30 Years / 30 Studios is a new blog series highlighting some of the studios Vintage King has helped during our three decades in pro audio. We'll talk with studio owners, engineers, and producers about how they got their start, where they are heading, and all the gear they've picked up along the way.

Learn more about Vintage King's 30th anniversary here.

Even before you delve into its illustrious past, Ocean Way Nashville gives the impression of being a unique studio, and with good reason—it's housed in a 100-year-old Gothic Revival stone church; serves as a commercial facility and is also a classroom in conjunction with Belmont University; and it has its own headphone mixing plug-in which models the acoustics and monitoring of its famed control rooms.

Founded in 1996 by Allen Sides and Gary Belz and purchased from the founders in 2001 by Belmont University, Ocean Way Nashville has been home to some of the music industry’s biggest names including Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger, Amy Grant, Kenny Rogers, Blake Shelton, The Judds, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Dolly Parton, to name a few. In addition to album recordings, the studio has also established itself as the place to record film scores and video game music for some of the biggest companies in the world. 

The studio is at the heart of the Nashville music scene and the baton was recently passed to Joe Baldridge (Director) and Austin Atwood (Operations Manager) to carry forward its legacy. They sat down with us to talk about the studio’s storied history, building a supportive music community in Nashville, what they love about working with Vintage King, and their goals for the future of Ocean Way Nashville.

Ocean Way Nashville is both a commercial facility and a classroom, in conjunction with Belmont University–tell us more about that and how it influences the day-to-day operations of the studio.

Austin: We have both experienced this from different sides–me, taking classes in the building and Joe being a faculty member for more than a decade, and now dealing with both the commercial and the academic side. It's evolved a lot over the years and we continue to evolve both the commercial side of the studio and the academic involvement, but it's a pretty cool marriage of concepts. The way it's worked historically is, you have students that have access to the facility and take classes here; eventually, they have the opportunity to be a student staff engineer, which would be an intern at most studios, but they have fairly direct access to setting up and helping out on sessions. Then when they graduate, some of them go off and join other studios and some of them stay here, start assisting, and begin the natural engineering progression. 

Over the years it's kind of gone up and down in terms of how much academic involvement there's been in the studio, aside from student staff engineers. Right now, for eight months of the year, two of our rooms are classrooms and we teach several courses: Joe teaches a master mixing class, we have an intermediate recording course and an advanced recording workshop class with Ed Seay, and we have a mastering class. Meanwhile, Studio A is running every day with either a high-profile artist or an orchestra. It's pretty interesting to see–you get students coming in at 7:30 or 8 in the morning, you get clients coming in about 9:30 am and it's just a revolving door. It's cool as a student, you know, you're showing up for class and you see Kevin Shirley or you see Keith Urban or whoever is walking around, and you stay cool, you just go into your class and you think, “Okay, if I do well in here, maybe in a few years I'll be in that room on that session.”

It has gone through periods of growing pains, but we're refining it day by day. Joe and I are both new to our positions here, Pat McMakin and Steven Crowder were this duo for 15 years; Pat retired in September, Steven left in August, and they left us in a great place. So Joe and I are just trying to jump off from where they left it and make the classes more efficient, make the sessions more efficient. 

What sets your studio apart from other recording spaces?

Austin: Well, there are plenty of studios in churches, but there are not a lot of studios that feel quite like this. Like I said before, walking into a room and seeing a custom, vintage 80-channel Neve is pretty impressive and sets it apart, but I think the thing that we’re trying to continue and has always set this place apart to me is the culture and the community. We've experienced it occasionally at other studios and plenty of times not at other studios, but there is a community of creativity here where you have people working in different rooms and people walking down the hall to see what someone else is working on; people stopping by on their lunch break from other studios to say hi to the musicians; I think that's what we are hoping continues to set us apart, and that's how I've always felt about this place. 

Joe: Well said! I think the best environment is that sort of the epicenter of creativity–you could look at the Brill Building in New York, you could look at Motown in Detroit; I think people gravitate to the rooms that have that, and we have a lot of shared dreams and a lot of shared visions in studios. We're doing a lot to build community within the management of the different studios, which has been spearheaded by folks at Curb Studios and Starstruck; it invites everyone in and everyone is able to build community and have good insight and discussions about the different challenges we face. We just started having that with engineers from the community as well, and we’re starting to form a network to meet and discuss workflows and standards, and then continue to adapt and elevate the standards of the community as a whole. I think those sorts of things really set us apart at Ocean Way and in Nashville.

What's something people might not know about your studio?

