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5 Studio Setups You Should Know About

A look into five different studio setups that might change the way you think about recording.

The landscape of studio setups has changed drastically since the days when big-budget operations monopolized the art of capturing sound. Big studios are still at it, offering phenomenal spaces, world class ears and expertise, digital and classic analog technology, and sometimes incredible gear for guitarists, but the process of recording before hitting the studio is even more important now. In this month’s “5 You Should Know,” we take a look at some recording setups in world-class studios, a private facility that is open for select outside projects, a dreamland rehearsal studio that will no doubt alter your M.O. for recording, and the surprising emergence of GarageBand on the Nashville scene.
For a closer look into these studios, check out our studio tour gallery.

Check out the studios...

Blackbird Studios
Nashville, Tennessee
by Bobby G. Frasier

Years: 7
Web Address:
Rate: Dependent upon room/gear
Contact: Scott Phillips, Studio Manager

Blackbird Studios in Nashville, TN is one of the world’s great recording spaces. The name Blackbird pays homage to world’s greatest band of all time: The Beatles. That alone should tell you about the love of music that the owners, John and Martina McBride, manifest in their studio. Throw in Grammy award-winning producer, equipment designer and inventor of the parametric EQ, George Massenburg, with his over-the-top Studio C, and this complex becomes outrageous!

Blackbird consists of seven studios, along with a separate rental department. I ask you, where can you rent a Telefunken Ela M 270 serial #001 for $10,000.00 a day? There is only one serial #001…

I spoke with Blackbird’s Studio Manager, Mr. Scott Phillips about this little “jewel in the heartland.”

What makes Blackbird unique in the world of recording studios?

John McBride’s vision of Blackbird is pretty much about one thing: audio. It starts there. We don’t want clients to be limited by their imagination. If you can dream it up, we want to be able to say, “Yeah, let’s try that!” With our collection of gear and vibe here, we want to create an atmosphere that’s like no other. A sort of “The Four Seasons meets Moulin Rouge.” Some might think it’s a little over-the-top, but not our clients. If you were a painter, wouldn’t you want every color imaginable? Well, that’s us, that’s Blackbird. Which leads us to the number one reason we are who we are: our staff is second to none. Our gear and reputation get clients in the door, but our staff brings them back again and again. With a world of knowledge from our Chief Engineer, Vance Powell, to our amazing assistant engineers, our entire staff is what makes Blackbird what it is.

Could you give us some architectural details on Studio-C?

Studio C is the ultimate listening environment. The control room sounded so good that we had to put the console and everything else in there on wheels so we could move things out of the way and actually track in there! Just like it used to be... all the players in one main room, some with headphones, some not, totally vibing off each other. With the addition of an SSL 9080XL K-Series mixer, it’s a little more difficult to track in there, but the SSL has been the perfect piece to Studio C’s puzzle. Whether you are doing 5.1 or stereo mixing, Studio C is unlike anything else out there. George Massenburg is the only person insane enough to think up this idea, and John McBride is the only person insane enough to build it. Its concept is ultimately “Massive Diffusion:” 138,646 different lengths of wood, no two of which are the same. The room materials weigh roughly 40 tons.

What year was the 8078 in Studio A built? Have there been any special modifications done to it?

The Neve 8078 in studio A was built somewhere in the early 1970s. It was first installed at Motown’s Hitsville Studio in L.A. Donald Fagen, of Steely Dan fame, owned it then and we purchased it in 2002. We’ve totally modernized the console, making it one of the best sounding desks out there. Vance Powell, our Chief Engineer, says that one modification in particular is that the console was reconfigured into a quasi-inline desk, with the addition of a send-to-tape fader on each channel.

Could you tell us a little about Mr. McBride’s love for The Beatles?

