This article was originally published in Playback Issue 002. Subscribe to Playback for free to stay up to date with our latest articles, interviews, product reviews and more.
Magic is unpredictable. Once upon a time, it happened in Nashville. We know when, actually: right in the middle of the 1950s. A record label did something unthinkable: they bought a new artist’s recording contract from another label for the whopping sum of $35,000. The gamble paid off: RCA went on to sell ten million Elvis singles in 1956 alone.
Let’s back up a bit. In 1945, Steve Sholes became head of A&R for RCA’s country and R&B divisions. When he signed up-and-coming guitarist Chet Atkins to the label in 1947, he unknowingly cemented Nashville’s future as Music City. Atkins didn’t create any big hits of his own right away, but his skill and stature grew in tandem. When Sholes moved to RCA’s pop singles division in 1963, he left Nashville’s country wing in the highly capable hands of Atkins, and not before he and Atkins convinced RCA to build them a studio. In just four months, Dan Maddox had built the shell building that was originally known as RCA Victor Studio: a building with front offices, the studio and control room, and an echo chamber on the second floor, located at 800 17th Avenue South. Soon enough, recordings made by Presley and many other influential musicians would skyrocket RCA Victor Studios to fame.
Atkins was instrumental in shaping what would become known as the Nashville Sound, a sophisticated style that added background vocals and substituted strings for fiddles. The lines between country and pop began to blur, reigniting a wider interest in country while helping to establish Nashville as a cultural touchstone and major center for the music industry.
Another influential figure was early Studio B sound engineer Bill Porter. The acoustics weren’t ideal, so he devised Porter’s Pyramids: baffles made from fiberglass acoustic ceiling panels cut into triangles, suspended from the ceiling. He figured out the best physical spots in the room for vocalists and guitarists, using an X to mark them right on the floor, and switched things up when it came to the microphones.
The vintage microphones on display immediately stand out in old photos of the studio. Unfortunately, many of those classic mics were taken to another studio, including the instantly recognizable Neumann U 47s. Some of the vintage mics which did not disappear include RCA BK-5 vintage ribbons and a Sony Model C-500, remaining alongside some original compressors, two LA-2As.
Two other notable vintage instruments that still live at Historic Studio B are Presley’s favorite piano and a Deagan vibraphone from the ‘60s. The piano, a Steinway built in New York in 1942, spent its early life at NBC before coming to Nashville. “Elvis Presley loved it and often warmed up by playing it and singing gospel songs with the background singers on the session,” Justin Croft, Studio Manager of Historic RCA Studio B, tells us.
The Deagan has a great story, too. “According to Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy, he was once asked by Chet Atkins to play vibes on a session Atkins was producing,” Croft says. “He had never played vibes before and learned on that very set that very day.”
By the mid-’60s, RCA built another studio to better incorporate the techniques pioneered by Atkins, Owen Bradley, and Harold Bradley, industry figures who were also early architects of the Nashville Sound. Located at 806 17th Avenue South, it was built after Studio B but became known as Studio A. For just over a decade, both studios operated in Nashville harmony, producing record after incredible record by artists including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Skeeter Davis, to name just a few.
In 1977, RCA closed the recording studios the company had operated in Nashville. What is now known as Historic RCA Studio B was then made available to the Country Music Hall of Fame and officially donated to the Museum by the late Dan and Margaret Maddox in 1992. Following the Mike Curb Family Foundation’s philanthropic purchase of the studio in 2002, its preservation and public access continues through a partnership between the foundation and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Over the last decade, with donor support, Studio B’s exterior has been renovated and the interior has been designed to reflect its 1960s-era prime. Currently, Studio B mainly hosts tours and educational programs for visitors. On rare occasions, the studio hosts recording sessions.
Studio A has had a more tumultuous history. In 2002, Ben Folds leased the building for a long stint, during which it faced the threat of demolition in 2014. Folds helped ring the alarm about what was at stake; the idea of replacing Studio A with condominiums is bloodcurdling. But all was not lost: the aforementioned Mike Curb, alongside local philanthropists Chuck Elcan and Aubrey Preston, collectively purchased the building, saving it from destruction.
In 2015, the building housing Studio A joined Studio B on the National Register of Historic Places. The following year, Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, known for his work with folks like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Shooter Jennings, moved in. The studio is now home to Low Country Sound, a record label imprint run by Cobb.
“You can feel that sound when you're in this room,” he says, referring to the storied history of the space. “If you listen to [Chris Stapleton’s] Traveller, you can hear the room. The engineer on that was Vance Powell, and he really played up the room in the mix. It sounds gigantic because the room is speaking back to us. It's a pretty magical space." It’s not just magical, but genuinely rare, too: Studio A is the only remaining gym-sized studio that was designed by RCA architect John E. Volkmann specifically to record the large ensembles the Nashville sound required, with enough space to comfortably hold choirs, string sections, and the whole band.
Some of the gear used to capture that resonant magic today includes an API console with red, white, and blue EQs that was purchased from Ben Folds, as well as UA, Neve, and Helios pieces Cobb brought himself when he moved in. “It’s fun to shake it up. The truth is, you could probably make a record on anything and it would be great because the room is great,” he tells us, once again evoking the power of the room.
Collectively, both studios today represent two sides of a sonic time capsule, preserving a golden era of sound. Studio B maintains the spirit historically, while Studio A does so through the music, utilizing many of the same methods that were pioneered all those years ago. “I've heard this was Chet's playground,” Cobb says. “There's a light in the back of the room, on the left side, that they've left on for Chet for years. Ben Folds did it the entirety of being here and we continue the tradition.” Chet’s light lives on, in the studios and on the hundreds of incredible records born and shaped there, the Nashville sound immortalized.