Joe: An interesting thing I've learned is that Tennessee Williams’ grandfather was the first inhabitant of the home and the church. Tennessee Williams and his siblings played here, and he wrote that the happiest time in his life was here with his grandparents, going to the Parthenon in Centennial Park, and through Scarritt College and Vanderbilt.

Many people might not know that the building has also served as a community center for entrepreneurship as well as health, and it has almost a sort of spiritual purpose. There was maybe a dark period, spiritually, but it has primarily had a very positive influence; it’s been great with Belmont University and also an independent entrepreneur in audio like Mike Curb, who has given quite a lot. There's a positive legacy of finding success and giving back to the community; lifting up others to create a place where people can have ideas to create intellectual property and learn about the business. So I kind of feel like Allen Sides, Gary Belz, Mike Curb, and Dr. Bob Fisher, the former President of Belmont University, pulled this into existence and here we are, 20-plus years later, with an incredible foundation to build upon.

Photograph by Ed Rode

Can you tell us about some of the most memorable artists you've worked with over the years?

Austin: Memorable can mean a lot of things when you're an engineer. [Laughs] We’ll stick to memorable ‘good’. There are probably too many to list, but some of the earliest sessions I got to assist or engineer were really memorable. One of the first ones I can remember was Steve Marcantonio working on a John Lennon tribute, which was my first experience watching someone get sounds in that room and it was amazing. Then the first session that I got to be a fly on the wall as a second assistant would have been Bob Seger with Justin Niebank engineering–this was also when Drew Bollman was still assisting, and now he's nominated for ACM Engineer of the Year alongside Justin. I was hanging out in the back of the room plugging in DIs and giving Bob a new lighter every 10 minutes because he's the last person they still let smoke indoors and would chain smoke on these sessions.

Joe: Oh, yeah. I don't miss cigarettes in studios! [Laughs]

Austin: He walks into the booth and the first thing you hear is a lighter over the microphone.

Joe: In fact, I was in the hall on one of those Bob Seger sessions and one of the guitar players took me right through the Ocean Way Studio A control room and opened the door and I nearly ran into Bob Seger who was sitting at the mic with his cigarette and doing a vocal! That just blew me away because I grew up in the Midwest and we were just always playing Bob Seger songs. There are always those different sessions that were not traditional; I would always get the call from engineers that I looked up to and wanted to be around, and as Austin said, if you could be around those great engineers like Steve Marcantonio, Richard Dodd, Pete Coleman, Justin Niebank, Chuck Ainlay and observe what they were doing, it was an amazing thing.

Scott Borchetta made a Waylon Jennings tribute album after Waylon passed, and Reggie Young was on that session with Alabama. That was the first time Alabama had played together and even been in the same room together,­ for ten years and I got to engineer that at Ocean Way Studio A. That was amazing, we had learned those songs and I had been to see them live in 1982, so to actually be there recording them singing a Waylon song was a really interesting experience.

I also got to record Kenny Rogers. How that happened was, two of my friends in England–one of whom was an Ivor Novello award-winner—were making a duets record for Engelbert Humperdinck, who had just won Eurovision. Engelbert wanted to do a duet with Kenny, on the song She Believes In Me, and my friend, rather than traveling, had done all the strings and sent everything to me to record Kenny. Now Kenny’s manager had asked for a favor to get it done fast, because he had a really busy schedule, so I had everything ready to go. The drill was that the second they put on the headphones, you have to have the sound, the effects and everything sound great and ready to go because you're going to have to start recording immediately. It's a very similar story with Dolly Parton and lots of other artists as well. 

Kenny went out there and sang the part, and he enjoyed the track so much that he said, “I believe that this is better than the original, I want to sing the whole thing”, and he did it in the original key, and he did the octave or two-octave flip. At the beginning, he's like an octave below where it is and then at one point he does an octave above, so he travels two octaves in the song, and he's like 73 or 74 years old! It was just unbelievable. It was a song I grew up listening to and there he was, singing everything in the original key, and he's pretty much kicking its ass! 

How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?

Austin: Vintage King was around when my career was getting started. At the time, they didn't have a physical presence in Nashville, but through friends, mentors, and engineers, I knew of their reputation. The first real purchase I ever made was from Vintage King. When I was starting out and putting together a basic rig I did the thing that everybody does–you get quotes from all of the different companies; this was the most money I had spent on anything in my life, and it wasn’t crazy, but I was spending what a college student could save in four years. I bought the original Apollo FireWire, which I still have now, although it took me 10 years to finally add the Thunderbolt card; I bought a Tube-Tech Compressor, an API pre, and whatever headphones I could afford at that point. I thought “I’m putting all the money I've saved for a few years into a few pieces of gear and I kind of want a little insurance policy with that”; because if one of those things broke, I didn’t know what I’d do. But I knew that Vintage King had a good reputation for service as well.  

Joe: There was a lot of equipment made in the ‘80s that was still in studios in the ‘90s that was counterintuitive to what people were trying to capture in the ‘90s, so people were going back to find Telefunkens, and actual Neve preamps, like the 1272s, 1073s, 1066s. Vintage King was the company that could sort out making them powered and wired and stable to be carried around in racks; because you had these studio facilities with great consoles, but primarily the engineers were rolling in all this equipment to use it over the auxiliary equipment in the studios. My introduction to Vintage King was from how they could rack up vintage equipment, clean it up, and have it operate properly. Then it was probably the transition into digital, purchasing original Mackie UAD cards, that grew into actually having a rep East of the Mississippi–Jason Salzman in Atlanta. The fine people at Vintage King are great consultants with technology and integration as it keeps moving forward.

How has Vintage King helped you with gear selection, purchasing, and servicing in the past?

Joe: Right before COVID, we went to Vintage King and I think it was Fadi Hayek from SSL and Vintage King’s James Good in the showroom, working on the SSL Origin. We tested and listened and that led to us purchasing two of those consoles, and we'll probably get two or three more because they have proven to be great. Vintage King has representation that understands what's going on in the studio and what's going on from the different audio manufacturing companies. They’re liaising those relationships and making those available to the community at large. It has been really positive because there are always more things being created and added to what a studio needs to offer and what an engineer needs to know about; they've been a good partner in that with the manufacturers and the users.

What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?

Austin: The thing that has been different from our other experiences is the conversations that we're having right now; we're looking at the future of what Studios A and B look like here and the nice thing is, it's not that we send a shopping list and we get the products–it's a conversation of what's possible, where things are headed and what manufacturers are moving towards. So that relationship has been cool because it's not just a sales call, it is a conversation of where we're trying to be, you know, two years, five years, ten years from now.

Joe: Yeah, it's advisory you know–technical advice from a person who is informed, who can understand what it is that you're actually trying to do and make high-quality suggestions as to what would be a better direction, while not even necessarily pointing to a singular manufacturer. It's like, “If this is what you want to do, these different options combined would solve that and you don't really need that more expensive gear.” Then all of a sudden you're moving from dream to possibility, and you're being able to make it work better within your budget.

How has the industry changed since you first opened your doors and how has your studio adapted to those changes?

Joe: What we were just talking about ties into that–you want to have a strong brand. You want these different luminary brands of audio, like Abbey Road, Air Studios, Ocean Way, Power Station, and United–you want to have that attached to future-forward availability that doesn't necessarily require someone to be in the physical space. You want to plant in people's minds, “At some point, I want to actually physically be there and experience it for real; not just experience an iteration of it digitally.” 

Looking back on the last 30 years, what are you most proud of or excited about in terms of your studio's history?

Joe: We're still open. [Laughs]

That says a lot, actually.

Joe: Yeah, it does say a lot! You had to make some hard decisions, but we had that sort of vision and that stability to still be here, so that's something to be proud of. We inherited it, but the thing that you want to do is keep it open.

What are your plans for the future of your studio?

Austin: Like many of our peers have talked about, we're not just making a record, we are creating media. It's not just an mp3 or a stereo mix anymore, it's often a video or something immersive, or a video game; it can take many different forms, and it can be delivered by any number of services. So trying to better serve our clients in ways that we can holistically capture and produce all kinds of media, I think, is a big focus.

Joe: I feel like with the legacy of the studio, the staff and personnel that we have here now, is to create an experience that helps an artist not be intimidated walking into that room; we want it to be the place, in the now, where their best performance occurs and to have an understanding of how difficult it can be for a person to put forward their idea or their performance. You have to respect that, help facilitate it, and make it happen with as little drama as possible. We get constant feedback from clients and the goal is to not have the emails saying “This was the problem.” Although, you know, I don't know if we've gotten one of those in a long time–the emails we’re getting now say, “This was an incredible experience. Whatever's going on, bottle it and send it out to us.”

Photograph by Ed Rode

Photograph by Ed Rode

Photograph by Ed Rode

Photograph by Ed Rode


James GoodIf you're interested in purchasing gear for your studio, we're here to help! Please contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.