Up from the ashes

Don McCollister turns over a new Nickel & Dime

Auggie and Buddy, chocolate and black Labrador retrievers, have dominion over the lobby of Nickel & Dime, the Atlanta studio operated by their owner, local producer Don McCollister. “Try not to let them in the studio,” says assistant Chris Sampson. “They tend to be a bit wild.”

Inside the control room, a mirrored ball hangs from the ceiling, deflecting rays of light around the room. McCollister, who has worked with local notables from Indigo Girls to 112, and from Shawn Mullins to the Marvelous 3, acknowledges his visitor with a simple wave of his hand. But he remains focused on a recording console that regulates the voice of Sister Hazel singer Ken Block, currently in the vocal booth. This is McCollister’s domain.

The current Nickel & Dime, located off Monroe Drive in Midtown, doesn’t have the historic charm or the space of the Tudor-style Avondale Towne Cinema movie house that was home to McCollister’s original studio. But with that one no longer usable, this one will do just fine.

“It was a nightmare of an experience,” McCollister says of the fire that destroyed the original Nickel & Dime. “It was just bad wiring in the wall.” On Dec. 19, 2000, a fire ravaged the entire ceiling, 9,000 square feet of studio space and several neighboring stores, burning high in the attic and ceiling. It was not the fire itself that totaled the studio, according to McCollister, “but all the water they used to put out the fire, the whole building was just trashed. All the ceilings caved in and water poured in over all the recording consoles.”

The fire started in the late morning hours, while Atlanta band Superfuzz was recording. No one was seriously injured, but Sampson and a member of the band were treated for smoke inhalation after attempting to fight the fire. McCollister remembers the emotional turmoil of the days that followed.

“I was completely in shock for the first 24 hours, and then when we went back the next day, it really started to sink in that we really lost everything,” he says. Actually, some equipment survived the fire, such as the Pro Tools digital recording equipment.

“And this console,” McCollister says, pointing out a piece of equipment hanging over head, “we bought back from the insurance company and refurbished it, and hung it on the wall. I got it about seven years ago; it’s sort of my baby.”

Just before the fire, the studio had spent close to $180,000 on new equipment and renovations, according to McCollister. Though the most expensive equipment was covered by insurance, many vintage irreplaceable items were lost, including a grand piano and a 24-track two-inch tape reel machine from the late 1970s.

After the initial shock wore off, McCollister and his crew found themselves eager to jump back into recording. Rather than rebuild the studio in the original theater or create a new studio somewhere, they took the route that would get them back to recording as quickly as possible: they bought an existing studio. The one they found, the two-room Purple Dragon Studio, had been operated by producer Stanley Gaines since the mid-’70s, hosting artists from Elton John to OutKast. Gaines decided he’d had enough and sold both the building and the equipment inside to Nickel & Dime.

The biggest difference between the new and old Nickel & Dime is the size. Where groups could record live as a full band in the theater, the new location doesn’t allow for that type of spontaneous jam. While McCollister acknowledges, “The building is a little bit smaller than I would wish,” he also sees an advantage in the cramped quarters. “This is designed from the ground up as a studio. It’s just laid out a little more professionally. So it sort of raised the caliber of what I’m able to do.”

At least, Sister Hazel isn’t complaining about the accommodations. “He’s a genius,” says Block. “We’ve considered him a brother since the first time we worked with him.”

One thing that has not changed is Nickel & Dime’s atmosphere. “I want it to feel homey and kind of like your living room, McCollister says. ” And just casual but still have all the right stuff to make good records.”??