by Nicole Keiper
Steve Durr certainly isn’t the first Nashvillian to trace a career path back to a passion for music that lit up in childhood. But his musical awakening wasn’t exactly boilerplate, either. The Louisiana native fell hard in his youth and quickly plotted a course—one that, unlike most budding music lovers, would keep him far away from the guitar store.
“I don’t play any instruments at all, and I did that intentionally,” Durr says, flanked by the blinking lights and tape machines that now fill his Nashville home studio. “Because every guitar player I know is so frustrated and wants to own every guitar there is . . .
that to me sounds like the ultimate in abuse to your mind.”
Durr instead focused his mind on the stuff that facilitates, captures, and propels the sounds he felt and still feels so inspired by: microphones, speakers, studios, and stages. These days, the in-demand acoustic designer plots sonic spaces for huge, highly varied clients. He helmed the sonics of Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, which opened in 2011 (and subsequently earned Best New Major Concert Venue honors at the 23rd annual Pollstar Concert Industry Awards); has recently been working alongside Black Keys-man Dan Auerbach to fine-tune his Nashville studio, Easy Eye Sound Studio; and soon, Nashville’s Pearl Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School will break ground on its Durr-designed studio, to pair with a student-run record label. Those are just recent additions to a resume that includes sound work for a glut of studios (Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Nashville’s RCA Studio B), venues (Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon and Exit/In), and musicians (from ZZ Top to Willie Nelson).
A live-sound job with the now-razed Opryland theme park brought Durr to Nashville in 1977, after years spent in studios in Louisiana and on the road doing sound for the likes of Billy Joel and Loggins and Messina. The Opryland gig was short lived, but Durr quickly transitioned into a stream of jobs fine-tuning studio control rooms around Music City, starting with a positively received reboot of the A room at Woodland Studios on the East Side.
“After a while I figured out it was the worst sounding control room on the planet Earth,” Durr says of that fabled—and, then, apparently troubled—space. “They figured if I could fix that one I could fix anything. The knowledge that I got from the people in Louisiana in my life growing up in the studio was: If it sounds like loudspeakers, it’s wrong. It wasn’t any magical thing; I just had a different reference point than the people who were doing it before me. Once that happened, I became like the golden child of control rooms.”
Success in those spaces led to Durr’s current run as something of a golden child of all manner of musical rooms. Durr’s career has certainly allowed him to develop his own brand of artistic exploration.
Every piece of equipment that I pick, I pick just like an artist picks the reds and the blues for a painting.
Picking gear is just a piece of what Durr is called in to do. When he’s designing a studio or a venue, he’s taking into account—and planning for the way sound will react with—everything from air conditioning to electrical to surface coverings. And Durr’s gut-forward approach to that task isn’t necessarily the most common one, in a line of work that can tend to ask for an exacting, highly fact-and-figure-focused mindset. The way sound reacts in a room, ultimately, has everything to do with the way waves bounce and blunt and move with and off surfaces. It’s science—and Durr gets that stuff just fine. But music is art and heart, too, and he’s inclined to find ways to use all the emotional and mental tools in his box.
“I can separate the technical aspect of it from the art form, and most people in my business can’t do that,” Durr says. “Scientists have to know; they can’t assume anything. It’s very structured: Well, I measured it all and it looks perfectly right. Well it sounds like [expletive]. I can turn all that off and [see what] starts to move me emotionally and stand the hair up on my arms and make me want to be a part of it. That’s when I start to understand where I’m really going.”