Georgia can feel huge. From the rustic mountains to the southwestern swamps to the coastal low country, there’s a huge range of diversity a visitor has to wrap his or her head around when trying to understand our state. Even Atlanta alone can be the same way, with its plentitude of distinct neighborhoods and cultures. But time spent in the state reveals more similarities than differences, and there’s a distinct sense of what Georgia is.
So it is with the state’s recording studios. Spread far and wide geographically and specializing in remarkably distinct music styles and sounds, Georgia’s studio community is nevertheless surprisingly tight, focused on local support and on developing the state’s musical reputation. You can start a studio here and engage in questionable practices, but you won’t stick around long. The modern landscape got its blueprint when the R&B- and urban-focused LaFace Records set up shop in 1989, and many of the recording facilities here that endured employ people who were just as involved in those days as they are now.
“The recording infrastructure was really spurred by the LaFace guys rolling into town,” says Silent Sound Studios’ Thomas “TK” Kidd. “But Georgia and Atlanta’s always had an energy of its own. The creative choices that go into making a record are directly related to where you choose to make those recordings, whether it’s the city or the studio.”
Georgia also attracts talent from all over the region, according to Patchwerk’s Curtis Daniel. When people arrive in Atlanta they find “an entrepreneurial town,” he says. “Music is a feeling and an expression, but you need people who can hustle in a professional way.”
And while the music industry as a whole saw a downturn in business over the past decade, all of Georgia’s studio vets have seen things turn around over the past year or two, and are optimistic about the future. “Quality of sound has been so downgraded with mp3s and a generation growing up with earbuds,” says Atlanta recording veteran Jim Zumpano. “But people are starting to realize that with a lot of recordings over the past decade, there’s not a problem with the songwriting, it’s the recording. It’s impacted the quality of sound. People are coming back to studios.”
And if the studio landscape of Georgia mirrors that of the actual state in a thriving way, seven of the major recording outfits—Atlanta’s Doppler, Patchwerk, Silent Sound, Tree Sound and ZAC and Athens’ Chase Park Transduction and John Keane Studios—have distinct personalities and specializations that complement one another.
PATCHWERK STUDIO: From Start to Finish
R&B, neo-soul and hip-hop are the core of Patchwerk Studio’s business, and owner Curtis Daniel draws clients in with his emphasis on quality over quantity, especially when it comes to serving an artist’s needs. “Our thing is we don’t sell studio time, we sell customer service,” says Daniel. “We stay up to date with equipment and gear, sure, but I always realize that anybody can buy the gear. We put an emphasis on the people we employ—good people, professionals who are experts at what they do. Everything’s taken care of from the candles to the tea to whatever you need ready to come in and create.”
Patchwerk distinguishes itself among the studio community by offering financial services, through a partnership with GE Capital for those looking to lay down tracks, mix, master or engage in any part of the process. Daniel has also expanded his studio’s operations into physical CD and mixtape production, providing clients with a trustworthy production chain—a big deal in the hip-hop world.
“We do both store-ready and street-ready studio duplication all in one building, and we have mix engineers working alongside producers and master engineers. It eliminates the worry about an album getting leaked or bootlegged. Additionally, with everything all in one place, we don’t charge extra for producers attending the mastering, for instance, and that way communication’s clear between everybody. It’s all in service of the artist’s best interests.”
Why record in Georgia? “We have music. We have a history of music,” says Daniel. “And in the area of hip-hop, this is where you have to be. We’ve got a gang of producers that have come up in different styles. The state and the city are conducive to that. Here you feel like you can breathe. You feel comfortable. In L.A. when you wake up in the morning the first thing you worry about is time, and N.Y. you worry about time and space. Here you’re relaxed, people take time to talk to you and explain things to you.”
Past clients: Cee-Lo, Common, 8Ball & MJG, Beyonce, Pink, R. Kelly, Gucci Mane, Destiny’s Child, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Bobby Brown
Upcoming projects: “We finished Jeezy’s first album in four years, and we’re working on a project with the McClain sisters for a Tyler Perry movie, Disney booked the studio,” says Daniels. “The next solo R&B artist will be Nikasha Mosely. Maybe Rick Ross’ new album. Luda’s new album. A new artist on RCA called Issa. And we’ve got a song from T.I. with Dr. Dre, then new songs for Young Dro and Yo Gotti.”
SILENT SOUND STUDIO: Totally Customizing Experiences
“One thing at a time” might as well be Silent Sound Studio’s motto. The one-room facility allows owner Thomas “TK” Kidd to provide “the most creative environment possible to make the best records possible by allowing an artist to be themselves.”
