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Pat McMakin

Saving a Way of Life

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Pat McMakin the legendary recording studio engineer, producer and studio manager is pictured in the control room of Studio A at Ocean Way Recording Studios where he is the Director of Studio Operations. Image courtesy of Pat McMakin. 

When Pat McMakin became the studio manager at Ocean Way Recording Studios in 2008, he had already been an incredibly successful engineer, producer and recording studio facility manager for more than twenty-five years. He had worked on successful albums for such artists as Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Exile, Vern Gosdin, Highway 101, George Jones, Tracy Lawrence, David Kersh, Aaron Tippin, Shenandoah, Brooks and Dunn, Lonestar, and *NSYNCH. He was taking the reigns at one of the greatest recording studio facilities in the world and a place that had become an educational center for students from Bellmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. But, the world of music recording had changed dramatically over the course of the past decade due to the exponential growth in the popularity and use of digital audio workstations. This change also lead to the development of a new boom in home recording, as artists, engineers and producers began creating their own spaces for recording their music. Almost overnight, what had once been venerable recording studio facilities where some of the greatest music of the country music boom of the 1990s such as The SoundShop, Emerald Recording Studios and Seventeen Grand Recording Studios, had each closed their doors. In almost every case, a former recording studio facility where great music had once been made was swallowed-up by an investor and the properties were turned into apartments, condos or restaurants. Music City, USA, was slowly becoming a place where great music was no longer being made. He had seen it coming. But, now he knew that it would be up to people like him to try to do something about it, so that artists, engineers, producers and musicians would continue to have a place where great music could still be made on a grand scale— as it had been since the late 1960s in Nashville, Tennessee.

Pat McMakin first came to Nashville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1974 and on that first visit, he fell in love with Music Row and wanted become a part of the process of making great music. After graduating from Bellmont University’s music business program in 1978, he took a position the very next next year at a recording studio facility called Audio Media. Audio Media was a unique recording studio facility in that unlike the other studio facilities in Nashville, it did so much more than just music recording, including: publishing demos, jingles, sound-alikes and music for both television programs and sound for film. In Nashville, Audio Media was somewhat of an outlier, but it gave him the experience of working with a wide variety of clientele and in how to run a recording studio facility. Beginning in 1982, he would manage the Sony Tree International family of recording studio facilities until moving to become the studio manager at Ocean Way Recording Studios in 2008. During that time, he had also established himself as one of the top engineers and producers in both country and pop music. By the time he took the position of studio manager at Ocean Way Recording Studios, he was the both the experienced and consumate music business professional who was revered by everyone in the music business community. He had experienced the growth and evolution of the industry since 1979, but the prior challenges that he had faced up to that point in time had never been as dire. In a way, the success of the recording studio business model in Nashville was in effect, also what was tearing the industry apart. He had seen it coming, too.

From 1980-1988, country music was on the periphery of the music business radar. Despite the popularity of the film, Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5,  country music took a back seat in popularity to the pop and rock music which dominated the airwaves of the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Heart, Chicago, Bon Jovi and Whitney Houston dominated the rock and pop scene— along with dozens of other acts and even more one-hit wonders. It was a decade in which the pop and rock music scenes were characterized by big sounds— big drums, big guitars and mega-theatrical concert productions. By contrast, country music limped along throughout the decade, though Dolly Parton, Ronnie Millsap, Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell, Charley Pride and Don Williams, among the older generation of country music artists (a few of whom had roots in popular music, with the exception of Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell and Charley Pride) continued to chart hit songs throughout the decade. New artists such as Johnny Lee, Earl Thomas Conley, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Steve Wariner, Keith Whitley and the musical group Alabama, dominated the country music charts throughout the decade, but none of these artists with the exception of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers up to that point in time had demonstrated that their commercial success and appeal could cross into other genres of music. But, as country music began to emerge out of the decade of the 1980s, one particular performer vaulted the genre into the global conscience in 1989— Garth Brooks. As the popularity of pop and rock music began to wane during the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, it was replaced by an ascendant country music revolution. Nevermind the fact that the country music of the 1990s sounded quite a bit like the rock and pop music of the 1970s and 1980s, even going so far as to adopt the mega-theatrical concert productions similar to those of their counterparts of the pop and rock stars of an earlier decade. In fact, beginning in the late 1980s, a number of amazing engineers and producers from the world of pop and rock music began making their homes in Nashville, Tennessee, and becoming important players in the new and burgeoning music scene. In turn, it wasn’t just the sound of country music that changed as its popularity soared, so did the model for doing business in the recording studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and the surrounding metro area, by the end of the decade. 

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Pat McMakin is on the far right of this photograph. In this image, Nick Spezia, Alan Umstead, Steve Schnur and Trevor Morris and their production team are pictured at Ocean Way Recording Studios. Image courtesy of Pat McMakin. 

