After achieving a production sound that turned heads around the world and functioning in a makeshift state for a year and a half, Niles City Sound in Fort Worth is finally ready to open. The studio where Leon Bridges recorded his debut album, Coming Home, was built with a focus on putting a live band in a single room below a distinctive elevated control booth. Most of Niles City’s equipment is vintage, if not antique. But it's not a time capsule.
“It’s really hard to get good sound with shitty modern gear,” says Chris Vivion. The partner more or less known as manager of Niles City Sound, he was also Leon Bridge’s touring manager for several months and played in PVC Street Gang. He looks at the vintage equipment in the elevated control booth. There is a Collins radio console from the 1940s, rare custom-made equalizers from Capitol studios in New York, compressors from the 1950s and a board from the 1970s.
They have two multi-track recorders that were used to record most of the live records from the Grateful Dead; one has a dent in the back of it from when a drunk driver hit it after a show at The Fillmore. “There are parts in there that are 30 to 50 years old," Vivion explains. "Things give out, just like an old car, and you have to replace them.” But using equipment built to a higher standard is worth the trouble.
The purpose of gathering this gear wasn’t to create a vintage studio. This is a studio built piece by piece with whatever made the best sound. Vivion points out that you could spend the same money on contemporary equipment that technically does the same things, but not as effectively. “It’ll work,” he says. “But so does a Kia.”
“The mindset of design these days is just different,” Vivion continues. “This was all designed to military specifications. It’s built like a tank and made out of the highest grade components that were available at the time.” Much of the equipment available today seems to be designed with the profit margin in mind. Studio equipment was arguably perfected in the '60s, if not earlier, and it’s just been about making it cheaper and smaller ever since.
Austin Jenkins, who currently plays guitar for Bridges, is the partner who gravitates toward producing and A&R. “You go and buy a $4,000 amplifier,” he says. “But you open it up and find the cheapest capacitors you could possible buy, like 20 cents.” Cutting corners to produce a product in bulk lessens the quality and it has become the norm among manufacturers. Jenkins can’t understand how someone could create an expensive piece of gear and then try to save a couple dollars on its insides.
“It’s such a labor of love,” Jenkins adds. The equipment and design are what’s best for their preferred method of recording, which is their primary concern. The idea is simply to try to capture the energy of great musicians performing in arrangements. “I just want to be able to help people turn what they are doing into something that sounds great live,” Jenkins continues. “To me that’s the most transformative: a show that can be entertaining, sonically amazing, and emotional. I’d like this place to be a workshop for that.”
Musicians were also held to a different standard when most of this equipment was being used. “Back then professional musicians had to be on their game,” Vivion says. “You couldn’t just go in and edit tiny little mistakes.” It isn’t always possible to record a band live, but that’s what they aim for. Vivion thinks that moving away from this approach may be detrimental to creating a cohesive body of work, like a great album.
By today’s scientific standards, the room is not sonically perfect. This was intentional. The records they admire were not recorded in sterile environments, but rooms that made their own sounds. Many modern studios do not have any sound or signature. “The idea when they design them is to get this room as clean as possible with .5 seconds of reverb,” Jenkins says. “In theory, all modern studios could sound identical,” Vivion adds. “But the room itself is a piece of gear and you learn how to use that.”
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Every part of the studio’s design was meant to be listened to, not looked at it. But this is visually one of the most jaw-dropping studios in Dallas-Fort Worth. The studio is 1,300 square feet with a 17-foot ceiling, and the floor, laid in a herringbone pattern, is 100 years old. The elevated control booth makes an incredible first impression; you won’t confuse this place with anywhere else.
The studio just acquired a meticulously restored 1894 Chickering piano, made from an enormous piece of mahogany and spruce. With a crystalline top-end, a big, heavy bass and moderate midrange, it’s a studio piano you could use to play Chopin. There is also a Hammond organ plugged into '60s speakers with rotating horns.
Many studios operate for decades without producing a single hit record. But Coming Home is a huge album and the production is one of the most striking things about it. The sound achieved by Niles City is organic and raw, built from the improvisation of live performances. Separating a band into isolation booths simply isn’t an option here. “Something that’s completely isolated sounds that way,” says Vivion.
If Niles made Coming Home in an embryonic state, we can only imagine what it's capable of doing with Bridges’ next album later this year. So far their routine has been to set up the equipment, record, break it down and get back to work on the studio’s construction. “It’s going to be easy now,” Vivion says. “There have been a lot of hoops jumped.”