Major-label artists and film soundtracks are Silent Sound’s specialty, and Kidd has refined his focus ever since starting as one of the first engineers the LaFace crew hired when they moved to Atlanta. Songwriter, producer and LaFace associate Daryl Simmons founded Silent Sound in 1996 to supplement his production company, and relied on Kidd for much of the technical knowhow when building the studio in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood; Simmons sold the business in 2006 to Kidd in order to focus more on songwriting, and since then Kidd has developed Silent Sound’s roster beyond the loose original family of LaFace recording artists.
Kidd has maintained the one-room focus instituted in the early days of Silent Sound. “We’re a one-room facility and we’ve been adamant about keeping it that way,” he says. “There are business challenges because we’re either working or we’re not, but because of the creative environment we can tailor our entire operations to each individual artist,” offering a custom experience for each project be it large or small.
“There are wonderful multi-room facilities in the area that all do amazing work, and you can wander around the facility and collaborate and be creative. There’s a time for that, but there’s also a time to roll up in your own cave and do what you need to do to create the most personal, best work you can do.”
Why record in Georgia? “Certainly the quality of life, the cost of living, infrastructure… we’re not as consolidated as a New York, but we’re not as spread out as L.A. Basically anything you need is within 30 minutes. Those are all big contributing factors. But it boils down to the people here.”
Past clients: Elton John, Puff Daddy, Pharrell Williams, Clipse, Lionel Richie, CeCe Winans, Kenny Latimore, Jesse McCartney
Upcoming projects: “We’ve got three major label albums right now, but we’re Silent Sound for a reason,” laughs Kidd. “Everything’s safe, confidential and private. We’re quiet about things …”
DOPPLER STUDIOS: Veteran Versatility
What started as a one-room recording undertaking in 1969, when an advertising company built a place to record its jingles, has grown into a seven-studio facility, making Doppler Studios the state’s longest-running prominent recording house. That long institutional memory sets Doppler apart, says studio manager Bill Quinn. “We’ve got the pros, the know-how and the experience for basically anything anyone needs to record,” says Quinn.
“We have quite a spread of customers, and if you’re talking about my normal day or week, well, there isn’t one,” he says. “We had some session work over the holidays, and we just had a 35-boy gospel choir through here. I booked some time for a father to bring his daughter in for a one-hour session, and I’m also sorting out billing on the R&B singer Monica who’s on RCA Records.”
Within its seven studios, Doppler’s outfitted with a full accouterment of up-to-date gear, but boasts the bells and whistles that only a full studio can offer. “A grand piano won’t fit in a home studio,” says Quinn, “but here it’s been used for rock-and-roll and opera. And a big room that can hold a choir, orchestra or full band is getting to be rare these days.”
Doppler produces audio for advertising, corporate films and video projects—they do a lot of work with Cartoon Network and other Atlanta-based media companies. “We can even bring your uncle in to strum a guitar for an hour, and we’ll record it,” says Quinn. “We haven’t concentrated on any segment of the musical pie. We do all of it.”
Why record in Georgia? “A lot of folks that come to record in Georgia find their way here, one, because of the metropolitan aspect of Atlanta, nightlife and what have you,” says Doppler chief engineer Joe Neil, “but, two, it still has a small town feel where everybody in the same industry knows everybody else, and that makes it easier to get things done.”
Past clients: Jermaine Dupri, Aerosmith, Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Indigo Girls, TLC, Ciara, Mary J. Blige, Santana, Kanye West
Upcoming projects: “We just finished up working on a new album for Nelly,” says Quinn, “and we have another season of Squidbillies to record for. The Monica and Ludacris albums are current, and Mastodon’s coming in to record soon.”
CHASE PARK TRANSDUCTION: Leveraging New Talent
David Barbe is the man behind Athens’ Chase Park Transduction, but these days he’s a man wearing many hats—he also serves as the director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business Program. Barbe relies on the academic diversity of the school to keep a constant inflow of creative minds coming through the studio, and while he’s occupied with more academic duties, his staff of pros like Jeff Capurso, Drew Vandenberg and co-owner Andy LeMaster handle Chase Park’s studio time.
Says Barbe, an experienced musician who played in Sugar and Mercyland and is the Drive-By Truckers’ current tour bassist, “A football team’s offense works great when you have a Herschel Walker carrying the ball 40 times a year, until the knees start to give out. Chase Park needed to stand on its own as a creative facility rather than a place that can succeed on my name alone.”
Barbe’s connection to the tight Athens music community and his influential position in the music business program means that he brings in interns and industry-minded students to contribute new ideas on big-name indie recordings.
“When the home studio revolution started in the early 2000s,” he says, “it occurred to me that the studio business really suffered for obvious reasons. Most studios’ reactions was to circle the wagons and point out the differences between the studios and bedroom recording, [and] keep the interlopers out. My approach is a little different, which is to find smart creative young people. Why would you want to keep those people out? They can use better equipment and learn from the higher-end stuff, and they’d get the expertise from working. What we get is a wider variety of people coming into the studio, working but also bringing in different artists, friends, clients and contacts. This also brings the costs down for artists because they’re using pro equipment but working with engineers who are just starting their careers. A rising tide lifts all ships, and a smaller piece of a bigger pie is good.”
