L.A. Grapevine

Apr 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Maureen Droney


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At Hollywood's Paramount Recording Studios, I found producer/engineer Darryl Swann cutting tracks with rising superstar Macy Gray. A ’70s vibe pervaded the Focusrite console-equipped Studio C — brought on not by decor and equipment but by attitude — with the studio set up for anything and everything, and an eclectic roster of musician friends dropping in at all hours for what frequently turned into marathon sessions.

“Macy worked on her last record here at Paramount,” says Swann. “She knows the vibe, and it's comfortable for her. I usually come in early and start organizing things; the wave starts trickling in around 6, and by 10 o'clock, it's full speed.”

The Paramount sessions were continuing a routine established when, with the goal of harnessing that well-known phenomenon of after-show energy, Swann and a mobile studio headed out on the road with Gray, accompanying a monthlong string of tour dates. The tractor-trailer studio, complete with Neve VR and two Studer analog 24-tracks, was provided by Remote Recording Services of Lahaska, Pa.

“It was a great experience,” Swann recalls, “traveling in a huge caravan. We'd pull up to the venue, and the recording truck would get parked — it would take an hour or two to get the generator powered-up and to get everything set. Meanwhile, the buses would go on to the hotel. Once we were checked in, I'd head over to the truck, where I'd work until showtime. Macy would pop in before the show and check things out, then she'd go do her thing, being the grand diva onstage.

“Around midnight, after the show and the PR stuff that had to be done, she'd walk over to the truck with a couple of the guys in the band. We'd have some food and get going, usually until about 6 in the morning. Then it was back to the hotel to sleep a couple of hours, get on the bus, travel to the next city and do it again. We got some very cool stuff written during that time; some really special songs were born in that environment.”

Swann, definitely a musician-type producer as well as a songwriter and engineer, started his career as guitar player with the L.A. rock band Haven. “We were a hair band,” he recalls with a laugh, “playing at the Troubadour, opening for bands like Warrant and Poison in the late ’80s. After that, I kind of fell into being a recording engineer. My first real session, out at Silverlake Studios, was with L.A. and Babyface. They were doing ‘Rock Steady’ with The Whispers. I still remember them driving up in a rent-a-car with their stuff in the back — you can imagine how cool that was. I guess I was sold, because once I started working in the studio, I didn't pick up an instrument for a long time. But you know, it's like riding a bike — when you need to ride, you can do it. When I pick up my guitar, I'm fluent. I can still riff, and, as a producer, I feel fortunate that I have that skill. I can say to the piano player, ‘Give me a Gsuss9’ as opposed to ‘Hey, give me a pretty chord there!’ It helps so much to have that communication.”

A longtime Paramount client, who has recently come onboard as partner with co-owners Adam Beilenson and Michael Kerns, Swann is a fan of the 64-in GML automation-fitted Focusrite. Reportedly, one of only 10 that exist in the world, Studio C's Focusrite was commissioned for Conway Studios in 1991 and moved to its present location in January 2000.

“It's got the best attributes of a Neve,” notes Swann, “in terms of that transparent, open pipe sound — you know, like a big, old pipe that sound just shoots through. The mic pre's sound good, and the EQs are really clean. It's not one of those consoles that takes 10 years to pass the signal!”

“We're using the room a lot better than before,” comments owner Beilenson. “We've had advice from both [speaker tuning specialist Steve] Coco [Brandon] and [acoustic designer] George Augspurger, so we've been making upgrades based on the opinions of the specialists.”

Studio C is home to a Yamaha C-7 grand piano, a Hammond B-3 organ and two EMT 140 plate reverbs. Mains are Augspurger TADs, and an Apogee Rosetta A/D converter comes with the room. Upgrades to the control room were made at the time of the console installation; a large, ergonomically located wall of outboard now fills the back of the room, containing, among other items, Summit EQ and compression, lots of UREI, Lexicon, Neve, Drawmer and dbx gear, JoeMeek and DeMaria Labs compressors and API 550A EQs.

More upgrades were made before the current project started, most notably the addition of a rather luxuriously appointed private, upstairs bathroom and a comfy nap nook.

The Macy Gray project is being recorded both to 24-track analog and edited on Pro Tools, with the help of engineer Mike Melnick. “I'm a die-hard analog guy,” Swann comments. “Of course, there are such advantages to recording in the hard drive; editing and arranging in it is great. But I want to make a statement here: People need to remember that Pro Tools is just a tool, like a wrench or something. Some people think it's the end-all, and if you've got it, your stuff is automatically going to sound good…people actually talk like that. But I've heard guys tear up some great human grooves when they start lining those kick drums up and lining those snares up. It loses all that grease, all that human touch. So there are definitely pros and cons.”

