an Eventide 949 harmonizer, GML headphone preamps, Telefunken V72 and V76  preamps and much, much more.

Instruments in Studio A include a classic Hammond B3 organ and Leslie rotating speaker setup, a Yamaha C7 concert grand piano and a Fender Rhodes Suitcase 73 electric piano. It is a large space. When the Mavericks record there, they routinely set up the entire band in the room, except for the drums, which have their own dedicated drum booth.

The uniquely designed “Big Room” was built after the property line expanded to the end of the street, thus giving Blackbird the opportunity for additional real estate. The Big Room has 22-foot-high ceilings with non-parallel walls featuring acoustically variable absorption panels. Tie lines for mics, headphones, data, timecode, MIDI, and speakers are all built into the walls.

For headphone monitoring, rolling carts each contain a 16-channel, Mackie mixer with talkback and footswitch controls. The room also has JBL playback speakers and video cameras and mics can be hung from overhead to avoid floorspace clutter.

Behind the studio glass is a second-floor auxiliary control room, which also doubles as a separate studio (Studio I). This allows for flexibility in booking simultaneous sessions in Studio A as well as in the Big Room with Studio I.

Studio A offers the luxury of a dedicated echo chamber room with non-parallel walls, floor and ceiling that cause the sound to bounce unevenly for natural reverberation. The ceiling can be raised or lowered to change the quality of the echo.

Blackbird’s mic selection is mind-boggling – 1,400 microphones (!) total in four lockers. The mics are serialized for the reference of artists and producers seeking the sounds of a particular mic.

Whole drawers of LDC (large diaphragm condenser) mics include ribbon RCA 77s, KU2As, KU3s, 44s and a PB31 built in 1931 and formerly used backstage at Radio City Music Hall. Blackbird has Telefunken ribbon mics going back to 1927, Telefunken 251s on several shelves (some have AC170 tubes, a superior-sounding model not originally meant for export), and a Telefunken 270 (serial number 1 – the only one in existence! As you might expect there are Neumann tube U47, U48, U67, U69C and M50 mics along with mics from AKG, Coles and many other manufacturers. One particularly notable mic is a Neumann MM5 measurement microphone, which producer Glyn Johns favored for drums and acoustic guitar.

Studio B (for overdubs and mixes) was used for the Chicks’ (then the Dixie Chicks) Grammy winning Wide Open Spaces album. It sports a 96-channel API Legacy Plus console modified with three stereo busses. Each is wired to a different signal path based around API, John Hardy 990s, and Inward Connections electronics in order to make instant comparison purposes. The main speakers used in the studio are large ATC monitors, and Yamaha NS-10s for near field listening.

Studio C was designed by noted engineer George Massenburg. It was originally built to allow the engineer and the musicians to be in the same room and has a living room feel. Sound diffusors that look like brush bristles protrude from the walls; they are actually 8-foot by 4-foot by 1-inch thick sheets of 1-inch thick MDF (medium density fiberboard), designed on a computer in accordance with Massenburg’s design. Studio C is now equipped with a Dolby Atmos 9.1.6 immersive audio mixing system. The studio features nine ground-level ATC speakers plus six height-channel speakers and six subwoofers. In a Zoom discussion with George Massenburg, he described Studio C this way: “The room disappears. The mix is uniform and diffuse, and you don’t hear any walls. The room was designed to [reproduce any sonic environment and enable] any artist to hear themselves better.”

Studio D is favored by The White Stripes, Kings of Leon, Megadeth, Jimmy Buffett, Ghost, Little Big Town, Keith Urban, and Sheryl Crow among others. It has a tracking room with a slate wall behind a curtain to enable various acoustic adjustments, Studio D features a keyboard room with a Baldwin electric harpsichord, Hammond B3 organ, upright and 7-foot grand pianos, and Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. It’s large enough for nine musicians to record live with a singer. If a singer prefers, there are five vocal isolation booths available. Huge Clair Brothers S4 speakers are mounted in the ceiling corners for playback.

Studio D houses the largest API Legacy Plus console in the US, designed by Michael Cronin and offering 192 total channels. Studio D’s echo chamber is the source of Kings of Leon’s snare drum sound, and has a dense, cavernous echo.

Studio E, which has a 32-channel API 1608 console, was being used by Grammy-winning engineer Bill Schnee (Steely Dan, Chicago, Whitney Houston), and was unavailable for the virtual tour. Studio F is used for mixing and overdubbing, while Studio H is another smaller “living room-type” environment for vocals, overdubbing, mixing and demo production. It has the original 16-channel API 1608 desk, serial number # 001, designed for Blackbird, and nearfield monitors only. Plenty of rock and country stars like Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift, Steven Tyler and Keith Urban still use it. During the virtual tour, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, taking a break between vocal sessions, spoke about feeling at home whenever he entered Blackbird. Studio I (the auxiliary control room for the Big Room), which acts like Little Big Town and Pharrell Williams prefer, also serves as a classroom for The Blackbird Academy teaching facility.

The Blackbird Academy’s Mark Rubel noted that in this COVID-19 era, all studios have HEPA filters cleaned monthly to minimize dust.

Blackbird’s collection of instruments is as impressive as its mic locker, featuring dozens of guitars, guitar and bass amps (including two of the legendary Dumble amplifiers, which can fetch six figures on the used market), keyboards and about 65 drum kits and 150 snare drums! As you can imagine, Blackbird Audio Rentals also offers a vast array of vintage and modern gear.The sheer volume of Blackbird’s vintage recording gear is simply staggering, and the facility probably contains more highly-coveted mics and audio processing equipment than several of the other “7 Audio Wonders of the World” recording studios combined. The fact that such a diverse roster of top artists from all genres have chosen Blackbird at one time or another is a tribute to John McBride’s vision.

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