Founded in 2002 by legendary sound engineer John McBride and his wife, country superstar Martina McBride, Blackbird is one of the most prestigious recording and mixing facilities in the world. With nine world-class studios and an unrivaled selection of vintage microphones and recording equipment, Blackbird has been the studio of choice for artists such as Beck, Rush, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kings of Leon, The White Stripes, and Taylor Swift.
In order to remain on the cutting-edge of audio production technology, Blackbird recently decided to renovate its George Massenburg-designed Studio C and upgrade it with an immersive mixing solution. Blackbird partnered with Dolby Laboratories on the install and design, and brought in Vintage King to supply gear from ATC Loudspeakers, Avid, and Antelope Audio. The set-up for Studio C now includes three ATC SCM300ASL loudspeakers in LCR position, 12 ATC SCM100ASL surround speakers and six ATC SCM1-15ASL Subwoofers controlled via 2 Dante-enabled Avid MTRX interfaces and an Antelope 10MX Clock.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with John McBride to find out how Blackbird’s new Dolby Atmos system is being used to reimagine classic albums in a new, immersive format. Read on to learn why John relies on ATC Loudspeakers, how he balances using vintage and modern gear, and why he wanted to build the finest Dolby Atmos mix and playback environment in the world.
Why was it important for Blackbird Studio to have an immersive mix facility on-site?
John McBride: I feel that Blackbird has always been a leader in audio. Our bar is very, very high, and I believe immersive audio has a great future. It’s just such an incredible way to listen to music.
I wanted it to be the best it can possibly be, and that’s why we ended up with ATC speakers in a room that is very well diffused, our Massenburg-designed C Room. I’ve never seen a person leave that room without a smile on their face. It’s just an incredible way in which to experience music. So, we had to do it right. We got the right speakers and the right room. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
What was the installation process like?
JM: Ceri Thomas from Dolby came in and said that they were interested in having a Dolby Atmos room at Blackbird. I told him I wanted it to be the best immersive room available anywhere, because at Blackbird we really pride ourselves on doing everything the best we possibly can. I’ve always felt that way. Good is the enemy of great. If we’d have built a good studio 17 years ago, we would have been out of business 10 years ago, but we built a great studio so we’re still around.
By the time we finally figured out all of the details and how to make this happen, we had about two weeks until Summer NAMM, and Christine Thomas from Dolby said that it would be perfect to debut the room the night before Summer NAMM started. I told her, “If you’re looking for somebody to partner with and you have to get shit done fast, you picked the right people because we will throw everything we have at it.” I immediately called our studio builder and structural engineer, and we devised a plan to install all of the speakers.
When Blackbird called you to work on Studio C, what was the gameplan?
James Good: They gave me a list of gear that they wanted to incorporate and it was my job to create a practical solution that met Blackbird’s high standards. We had two weeks to get it all done. They needed everything up and running before Summer NAMM.
We met for a consultation and built a final gear list. I suggested a few products like the Antelope 10MX Clock and the Avid MTRX, which is used as a Dante interface to connect to the HDX system and the Avid environment.
We actually tried out a few different interfaces before landing on the MTRX. It was very unique to be able to hear multiple kinds of I/O in an immersive set-up. You can really hear the differences in the sound and how much detail you can hear in that environment. The sound quality is so important when you’re listening to a 9.1.6 system with six subwoofers.
What made you go with the ATC speakers?
JM: When I built Blackbird originally, I knew four or five studio engineers. I called them up and asked them what main speakers I should use. Everybody had an opinion about everything, and the only speakers that no one ever said anything bad about were the ATCs. So I looked up the company online and I ordered my first pair. Since then, we’ve ordered quite a few more. We have ATC’s in Studio A, B, C, D, E, and F.
As with any speaker, once you learn it, that is the key. I’ve been listening to ATC speakers for 17 years so I feel very, very comfortable. When I hear an ATC 300, I know how that’s going to translate to my car, my house, and in the studio. They’re just really great, musical speakers.
I like to track and mix on 300s, because I get the whole spectrum of audio. I’m not too heavy or too light in any frequency range. It really gives you the opportunity to listen critically. I love the way these speakers respond, they make me really happy. So that was the speaker we had to go with, and I’m glad we did. ATC came through with flying colors and were able to deliver what we needed in a very timely fashion, which is no small feat.
Why did you choose the Avid MTRX?
JM: There are a number of choices when it comes to speaker distribution. I took the recommendations that Ceri [Thomas at Dolby] made because I want to be compatible with what everybody else is already using. I know there aren’t a ton of immersive rooms for music available, there’s Abbey Road, Capital, and Universal bought some studios near me that have a couple of Atmos Rooms. I wanted to be as compatible as possible with everybody, which is why I went with the Avid MTRX.
