Throughout Nashville's history, there have always been small operations that produced big ideas. Our peaceful, well-organized lunch-counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement were so effective that they were adapted all across the South. Our countrypolitan Nashville Sound helped pump commercial life back into country music, and gave pop some down-home soul in the bargain.
Still, Nashville's not typically one of the first cities that comes to mind when you hear the term "cutting edge." At times, we've been frustratingly slow to adopt more progressive approaches, whether to immigration issues, music-distribution models or downtown redevelopment.
Today, though, Middle Tennessee has a surprising number of unheralded innovators—forward-thinkers who are tweaking, leading and finessing the competition in their respective fields. With little fanfare, they have made the area home to several firsts on many fronts: health care, energy conservation, medicine, education, technology, science.
Sometimes they're just seminal accomplishments for Nashville, such as the city's first green-certified eatery. But others are nationwide achievements, like the Mercy Clinic in Franklin, the country's first medical home for chronically ill children.
Though it would have been easy to find nine innovations at Vanderbilt University alone—the university's doctors, researchers and scientists seem to generate groundbreaking ideas every five minutes—the Scene scoured the city for breakthroughs from both institutions and individuals capable of reaching past Tennessee's mountains to the coasts beyond.
These innovators embrace being the first to invest in what others see as time-consuming, high-risk—and often high-cost—change. In the end, however, they are pioneers—all building a smarter, greener, more advanced community, one good idea at a time.
BRIGHT BUT LITE
Location: Franklin, Tenn.
If you've ever scrutinized a scrambled play during a nighttime NFL game or been grateful for a well-lit parking lot, you've literally basked in the glow of high-intensity discharge lighting. That's the technical term for the powerful lights used to illuminate city streets, stadiums, industrial warehouses and Wal-Marts. But what rarely occurs to the average Joe is the staggering amount of electricity required to run these incandescent goliaths.
"There are something like half a billion of these HID light bulbs out there," explains Peter Revesz, general manager for Franklin-based engineering company Metrolight. "They look almost like an oversized light bulb. And they consume about 6 percent of the energy produced worldwide. Every 15th or 16th power station is in service to power these light bulbs."
That 6 percent is a greedy drain on energy. It's nearly a quarter of the light-related electricity used all over the world, helping produce emissions on par with two-thirds of the globe's automobiles. And half of those HID lights are used in outdoor lighting that never gets switched off.
"As you fly over the country in an airplane and look out the window, you see a tremendous amount of lights, and they're running at 100 percent—even at 1 a.m.," says Revesz. "There's no need for that. You want a certain amount of light for safety, of course, but if you're running at 100 percent all the time, it's just inefficient."
So Metrolight perfected technology capable of cutting that worldwide energy use in half. Its instrument is a high-powered, more efficient light bulb that lasts twice as long and lights twice as brightly. What's more, a communications interface can tailor its output to peak usage hours, saving energy when nobody's around.
As word of Metrolight's product spread throughout the green movement, ears pricked up. Among those impressed was Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin exec and billionaire adventurer. He devoted serious coin to Metrolight through his Virgin Green Fund. The U.S. Department of Energy followed, honoring the company with its coveted Energy Innovator Award last November. Today Metrolight corners the world market with their patented control-system technology.
"What we offer is a 50-percent-plus reduction in the usage of energy, so now, every other one of those power stations can power something else," Revesz says. Since a typical Metrolight installation saves 300,000 kWh a year—enough to run 30 homes, take 26 vehicles off the road and spare 75 acres of forest—that something else could be the first step in a sustainable future.
Organization: tayst Restaurant
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Imagine, for a moment, that you own your own restaurant. It's not difficult to list some changes you'd make to soften your carbon footprint: use local ingredients, lay off the Styrofoam, use soy and beeswax candles (no carcinogen-releasing paraffin) and install low-flow toilets. Oh, and screw in some of those swirly energy-efficient light bulbs.
But that's just a potato peel in the bucket under the rigorous standards of the Green Restaurant Association, the Boston nonprofit certification company that has become the arbiter for green conduct. Its stamp of approval guarantees you won't be accused of dishonest dabbling or "greenwashing"—a flourishing problem in this unregulated market, where companies routinely boast green features that do little to reduce waste or energy consumption.
Getting that certification, though, means meeting a checklist 14 pages long. Then there's the little matter of running a top-flight dining destination—spending hours searching for products and ingredients that satisfy those standards while meeting a chef's exacting tastes, not to mention a diner's.
Want to know how it's done? Ask Jeremy Barlow, executive chef of the Hillsboro restaurant tayst, which became Nashville's first nightspot to garner the gold medal for green conduct.
"The biggest challenge for us is how do we make our changes in a way where we don't get hurt financially," says Barlow, who received certification last April. "The other hardest change is making seven phone calls instead of one to get local food in the back door. Or you have to go search for your food instead of making a phone call. We go meet our egg guy. For produce, we call six or seven farmers. There's no one guy for everything."
There's no one guy for anything, it seems. Barlow trudged through 10 companies before locating the right candles at the right cost, and 10 more trying to track down an affordable light bulb with no mercury, since even a pin-tip amount is a disposal concern. On top of that, he had to make sure the bulbs' necessary fixtures didn't spoil the ambiance of the room.
All this is just one part of the process of balancing environmental concerns with cost and aesthetic needs. And, of course, maintaining those certification standards.
"GRA is stricter than the health department," says Barlow. "But now we have almost no waste coming out of here."
After weighing the investment in time and money, a less committed businessman might retreat to the ease of foam takeout trays and GE bulbs. But Barlow, who's currently hooked on Brian Wansink's consumer-behavior study Mindless Eating, likes the challenge. He's the sort of obsessive polymath who in one 30-minute spiel will pull from history, politics, agriculture, medicine, science, education and even psychology (his original field of study) to explain his passion for all things local.
If his original aims were purely culinary—fresh local ingredients taste better—they quickly became ideological.
"When you really get into looking at not only how to get local food, but what goes into making it and the environmental affects of the type of farming people use, you realize how much local food is intertwined with the environment," Barlow says. "We have a huge obesity problem, fossil fuel issues, transportation pollution issues, budget issues, health-care issues. All these things are related to the food system.
"To me, if you're a staunch proponent of buying local and using local, then operating a business in an environmentally friendly manner is a natural next step. It's one huge circle that's totally connected."
Organization: Mercy Children's Clinic
Location: Franklin, Tenn.
Physicians in private practice might treat only a few chronically ill patients at a time. But doctors who move over to Mercy Children's Clinic—a nonprofit faith-based pediatric clinic in Franklin that treats any child, regardless of insurance—should prepare for a wake-up call. That's what pediatric physician Deanna Bell got when she joined the organization five years ago, and since then she's seen the same realization dawn on dozens of staffers.
"After they're here for a few days they say, 'My gosh, these kids are really, really sick,' " Bell says. That led Bell and colleagues such as Dr. Amy Vehec to think about offering care in a new way. Of their 5,600 active patients, they discovered some 60 percent had chronic illnesses of some kind. Eighty percent of those were uninsured or on TennCare—either because kids maxed out their parents' insurance cap, or parents lost their jobs trying to care for a sick child.
Mercy realized the young patients were basically just reacting to their care. "That's just not a good way to take care of these kids," Bell says. "You can't stick a kid with congenital heart disease in a 15-minute slot and expect to do them justice. We thought, 'How can we change this where we can be financially solvent and also provide these kids with the care that they need?' "
Fundraising and donations solved the financial situation, as did insured patients drawn by Mercy's early reputation for superior care. The clinic estimates that every two insured patients cover one uninsured child. That left an equally daunting problem—that of how to give chronically ill children the special attention they need.
Mercy's trailblazing solution was to create for them the country's first medical home. "Home" is a bit of a misnomer—it's not a literal house where the children live. But under one roof, Mercy can coordinate and manage all the needs, specialists and medications required to treat a chronically ill child.
One such patient is Jacob. He has a rare genetic illness and requires 19 different specialists. With so many doctors and facilities in the mix, if his records weren't updated fast enough, he could risk getting conflicting prescriptions.
"The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Bell says. "But if you give me 15 more minutes with this kid, I can manage someone with heart failure without him having to go to the ER or see the cardiologist. I can call the cardiologist and say, OK, this is what I think is going on."
For Mercy, it was a medical innovation born out of necessity. "Most practices have a few kids like Jacob," Bell says. "We've got dozens. To really keep up with what's going on with him takes a little more time. And if you refuse to give substandard care, then you're either going to be here until midnight or find a way to manage it. So we've found a way to manage it."
