There are people who make music and people who make music happen. Mark Hornsby is definitely firmly ensconced in both camps. A gifted producer/engineer, he’s been a part of creating some of the most compelling songs in contemporary music and he’s also a savvy entrepreneur and businessman who knows how to make sure that great music gets from the studio to the masses.
With credits that run the gamut from the feisty punk pop of New Found Glory to gospel music icon Russ Taff to acclaimed jazz virtuoso Peter Erskine, Hornsby has parlayed his love for music into a successful career that has led to his current post as VP of Operations and Senior Producer/Engineer at Sweetwater Studios. “It’s more fun and more rewarding to move from genre to genre and meet all sorts of different people,” Hornsby says of his diverse career. “I enjoy experiencing different types of music and seeing what I can bring to the table as opposed to just doing the same thing over and over again. I’m at my best when I’m having a curve ball thrown at me.”
Hornsby stepped up to the plate and took his first swing at his intended career when he was just 13. “I got hired to do the broadcast sound at my church because it was televised,” the East Tennessee native recalls. “I was playing in bands and by the time I graduated high school, I was working at WJHL-TV, the local CBS station as a production assistant.”
His Uncle was an engineer and the first time he went to the studio with him to observe a recording session, he was hooked. “I knew I wanted to work in music my entire life and wanted to make a career of it,” Hornsby confesses, “but I was playing in bands with people who were 20 years older than me and they were doing everything from playing bars to churches and wedding bands. I saw the lifestyle and I said, ‘That’s not me. I don’t want to do that.’ I went to visit my Uncle and he was in a studio every day working with musicians and recording music and I took a liking to that. Once I watched a producer work for the first time, I decided, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”
Hornsby recalls watching producer Phil Naish working with Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman and realizing he was already on that path. “A lot of what he was doing, I was already doing in the bands that I was playing in. I was the one in the band that was telling people, ‘No, no, no! Don’t play that. Play this here. Play that there.’ Even playing music in church, I assumed that I was just the one who did my homework because I knew the songs. Watching him do that in a studio, be the organizer, I related to that pretty well. I was already doing it naturally and once I saw that was a job, it just seemed like a natural fit.”
Though he recalls his high school guidance counselor telling him that being a music producer wasn’t “a real job,” Hornsby was undeterred. After one semester at East Tennessee State, he switched to Middle Tennessee State University. While earning his bachelor’s degree in recording production, Hornsby wasn’t content to just spend time in the classroom, he also launched his own production company, Sound Star Productions, and worked at Seventeen Grand, a Music Row studio that had one of the first 5.1 high definition mix rooms in the country.
“I was hired to answer the phone and the next thing I knew I was assisting on sessions and the next thing I was engineering sessions,” he recalls. “There was a wide variety of people who came through there, everyone from Alison Krauss to King Crimson to George Strait to The Judds. I started working on video stuff and I started using Pro Tools in ’92 and ’93. I adopted it quickly and got really good at it because I recognized that the older engineers didn’t have much interest in that. Towards the end of the ‘90’s, everyone was chasing that Shania Twain pop thing. During the first half of 2000, I was working 60-70 hours a week and then the work just dried up. Some studios closed. Some record labels closed, this was about the time the whole MP3 thing had started to rear its head and the whole climate was changing.”
Hornsby had earned a reputation as an in demand audio engineer and in addition to running Sound Star, he had a thriving freelance business and was instrumental in helping his friend, producer/bassist Dave Martin, build Java Jive Studio on the north west side of Nashville. But when the studio climate started to change, Hornsby relocated to Fort Lauderdale, FL in 2001 and took a position with Emtec/BASF as the Southeast Director of Sales for the U.S. and the Caribbean. “It’s not taking a step backwards when you take a step to the side sometimes and do something on an alternate path when it’s a ways to a means. That’s what that gig was to me,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was an adventure. I reported to a guy named Jeff Williams and he was an old school salesman. He was literally on the road with a briefcase and he taught me everything that he knew. He taught me how to go for the deal, follow up and make the calls. He had it all down and I soaked it up like a sponge. I’m really glad I did it because it helped prepare me for the next phase in my life—buying a studio in south Florida.”
