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2 minutes to read Posted on Tuesday December 20, 2022

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Doyuen Ko

Doyuen Ko

Associate Professor, Audio Engineering Technology , Belmont University

portrait of Sungyoung Kim

Sungyoung Kim

Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology , Rochester Institute of Technology

portrait of Miriam Kolar

Miriam Kolar

Adjunct Professor , Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics

Preserving aural heritage, starting with historic recording studios in Nashville’s Music Row

‘Heritage acoustics’ and the preservation and presentation of historic acoustic environments is a growing field of research within cultural heritage. Discover the role that it plays in American music heritage - part of a EuropeanaTech focus. 

A low building with a guitar outside and a sign reading: RCA Studio B. RCA records established a recording studio in this building in November 1957 with local offices run by guitarist-producer Chet Atkins. Its success led to a larger studio, know as studio A, built next door in 1964. Studio B recorded numerous hits by Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Don Gibson, Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, and many others. Along with Bradley Studios, Studio B is know for developing ''The Nashville Sound''.
RCA Studio B with Historic Marker
Brent Moore
March 28, 2015

Saving the invisible

As physical buildings reflect visual architectural heritage from their times of design and use, the acoustic environments of their enclosed spaces constitute intangible aural heritage that is likewise historically relevant. Performing artists and audiences sometimes regard concert halls and recording studios with exceptional acoustical qualities as ‘temples of sound.’ Music created, heard and felt in such spaces is profoundly shaped by the acoustic environment of the venue that constitutes an unseen but influential dynamic heritage. 

Intangible cultural heritage in the United States may be most abundantly preserved in recorded music. Recording studio acoustics have driven the aesthetics of popular music through these structural contributions to the recording process. Still, the material influence of recording room acoustics in trends in popular music has been greatly overlooked, although acoustical and auditory science provide theory and methods to document and describe it. 

Music Row

Nashville, Tennessee, has been long established as a major center for commercial music production, home to over 180 recording studios, 130 music publishers, 100 live music clubs and 80 record labels. Music Row is the core locale in Nashville, where today's booming music industry was born. Much of that industry began and remained in this unique district that changed the face of American music and brought authentic regional music to a popular mass audience. Few cultural communities have as significantly developed in just one geographic zone, that also have shaped a worldwide cultural expressive trend. 

Harper’s study demonstrated a statistical measure called 'location quotient' to chart the concentration of music-related businesses, including recording studios, distributors, record labels, and music publishers in metro areas in the USA and Canada, with populations over 500,000. Nashville appears as the top-ranked city with an index value much greater than any other city. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Research Center also showed that Nashville’s density of music industry activity is currently 2-to-30-times greater than in the nation overall, up to 10-times greater than New York or Los Angeles, cities that also boast a concentration of music production venues.

Endangered spaces

Nashville is now suffering from the continuous demolition of dozens of historic buildings for lucrative redevelopment. Recording studios, record labels, publishing houses, supporting industries, and other music-related businesses are rapidly being replaced with condominiums, hotels, and office buildings. 

In January 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) designated Music Row as a ‘National Treasure,’ characterised as a highly significant yet threatened historic place, one of many throughout the country where the organisation is committed to working with local partners to ensure their future. The recent progress on the Music Row preservation plan is encouraging; however, merely maintaining the physical presence of Music Row buildings does not guarantee the preservation of their intangible cultural heritage – the historic music-making venues. In order to preserve what matters most significantly in these Music Row buildings, their aural heritage, we must document and preserve their acoustic environments.

One scenario for Columbia Studio A acoustical measurements
One scenario for Columbia Studio A acoustical measurements. Permission granted for Europeana use.
Doyuen Ko
May 30, 2019
Doyuen Ko
One scenario for Columbia Studio A acoustical measurements

Preservation of recording studio acoustics

In 2017, we formed a cultural heritage acoustics research and technologies development team that subsequently received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the U.S.A. Our first case-study location was Columbia Studio A (CSA) in Nashville, founded in 1954 by brothers Owen and Harold Bradley. It has been a popular destination for recording artists of that time, particularly country music stars such as Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. In 1962, the studio was sold by the Bradley Brothers to Columbia Records. The studio would continue to have legendary artists come through its doors, including sessions for Bob Dylan’s critically acclaimed album 'Blonde on Blonde.'

Our goal was to document the acoustics of Columbia Studio A via many different source and receiver combinations that represent locations that musicians would inhabit during the recording process. We tested a variety of equipment configurations and combinations to collect aural heritage data, then conducted both acoustical analyses and perceptual evaluations to develop best-practice recommendations for preserving aural heritage.

Case-study aural heritage documentation

The case-study sites chosen for our project extend beyond music venues, to create a comparison group of culturally, architecturally, and temporally specific examples of endangered aural heritage. After the initial study of Columbia Studio A, we adapted our method to a much larger room, the Rochester Savings Bank, located in downtown Rochester, New York, U.S.A. This building with an ornate and multi-material Byzantine revival interior is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) for its significance for art, architecture and commerce. We intersected with the archaeological community focusing on the interior architecture at the 3,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Centre archaeological site at Chavín de Huántar, Peru, one of the best-preserved examples of pre-Columbian architecture in the Americas. These culturally distinct and diverse spaces provide different aural environments to test and demonstrate the extensibility of our method across fieldwork contexts.

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about the work above, visit the team’s website.

To find out more heritage acoustics, watch a EuropeanaTech webinar on the topic. You can also join EuropeanaTech, the community of experts, developers, and researchers from the R&D sector within the greater Europeana Network Association, to contribute to - and be the first to hear about - discussions in this area!