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Former rocker fine-tunes a stellar studio

When Buddy Pendergrass played with the hippie band the Tropics in the 1960s and the glam band White Witch in the 1970s, he toured with the Yardbirds, the Eagles and other megastar groups.

In the mid 1980s he worked with Pat Benatar and U2 as a concert production director.

But 13 years of touring _ sometimes 100 days and 100 cities without a break _ didn't fulfill him.

Neither did working with hot groups such as Jethro Tull, or owning and operating commercial sound studios.

He wanted to work with a bigger star: Jesus.

Now he is. With encouragement and support from his wife, Debbie, Pendergrass has launched Tropic Sound Studios, a state-of-the-art Christian commercial and postproduction audio facility just outside Clearwater.

The path to his music ministry was a long and strange one for the former 1960s rocker.

"I felt like God sent me to boot camp," he said and laughed. "I was doing it to glorify myself, but I can take all the knowledge and apply it to Christian music."

It was a leap of faith for Pendergrass, 54, a humble man with a gentle manner and an easy smile. Starting any new business is financially risky, but a sound studio dedicated to Christian music?

It's something that will benefit the local Christian community, he said.

"Most people involved in Christian music have their hearts in the right place but no practical experience," said Pendergrass, a St. Petersburg resident and a member of Calvary Chapel on U.S. 19. "I had a vision where I could have the studio to record Christian music. It's every Christian's responsibility to serve the Lord. I feel I can make a contribution with Christian music."

He said it's common for people to "make excuses for poor quality Christian music, and say it's good for Christian music."

But with his studio, "There will be no excuses for why this can't be top" quality, he said.

"I want this studio to be as good as any secular studio. Local Christians don't expect that."

It took more than two years to build the studio, which is housed in a 12,000-square-foot complex with three other companies at 5770 Roosevelt Blvd. in the Bay Forest office complex just south of Clearwater.

He made sure the sound quality would be superb by installing hardwood floors, high ceilings and top-of-the-line equipment such as a Pro Tools Mix 24 audio work station, a Focusrite compressor/equalizer, a Lexicon reverb echo machine, Genelec and Tannoy studio monitors, AKG microphones and much more.

The control room has a double-pane window of 10 feet by 6 feet that weighs 1,000 pounds. The control room is between the 650-square-foot live room with its 16-foot ceiling and a multipurpose isolation room.

He has two employees, Michael Patterson and Steve Swenson. All three work 15-hour days.

The first recording session took place Sept. 15, but Christian music wasn't sung that night. Todd Donovan, a pastor at Northside Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, recorded some show tunes, including Some Enchanted Evening.

But Donovan, 34, brought three of his church's singing teams in to record a CD at the studio that they hope to sell at the church at Christmastime.

The singers are young, and none had recorded in a professional sound studio before.

"I'm having a lot of fun recording with these guys," Pendergrass said. "Sometimes they'll take a hundred takes to get it down. But that's part of the ministry, to help them improve."

One night, one of the praise teams was working on a song called You Alone, laying down track after track.

Donovan listened from the control room. He liked what he heard.

"It's a quality studio," Donovan said. "It's great to have a room that size to sing in. And Buddy's a great guy. We really appreciate that Buddy has a standard that he wants to reach."

One of Donovan's singers, 16-year-old Savannah Smith, thinks the whole experience "has been a blast."

"I would give up everything else and just live here," she said.