L.A. Grapevine

Jun 1, 2004 12:00 PM, by Maureen Droney

Polls


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How's this for a great gig? You get to work with top L.A. session cats recording trés cool hit tunes from the '60s with some of today's top artists on vocals. Add a budget that allows time for researching and reproducing the original sounds of those records. The job: recording songs for cameo performances on NBC's Emmy-winning American Dreams, the Sunday night program that follows a Philadelphia family through the turbulent (and music-rich) 1960s.

(L-R) American Dreams comprises drummer Gregg Bissonette, bassist Tim Landers, producer Danny Pelfrey, engineer Greg Townley, keyboardist Jim Cox and guitarist Tim Pierce.

Producer Danny Pelfrey and engineer Greg Townley have recorded songs with artists such as Chris Isaak, Jason Mraz, Richie Sambora, LeAnn Rimes, Lil' Kim, Usher, Liz Phair, Macy Gray and Alicia Keys, among many others. On the afternoon that I stopped in Capitol Records' Studio B, they had two tracks in the can: Curtis Mayfield's “Woman's Got Soul” and The Velvelettes' “He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'” with Wyclef Jean and supermodel Tyra Banks, respectively, scheduled for vocals that evening.

The band, comprising drummer Greg Bissonette, keyboardist Jim Cox, bassist Tim Landers and guitarist Tim Pierce, was set up live in the studio for tracks. (Pierce was in the control room with amps in the studio.) The venerable Studio B hasn't changed much during the years, so with RCA BX44s, DX77s and other classic mics everywhere, it looked pretty authentic. “We've done the sessions here, at Ocean Way or at Cello Studios,” comments Townley. “They've got the right vibe. We pay attention to the stereo imaging in the original track and set up the band as close as we can to how they were on the original date.”

Research revealed little hard information available about specific recordings, so re-creating sounds became a process of trial and error. “People expect that we'll be working with minimal miking, but we actually set up multiple mics because we have to be able to tailor the sound,” Townley says. “Some of the tracks were recorded at Stax, some at Motown, some in Los Angeles at Universal or Capitol. Except for Motown, where we have pictures from the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, we don't know much about the acoustics of the original rooms. Sometimes we'll open the room up and mostly use room mics, and sometimes we'll close it way down with massive baffling. It gets especially challenging when we do multiple songs in a day, like a Motown song in the morning and a Phil Spector track in the afternoon!”

For “Woman's Got Soul,” drums were miked with two RCA BX44 ribbons for overheads, with a Neumann U67 on hi-hat. RCA 44 ribbons were also on Cox's piano. Recording was to Pro Tools, where Townley favors Filterbank and Analog Channel for frequency manipulation. “I use original analog Fairchild compressors on the room mics,” he notes. “When that's not enough, I'll subgroup drums and the band on separate channels and then use some massive Wave C4 multiband compression for old-school punch. I also find that the GRM Tools bandpass filter is indispensable for stripping out some bottom end when I need to make the tracks really crisp.”

Townley points out that many of the original versions are mixed with individual parts and are, by today's standards, way out of balance. “A little guitar or a massively compressed brass will dominate,” he says. “But that gives them character. Their idea of imagery was so much different than ours today, it really gives you pause.”

The original song gets lined up in Pro Tools and then while the band runs it down, Townley and Pelfrey A/B for sounds. A secret weapon is an 11-channel Universal Audio console circa 1950. “The book Temples of Sound led us to it,” reveals Townley. “As soon as we plugged it in, it sounded great. The integrity of the low end is amazing, and overall, it's just magic.”

Each singer gets an old and a new mic set up side-by-side. Both are recorded; later, one is selected or a combination is used. All of the vocalists have earned high marks for their efforts. “LeAnn Rimes, for example, sang a childhood favorite of hers, [Connie Francis'] ‘Where the Boys Are,’” Townley remarks. “She came in knowing it perfectly and gave the most amazing performance. Jason Mraz did an incredible job on Dion's ‘Ruby Baby,’ and Alicia Keys blew us all away on [Fontella Bass'] ‘Rescue Me.’”

“The songs are intended to complement and accommodate the vision of the artist who's playing the role,” explains Pelfrey. “It's an acting job, too. For example, Wyclef will be portraying Curtis Mayfield with period wardrobe, hair and makeup. They go all-out on the set and we do here, also. It's definitely all about the detail.”

“It's been a labor of love,” adds music supervisor Greg Sill, who's produced music for such shows as ER and Friends. “It grew out of an idea from [show producer] Jonathan Prince. At first, we were creating synthesized tracks. As time went on, we decided to use more and more live performers. We go through tons of CDs [to select songs]. Jonathan is very particular, an admitted sound geek. He's a musician and technically savvy; he comes to every mix with very specific notes. We're lucky. Usually remakes sound pretty cheesy, but we've had the kind of creative direction that's allowed us to pursue it authentically.”