For McBride, it all started with The Beatles. You’ll find pictures and memorabilia all around the studio. As you
could have guessed, “Blackbird,” a favorite song of his and Martina’s, is where we get the name for the studio. As he puts it, “The Beatles just hit me in the DNA.” Got into his system and never got out. He has a huge, and I mean huge collection of Beatle albums. We have a line from the song “Blackbird” sandblasted into Studio A’s tracking space. He wanted to have a place where people could look on the back of the album covers and say, “Wow, that was done at Blackbird too!” just like everyone used to, when they thought of Abbey Road Studios.

Your collection of vintage mics, instruments, amps and recording gear is obscene! Is all of the gear available, either for rent or within the studio time rate?

Everything in the studio is available; 1400 mics, 150 guitars, 35 drum kits, 40 guitar amps, 45 snares, etc. With Studio A and Studio B, everything is included with the rate. The others have a good collection of mics and gear, but have a lower price point. If an artist wants additional gear, it’s a half-price rental. We have a full-service rental company renting out to Nashville and all over the US. We do have lockout rates for those other rooms that include everything just as Studio A and B, but as I said... there’s more than enough included to make a great sounding record!

Seriously, obscene doesn’t even start to describe the unbelievable amount of vintage (and modern) gear available at Blackbird. You’ll come for the Fairchild 660, you’ll stay for the ’49 Gibson J200…

Albums/Projects include: Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, Brad Paisley, Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks, Michelle Branch, Sheryl Crow, Faith Hill, Dolly Parton, Jewel, and of course, Martina McBride, to name a few…

Hit page 3 for the second of our 5 Studios...

Fantasy Studios
Berkeley, California
by Chris Kies

Years: 38 (7.5 for Jesse)
Web Address:
Rate: Dependent upon room/gear
Contact: Jesse Nichols, Engineer
It might be called the house that John Fogerty built. On the strength of CCR releases Bayou Country and Willy and the Poor Boys, Fantasy Records branched out and purchased a two-story building in the heart of Berkeley, CA, just across the bay from HQ in San Francisco. They converted it into three separate studios and a mixing area—one was built specifically for CCR. We know the story of how the band fell apart, but Fantasy Studios stepped out from that dark shadow and forged a reputation all its own in the modern recording world.

Fantasy then carved a place for themselves in the realm of jazz recordings during the seventies, and in the course of the following decades, has branched out to include acts like Green Day, the Allman Brothers, Phish, Clapton, Bowie, John Lee Hooker, Neil Young and countless others. In 2000, the studio hit a pinnacle, recording Santana’s “comeback” album Supernatural, and becoming Billboard magazine’s #1 Recording Studio in America. We caught up with engineer Jesse Nichols to talk about what a place like Fantasy has to offer, and some tips for those trying maximize limited recording budgets.

What are some unique things about Fantasy Studios?

Our ridiculously large collection of old and new mics, condenser and ribbon, but basically people come here for the big, open rooms—hardly seen anymore—and (recording) gear, because we have a lot of vintage EQs, compressors and a lot of original tube stuff. We have huge analog consoles that are still used regularly. It’s a collision of both worlds of recording: digital and analog. We run Pro Tools in every room, but we also have Studer 24-track tape machines in the rooms, too. We can bounce around from Pro Tools and mix down to a 1/2” 2-track. This is a world-class, old-school place that just draws all types of musicians for those reasons.

We talked to a singer-songwriter from Nashville, and she said that she does as much as possible on GarageBand prior to coming to a studio. What’s your experience with this?

She’s right, I suggest to anybody to do as much pre-production and other type of business before stepping into a recording space. Demo and rehearse everything until you’re sick of it, to maximize your time and money when dealing with recording projects.

And specifically for guitarists?

Have all your guitar parts worked out and nailed to a “T,” do all your solo variations at home. You don’t want to come here and find out that your other guitarist was playing a weird chord you couldn’t hear live, or rehearsing that just doesn’t work with the harmonies or arrangement. Just iron out all those variables and shortcomings, because you don’t want surprises to creep up when entering the studio that can kill the vibe, a song’s momentum and overall group mojo.