That requires a staff of 40, many of them Vanderbilt physicians who donate their time and work at a greatly reduced salary. The team includes some seven pediatricians, a host of specialists who make weekly visits, and even a child psychologist.
"We provide subspecialty care on site, and we have team meetings about these kids," Bell says. "I, as a pediatrician, [the child's] psychiatrist and her cardiologist are sitting down and talking or at least conferencing together to talk about what is best for her, and if this medication is safe for her." Mercy may not be a home, but it offers the next best thing to frazzled patients and families: comfort.
NO CELL LEFT BEHIND
Organization: Bethany Adoption Services
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
For couples who find it hard to have children, in-vitro fertilization—fertilizing a woman's own eggs with her partner's sperm in the lab, creating embryos and then transferring them back into the womb—is a Hail Mary effort when other methods of reproductive assistance don't take.
But on average, a typical IVF cycle may create around 10 embryos, and only a few are used per transfer cycle to achieve pregnancy. Now that freezing those extras has become a viable method of preservation, couples are left with an embryonic surplus. That surplus is held at your fertility clinic for up to five years by law, unless you request they be held for longer.
In the last few decades, it was not uncommon for those embryos to be donated or adopted. A couple with leftover embryos would transfer theirs to another fertility-challenged couple. It was a local arrangement handled by the fertility clinic, and the paperwork was something like a transfer of property—signed and notarized documents that simply authorized the transaction.
But depending on when you believe life begins, that cache of embryos is nothing more than a cluster of frozen cells—or tiny souls on ice, waiting in chilly limbo.
Adoption agencies like Nashville's Bethany Adoption Services take the latter view. Consequently, that creates an ethical dilemma: How should the potential life in those cells be treated?
"Bethany takes the stance that life begins at conception," says Sheryl Findley, Bethany's infertility and embryo adoption specialist. "So we're coming at this from a traditional adoption model, instead of just a medical procedure where the couple gets an embryo from another couple. From a conceptual model, we're viewing this now as an adoption.
"The basic view is that these are parents raising a child who is not genetically their own," Findley explains. "So we're taking everything we know about adoption and applying it to this process."
That means prospective embryo recipients must undergo a criminal background check, a home screening to establish things like marital and financial stability, and even counseling for the various questions that may arise one day when the child has questions about his or origins. The agreement also protects both parties—the donor couple can't be sued for child support, and the adoptive couple can't be sued for custody.
These methods are in step with a national trend in embryo adoption, headed by organizations like Snowflakes in Fullerton, Calif. But Bethany is the first agency to embrace them in Nashville. It works in conjunction with the National Embryo Donation Center out of Knoxville, one of only three in the country, whose lead physician requires the home screening before agreeing to handle the embryo transfer.
Would-be parents are assessed and provided with a list of possible donors, with access to basic social and medical information: the donors' hair and eye color, their body frame and weight. Donors can also dictate the sort of couple they'd like to receive their leftover embryos—say, a Protestant couple with no previous children. But this is no designer embryo service, a misconception Findley is adamant about clearing up.
"These are embryos that already exist, and everyone involved, including the donor and adoptive couple, desperately want these embryos to have the opportunity for life," Findley says. "It's very different from the mentality of, 'We want a baby and we want to pick the egg donor and sperm donor and control as much of it as we can.' "
Bethany holds free monthly seminars to raise awareness, and the agency has handled embryo adoptions for 15 couples, with nine babies born. One of those was born to Holly Bogue, a 31-year-old Clarksville woman who approves of Bethany's approach.
"If there are embryos not being used and people who want them, why go to the trouble of making more of them?" Bogue says by phone. She and her husband were chosen by donors whose ethnic blend reflected their Asian and American background. But aesthetics weren't as much of an issue for her as simply having a family.
"I just wanted a baby," she says. Almost two years later, she has one: a 14-month-old son. Bogue is his gestational and legal mother, not his biological one. But just as in traditional adoption, Bogue will one day have to explain the child's origins.
"I know he'll be curious about where he came from," Bogue says. She found the mandatory counseling and education Bethany requires helpful, and she's recently created a children's-level storybook helping to explain the procedure that gave him life—a procedure she considers a blessing.
"The mother and father get that bonding experience during pregnancy," says Bogue. "And they are absolutely the only mother and father the child has ever known."
Organization: Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center, Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lab
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
The hallmarks of autistic children include impaired social and communication skills and repetitive behavior. So it's not too far a leap to imagine employing robots to reach them in ways humans can't. Studies have shown that autistic kids are naturally drawn to mechanical companions, but the problem so far has been that robots can't read their emotional state.