Why record in Georgia? “People go to recording studios because of other records they’ve heard. All the advertising won’t mean anything if you’re not putting out good records,” says Barbe. “Here in Athens, there’s good food, good people, a creative intellectual community and progressive thinkers. And we offer people a square deal, which is important too.”
Past clients: Drive-By Truckers, The Whigs, Bright Eyes, R.E.M., Bob Mould, Deerhunter, Animal Collective, Queens of the Stone Age, Olivia Tremor Control, Patton Oswalt
Upcoming projects: “There’s a new Dead Confederate coming and a new Patterson Hood solo album,” says Barbe, “and records from Camper Van Beethoven, Futurebirds and Haroula Rose.”
JOHN KEANE STUDIOS: Cultivating Personal Relationships
In a business packed with oversize egos, it’s often the behind-the-scenes names who have the biggest true influence. That anonymity’s not only true for Athens studio vet John Keane, it’s something he strives for. “It’s kind of hard to put into words, but I would say that I’m sort of—or I try to be—invisible,” he says. “I’m not interested in putting my stamp on other people’s music. I guess things are filtered through my own aesthetic and preferences. But I’d like to think my forte is helping people realize their own vision. I tend to go for warm sounds and sort of organic, timeless instrumentation and arrangement ideas. I tend to avoid gimmicks and things that will make a recording sound dated down the road. I tend to lean towards real instruments played by real people in a room together.”
After helming recordings from artists as varied as R.E.M., Widespread Panic and Brute, Keane says he’s in a position where he relies on his own reputation—and that of the recordings he produces—to bring in new business. “Most studios have the same gear these days,” he says. “The main thing that sets it apart is the vibe of the studio. Mine has a welcoming and homey feel to it, and most of the people that come to my studio come here because they specifically want to work with me. The studio is personal, and it feels like it’s mine, although infrequently other engineers come in here.”
And though recording is personal for Keane, that doesn’t mean it’s a side project—it’s been his entire life. “I’ve always recorded as a hobby, since I was 12 or 13, but I didn’t start recording professionally in earnest until I was playing in Phil & the Blanks. I joined that band about 1980 or so, and back then the band had to have a demo if they wanted to get any kind of work outside of the town they lived in, so I went out and bought a four-track recorder and made a demo of my band. It eventually was able to get that played on WUOG, and other bands in town got wind of it by hearing our demos playing on the radio. The whole thing kind of evolved out of that, and here we are today.”
Why record in Georgia? “I think that a lot of times people come down to Georgia to record because they want a Southern flavor,” says Keane, “to experience the vibe we have here and because a lot of great rock and roll came from here. I think it’s also generally less expensive to record in a place like Athens rather than a music hub.”
Past clients: R.E.M., Vic Chesnutt, 10,000 Maniacs, Widespread Panic, Cowboy Junkies, Robyn Hitchcock, Warren Zevon, Billy Bragg, Pylon, Opal Foxx Quartet
Upcoming projects: “There’s a new Honeycutters album, and Jim White’s album,” says Keane. “I’m going to be mixing an album with an artist named Geert Hellings from Belgium, a really great guitar player. And we’re finishing up some local projects including with a guitarist named Matt Joiner.”
TREE SOUND STUDIOS:: Creating Innovative Diversification
Organic farms, student training, solar power, biodiesel, an independent record label, live blogging… what’s all that got to do with a recording studio? Everything, says Tree Sound Studios owner Paul Diaz. “I would say traditional studio business like we did 10 years ago is now only about 50 percent of our revenue,” says Diaz. “Now live events, the school, remote recordings, all that makes up the rest.”
With a diverse roster of hip-hop, rock, country and pop artists coming through Tree Sound, located in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs, variety is the name of the game. The hip-hop community has latched onto Tree Sounds’ ThreeLittleDigs tastemaking blog, which has gained enough cachet that artists like Killer Mike or Young Jeezy book studio time just to break news through the blog. Diaz prefers that his studios not specialize in any one genre, because he touts the creative benefits of unpredictable encounters.
“We have a 6,000 sq. foot house across the street from the studio. Staff stays there, artists stay there, I can stay there. At the studio the facility itself is 18,000 sq. feet. There’s always space available where people can go and create. When people are hanging out and run into creative people they catch the bug and start writing songs. We never thought [originally] about capitalizing on that vibe and environment which facilitates creativity.”
Recently Tree Sound has expanded into providing remote recording sound services for live events, as they did recently for the Bonnaroo and Sweetwater festivals. They’re looking into building a studio at an eco-resort in Jamaica with the Marley family, says Diaz, taking interns to work on an organic farm in North Georgia, and are looking at building a second facility in Louisiana.
