Chris Jackson is a talker. Not a bad one, mind you, like those folks who just don’t know when to stop. Rather, he’s somebody you want to listen to because, unless you belong to a small subset of people who can easily identify the price points of microphones worth more than a new car, it’s a story you haven’t heard before. Jackson’s story, and the story of his recording studio, Blue Sprocket Sound, is one of risk-taking, good fortune, hard work, and above all, a passion for the art of music.
A Harrisonburg native, Jackson eventually found himself enrolled at James Madison University. But after getting roped into working monitors on the local festival circuit, electives and exams couldn’t really compete. He quickly bailed on the college plan and decided to head off into the world to make his mark as an audio engineer. But where to start? “I loved the idea of New York,” he recalled, “but figured I’d die starving in the street just with the overhead.” Instead, he turned west. “I didn’t know a single person in Nashville,” said Jackson, yet somehow it “just made sense.”
Tom T. Hall famously crooned that Nashville is a groovy little town; Jackson’s experience sure bears that out. While attending an industry party, he met Dave Piechura of Vintage King Audio. Piechura, who was coincidentally living in the same apartment complex as Jackson, appreciated his gumption and introduced Jackson to Vance Powell. This would be the same Vance Powell who, in 2002, worked with John McBride to establish Blackbird Studio. With Piechura’s recommendation, Jackson had landed an internship at one of the country’s premier recording studios, a place where you could bump into Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift just as easily as Snoop Dogg or Beck. Later, when Korby Audio Technologies relocated from Pittsburgh to Nashville, they needed help setting up shop. Again on Piechura’s recommendation, Jackson got the job, a gig which put him up close and personal with the inner workings of microphones that cost over $20,000 each. Speaking of Piechura, Jackson said, “I probably owe my entire career to him, whether or not he knows that—or whether or not he’s willing to admit that.”
In 2008, after a visit with his parents back home, Jackson decided it was time return to Harrisonburg. He remembered thinking, “OK, the downtown thing has really picked up, it’s not just the courthouse and Jess’. I would talk to people and I just felt like there was an energy starting to move.” Upon his arrival, he built a small studio in his basement and started recording bands. After a few years, though, he missed the space available to him at Blackbird, something big enough and flexible enough to adapt to whatever a musician might need.
So, after countless conversations with friends and musicians, securing a suitable location, raising funds, drawing up plans, and six months of construction, Jackson was finally the proud owner of such a rarefied facility: Blue Sprocket Sound. Tucked away in an unassuming shopping mall, it boasts 18-foot ceilings, a 2,200 square-foot floor plan, a massive 9098i Rupert Neve console in the control room (only 20 were ever created), and all the creature comforts a professional musician could ask for. Structurally, the building’s sound isolation properties are top notch. “I wanted something where a freight train could ride down 150 yards away from here and you’d never hear it from the inside,” Jackson boasted. “At the same time, you can have a metal band just wailing in here at three in the morning and you could walk out back and have a normal conversation. We wanted it to be a technically correct studio. Past that we wanted it to be big, but also comfortable.”
It has to be the people working together to make all those cogs work together. Otherwise, it’s just a building with really thick walls and really expensive equipment in it.
To that latter point, the sense of home that Jackson brings to this space is unmistakeable. “Music doesn’t happen when you’re nervous,” he said. “Being in a studio alone is enough to get a lot of artists nervous. They’re thinking they have to get it right, they’re paying for it. I joke with people that when they’re here, it’s their living room, there’s just a bunch of stuff in it.” Since opening in 2013, Blue Sprocket has recorded local acts such as The Dawn Drapes, The Steel Wheels, Elephant Child, and The Judy Chops, as well as musicians hailing from as far away as Las Vegas, Connecticut, and New York. To accommodate more sessions in their schedule, they have started construction on an additional studio space on the second floor.
Jackson’s latest project is something he calls “house concerts.” The concept is to host intimate listening shows within the studio space itself. Audience members would have the opportunity to ask performers questions between songs, and of course, the whole event would be recorded for posterity. “Our initial hope with it is to start specifically with Virginia artists. At first some from our backyard right here, then pull people in from all over the state.” Regarding genre, Jackson will be booking bands that reflect the rich diversity of Virginian music, saying, “You pop into the coast and there’s more hip-hop and R&B. In Richmond, there’s more hard rock and indie stuff. Every city has its own scene, but within that there’s still a huge smattering of genres wherever you go.”
As Jackson walks me on a tour of the studio, he’s going over all the little details a casual observer may miss. He is a talker after all, but I’m all too happy to listen. There’s something comforting about having someone lead you through an incredibly technical subject that they have decided to stake their livelihood on. From the control room to the live room, into the isolator, past all the gear and cables, Jackson might as well be showing me his home. That’s just the way he wants it, too. “I think the building is a great facilitator for people getting together and collaborating and making art,” he said. “I’m incredibly lucky when an artist lets me record their song, because I’m helping to facilitate their art. The space has to be good, the gear has to be good, but it has to be the people working together to make all those cogs work together. Otherwise, it’s just a building with really thick walls and really expensive equipment in it.”
Blue Sprocket Sound will host their inaugural house concert this month. To learn more, visit bluesprocketsound.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers