Blackbird Recording Studios is one of the most in-demand facilities in Nashville, particularly Studio A, with a custom redesigned Neve console.
Booking a session to use that board has never been easier for producers and engineers. Accessing its unique sound is now as simple as opening the laptop.
Blackbird owner John McBride — who co-founded the studios with wife Martina McBride, naming it after a Beatles song — signed an extensive deal with Nashville-based KIT Plugins to develop a line of digital tools that will let audio specialists re-create Blackbird gear on their own computers. It doesn’t allow them to acquire the sound of the actual Studio A space — not unless they have access to a site with the same exact dimensions, materials and electronic wiring — but it does provide a way to use Blackbird-level equipment in a variety of other atmospheres: garages, home studios, live venues or even the beach.
The BB N105 plug-in, which mimics the characteristics of Blackbird’s custom Neve 8078 board, was released a day early on June 21 after a high-tech review appeared on a YouTube channel on June 17 and spurred demand. The product is an early installment in a long-term program, which may eventually offer plug-ins that mirror 100 different pieces of Blackbird equipment. It’s an unprecedented step in branding the studio, making the quality of its machines widely available while maintaining the exclusive nature of its rooms.
“Where I think having the plug-in is really cool is you can record in a studio, and then you can go home and go, ‘You know, I really wish we did a little more with that vocal on the console,’” says KIT Plugins CEO/founder Matthew Kleinman. “You don’t have to fly back from wherever you’re from, bring the whole band back and rerecord it. You can open up the plug-in, and you can make that tweak. It’s not replacing Blackbird. It’s giving people who have access to Blackbird the ability to take it with them.”
The Neve board is a much-discussed piece of equipment. Originally installed in Motown’s Los Angeles studios in the late 1970s, it was purchased by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who cut the pristine 1982 album The Nightfly — featuring “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” (No. 8, Top Adult Contemporary) — through that console.
John McBride acquired the board when Blackbird was founded in 2002, enlisting Aurora Audio president Geoff Tanner — a former Neve employee considered the foremost authority on the company’s products — to restore and upgrade it. Just one of numerous examples of their commitment to quality during the restoration: McBride used Black Gate capacitors, currently priced from $60-$1,450 on eBay, during the rebuild instead of lesser capacitors, often priced under $1.
That same console has since supported country recordings by the likes of Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Dolly Parton, as well as blues guitarist Buddy Guy, rocker Dave Stewart and Queen, who tracked for the movie Bohemian Rhapsody at Studio A.
McBride had long resisted involvement in plug-ins, which make it possible for producers such as Ross Copperman or Dan + Shay’s Dan Smyers to alter or reimagine sounds with a few clicks on a keyboard. The sound quality was previously lower than McBride found suitable, but KIT committed to match the personality of the Blackbird equipment. That included designing the online controls to approximate the look and feel of the real gear, but also to mimic the eccentricities in a particular piece.
Where most computer programs would offer the same sound quality at any volume or frequency across the spectrum, the actual board begins to distort sound at various levels as an engineer turns the knob, and it’s those alterations that give a console its character. McBride’s ears were essential for KIT in re-creating that real-world dynamic.
“The sound of that Neve is special,” says McBride. “I’ve seen this happen numerous times where someone would bring their tracks in, the engineer set it up, the producer walked in and said, ‘What’d you do [to get that sound]?’ ‘Well, I just ran him through the console.’ They have their own color.”
The Neve plug-in is selling for $99.99, with a voucher for a one-year subscription once more Blackbird plug-ins are developed. Eventually, the subscriptions — likely to cost about $180 annually — will cover a range of plug-ins that emulate the studio’s hardware.
Other studios have endorsed individual plug-ins, according to McBride and Kleinman, and some — including Abbey Road — have had software developed that re-created specific audio gear from their facilities.
But the Blackbird/KIT partnership is supposedly the most ambitious such program to date, covering a wider array of its sonic tools. Not only is the deal likely to create a new revenue stream for the studio, which also operates the Blackbird Academy, but it also provides an extra layer of protection.
“God forbid we have a fire or something happens here and that console is destroyed,” says McBride. “Now I’m not quite as worried about that because we have what I believe is almost an exact representation of what that console does.”
Additionally, the program might be building a future generation of music makers. Hunter Hayes, for example, taught himself to write and record quality tracks in his bedroom before moving to Nashville. Had he been able to access Blackbird-quality software, it might have further enhanced the trajectory of his learning curve. And since plug-ins are a digital product, that opportunity extends not only to kids in America, but to developing musicians in Australia, Europe, Asia and Africa.
“You take [progressive bluegrass whiz] Chris Thile, these kinds of guys that can play everything,” says McBride. “All of a sudden, they just got $1 million worth of gear for 15 bucks a month. That’s pretty great. Let’s hope it creates the next Beatles.”
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