But here in Georgia, Diaz says Tree Sound offers an all-you-need package deal for artists not interested in picking and choosing freelance engineers and technicians. “We went through a big process of cleaning house three years ago, getting the right people, not relying on outside people,” he says. “We’re 100 percent in house. We’re all a team, and a coordinated team.”
Why record in Georgia? “A big part of it is the scene in Atlanta,” says Diaz. “I will say there are issues we struggle with. We have no tax incentives in Georgia, unless you’re making music for film or TV. So right now in Georgia it’s the vibe, and the quality work the entire community puts out.”
Past clients: Lil Wayne, Justin Bieber, Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Perpetual Groove, The Strokes, Death Cab for Cutie, Isaac Hayes, Travis Tritt, OutKast
Upcoming projects: “The biggest is B.o.B’s new album which will be out on Atlantic,” says Diaz, “and we just finished Copious Jones and Donna Hopkins Band, both local. There’s a project with a Navy SEAL Chad Holmes on active duty right now, it’s almost like Jack-Johnson-meets-Trent-Reznor kind of thing, great arranging and writing. And Eminem is interested in one of our songs for the 50 Cent comeback that’s happening in 2012.”
ZAC RECORDING: Focusing on Professional Sounds
Jim Zumpano started his recording career in the early 1980s at Soundscape, which became Bobby Brown’s Bosstown and now exists as OutKast’s boutique studio Stankonia. He had his hands on most of the big LaFace recordings from the ‘90s, recording acts like Toni Braxton, and in 2001 opened Zumpano Audio Community. which comprises ZAC Digital, Stonehenge Recording and other audio endeavors.
Where Zumpano excels is in achieving the precise sounds his clients demand, he says, and in offering the professional benefits home recorders may not even know they need. “There were a couple years when people just went to the woodshed of home recording and ProTools,” says Zumpano. “I’d like to think what was happening was they weren’t getting the quality, and they finally came around to needing the boring stuff: file management, keeping track of things, purchase ordering, that sort of thing.”
What makes ZAC special, says Zumpano, is “the vibe of the place. We’re more of a home-style facility. I don’t run with all of the big dogs. There are plenty of studios that have huge budgets. I’ve stuck with my same complement of gear and kept it running… the sound in my main two rooms have been meticulously cared for. I have a great studio room tuner who keeps the studio sound consistent over time. These rooms sound great. That’s what brings people in. It’s not the latest doodad. Everyone’s in ProTools now. It’s not about the gear anymore like it used to be, it’s more.”
“In ‘09 I lost my entire engineering staff due to the economy,” adds Zumpano. “I’ve been operating with interns and staff from local universities… at this point I can’t afford to pay staff engineers. The life of the independent engineer roaming from producer to producer is gone. But I’m happy to say the entire studio community in Georgia is coming out of that economic hole from a few years back.”
Zumpano says he relies on experienced artists coming through his studio’s three rooms and noticing the difference. “There’s been instances where people think this isn’t worth it, nobody cares, labels are calling me offering half-rates… and I think I’d rather be empty than work for that. It’s the ones who appreciate quality I like to work with.”
Why record in Georgia? “The way Nashville does country, and Atlanta, where it fits into the scene, is the hip-hop genre,” says Zumpano. “I have an influx of people here who know how to do hip-hop. That Dirty South thing that came up 15, 20 years ago is still kinda the mark here in Atlanta. There’s something about creating that here that becomes attractive.”
Past clients: India.Arie, Janelle Monáe, Yonrico Scott, Rick Ross, Usher, Jazze Pha, Young Jeezy, De La Soul, Tinsley Ellis, Nellyt
Upcoming projects: “The biggest thing that’s coming out is the new Wale record, he’s getting a lot of good response on Warner Brothers,” says Zumpano. “Sean Garrett has been writing for Brandi, and the Ciara record is upcoming. Then there’s this new German singer Azin who’s trying to break into the U.S. scene.”
A deeper community
Those are some of Georgia’s most prominent studios, but there are more to be found that serve different needs, whether it’s Pigpen Studios and Jim Hawkins’ Studio 1093 in Athens, Sonica Recording or Real 2 Reel in Atlanta, Shadow Sound and Muscadine Recording in Macon, or Savannah’s Elevated Basement Studios. What unites them all is a commitment to Georgia’s music community.
“From Jimmy Z at ZAC, to Joe and Bill at Doppler to the Tree Sound guys,” says Silent Sound’s TK Kidd, “we all grew up together and take care of each other if there’s gear we need or there’s an emergency. We all understand that when one of us wins, we all do. The studio community wasn’t always like that here, but as we all grew up seeing some of the backbiting, we’ve all evolved into the community that works well together.”