Vanderbilt mechanical-engineering professor Nilanjan Sarkar wasn't thinking about that when he began developing a way to measure the physiological states of humans with robots. By developing sensors that could measure things like heartbeat, muscle tension in the forehead and blood pressure in its subjects, Sarkar had simply meant to improve the interaction between robots and humans.
But when he heard his nephew had been recently diagnosed with the disorder, Sarkar realized the techniques might be applicable. He took his idea to psychology professor Wendy Stone, director of Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders and its Marino Autism Research Institute.
Together, they conducted experiments on autistic children using a version of Nerf basketball, but with a robotic arm manipulating the hoop's location.
"The part that really nailed me [was] that the robot can read the physiological cues of the person playing the game, control the distance and angle of the hoop, and that the person reported a more positive mood when the computer was responsive to his needs," Stone commented in a news release.
The advance may seem small. But for autistic children—who are easily overwhelmed by the complexities of human interaction, but have profound limitations communicating those problems—it was a breakthrough. It could also result in a drastic reduction in the cost of caring for a person with autism, which can reach $3 million over a lifetime.
Since those initial pilot studies, the team has received grant money to further its work. Along with co-investigator Zachary Warren, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, they're now using virtual technology to make those same kinds of physiological predictions. They are also currently developing virtual reality games to re-create the social world that children with autism can find so challenging.
"The original study used computer games and basketball-type games, but we asked, 'Can we use simulated social worlds to make the same predictions?' " Warren explains. "Predictions about how to best engage and direct engagement in social situations. Can we adjust things like eye contact or number of people in a group or the proximity of those individuals? You can't do that in the real world, so you do that in the virtual world."
Warren observes that a child with autism has a very difficult time clearly communicating what is challenging. "We would get beyond that using these physiological signals to find out what is most challenging about it, and then we can build up those skills," he says. For children with autism, that could help to unlock the secrets of their minds—a researcher's triumph, and a parent's dearest hope.
Organization: Vanderbilt's Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS)
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
When you play a first-person shooter game like Medal of Honor, identifying your enemies on the battlefield is easy. You hear the clatter of gun shots, and as you pound the controller to return fire, your rifle seems to know exactly where to point—right at your assailant, even if he's ducking behind a stone wall. The game already knows where the bad guys are lurking, so it auto-aims to find them for you.
But a real battlefield is no game. To identify a target's location, you'd need to isolate the sound waves coming from the fired weapon. Not shells, not ricochets, not a hundred other nearby sonic distractions: just that weapon. Then you'd want to track that signal back to its origins. That doesn't just apply to the enemies you can see—it also goes for the ones you can't.
Shooter locator systems already exist. The current products aren't accurate, however, and they can't find the guy if you can't see him. In a major breakthrough, though, Vanderbilt's ISIS program, in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), just patented two critical elements in improving that process.
The new system uses nodes planted on a soldier's helmet—each containing four microphones—to zero in on the sound waves created by the fired weapon and the traveling bullet. Factor in the bullet's trajectory and its arrival time, and you've triangulated the location—regardless of whether the enemy is firing simultaneously with an AK-47, or the bullet is coming from a sniper inside a building. The soldier wears a personal digital assistant, or PDA, that calls up maps and photos of the enemy's location.
"In the urban environment, there are all the echoes produced, so it's hard to tell where the shots are coming from," explains Akos Ledesczi, the senior research scientist at ISIS. "Our system can sort all those shots out and figure that out. Our advantage—the novelty of our technology—is that all the sensors are networked together and cooperate. All the nodes share information with each other so they come up with a much better solution. It's more accurate, and it even estimates the caliber of the weapon and the type."
And it's not just more accurate. At a tenth the cost of the cheapest existing shooter location system on the market, it means more soldiers will be better equipped in the field, without any added weight. Perhaps most remarkably of all, the system weighs less than a flashlight—four double AA batteries not included.
Organization: Tennessee History for Kids
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
When Bill Carey proposed writing a Nashville history book for kids, to be distributed free to schools, he didn't have any trouble finding interested teachers. But what they desperately needed, the teachers said, was a history resource for the entire state. They told him Tennessee history wasn't taught in one grade anymore. Carey didn't believe it until he looked for himself—and he still didn't believe it.