What do people prefer to record with?

It’s almost always going to be digital… sometimes people want to track drums and do the rest in smaller areas or at home because you don’t necessarily need a big studio for that. This saves money for mixing and that is when you need a big studio for their outboard gear, consoles and professionals. It’s a different world than when Fantasy first opened— bands don’t have the big advance checks to afford them months at a time in the studio. Also, most people are far more comfortable with digital interfaces and can do so much more on their own because of ridiculous editing capabilities. Both anaglog and digital sound great and have their own pros and cons, but it’s kind of a budget, and people want things done fast—that’s not analog.

Is there anything architecturally special about Fantasy’s initial setup?

It was originally laid out and built by Joseph Delaney from 1967–71 and re-designed in 1981 by George Augsberger, a famous acoustical engineering from the 70s and 80s. All the rooms are completely built with acoustics in front of mind. Studio D is a milder, isolated studio that is pretty big, but these rooms don’t have a specific purpose or genre preference. I can do the same session in all the rooms, even though they are all different animals.

Is all the gear included within a rate package, or are things charged by usage and gear grouping?
[Answered by Studio Director, Jeffrey Wood]

We don’t have standard rates or pricing scale, because we have a wide range of services. We work to accommodate anyone from the big superstars with mega contracts down to the struggling solo musician who has money for either mixing or food. We try to be as flexible as possible to provide something for everyone across the spectrum.

How do you guys approach genre-specific recording?

I’m so lucky to have a job here, since I don’t want to be pigeonholed into a specific genre. It’s a quirky place to work, because you can walk down the hallway and you can have traditional Hawaiian music in one room, jazz ensemble in one and punk rock guitar overdubs in the other—we’re just a music studio. You got to stay on your toes though as there are precise differences in recording, room setups and micing that weigh heavily between the different musical genres.

Do artists spend a lot of time incorporating your house gear on their songs, instead of their own gear?

Here’s the thing, we don’t have that many guitars or amps. We have some original Fender Princetons, a Bassman, and a Super Reverb. We also got a Hammond B-3 organ and various effects. However, if they have an idea going into the session what they may want, we can usually find it around town and have it in-house for them. Generally, people use their own gear because they know and love it so much—as they should.

Hit page 4 for the third of our 5 Studios...

Bridgette Tatum's Mac
Nashville, TN
by Joe Coffey

Years: 6 (Using GarageBand)
Web Address:
Rate: N/A
Bridgette Tatum's "Funky in the Country" Final Version:

Click to download the Garage Band Demo
We set out to find a guitar-playing Nashville songwriter with a nifty office recording setup, perhaps with a few racks of particularly guitar-specific gear, to bring some variety to this series of recording profiles. The idea was to break down the recording setup of a guitar player who writes songs for a living. These are the people who toss ideas around in “appointments” with other songwriters, mold them in a DAW and cut demos that get shopped around to hopefully become a hit song on someone else’s record. We wanted to explore the utility of a professional, yet simple, setup.

Imagine our surprise when many of the songwriters we talked to pointed to the Macs in their offices and said, “well, there it is!” Sure, standalone multi-track recorders, professional DAWs and a wide variety of devices marrying mixing consoles to interfaces have evolved, but so have laptop computers. GarageBand, the freebie program on Macs, isn’t just for beginners, either. It has become quite the workhorse in the songwriting capital of the U.S.

We asked singer/songwriter Bridgette Tatum to explain how she’s using a laptap with GarageBand to carve out a career in Nashville.

GarageBand? Really?

It’s probably the main tool I use to get everything started. I used to record on a little cassette tape player—we all had those—and then I discovered GarageBand and got proficient with it.

What about your interface and other gear?

