George Massenburg Builds a Blackbird Room
By Mr. Bonzai
Massenburg recently put the finishing touches on the new Studio C in Nashville’s Blackbird Studio complex. Studio C is a stunning room that features a Digidesign ICON system in a remarkably versatile recording environment. “You very quickly forget about the room, and before you know it, you are simply immersed in music,” says Massenburg. “You have a more intimate handshake with the recorded musical performance. The room disappears quickly, rather than adding something of its own — it is very transparent, which is right up my alley.”
The Blackbird Studio recording center was created by John and Martina McBride in August 2002 by rebuilding the legendary Creative Recording Studios, originally designed and built by George Augspurger in 1977. Since opening, Blackbird has hosted sessions with the likes of John Hiatt, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The site now houses four studios, including Massenburg’s Studio C.
Construction of the new room utilized 1,532 sheets of one-inch–thick medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Ninety tons of MDF were cut and milled to a final cut weight of 40 tons. Beginning with a room footprint of 36' x 25' x 27', the one-inch square MDF pegs come out of the walls and ceiling in lengths that vary from 6 to 40 inches — and no two of the hundreds of thousands of “tines” are the same length. The room uses 2D diffusion, whereby two-dimensional diffusers offer depth variation in two perpendicular directions, forming a lattice of divided cells or steps of varying depth. “Studio C utilized the largest prime number sequence that has ever been actualized in a room,” notes Massenburg. “Our prime number is 138,167.”
“The basic idea is that you walk in and very quickly you are listening to a musical balance. You are able to tell a story with a mix. The lows and the highs are easier to perceive because they have roughly the same ambience, the same reverberation time. We don’t have any fiberglass on the walls — it absorbs largely at high frequencies and is less likely to absorb at low frequencies. Any absorption in this room is caused by several processes, including the air turbulence around all these edges, and the scattering of reflective sound from all these surfaces. Dr. D’Antonio has referred to our principle in action as ‘ambechoic.’
“The room is conducive to accurate work because we have taken away the boundary effect by ‘eliminating’ the walls. The boundary effect is usually a speaker set away from the wall, which causes comb filtering because the sound hits the wall and bounces back at a different time than the direct signal from the speaker. Certain frequencies are canceled and certain frequencies are enforced, which is not a good idea in a critical listening environment.”
The Modern Workflow
“A central focus in this room is the 32-fader ICON D-Control and the presence of Pro Tools in a modern workflow context,” says Massenburg. “It is not an inexpensive room to work in, so to make it worthwhile, the artist has to set up quickly, get comfortable, go to work, and then move on. Our goal is to keep the room busy by optimizing the available resources for the immediate requirements of a project.
“ICON’s biggest strength, to me, is the ability for a mix to start with a standard Pro Tools template and continue through the natural progression of building a multi-track song,” Massenburg explains. “Let’s take a hypothetical project that might begin in this room. First, you do a track. Maybe it’s a live track and you use this room as a control room.
“Then you take the live track and edit it offline. We have a fiber-based server with access from all the studios. You have taken your track into a small edit or offline room, a small production room where you have a smaller Pro Tools system and maybe a small worksurface. You plug into the server and you work on your track and edit it, spending hours or days getting the editing together.
“Next you want to add an instrument, so you wheel in an analog rack that has the same gear that you used when you cut the track. You have a little booth and you drop in a vocal for a fix. Somewhere along the way you go back to Studio C, the big room, to see how you’re doing, how your space works out. You are right on the network, so you bring it right up. You don’t need three hours to prep a session. It takes five minutes.”
Does Massenburg use analog tape anymore? “No, but ‘in the box’ is now thought of as excluding analog inserts, which I use whenever needed. One of the benefits of having so much great analog gear here at Blackbird,” he continues, “is that we can deploy a rack that goes with the session, rather than a fixed bay of gear at the back of the room, 90 percent of which you never use. You have a designated rack of gear that plugs into a known slot in your Pro Tools system and your work proceeds. And you are listening to it in seconds instead of spending hours trying to get used to the sound, and sending out for lunch, and playing pinball, and trying to find some comfort in the room and wasting a lot of time. This is a very fast room to get comfortable in. That is the key.
Would this way of modern incremental record making be impossible in the analog days of yore? “Yes, I think it would be impossible in the old days, or certainly very impractical,” says Massenburg. “First, there is the problem of getting used to a new space, where you put up a mix and it doesn’t sound as good as when you cut it. The reason that people stayed with one studio was largely because familiar technology was there: same console, same EQ, same inputs, maybe a recall board. They got used to a space and achieved a certain comfort level.
“A lot of that has to do with the anomalies in a room and monitoring. You want to reduce those anomalies—and that is exactly what happens in this room. As a result, it sounds better when you take it out to another room — you walk away with something that is more consistent. Also, you quickly get used to what you have after walking in to a new room. It’s funny, when Chuck Ainlay brought some of his recordings over, he was worried that my stuff would sound great and his stuff would suck. But everybody’s work sounds good. Good stuff sounds good. Of course, crappy stuff still sounds crappy, but accurately so.”
Working In the Box
Massenburg offers some thoughts on mixing: “People are dismayed because certain mixes sound awful on DAWs. Most of the problem starts with the home enthusiast using too many plug-ins to try to make something sound better. It is the belief that a plug-in has to improve things because it has changed them. That’s not a very useful concept in the mixing of music.
“In my opinion, music has gotten worse and worse over the last fifteen years, with the collapse of the artistic agenda at almost all major labels. But another reason is that many engineers cannot quickly hear a mix, cannot construct a mix in their mind and then figure out how to put it together, whether they are working with tape or DAW.
“Mixing in the box has taken the biggest hit because of the perception that if you are working in the box, then by its very nature, you are technically limited. The idea is that digital mixing is flawed. ‘In the box’ has been thought to mean actual digital mixing. You will see people use Pro Tools as a tape recorder, then break it out and bring it into an analog console. The defense is that in-the-box mixing is in itself flawed. I don’t think that’s true. I think the reason for this misconception is the lack of talent making informed, intelligent, artistic decisions when mixing, rather than the idea of the mix being truncated. Unfortunately, historically, digital mixing was flawed before we had high-resolution 48-bit mixing. But now, digital mixing can be very high resolution.”
Massenburg’s progressive workflow, and his legacy of acoustics and studio design, advances with the completion of his newest and most revolutionary design to date, Blackbird’s Studio C in Nashville. In short, the name George Massenburg is synonymous with the state of the art in audio recording.