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Ex-musician makes sound investment.

Ex-Musician Makes Sound Investment

They can take you up to Paradise - as Carole King testified - or bring you to your knees. Musicians, that suprahuman species, plugged into the Sound of the Universe and grooving on sweet intensity. They may not always balance their checkbooks or their meals, but it's only because they've got more important things to do, like talking that music language that short-circuits the rational and plunges laser-straight into the heart. Musicians make art. By nature, most of them are not business people. When the band discusses whether to buy the Peavey or the Fender amps, the considerations involve aesthetics as much as cost. Of course, there is an alliance between commerce and this art. It's called the music industry.

The Recording Industry Association of America estimates the take on record sales alone is about $5 billion every year. Pollstar, an industry publication, found the top 10 national tours by rock bands and musicians in the United States last year grossed a total of $322.7 million.

With managers, agents, promoters, booking agents, etc., the size of the music industry is staggering to the imagination.

All that means money and industry people in Nashville and Austin take it seriously, the same as people in New York and Los Angeles. Little Rock's own fledgling place in the business of music seems to growing, too, with the recent opening of another 24-track recording studio.

Down in Riverdale, the white-curbed new office district that fronts the Arkansas River, past the lite-rock radio station and the Discovery discotheque, a long warehouse row stretches out in nondescript facade. One nearly inconspicuous glass door there is painted with white letters: Sound Services Inc. Inside, Richard Thornton isso happy.

"I've been here one month at this location," he sings out over his shoulder while he leads a tour through a long, cold warehouse corridor.

At 31, Thornton's thick, dark hair is going wiry with early gray. The little tuft that sprouts under his lip gives him a certain Beat Poet effect and suggests that maybe he is still a musician himself rather than an inventor.

Even back in the |70s as a teenager in Texarkana, Thornton was intrigued with music. He played in a dance band and fiddled around building his own audio speakers. He lived close to Hope, where Paul Klipsch produces his world-famous speakers. Thornton wasn't shy about getting Klipsch to run tests on his own work.

The secretaries at the Klipsch manufacturing plant used to get mad at him and caution him not to pester Klipsch. "But we'd spend hours together," Thorton recalls.

Thornton's speakers won first place in a state science fair before he graduated as valedictorian at Texarkana High. From 1977 to 1980, he paid his tuition at Hendrix College in Conway by playing gigs.

Worked At AP&L

Thornton later went to work as an engineer for Arkansas Power and Light in a job that lasted 10 years and helped him accumulate more sound equipment. He turned this into a sizeable production company.

In time, the company was doing the sound work for major concerts - the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Arkansas Blues Festival, Little Rock concerts by jazz greats like Chick Corea and Winton Marsalis - and subcontracting to other companies.

Sound Services continued to grow and began doing enough business that Thornton could quit his job at AP&L. His company, Thornton says, is beginning to fill a void in the Little Rock music market.

Thornton walks lightly now, like a dancer, through the chilly concrete warehouse (2,000 SF in all) that houses the $300,000-$400,000 worth of equipment that comprises the production company's inventory.

"My girlfriend kids me about going into my |padded room,'" he says, reaching for a door and throwing it open.

"This is the real heart of the studio - this is where the action is," he wisecracks. The place isn't much bigger than a little sister's bedroom. The control booth - its walls padded with Sonex-textured foam - is warm and inviting. Thornton's old Peavey bass guitar leans against a coffee table in one corner.

In the studio, a plexiglass screen partitions off a drum booth that allows a band's drummer to make eye contact with the band while a separate mike records only the sounds of the drum. During recording sessions, Thornton is the engineer at the control board.

The board - a Soundcraft TS12 with computerized mix-down automation - dominates the control room like the spacecraft console out of a sci-fi flick. A sleek, tilted table of vertical track slots, levers and dials, the board is topped by an IBM display monitor. As Thornton fiddles with the controls, the black screen glows with red, green and blue graphics.

"You can program while you're mixing," Thornton explains. "You can control individually the levels of volume, equalization, reverb and so on, on each track.

"The computer stores it to disk, so you can record the master in the studio and mix maybe three different versions and take them home and decide which one you like the best. Then, all you have to do is put the disk back in to program (the final mix)."

Board Is Best Feature

Tom Richeson, a Little Rock jazz musician who teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, currently is recording a self-produced album at Sound Services. He says the computerized board is the studio's best feature.

Thornton's service has attracted some of the state's best musicians like the Gunbunnies - one major label album and a national tour to their credit - as well as nationally known musicians like Eric Struthers of the Neville Brothers.

"I hope this is going to be an album-quality facility," Thornton says. "This is generally in the industry called a project studio. You know, it's smaller. Considering the space available here and the way I want to scale operations, I think I guessed right on the size."

Thornton hopes to see the recording studio grow to become half of his business. He's competing mainly with Trimble Production Studios, the original and only other 24-track facility in town. Trimble also has a 12-year headstart on Thornton.

During a recent recording session, Thornton hops around the control room with all the nervous energy of a musician who is about to make his stage debut. Part of that comes from the music itself - he says it's a "rush" to be back in the business - and part of it stems from his worry about the bottom line.

Both the sound production company and the recording studio are capital intensive ventures. The computerized mixing board and a new Tascam multitrack tape machine cost Thornton about $50,000. He invested another $10,000 in remodeling the warehouse interior and building the studio shell.

"My purchasing of this equipment was based on that I wanted to have the nicest stuff in town and yet still be able to offer affordable rates and be competitive," Thornton says. (Currently, he charges $65 an hour).

"My goal is to make all the payments (on the equipment) and support myself in the manner to which I've become accustomed," Thornton laughs. "That means paying the rent, the car, the same old stuff. For something like this that is capital-intensive, the payback takes longer but there are rewards other than financial." He picks up his old bass in the corner of the room and runs through a mock riff.

"One nice thing about Richard," says musician Tom Richeson, "is he really loves what he's doing - he's like a kid. You know, he quit his job at AP&L, and he's doing this, and he's so excited about it. He's going to do everything he can for the musicians."

PHOTO : DOING IT HIS WAY: Richard Thornton wants his homegrown company, Sound Serices, to become an integral part of the music business.
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Title Annotation:Richard Thornton's recording studio, Sound Services Inc.
Author:Briton, JoBeth
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Nov 26, 1990
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