“It really is a dream job,” Townley concludes. “We've made a lot of them sound amazingly close to the originals. The interesting thing is that we do it with a process of blending both old and new technology.”

Popular culture these days may be dominated by the outrageous contests of reality TV, but when it comes to success, none of them holds a candle to that American classic (and world's longest-running broadcast game show), The Price Is Right. Now in its 32nd year, Price and host Bob Barker together have racked up 15 Daytime Emmy Awards. This year, they're nominated for five more, including Best Sound. Intrigued, and invited by production mixer Dirk Sciarrotta, I took a drive to the Fairfax District for a look behind the scenes.

It was an hour-and-a-half before showtime when I arrived at CBS Television City, but the crowd waiting to get in for Price's 6,000th show was already beside itself, pumped to the max. That's right, 32 years and 6,000 shows, every one of them helmed by the now 80-year-old Barker. What a gig that man has: Surrounded by gorgeous “Barker Beauties,” every work day he gives stuff away — sports cars, tropical vacations, speedboats, electric guitars, hot tubs; close to half-a-billion dollar's worth so far. All the while, he's receiving the kind of adulation (and crowd SPL!) normally awarded to a rock star while remaining suavely calm, cool and in control.

I made my way through the CBS labyrinth to the sound booth of Studio 33 (the Bob Barker Studio!) for a chat with its denizens: Sciarrotta, music director Stan Blits, music mixer Maryann Jorgenson and Jack Beller, who handles audience sweetening. In the hour before taping, amid constant intercom chatter, Sciarrotta gave me a rundown on the setup and the rest of the crew: sound effects mixer Denise Palm Stones, P.A. mixer Nancy Perry, and floor A2s Barney Neeley and Deedra Bebout.

“It's choreography out there,” explains Sciarrotta, who is the same age as Price and says he grew up watching it. “Cameras shoot the show from all angles, including from onstage toward the audience. Anything can be in the shot. It's pretty tricky for the director, Bart Eskander.”

Pretty tricky for the mixer, too, who's running up to 19 mics: for Barker, the announcer, contestants, audience and onstage game sound effects. Also coming up on Sciarrotta's 64-input (56 mono/eight stereo) SSL 6000 G console are stereo music cues, audience sweetening, miscellaneous tracks such as video playback, pre-fade ISO record sends and sound effects (added on the fly by Palm Stones, stationed on the floor near the stage and producers).

Neumann KM140s get a workout for the contestant mics and, with a custom lightweight shaft, for Barker. It's the only mic Barker uses; he has three of the same. There's no backup lavalier or boom, and he uses it with a 60-foot cable, manned with great skill by one of the A2s. The all-important announce mic is an AKG 535 and the audience is covered with eight Countryman Isomax II Hypers.

Sciarrotta uses a 2-channel CEDAR noise-reduction unit to get rid of air conditioning and room noise: one channel on Barker's mic and the other on a bus combining the contestant mics. The P.A. is fed through two XTA Electronics DP200 2-in/4-out digital processors for EQ and delays.

Sciarrotta mixes for six of the seven foldback monitors, with Perry responsible for one strategically placed “sweet spot” speaker for Barker. Barker does not use in-ears, just flown EAW FR153z monitors. The onstage announcer uses a pair of Sony 7506 headphones.

Music is complicated. Jorgenson follows scripts, mixing cues from eight Digicarts, which hold more than 20 hours' worth of music. On the Price crew for more than 10 years, Jorgenson laughs and says, “Believe it or not, there are 50 to 60 music cues. Most people think there's only one: the theme. Our favorite comment is, ‘There's music in that show?’”

Music director Blits gets a week's worth of scripts a week prior to taping and then tailors music from existing cues from companies including Killer Tracks and OGM, along with independent producers. One of those sports cars, for example, may get some up-tempo driving music with lots of brass. If it's a diamond ring, well, some soft, glamorous new age might do the trick. And then there are the special scores; for example, Blits has his work cut out for him for the next Price prime-time special, dubbed The Prizenator — well, you can imagine.

Price tapes five shows a week: two on Monday with Fridays off. Frequently, other shows tape in Studio 33 on Price's off-days. The stage and control room are completely struck, and as Jorgenson explains, “The crew of Hollywood Squares will be in at 3:30 Friday morning to set up for a 9 a.m. start.”

The biggest mixing challenge? Without hesitation, Sciarrotta says, “The audience. Sometimes, there's more audience in Bob's mic than there is Bob. The show is all about audience reaction — sometimes getting the balance is almost impossible. Most contestants have no idea how to work a microphone. What saves us is that Bob is absolutely the best in the business at working the mic. When a contestant is onstage and the audience is screaming, he knows right when to shoot it out at a contestant to get their emotional reaction. The energy is truly unsurpassable, and we all work really hard together as a team to get the balance right.”


Got L.A. stories? E-mail maureendroney@aol.com.






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