Some of this country's best-known pop stars and great session musicians “captured lightning in a bottle" in Nashville's RCA Studio A. Not long ago, however, Studio A looked like a goner: a developer had bought the building and it was slated for demolition. But a few weeks ago it was saved.
Aubrey Preston, a well-known preservationist and real-estate developer, stepped in and bought the building. “I felt like I had to get it under contract or else we weren’t going to be able to save it,” Preston told the New York Times. Now it looks like the studio will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year — intact.
The first session ever recorded at Studio A was for Eddie Arnold's 1965 hit "Make the World Go Away." When producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley had RCA Victor build the studio, they designed it to fit the complex orchestration that was making Nashville rich.
Some of Nashville's great session players practically lived in Studio A. They recorded in three-hour blocks of time, as allowed by the Musicians' Union rules. At almost every session, the players recorded at least three songs, and very often four — an average of forty-five minutes per song.
A typical booking would look like this. Two sessions on the first day — 10:00 to 1:00 and 2:00 to 5:00 — and one more session the next morning. By 1:00 on day two, they would have twelve songs recorded — that's an entire LP, including a full orchestra, finished in a day and a half. That’s very different from how most recording sessions are done now.
Today, engineers will spend two or three hours just getting the drum sound right. Some modern studios aren't even built to fit a whole band. “I get called to play on a lot of sessions where I never see another musician,” says one old hand. “In the old days, they would capture a performance. Today, they create a performance.”
In modern pop recordings, each instrument is often recorded separately, or in isolation. Sound engineers edit and balance everything afterwards using computer audio software.
For the last 12 years, Ben Folds has been running Studio A. In the early 1990s, when he was recording with the Ben Folds Five, his publisher would put him in the studio to record demos at midnight when nobody else was recording, he recalls. A decade later, Folds saw a for-lease sign out front.
“The place was a mess and had wires pulled out of the floor,” he says. “I asked around and ended up being the tenant.” It's a very versatile space, Folds says. “I've recorded orchestras in here, recorded solo on the piano. It's a place to record live music. That kind of space is becoming more and more rare.”
Folds recalls a day at the studio when Tony Bennet was recording his most recent record. “He had a big band orchestra spread out around the room, and he was able to just make music completely naturally. He sang perfectly. It was amazing. That's the beauty of this old school way of thinking. The event is captured immediately.”
Inside Studio A, the ceiling is at least two stories high, with a warm wood floor. Even with five grand pianos, microphone stands, and guitar racks, it doesn't seem crowded or cluttered. There are armchairs and couches arranged in a corner. World-renowned studio designer and engineer Steve Durr says the relaxed and open setup accounts for some of the success of the studio, perhaps even more than its acoustics.
“How do I feel in this room? I feel very safe. I feel very comfortable,” he says. “I’m not intimidated by anything about it at all. Because sounds and music comes from musicians, [they] spent time making sure they [were] comfortable. That’s what’s magical about this room.”
So comfortable that a group of seasoned pros could come in, make an amazing record, and be done in time for lunch.
Music lovers everywhere should be happy that Studio A wasn't torn down for condos. Because, as the old saying goes — they just don't make 'em like that anymore.
This story is based on a report that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen
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