I usually go directly into my Mac and even use my laptop’s built-in mics. You’ll see a lot of people using the USB-powered Snowball mic [Blue Microphones] at sessions. I play a Martin Alternative X with an aluminum top and a Voyage Air acoustic—they sound great through the snowball. That’s all I need to record and print a decent demo for taking into the studio to track with. The only problem with the snowball is that it is bulky; it can be hard to lug from writing session to writing session.

So you cut an initial GarageBand demo that ends up being a reference for a pro demo cut in a real studio?

Yes, but sometimes there are GarageBand-captured moments that you can’t recreate in the big studio. We had a cool vocal riff down on the GarageBand demo for a song called “Funky in the Country” that we were having trouble capturing in the studio when I was working on my own album recently. We wanted to start the song with the riff but we just couldn’t recreate the vibe and make it sound as good as we did on GarageBand. We ended up recording the GarageBand riff being played through a speaker with an air conditioner in the background for some extra ambience and that’s what you hear at the top of that song on my album, Sex. Church & Chicken.

It was one of the flukes that you kind of run up on every now and then. Sometimes when I run GarageBand I record the whole session with my songwriting partners because you get these great little outtake things that you can actually put on a demo or your album or whatever you’re working on.

I guess writing in a big studio just to capture spontaneity can get expensive.

Here’s a good example—I have a song called “Hold On To Me,” that we laid down in GarageBand and I almost wanted to include that recording as an extra hidden track on the album because it was so raw and so real when we captured it. We took it and re-did it for the album, and it’s great, but I just don’t think we
captured that moment again like we did in GarageBand with just acoustic guitars.

How does the program itself come into play?

There are some easy-to-use looping features in there with drums and percussion that are great for getting a song’s foundation going. One of my partners, John Goodman, got a loop going once and we just kept building off of it and we ended up with a phenomenal song that sounds like something you would get out of a studio. Sometimes you get lucky enough to be able to do that. Like anything else, when you’re dealing with something that has samples on it and loops on it, sometimes you get great things and sometimes you don’t get what you need. But sometimes you luck out and get exactly what you need.

Anything on the radio right now that started off in your Mac?

Yeah, Jason Aldean’s current single, “She’s Country,” started off on GarageBand. One of my writing partners, Danny Myrick, and I laid down most of the eventual demo directly on GarageBand with a just few other guitar parts and drum loops added later.

So how common is it for Nashville songwriters to use GarageBand?

Oh, it’s huge! I would guess that for seven out of ten writing appointments that I’m going to go into, we’re going to use GarageBand.

Considering what else is out there, why do you think that is?

For me, I’m very simple when I write and GarageBand is as simple as it gets. You just set it up and go. I use some effects, like reverb, but I try to keep it simple.

Hit page 5 for the fourth of our 5 Studios...

Tree House Studios
Phoenix, Arizona
by Bobby G. Frasier

Years: 3
Web Address:
Rate: Negotiable
Contact: Craig Hannay, Owner
602-309-2113 (mobile)
I was looking for place to hold a birthday party: mine... really gonna do it up that year, put a band together with old friends, play guitar, sing, eat, drink, and be merry. I was speaking with an audio engineer friend of mine, Jason Losett, regarding my dilemma—a place to do it. He said, “You should do it at the studio I work at. I’ll ask Craig, I’m sure it won’t be a problem.” Cool, a studio. Now that would be perfect! So, I went to check it out.

What I discovered is that Tree House is the ultimate home studio, laid out like a concert stage, with all the best gear at your disposal. When the stage lights come on, the place exudes vibe. Craig Hannay is the sole proprietor of Tree House. He’s done well in commercial real estate, but he doesn’t want to talk about that. No, let’s talk guitars, and playing, and guitars, and recording and guitars (I really like this guy!).

Tree House has been a private facility for 3 years, but I understand you are going to open it for business to a select few. What do you feel makes Tree House unique?