For a few days, there were certain pieces of software that we were worried we wouldn’t be able to get our hands on, especially to make the debut evening. Avid came through and got them to us. They did a great job. We’re also using an Antelope clock, which I feel great about. I haven’t had much experience with Antelope prior to that, and I couldn’t be happier with that clock and the way the room sounds.
What was the most difficult part of the installation process?
JM: Honestly, just coordinating every aspect was the hardest part of the project. We needed to run wire from the floor to the ceiling. We had to make sure we had the proper power on the ceiling for the new speakers.
Fortunately, my tech staff here, Richard Ealey in particular, was able to make everything happen. We had to manufacture cables, run new electrical, and get power to everything. So the hardest part was just coordinating all the details. But the beauty of it is, everybody that was part of that, especially Richard, knew what we needed to do.
We had four or five people that were thinking of every aspect of this install. Paul Simmons, my production manager here at the studio was instrumental in making things happen. I was gone eight days on the road with Martina and it was maddening for me. It was just hard to not be here. I got home on Tuesday morning at 5 am and the debut party was on Wednesday evening. But, I was able to go in and tweak the system a little bit and make it as optimal as it can be in my opinion.
What were the final days of putting the room together like?
JG: The timeline was definitely one of the tighter deadlines I’ve worked with. Most items were shipped next-day air. ATC shipped a bunch of speakers from the UK directly to Nashville within a two-week timeframe to get everything set up on time.
ATC flew a few people in to meet the speakers at Blackbird. John and his crew spent a whole day getting the subs positioned correctly. Ceri from Dolby practically lived at Blackbird for a week straight. I was on-site installing MTRX cards and making sure the clocking was done properly and things like that.
I think a lot of the problems that we ran into, Blackbird never had to deal with. We kept everything behind the curtain. With Dolby’s help, we were able to get items shipped off the back-bench. There were backorders that were going to put us in a position where we weren’t going to be able to deliver in time, and through a little extra work, we got it done. We had the product shipped from the tech shop from Boston straight to Blackbird.
It was a big upgrade, but it was worth it. There’s nothing like that kind of quality music or that kind of listening experience. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up the first time I listened to it. I got to listen to Beck, Elton John, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Prince. I mean, Prince! For me to be part of a rig that is used to remix Prince in immersive audio? That blows my mind.
It was a tough install but it all came together. It was such a pleasure to be a part of this install, I feel very lucky. This is why I do this — to have some small part in something that makes amazing music.
What kind of impact has the immersive set-up in Studio C already had?
JM: It’s been really, really well to be honest. That room is life-changing. People who go in there are just slack-jawed, especially their first time. There are a lot of tears in that room. It’s emotional.
I’ve always said, the higher the quality at which you listen to music, the more emotional it becomes. Studio C is very high quality and it gets really emotional. Hearing great songs in a new format is really exciting. It makes the hair on your arms and neck stand up.
When I take people in there to listen for the first time, I get such a charge because I see their reaction. It’s really, really incredible. I’m a lucky guy.
People often think of Blackbird as a classic studio full of vintage gear, but you also have a lot of cutting-edge equipment. How does Blackbird maintain a classic reputation while keeping up with the latest technologies?
JM: Out of necessity, honestly. We often get described as a working museum, but we also have the latest, greatest technology because we have to. As a commercial studio, you have to be able to cover any and all work that is available to you.
We have a school here also, so we have to be up to date. Being able to teach modern methods is a very technology-challenging thing. We have the latest and greatest software, from Pro Tools to Logic and now Dolby Atmos, which we’re also featuring in our school.
But we still have the sound of all the original tubes and transformers that trip my trigger, all the stuff I grew up on. Hearing music properly, to my ears, is really important. And being able to reproduce and record music with that quality of vinyl or analog is really important to me.
With the advent of digital recording, things have gotten faster, and easier in a lot of ways. The editing capabilities are unbelievable. But, I think we’ve also suffered in certain ways. You could say there used to be blood on the floor on tracking day. And now, everybody just wants to fix it in the mix, or fly parts around.
Ken Scott said it best. He said; “It’s funny, John. We used to capture a great performance, and now we’re trying to create one.” I think that says a lot.
But ultimately, the environment at Blackbird is all about respect for the past, the present, and the future. I never want the art of recording to be lost. That’s why we started Blackbird Academy. And if 100 years from now some kid mics a kick drum a certain way because that’s how his great-granddad learned to do it at Blackbird Academy, then that’s alright with me.