Building Musical Bridges
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When renowned producer, engineer and music industry guru Mark Hornsby came to Sweetwater Sound more than four years ago to be its director of music production and artist relations, he had a mission.
“My charge, my mission in life on the ground in Fort Wayne,” he said, “was to pair up these great facilities, these great studios, here at Sweetwater with great artists and make these studios an artist destination.”
In 2016, Hornsby and others at Sweetwater started to feel comfortable enough to say, “Mission accomplished.”
“(We’ve seen) all different types of artists from different genres,” he said. “From the guys in Megadeth and Anthrax to contemporary Christian artists like Steven Curtis Chapman and Russ Taff to progressive rock like the guys from Dream Theater and Tony Levin.”
Jazz legends like Peter Erskine and Antonio Sanchez have traveled to Fort Wayne to record, Hornsby said, as has guitarist Carl Verheyen, who was a touring component of Supertramp in its glory days and returned to the band in 2010 to become a permanent member.
“An exhaustive list of Who’s Who artists from all over the world,” he said. “There’s a pedigree to that type of service.”
When Sweetwater helped reboot a venerable local Battle of the Bands contest last year, Hornsby said a lot of people got to thinking.
“I think unanimously, from (WXKE DJ) Doc West to myself – everybody involved, really – we all said the same thing: ‘You know, we’ve got a lot of great talent in this town.’
“Sweetwater has always been supportive of that,” Hornsby said. “I just started talking to all these guys. It seems like there was a desire to come here. They wanted to come here; they wanted to record here. But cost is an issue.”
So Hornsby said he started some internal discussions at Sweetwater.
“Sweetwater is first and foremost dedicated to the community,” he said. “The artists who been have taking up most of the time here – who fly in and camp out here – are usually not here nights and weekends.
“So we thought, ‘What if we open studios on nights and weekends on case-by-case basis and offer the studios at a discounted rate to people in our backyard, to the local community, at a discounted rate?'” Hornsby said. “‘We can provide them better opportunities in recording their music and continue to give back to community and contribute to the music community like we already do.'”
Hornsby said the special, discounted rate will be “$50 an hour for local, working musicians.”
The 10,000-foot view on that, he said, is a variation on a rising tide raises all boats: When Sweetwater helps the local community, the local community gives back to Sweetwater in myriad ways.
And so on and so on.
Do-it-yourself recording technology grows cheaper and more sophisticated every year, but there are things musicians can get at Sweetwater that they can’t get anywhere else, Hornsby said.
“Obviously there’s the acoustical structure of these multimillion dollar rooms that were designed by Russ Berger,” he said. “They don’t have that at home. And if you’re a band … having a good sounding room is kind of important.”
Then there’s the experience of the staff, Hornsby said.
“Aside from making this an artist destination,” he said, “the past several years we’ve brought in a Who’s Who staff of engineers, producers and musicians. We can use the easy language and say these people have won Grammys and Dove Awards, but the more important statement is that they each have 20, 30 – sometimes 40 – years of experience making records in cities like Nashville, New York and L.A.”
Hornsby said there’s over 200 years of accrued experience in his team.
“You don’t have that when you’re buying gear … at home,” he said.
Jordan Applegate, who works in human resources for Sweetwater and who recorded music there with his band Soul35, described collaborating with that team as “an experience.”
“That’s the only word for it,” he said. “The staff for the studios are among the top as producers and engineers in the nation, and they have as much if not more overall knowledge of the gear. In previous studio experiences I spent more time and money allowing the engineer to fix something technically than actually recording. In both of the sessions I had at Sweetwater, there wasn’t a single technical issue that took away time from recording. I worked with Dan Ankney for one session and Mark Hornsby for the other. Both were very professional and truly accommodated to our group’s needs, which allowed us to trust them to handle the session and gave us the freedom to stay in our creative lane as the artists.”
Local pianist Alicia Pyle, who teaches at Sweetwater, recorded her quartet’s first CD there and was similarly satisfied.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “We had a lot of fun. World-class microphones. Gorgeous Yamaha C7 piano. It was really fantastic.”
There really isn’t a facility like Sweetwater outside of the cities that most people automatically associate with the music business, Applegate said.
“There are multiple things that are available at Sweetwater that aren’t in other studios,” he said. “The amount of gear that Sweetwater Studios has access to is unmatched. Being on-site at one of the nation’s largest music retailer allows artists the opportunity to have the most options for mics, amps and all types of other gear to help create their unique sound. Even more important than the gear is the staff, the most knowledgeable in the industry.”
Pyle said everyone employed by Sweetwater is held to an exactingly high standard.
“There is a very, very high level of customer service satisfaction expected,” she said. “It’s called ‘The Sweetwater Difference.’ So everybody that works there really makes sure that customers happy, comfortable and getting exactly what they came for.
“‘The Sweetwater Difference,’ is evident in every department of that company,” Pyle said. “It’s a very high achieving company for a reason.”
Hornsby said Sweetwater employs nearly three times as many people now as when he joined, and that has meant a massive influx of musical talent into Fort Wayne.
Add to that number the local kids who have grown up availing themselves of Sweetwater’s equipment and educational opportunities and you have the makings of a music scene that will only get stronger and more vibrant.
“The Henry family, Wooden Nickel, Adams Radio Group, whatzup magazine” he said. “You’ve got all these people supporting art. There’s a storm brewing, so to speak. A synergy is coming together. And that’s why we want to do this.”
“If you want to go cheesy: You give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. You teach someone to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. That’s where we are with our local artists and younger artists. One or two people are going to come out of here and it’s going to put us on the map just like Seattle in the 90s.”