Well, first off, we have the studio proper set up like a stage. It’s really, really comfortable. I built this place so that a core group of guys, who’ve known each other since they were kids, could have a place to play. We are all married, have kids and other lives, and wanted a place where we could go and just flip a switch and start playing. And that’s what we have. We have all the amps, guitars, monitors, PA, drums, keyboards & percussion that we could possibly want at our disposal. At any time, there are at least 60–70 guitars and basses available. At first, we just wanted a place to play, but then I thought “What about recording?” So I added the control room to the mix, with an ISO booth, and now we have the best of both worlds. Everything in the studio proper is wired into the control room, of course, so if we’re jamming along and want to record, my engineer, Jason Losett, is at the ready to push record. Recording our performances just makes us better—you can really tell if you are getting into a rut, both with your playing and with your singing. And let me tell you, Jason is fast on Pro Tools.

When did you start playing and what were your influences?

Like all kids of my generation, I was influenced by The Beatles. I picked up the guitar at age 13 and started learning songs. But what really set me off, and gave me my passion was when I heard Neil Young. Learned all the songs. And then, for me, along came The Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia has been the biggest influence in my playing and musical style.

You have an exact replica of Garcia’s Tiger guitar—all 14 pounds of it. How did you obtain this?

It’s a bit of a mystery [laughs]. I’m a collector, but I don’t collect guitars simply for their collectability; they have to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s $25 or $25,000, it has to be something I want to play.

As an example, I have 6 Ruokangas from Finland & 6 acoustics from Jeff Traugott, Santa Cruz, CA, but I also have a $150 Recording King, because it plays nice, and came with a hat. Custom Taylors, such as the Cujo and the PS14-C, adorn the walls, with the obvious complements of Martins, Guilds, Gretsch, Gibsons, etc. Did I mention there is a walk-in humidor to house the acoustics?

Jason, what kind of recording set up do you have at Tree House?

We have a Pro Tools HD3 rig with a Control 24 work surface. All the interfaces and computer are housed in a custom, sound isolated rack to eliminate fan noise. We have an Aviom monitor system, so everybody gets their own headphone mix. That is key to getting a good performance. For speakers, we use Genelec 8050s and JBL LSR4328s. We also have a Genelec subwoofer. Our outboard gear runs along the best lines: Neumann, Manley, Focusrite, Avalon, & TC Electronic to name a few mics, pres, EQs and processors. Out in the studio, the PA is mixed with a Yamaha M7CL digital board. We have Lab.gruppen amps and L-Acoustic monitors. The Bose Sticks with subs work great in this room for “front-of-house,” as it were. Everything is really top notch.

Craig is opening the studio to artists who want a special experience recording or getting their live show together. You’ll have to talk to the man first, not a receptionist or studio manager, but the owner, the soul of Tree House. Well hello, Mr. Soul…

Hit page 6 for the last of our 5 Studios...

Ultra Sound Rehearsal Studios
New York, New York
by Chris Burgess

Years: 24
Web Address:
Rate: $17-$40/hour
Contact: Gene Sinigalliano, Co-Owner
When we first heard about Ultra Sound in New York, it seemed too incredible to be real—21 state-of-the-art studios in midtown Manhattan, acoustically tuned and loaded with amazing sound systems and gear: Midas, Lab.Gruppen, XTA, Martin Audio, Sennheiser, Bechstein pianos and DW Drums (with Sabian handhammered bronze cymbals in the jazz rooms); guitar and bass amps from Komet, Matchless, Bruno, Dr. Z, Victoria, Diezel, Mesa Boogie, Mojave, Cornford, VHT, Bogner, Alessandro, Aguilar, Epifani, Egnater… the list just keeps going. Throw in the other things Ultra Sound does—sales, service, rentals, music education programs, etc.—and the place starts to sound like gearhead utopia. Co-owner Gene Sinigalliano explained the concept.

So what exactly is Ultra Sound?