"They took all the things that were Tennessee-related—history, civics and geography—and they scattered them throughout the curriculum and throughout several grades," Carey explains. "Like, in fourth grade, they do early American history and early Tennessee history. In fifth grade, they do late American history and late Tennessee history. In seventh grade, they do geography. It comes up in seven different grades."
Carey knew the situation couldn't be solved with a single book. It would be impossible for one publication to meet the reading comprehension and maturity of seven different grades. But he knew history—and as co-founder of NashvillePost.com, he knew the Internet. So he steered dusty old 19th century Tennessee history toward the 21st century's shiniest new medium.
The first thing he did was start a website—Tennessee History for Kids (tnhistoryforkids.org)—where he created a separate page for all 95 counties in the state. It offers at least one point of interest about each, from Shelby in the west to Johnson in the east.
"I jokingly tell people that was a mistake, because there are some counties where nothing interesting ever happened," Carey says. "But there are counties here, very small ones, that had more people before the Civil War than they have now. Think about that."
Along the way, he found a wealth of information that even he didn't know. "A lot of counties will tell you their story, and they all say it's their Civil War story," Carey says. "But the more interesting story is the one they don't talk about."
Like the fact that in 1941, the women of Van Buren County were so fed up with their lazy leaders that they elected an all-female government to run the county. (The men were so apathetic, they didn't even notice.) Or that Rosa Parks had been inspired to join the Civil Rights movement at the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County.
The next challenge was convincing backers of what Carey himself hadn't believed at first—how much social studies in Tennessee had gotten the shaft. "When we told people, 'Most of your students here have no state history book,' they didn't believe it," Carey says. "People in the legislature didn't believe me. [Former Gov. Don] Sundquist didn't believe me. It is the bastard stepchild of the curriculum."
But companies like Bridgestone did believe him. So did Gov. Phil Bredesen, who donated $50,000 to the effort. After two years of fundraising and donations, Carey was able to do what he'd always wanted: make videos about Tennessee history for the site.
He didn't know anything about filmmaking, so he approached the Watkins College film school, which offered interns. He recruited re-enactors to fill in the important roles, and since no one else on his team could act, he stepped in as host. Thus was born History Bill, an affable Everydad who happens to be way into history. "My inspiration is Steve Irwin—kinda like Steve Irwin works his way through Tennessee history," Carey says.
There are 19 videos on the site now, and each bite-size lesson registers as both goofy and informative—even to adults who grew up here. Shooting them took Carey and his crew on a trek all over the state. Thanks to re-enactors, he's "visited" Civil War veterans, Daniel Boone, the Tennesseans who fought at the Alamo, and active members of the Confederate and Union army. He even poses a junior-high TCAP question which most adults couldn't answer: What are the six physical regions of Tennessee? (For the record: the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Highland Rim, the Central Basin, the Cumberland Plateau, the Great Valley of Tennessee and the Unaka Mountains.)
Thousands of teachers have started using his videos as supplements to the curriculum. But when Carey visits the counties of Tennessee—he's visited all 95 and spoken to students or groups in about 30—he's shocked at how little schoolkids know about their home state. A roomful of fifth graders in East Tennessee couldn't name the governor. So he's fixing the problem one video at a time.
"All of the emphasis in schools is on subjects that are more objective for test-taking purposes," Carey laments. "Two plus two is four. There's no arguing about that. But causes of the Civil War, how were slaves treated, what caused the failure of the lost state of Franklin? There's just not a big feeling nationally that social studies are important. It's a huge mistake. It's the biggest educational mistake of our generation."
SPREADING THE GOSPEL
Organization: Lifeway Worship Project
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Mike Harland spent 25 years as a church music leader, so he knows the amount of time and effort it takes to find the right music for worship services week in and week out. Maybe you need a rockin' version of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" one week, or a minimalist "When We All Get to Heaven" with a simple accompanying organ track. Typically, you'd gather your musicians for rehearsal and get ready to recraft the song.
"In a rehearsal setting, you sit down and say, 'OK, this is how we're going to do this song,' and you'd get your pencils out," Harland says. "It becomes problematic, because you're dealing with volunteer musicians who don't have an infinite amount of rehearsal time. I've felt this particular pain point myself over the years."
Two years ago, Harland and a group of colleagues at LifeWay Christian Resources—many of whom have worked at local ministries—were examining ways to service the technological needs of churches through their website. The idea of SongMap was born. The service resembles a pricier iTunes for church music—there's a searchable database of hymns and religious songs at $1.49 a download. But the novelty is that you can actually reorder the song structure to get the version you want.
