Blackbird Studio

Lauded equally for its production facilities and unparalleled collection of vintage and modern recording equipment, Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, was opened in 2002 by engineer John McBride and wife, country music superstar Martina McBride. That kit collection recently saw the addition of one of the first Solid State Logic Origin analogue in-line mixing consoles to come off the production line.

The Blackbird complex has grown to nine studios, plus the Blackbird Academy, a post-secondary audio engineering school established in 2013, which occupy three buildings in the Berry Hill neighbourhood of Nashville. The new SSL Origin has been installed in Studio F, which was built for hit-making engineer, mixer and producer Justin Niebank.

‘I first became aware of the console at the AES Show in 2019,’ McBride says of his first encounter with Origin. ‘I am always excited to have the first console installed, especially when I believe in that particular piece of gear or equipment.’

Studio F, a 750sq-ft mix room designed by studio designer Mike Cronin, was opened in 2006 and features ATC SCM300ASL main monitors and custom ATC left and right triple-15-inch subwoofers soffit-mounted in the front wall. Originally equipped with a large-format SSL console, the room most recently featured a workstation with outboard equipment bays, which Origin has now replaced.

Shortly after the desk was installed, Blackbird temporarily closed its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, so McBride is looking forward to spending more time with the desk when the studio can reopen. ‘My initial impression is that it’s a great re-thinking of the SSL method and sonics,’ he says. It seems as if SSL has maintained the parts of the legacy that make sense in the modern day in terms of audio and functionality. The layout seems very logical and familiar. The routing is very flexible and intuitive. I can’t wait to get to mix something on it.’

Origin’s in-line analogue signal path supports today’s hybrid record production workflows, enabling recording to and summing from the workstation through the console, which features the E-Series EQ and classic SSL Bus Compressor. ‘Origin has a familiar feel and layout to previous SSLs but allows us to easily include other audio pieces through the 500 series racks, and omits automation and recall, which are more commonly done within a DAW these days,’ says McBride.

Niebank – whose long list of credits includes projects by Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Vince Gil, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney – has worked regularly in Studio F since it was opened, notes that as his hybrid workflow develops, Origin enables him to spend more time mixing with a console rather than using a mouse. But whether his principal focus is on the desk or the workstation, Origin’s classic SSL performance and sound play an integral part in his mix process in several ways…

‘First, in the age of in-the-box mixing, I wanted to get back to performance mixing,’ Niebank says. ‘Origin is the perfect set-up for this. I can go for an intuitive mix and then tweak within the computer. Second, depending on the situation, I can do a board mix and then transfer levels to the computer and continue. And third, because Origin allows one to put all faders at zero, we can split out a mix created in the computer and enjoy the best analogue summing available. Because high-resolution streaming is now available, this is essential for the future.’

While the evolving hybrid setup in Studio F means that there is a reduced complement of outboard gear in the room now: ‘Being at Blackbird, practically every analogue audio processor is available upon request,’ says McBride. ‘The most important thing about Studio F is its unparalleled acoustics, coupled perfectly to an ATC monitoring system. It feels great in there, it looks great and, most importantly, it sounds great.’

The compact form factor and technical specification of the new desk offer additional benefits and allowed Origin to be installed without modifying the room. ‘The smaller footprint of the console makes it manageable to work on and has kept the room acoustics unchanged,’ says McBride. ‘The reduced heat load, sleep mode and power requirements are also welcome.’

Mark Rubel, co-director of the Blackbird Academy and an instructor at the school, observes that the new Origin will serve as a great learning tool for the students: ‘It will be useful to the Blackbird Academy in familiarizing our students with the SSL layout, as many of them end up in studios with SSLs of various vintages. I polled some of our guest mentors who have SSLs to see what’s important to them that an assistant should know. They did say signal flow and layout, which this console exemplifies well, and that they weren’t concerned with SSL automation and Total Recall, which the assistants can learn if they need to.’

Studio F may be set up as a mix room, but Origin’s comprehensive feature set, in-line layout and SSL pedigree are a good fit for any recording studio control room. ‘I know that Studio F is primarily for mixing, but if anyone is thinking of purchasing a new console for a tracking studio, Origin would be my recommendation,’ Niebank says. ‘It’s perfectly set up for that.’

More: www.solidstatelogic.com

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