RCA Studio B: The Legend Lives On

RCA Studio B manager Luke Gilfeather inside the historic building.

Nashville is home to many legendary recording studios. But none are as enduring or iconic as RCA Studio B at the corner of 17th Avenue South and Roy Acuff Place. The studio where more than 1,000 top 10 hits, including more than 150 Elvis Presley recordings, were recorded, became famous in the late ’50’s and early ‘60s for its role in the development of what became known as the “Nashville Sound.” Such artists as Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and countless others recorded in the studio, many under the tutelage of guitar and production great Chet Atkins. The man largely responsible for that “Nashville Sound” on a sonic level, legendary recording engineer Bill Porter, sadly passed away a few weeks ago.

These days, the studio’s main role is an educational and historic one. Students from the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University learn about analog recording at the studio, while groups of tourists are brought to the studio daily from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, which leases the studio from the Mike Curb Family Foundation. RCA Studio B has been an important part of life on Music Row for more than half a century, and the significance of his role isn’t lost on studio manager and engineering instructor Luke Gilfeather, who is celebrating three years in his position.

Gilfeather came to Nashville from Miami, Florida, where he’d been the studio manager and an engineering instructor at Miami Dade College. He grew up in Boston, where he graduated from the prestigious Berklee School of Music with a degree in music production and engineering. With his background in both engineering and production, and instruction at the college level, Gilfeather was ideally suited for the RCA Studio B position.

“I was working at the college and on the side with hip-hop groups, hardcore groups, Latin performers, you name it,” he said. “But I was ready to move out of Miami, and when I saw this position online, I really felt like the job found me, not the other way around. This is where I’m supposed to be.” Gilfeather is also an accomplished pianist, though recording and production became his main focus during his college years.

Gilfeather plays the Steinway piano that Elvis once played.

“I played in high school and college, in cover bands and jazz groups,” he said. “I really didn’t know a lot about country music, since I grew up in the northeast, though I was, of course, familiar with the classic songs. But between this job, and my wife, I’ve gotten an education about country music.” Gilfeather recently married country singer/songwriter and local performer Stacy Scruggs, whose own sound is influenced by many of the artists who recorded at RCA Studio B.

The studio is obviously analog, an anachronism in our digital world where people advertise studios that operate out of their bedrooms. RCA Studio B, by contrast, is the real deal, where an echo chamber and x’s once taped on the floor denoted the room’s “sweet spots” where a vocal came alive on tape. While Gilfeather is a highly experienced digital engineer, he believes analog equipment still has its place in the world, something he communicates to his Belmont students.

“Though digital may look better on paper, analog recording affects the character of the recording,” he continued. “If you think of it as fabric, digital is nylon and analog is velvet. Either way is still going to be a suit, but the velvet one is gonna feel a whole lot nicer.”

“Some people dismiss teaching analog because it is considered boutique and outdated,” he continued. “I think of it as another spice in the students’ cabinet. We don’t go around telling people to throw away half their spice cabinet just because they might not use garlic salt anymore. Using the strengths of both analog and digital is far more powerful than dismissing one entirely for the other.”

While the studio is pretty much off-limits these days for recording sessions, artists who have a history with the facility are sometimes allowed to come back in to make music. One example is Marty Stuart, whose first recording sessions were as a teenager in the historic studio when he played with Flatt and Scruggs. Stuart’s latest CD, Ghost Train, was recorded there, and Stuart’s wife Connie Smith, who committed some of her many hits to tape there, has recently been in the studio.

Gilfeather said that being in charge of such a historically important operation, and meeting and working with legendary artists, is something he couldn’t be doing anywhere else.

“It never gets old, being in here,” he said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to walk in here every day. I feel very blessed and I definitely don’t take it for granted.”

Tours of Studio B groups depart between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum. Tickets are $12.99/adult, $10.99/youth ages 6-17, and are available only in conjunction with museum admission. Call 416-2001 for information about tours of RCA Studio B.

By: Rick Moore

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