Hornsby enlisted a couple partners and purchased Ridenour Studios, Florida’s largest recording and rehearsal studios. The compound attracted a diverse array of clientele including Johnny Depp, Steve Winwood, Ricky Martin, Foreigner, Vanilla Fudge and New Found Glory as well as an influx of talented Haitian bands. “I’ve probably recorded 50 Haitian records,” Hornsby says. “I learned a lot. We had the two studios, an 8,000 sq. feet studio and a 2,000 sq. foot sound studio with rehearsal rooms, an electronic repair shop and a musical instrument repair shop. It definitely was a whirlwind and not every day was easy, but we learned a lot and I’m grateful for it. I got into producing sample libraries and different kinds of music libraries for some software companies. I started spreading out and working on a wide variety of stuff.”
It was a productive season for the energetic entrepreneur until Hurricane Wilma tore the roof off and flooded the building. In 2006, Hornsby returned to Nashville and began working with Martin again at Java Jive Studio where he built out his own mixing suite. Hornsby worked with a variety of acts/companies including Old Crow Medicine Show, Dolly Parton, Lifeway, Word Entertainment and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. As his reputation continued to grow, he began working in studios all over the world and lectured at almost every major university offering music technology studies including Berklee, MTSU, Full Sail, Belmont, SAE, Indiana University, Purdue University, Ball State and NYU. In 2010, Mark was featured on the cover of Recording Magazine for his work at Abbey Road Studios.
“I love Abbey Road. Abbey is a very unique thing,” says Hornsby, who recalls being fascinated with the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album when he was a child. “Those rooms are the soundtrack of many of our lives. The Star Wars movie soundtracks were recorded in those rooms. I grew up on Star Wars. The Harry Potter movies soundtracks were recorded in those rooms as well as the 007 stuff, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, all these epic bands, orchestras, all this music that’s been so ingrained in pop culture. When you grew up as a six-year-old kid listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over and over again, it was teaching me what sounds good. So, to go there and work is very pleasing. I do most of my orchestral work there. The place means a lot to me personally. It has a very cool sound to it and I’m very familiar with those rooms, but most importantly London has 10 or 12 working orchestras.”
These days, Hornsby still travels the world, but his home base is in Fort Wayne, Indiana where Sweetwater is headquartered. Old friends and collaborators such as Phil Naish and Dave Martin are among the talented team he’s recruited to be part of the Sweetwater staff. “Sweetwater Studios is the music production division of sweetwater.com which is the #1 online music instrument and pro audio retailer in the world. A lot of people compare our campus to Google,” he says. “Not only do we have a great staff and over seven million dollars invested in our recording studios, we have a campus that consists of a restaurant that has a chef and pastry chef. We have a coffee shop and a fitness center. We have a doctor and nurse practitioner on staff. We have an arcade that’s free. We have a video and video game rental check out center, a full-time concierge, and a music store. We have an academy of music with 900 students that come in every month regionally. We have a 3,000 seat pavilion and a 250 seat high def movie performance and movie theatre inside. We have a slide that goes from one floor to the other, so if you don’t want to take the stairs, you can take the slide.”
But for all the fun amenities, it’s the creative atmosphere and the tools to make great music that are the biggest attraction. “We currently have about 380,000 sq feet under roof on 160 acres. We just broke ground on 340,000 more sq. feet,” Hornsby says. “When you are sitting in one of the studios at Sweetwater, if it’s on the website or in the catalog, you can look at the engineer and say, ‘Man, on this track I would love to have a 1959 Gibson Les Paul reissue,’ and the engineer will probably say, ‘What color?’ In our studios you have access. You have the studios. You have the campus. You have the great award winning staff. You also have access to more equipment or instruments than any other place in the universe.”
With his list of credits and accomplishments, Hornsby could easily rest on his laurels, but that’s not his style. He’s currently working on two books and he’s always looking for the next musical adventure. “I’m proud of it, but I’m not done yet,” he says of his career. “When I moved out and said, ‘I’m moving to Nashville and I want to go work on records,’ my parents asked what I would do if it didn’t work out. I said, ‘You know what? I don’t know. I said I’m going to go work at it and give 110% and if it doesn’t work and I feel I’ve given it 110%, I’ll quit and go do something else.’ I didn’t have a backup plan. So far it’s still working. Every gig comes to an end, but I’m happy where I’m at and grateful to be here. I’m finally at a point where there are some ideas that I’ve been sitting on for a while, and now I can go full court press and bring those to fruition. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”