As country music became more and more popular throughout the decade of the 1990s, new recording studio facilities were continually built and those that were there prior to the boom began expanding their facilities to continue to perpetuate the growth of the genre. Keep in mind, that all of this expansion was occurring prior to the growth and development of digital audio workstations. Some of the older facilities upgraded both their control rooms and consoles. At the time, the SSL-9000J console was a popular addition to make for an upgrade for an older facility to replace aging console models. A few facilities upgraded with new API consoles, as well.  And a number of aging facilities expanded the number of rooms and the acoustic quality of them during this period. New studios that were also very large appeared during this period— some of them employed quite a few assistant engineers and technicians— including Ocean Way Recording Studios in 1996. I was actually in Nashville during this period and as an assistant engineer for a major record producer, I worked in a number of these facilities and of course, noticed the new facilities that were appearing on almost every street corner by 1998. I even thought to myself, at the time, that there was absolutely no way that this mode of business could continue. After all, one major recording studio was in an office suite next to a sandwich shop. You could literally walk down from Curb Studio, where I was working at the time, in any given direction and pass by a number of major recording studio facilities. They were everywhere. But, I also recognized at the time, that my production team was using Pro-Tools (not for tracking, but mostly for vocal editing and tuning) and a number of engineers and producers were beginning to buy units and put them into smaller home-based or small footprint recording studio facilities. I reasoned— even at the time— that sooner or later it might become the standard for recording music and the home studio or small foot-print model, the basis for the industry. And, of course, a Pro-Tools system at any time was always so much cheaper than purchasing a massive analog console like an SSL 9000J. By the time I visited my friends at Curb Studio in the summer of 2007, the studio manager Craig White had told me, “I never use those machines (the Mittsubishi X-850, or the Studer A-827). I just use this rig (the Pro-Tools workstation) for almost all of the work that I am doing now.” While I found what he said to be interesting, I also thought to myself— there will be tremendous ramifications for the adoption of that format. I knew it would be a game-changer, but, so did someone else who had seen it coming long before I did— Pat McMakin. 

From 1998-2007, digital audio workstations began their ascent in the professional music recording industry. From the beginning, older studios were slow to catch on to the transition— even in Nashville, despite the fact that producers in the Nashville metro area had been using them for quite some time. But by 2007, most of the major producers were beginning to adopt the idea that digital audio workstations could allow them to be able to do more than just vocal editing and tuning in a home studio environment. In fact, over the course of the next five years, as software plugins began to mimic or in some cases replace vintage outboard gear altogether, producers began to see that even the process of mixing their projects could also be done in the home studio environment, as well. For the major recording studio facilities this was a disaster in the making. Plus, due to the advent and growth of streaming services, record companies were not bringing in the tremendous revenues that they had once made— which meant that budgets for music projects were greatly diminished. During that five year stretch from 2007-2012, a number of major recording studio facilities in Nashville, New York City and Los Angeles— and all across the country……closed their doors. In the summer of 2012, Pat McMakin sat alone in the control room of Ocean Way Recording Studio. The studio had not been booked for almost a month. He realized that something had to be done, or even Ocean Way Recording Studio would close its doors, too. It would turn from just keeping the doors of one studio open to a crusade to save Music Row, itself. It would not be easy. It would also mean having to pull together people who had for so long been competitors to one another in order to save the system.

For Pat McMakin, the first order of business was to be able to keep the doors open at Ocean Way Recording Studios. In order to be able to do that, he would have to creatively reach out to bring new business into the studio, and at the same time, keep the facility primed for its work with country music clientele who were still coming to the facility to track their projects. The solution came from his past. At Audio Media, the first studio that he worked in as a young engineer, the facility had done a wide range of projects— jingles, sound-alikes, music, documentaries, and sound for television and film. Ironically, though it would take some time to make it work, Ocean Way Recording Studios began to see a steady stream of business from producers who were brought television and film soundtrack projects to the facility. But perhaps the most surprising new set of clients came from an unlikely place— the video game industry.  He would have a formidible ally, Steve Schnur, who is the head of music at EA (Electronic Arts). He was among the first of many clients to bring his projects in the gaming industry in Los Angeles to Nashville and it started to give the process legitimacy. For so long, the major Nashville recording studio facilities had just been built from the ground up around the sole purpose of just recording country music. Under his leadership, Ocean Way Recording Studios now began to diversify its clientele. It worked. Not only did the doors to the studio remain open for business, but musicians, engineers and technicians went back to work. Slowly, it began the revival of an industry and provided a blueprint for the success of future facilities, as well. But, it did not stop the bleeding immediately, as recording studios continued to shutter their operations and as high-rise apartments and condominium units began to dot the landscape of what had once been an exclusive area in Nashville for making music. He quickly realized that it was not just about providing for the success of one facility, it was about saving both a community and too, a way of life for so many people. 

