By Ellen Barnes
Ben’s Studio is home to 47 years of musical genius. The open and impressive recording space at 30 Music Square West is a historical goldmine that continues today as a successful studio. After almost a decade of private use, artist Ben Folds decided to open his space to outside sessions. “He wanted it to be commercially viable with a focus on orchestra and classical, two of his passions,” recalls Studio Manager Sharon Corbitt-House.
A wide array of musicians now rent the space. Several tracks from the acclaimed Tony Bennett Duets II album were recorded there, and some of those sessions were taped for the upcoming PBS special and DVD. Joining him for the sessions were Carrie Underwood and Faith Hill. “Producers really wanted to make full use of the space because it was the largest studio they had recorded in for the project,” explains Corbitt-House. “Everything was cut live on the floor, and the addition of a raised stage and backdrop made for an amazing finished product.
“There’s a very distinctive sound that this room has. It’s just very beautiful, like a big bubble,” she muses. “It’s a big, controlled, space—you’ve got this large sound but it doesn’t sound boomy.” She proudly notes the studio is also now home to a classic API 3232 console.
Ben’s Studio is not only a studio space, but ideally suited for recording live performance. “You record live, you cut live, you’re capturing a moment, you’re capturing a feel—I think that people want to go back to that,” says Corbitt-House, who believes digital recording can sometimes result in a record that sounds a little too perfect. The studio vet explains, “the imperfections of records are what make them perfect.”
Following tenures at Ocean Way and Sound Kitchen, Corbitt-House recalls the good feeling she experienced the first time she walked into Ben’s Studio. “All the records that were the reason I got in the business were made in this room,” she explains, referencing albums by Jerry Reed, George Strait and Reba McEntire. “Those records influenced my decision to have a path in music, and being in the space where it was all created…is really a blessing.”
The Nashville Symphony recorded several tracks of its Grammy nominated album at Ben’s Studio—it is one of the few local spaces that can house such a large group. Walmart’s Soundcheck web series is often taped there as well, hosting Underwood, Laura Bell Bundy, Josh Turner, and Alan Jackson. Pop singer Sara Bareilles, who is a judge alongside Folds on NBC show The Sing Off, recently spent three weeks there recording an EP with Folds helming production.
Folds has lived in Nashville and owned the studio for nine years, using it to record his albums Songs for Silverman and the chart-topping Way to Normal. The pianist’s latest, the three-disc retrospective The Best Imitation of Myself is an inadvertent result of the 2010 Nashville flood. Like numerous other musicians, he lost tapes, live recordings, and notebooks when his storage unit at Soundcheck flooded. Folds’ management and staff salvaged what they could and compiled it into the box set. Ben Folds Five reunited to make three new songs for the project, and plans to team again this year for a new album.
The studio is available for non-recording events, such as a recent reception for The Cecil Scaife Visionary Award honoring producers Norbert Putnam and David Briggs who once worked there. Guests and honorees enjoyed reminiscing about the storied studio.
Built in 1964, the studio was established by producer and pioneer Chet Atkins. Originally known as RCA Studio A, or RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studio, it was a key piece of Atkins’ vision for Nashville and country music. “Everybody from Dolly Parton to Waylon Jennings to Elvis to Roy Orbison has cut in this space,” affirms Corbitt-House.
During Atkins’ reign at RCA Studio A, Parton recorded classics such as “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” while Jennings did “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” The latter also teamed with Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser for Wanted! The Outlaws. The Monkees used the space for the vocals to “Daydream Believer.” Atkins drew a mix of country and pop artists, and helped create the countrypolitan Nashville Sound.
The room is the only one of four identical studios—including outfits in New York and Los Angeles—that remains intact as a commercial recording studio. Interestingly, Ben’s Studio is still connected to Studio B next door through an underground trough—in the past, cords connected the buildings, so recording could be done at one location and engineering at the other.
The studio has gone through a series of evolutions. In 1979, famed Music Row producer Owen Bradley took over the space, changing its name to Music City Music Hall. During this time, the studio hosted artists including Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Joe Cocker, and Leon Russell.
In 1989, ownership changed yet again and producer Warren Peterson took over, bringing the new name Javalena and accommodating artists such as Neil Diamond, Mark Chesnutt, and early projects by Gary Allan.
By the early ‘90s, Folds moved from North Carolina to Nashville and Peterson allowed the young musician to use the studio to record demos, often letting him work through the night. Hit producer Paul Worley also offered Folds encouragement early in his career, but the artist eventually followed his pop-rock dreams back to North Carolina and formed the successful Ben Folds Five.
In ’99, Peterson closed down the space and it sat empty for three years before Folds—fresh from a tour with Elton John—saw the For Lease sign and resurrected the studio.
Corbitt-House and others she’s talked to see the studio’s longevity as a positive sign for a struggling industry. “We’re all gonna be okay,” she assures. “Things come and go, but if you have something that’s known for having such a great history and is still being used as a recording facility, then it means that there’s hope for all of us. I hope it makes Chet happy that we’re all still hangin’ around here working everyday.”