We are, first, the biggest music rehearsal studio in New York City, and we have without a doubt the finest gear of any rehearsal studio in the world. But we are also one of the largest boutique guitar amp dealers. We’re not a recording studio; our business is a little different. New York is different from anyplace else. Kids don’t have basements to practice in, and people don’t have cars to drag equipment around in, so the rehearsal studio business in NY presents a band with a fully functional studio with all the equipment, so they can just walk in with their drumsticks and guitars—everything they need is there… we took that to the next level.

Rehearsal studios for a long time were thought of as a “second banana,” meaning you go to a recording studio like Avatar, Power Station, someplace like that, and the equipment would be very high quality. You’d go to a rehearsal studio and it would be the lowest common denominator. Rehearsal studios tried to get away with the least expensive stuff they could. When we got into this, very early on, I became friends with some guys who actually built really high-end guitar amps. That led me on a quest to put in these studios some of the finest, finest stuff you could ever put in a studio.

It sounds like you just decided to go “above and beyond” in every way.

My goal at first was to get rid of the guys who just bash away at gear, and bring in the pros. That was very successful, starting in the early nineties bringing in Tony Bruno’s amps, and Matchless—and it even extended to when I redid the sound systems in the studio. I’ve got two of the finest sound systems in the world. My biggest thing is, I’m really into promoting and creating a place where new music can thrive, where it’s not just the rich professionals that can afford to come here. The younger bands that are the new life of music for the future can also afford to come and use great gear. We also donate a lot of equipment to the public school system. When we got new sound systems, we took our old ones and instead of selling them, we donated them to the New York City public schools, and installed them. I think that’s an important thing.

If you’re going to drop a big chunk of change in a recording studio, the ability to dial in beforehand exactly what you’re looking for, with the best equipment you can find—that seems like a smart move for a band to make. It is, especially when you consider that our equipment is probably better than what many recording studios have. We don’t have all the recording equipment—that’s not what we do— but if you’re going in to do pre-production, which is what smart people do… look, you can go to a recording studio for $400 or $500 an hour and start writing songs, but that’s not really an advantageous way to spend your budget. You can come into our studio for preproduction, and in the daytime for $25 an hour you can work on what you’re actually going to do on your album. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes then these bands go to the recording studio, and it doesn’t have anywhere near the quality of the stuff we have here—but actually, then we start getting calls from the studios, looking to rent the amps that they did pre-production with here.

So instead of figuring out how to round up the gear they used in your studio, they can rent it from you?

A lot of studios know that guys who are looking for something really special, like Trainwrecks or Dumbles, you know… we have all that stuff. I have more Trainwrecks than anybody in the world. That’s kind of what we do; we don’t buy anything except the finest quality.

How did you get started with sales?

We were initially getting all these incredible quality amps at a time, back in the early nineties, when guitar amps had really hit a low point. There were a few who were building incredible amps. But nobody knew much about them. We were lucky enough to find out about those very early on and incorporate them into our studios—we were putting Brunos, Matchless, Dumbles and Trainwrecks in our studios where guys would rehearse with them every day. People were flipping out, saying, “I love this amp, where can I get one?” There was no place to buy one. They’d say, “Can you get one for me?” and I’d say, “Okay,” and it turned into sales. We’re not a music store, and we never really meant to sell stuff, but people liked the fact that they could come here and actually play these things in a real studio environment, in a non-sales environment without pressure, where the studio is not only soundproofed, but also sound-tuned… so all the acoustical anomalies go away, and yet you still have a lively room. It really paid off. People can come in and play the amps and listen to them in a real-world environment, and really know how they sound. There are very few other places where that can be done. The special thing is you can be as private as you want to be, or you can have your friends come in with you and give you opinions, or you can come in with your band…

We are a studio first and foremost, and yes, we are one of the biggest boutique amp dealers, but you don’t have to be looking to buy an amp to come and try these amps or play them. You’re more than welcome to just book the time and play.