From 2012-2019, Ocean Way Recording Studios under the leadership of Pat McMakin began to see an influx of new clientele in addition to the country music projects that it had seen throughout its history of almost twenty years in operation. Film and television programs began to bring their projects to the venerable studio facility from both Los Angeles and New York City. Video game companies began to bring their soundtrack projects to the facility from all over the country. Orchestras, choirs and projects from different genres of popular music began to be recorded in the facility. Pat McMakin knew from experience that the recording studio system of business— the model that had existed in the Nashville metro area for so long— which was based solely on recording music (either country music or Christian contemporary) could not exist for much longer in its present incarnation. He also realized that recording studios have one major asset that home recording studios and small-footprint recording studio ventures just simply could not provide for a client and their project— great acoustic spaces for creative work. But, he also realized that for the system to survive their had to be incentives to lure these projects to Nashville, due to the fact that so many of the film, television and video game companies were based in places like Los Angeles, New York City,  Austin and Seattle. The other elephant in the room was that the Music Row area was increasingly becoming a residential area as apartments, condominiums and restaurants were beginning to crop up where recording studio facilities had been, while other smaller and medium-sized recording studio facilities were struggling to keep their doors open. It was a two-pronged issue— bringing in new clientle from out of state on the one hand, but while doing so, trying to find a way to somehow preserve the Music Row community from development. It would take a herculean effort to convince a number of stakeholders, including local, county and state officials that an economic package that would have significant cultural and historical implications would be needed for a way of life to survive for future generations of musicians, engineers and producers.

Pat McMakin knew that political officials are essentially driven by two diametrically opposing forces— making money through economic growth and enhancing their reputations so that they can continue to stay in their positions of authority. In other words, (in his mind) the politics of the issue should be based-on getting a win for each of the stakeholders involved in the process. He did. There were two issues on the table— one was about the effort to acquire tax incentives for being able to land projects from out of state (particularly film and video game projects) and the other, involved the preservation of Music Row, so that the development in the area could come to a halt (allowing music to continue to be made in the neighborhood). Through a series of meetings and consultations with local, county and state officials, he was able to achieve (along with a group of other influential music business professionals and advocates) a business partnership and incentive program that was similar to what could be found in other states. He refers to it as the “Scoring Bill,” and its passage was a tremendous achievement that has made a difference. It has helped to start the process of bringing more and more clients in the film, television and the gaming industries to Nashville and to Memphis, as well. The group that he was a key leader of would also achieve the creation of what is now called the Music Row neighborhood or district for historic preservation. Though not all of the historic studios that have called Music Row home over the years were able to be included in the boundaries of the new district, it did incorporate most of the historic studios and now the process of preserving Music Row could begin. His leadership was crucial in obtaining these very important victories, so that the engineers, musicians and producers of the future will still have a Music Row neighborhood to both call home and to be able to do their future creative work. It was at this time that a disaster struck the professional music recording industry— a global pandemic. Through it all, Pat McMakin, would be a steady leader and the consummate professional helping to guide an entire industry through another turbulent time in its history.

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Pat McMakin has hosted a number of fabulous musicians and legendary performers at Ocean Way Recording Studios. Pictured in this image are from left to right: Brent Mason, Pat McMakin, Mandy Barnette and Paul Franklin. Image courtesy of Pat McMakin. 

The pandemic brought a new set of challenges to the recording industry and in some respects, it also helped accelerate the trend of recording projects in home recording studio facilities. Through his leadership, Ocean Way Recording Studios and other facilities re-opened as the restrictions were being slowly lifted in the Music Row community. He helped guide the studio facilities through the creation of a set of working protocals— each of which, would help keep the musicians, engineers, producers and technicians safe during the process of making great music. Throughout the pandemic, his leadership helped the recording community recover from the shutdown process. Sadly, a number of engineers and producers have had a very difficult time even to this day, recovering from this cataclysmic event. But, in the end, it was his leadership which made a tremendous difference and today, the recording community on Music Row is in the process of moving forward into the future.

But, Pat McMakin still worries. He is still concerned about the health and vibrancy of the Music Row community. But, it must also be said that it is his leadership that has given the professional music recording community that is working on Music Row each and everyday an opportunity to have a brighter future. His leadership has also given the professional music recording community and the recording studio facilities a blueprint for future success. It has given them the opportunity to see how diversifying their clientele can allow them to not just keep their doors open, but to operate successfully for the future. And it has preserved the very essence of the Music Row community for future generations of creative music professionals. When we think of great engineers and producers, normally we spend most of our time discussing their hit songs and the amazing artists that they have worked with throughout their careers. Pat McMakin has been a hitmaking recording studio engineer and producer throughout his career and has worked with some of the greatest artists in the history of popular music, but he has also been an amazing and talented studio manager throughout his career as well and his effort and leadership over the course of the past decade and what it has meant to the professional music recording community is an important component of his legacy as a true legend behind the music.