"SongMap enables them to acquire the files of the song how they want to perform it, and print it that way as sheet music," Harland says. "Or they could configure the audio files of the song and burn a CD. They can have two verses and not the third, or do the chorus three times instead of two. Once they assemble the song, they acquire it and they have to purchase it, and we pay all the licensing and copyright."
LifeWay assembled some 150 musicians to record some 900 songs into a half-million segments—the largest recording project in Nashville history that its founders are aware of. Those segments make each song mappable by verses, choruses and intros, all ripe for swapping and rearranging with a simple drag and drop.
"No one has ever done this before," Harland says. "There's on-the-fly editing software available, but you'd have to be a trained engineer to accomplish what we've created. We've taken a tool that allows someone who can't even read music to do this on the fly, and for pennies. You'll hear everything from a piano-only version of a hymn to a very aggressive rhythm section."
The implications for the non-secular world have already attracted the attention of industry ears. Meanwhile, LifeWay continues adding new versions of hymns and contemporary worship songs daily. It can only be a matter of time before there's a hip-hop version of "How Great Thou Art."
"We haven't really gone very urban yet, but we've talked about it," Harland says. "We're going to continue adding and creating more versions, so it's not out of the question."
LOUD AND CLEARER
Organization: Korby Audio Technologies
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
In the recording world, the microphone is king. It is the vessel that brings a singer into your car, your iPod, or onto your phonograph. If it's doing its job correctly, it can make a great voice legendary. But until now, that voice was only as good as the mic available in your studio. And even the fabled top-of-the-line microphones of yore merely amplified what God gave you.
That changed when Tracy Korby started making his own mics instead of just repairing vintage ones. It was the early '90s, before the flood of manufacturers and imports that rose alongside the demand created by home recording technology and cheaper studios.
His company, Korby Audio Technologies, is the only licensed repair facility in the U.S. for the gold standard of mics: Neumann, the German company responsible for the genesis and perfection of the condenser microphone, the worldwide, go-to industry standard for vocal recording.
But even Neumann traded quality for cost-cutting manufacturing methods over the years. Its microphones today still carry the name, but they don't have the magic—the warmth that made Sinatra sound like he was crooning into your ear from the next pillow.
As Korby repaired vintage mic after vintage mic, the engineering and physics grad from Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley realized he could apply improved technology to vintage techniques without compromising quality. He recruited his brother Shannon for his mechanical engineering skills, and together they formed Korby Audio.
Visit their cluttered studio in Berry Hill attached to the renowned Blackbird Studios, where they relocated on invitation from benefactors John and Martina McBride, and they'll show you their not-so-secret ingredient. It's Mylar, an extremely light but strong polymer designed by DuPont in the '50s and used by NASA for satellites.
Sound is merely pressurized air. Mylar—with some gold coated or "sputtered" onto it to make it metallic—translates those wisps to an electric charge. All this takes place within a capsule inside the microphone, which makes the Mylar the heart of the heart of the microphone.
"The thinner this is, the more sensitive it becomes," says Shannon, holding up a Mylar sliver whose thinness, he says, is equivalent to a single hair sliced 20 times. "And the tension, which is our ancient Chinese secret, is what really makes a huge difference. We stretch them and build our own in-house."
That huge difference means that, unlike factory-produced microphones tuned to an arbitrary standard, Korby's microphone standard is set by the customer's voice. So far, those customers include Tori Amos, Brad Paisley, the Flaming Lips, Eminem, Tom Waits, and a slew of Grammy-winning artists. The Korbys hand-tune each microphone to the talent's particular strengths. No longer do you have to settle for what God gave you. Korby microphones will make you sound like God—or at least, a fuller, richer you.
And for the price of an old Neumann—around 10 grand—you get five hand-tuned, handmade, swappable mics from Korby for a wide range of tones and sounds. Korby even makes its own capsules—the only microphone company in the country to do so.
"We have come up with a system that lets you replicate all the old vintage microphones within one unit," Tracy Korby says. "We're right here in town and can have it tuned to your specifications and your ears, because it's not built off an assembly line built by somebody else. What you're looking for, we can create. We mix the art with the science."
For Nashville's many innovators, in fields ranging from science and embryonic adoption to the rock of ages, those are words to live by.
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