While Pro Tools and an Akai MPC3000 were getting hard usage in the control room, set up out in the studio were keyboard rigs, a selection of guitar amps and, newly purchased by Swann, a set of Kikdrumz. “Victor Indrizzo, an incredible drummer who plays with Beck, and who's also part of our musical family, turned me on to these kits,” he explains. “He had a prototype. They're built by a guy named Miro, who makes them in his garage. Miro brought a kit down here for me to try, and it had one of the best-sounding kick drums I've heard in my life. I bought one on the spot. It's got a really resonant, big, full tone. Miro says he gets it by using an ultra-thin shell and by having none of the usual hardware holes in the drums, so that it has extra resonance. It's a great design.”

The Kikdrumz stay set up in the large recording space and are often augmented by a stash of vintage keyboards provided by Zac Rae — including such pieces as a Hohner clavinet, a Wurlitzer piano, an Arp string ensemble, an Optigon and a Chamberlin.

“He's got about 50 cool instruments,” says Swann. “We stay miked up, just in case. [Laughs.] There's always a musician around, eating pizza or whatever, so if we're on to something, we can try it right away. I'll be playing a beat on the MPC, somebody can just jump on it and we can hear it live and integrate it.

“What we're doing here is combining the best of the old with the best of the new. Macy's got that spirit; it brings out the craziest, most eclectic kind of stuff, but it's rooted in old soul. She brings both worlds together, and she does it really well.”

Sometimes it seems that hidden behind every other door in the San Fernando Valley is a music recording studio. I was reminded of this when I stopped in for a visit with Cody ChestnuTT at the “bedroom operation,” out of which he produced his eccentric and very funky CD, titled The Headphone Masterpiece.

Masterpiece came about when the multi-instrumentalist ChestnuTT, who was dropped by his label and deserted by his band, decided to make his own record. He retreated to his Tascam Portastudio-equipped home recording space, dubbed The Sonic Promiseland, and began woodshedding. Five months later, he emerged with a double-CD, 36 tracks of music that range from rap to pop and soul, with a hefty dose of British invasion added for good measure.

“I had a lot of things going on, and I had to get them out,” ChestnuTT says. “My band, The Crosswalk, was my second effort as a recording artist, and it broke up after we were dropped by Hollywood Records. I was on my own. The tracks were written, my ideas were down and I didn't know how I was going to produce them. I kept making music so I wouldn't be depressed, and I just decided that I was going to do it all myself. One vision, one sound, one room, undisturbed and undistracted. No one to argue with. I got to put down everything I heard in my head, put every color to the canvas.”

ChestnuTT's influences, as depicted on Masterpiece, run across the board. The stacks of CDs and vinyl that fill his house attest to this, with artists ranging from The Cure and Ray Charles to Judy Garland, David Bowie and Johnny Cash. With the exception of a few saxophone parts, ChestnuTT played all of the instruments on his project. Those included his collection of classic guitars, a Wurlitzer piano and a Gulbransen organ. He also sang all of the stylistically diverse vocal parts and did all of his own engineering. One mic (an Audio-Technica AT4033A), no samples, no Pro Tools — as a matter of fact, one track was recorded direct into the sampling functions of two Akai MPC2000s locked together. The rest ended up on a Tascam Portastudio 424MK III, using its internal mixer and an additional Tapco 6201 6x2 board. The entire project was then mixed down to a Sony DATman.

As the title implies, The Headphone Masterpiece was produced to give the listener a parallel experience with the one ChestnuTT had, while recording and monitoring on his headphones of choice, Sony MDR-7506s. “I wanted the listener's experience to be as pure as my thought process,” he explains. “I designed it for our generation's stereo — the Sony headphone — which sounds like a stereo wrapped around your head.”

Masterpiece was mastered by Brian “Big Bass” Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering. Gardner, whose credits, of course, include Dr. Dre, Eminem, Tony! Toni! Toné! and Beck, among others, is no slouch at determining what's funky, and he had high praise for ChestnuTT's effort. “It was a trip working with him; he's a real talent,” Gardner says. “All his songs, even though they were rough, sounded complete and finished. He really blew my mind when he brought in all his equipment. Nothing matched, the cables were all weird, some with different polarity than the others — I was running around finding replacement cables. But it was funny how it worked: I just plugged it all up, pushed Play and there it all was. The balance was perfect, we hit Record on our digital machine and it was done. That's never happened to me before. I consider it a miracle, but it kind of depicted what went on with all his songs while we were EQ'ing them. They all had a little magic to them. Cody's a definite talent, and I wish him total luck on this.”

“It's the classic ‘Doing it all yourself out of the house’ kind of thing,” says ChestnuTT's manager Phillip DeRobertis, of Ready, Set-Go, who hooked up with the artist when DeRobertis was managing Westlake Studios and ChestnuTT was recording there. “We've been through the business wringer before, and we don't mind doing it again. But this time, we're doing it more our way.”

DeRobertis is actively seeking a distribution deal for Masterpiece; already receiving airplay on Los Angeles station 100.3/The Beat is the cut “Serve this Royalty.” Meanwhile, the prolific ChestnuTT has already written a batch of songs for his next CD.

“As Judy Garland said, ‘I was born to entertain,’” he concludes. “We share that in common. Someone once told me that you survive in life how you see yourself; so that's what I try to do. If you see yourself as a high spirit in life, that's what you'll be.”

E-mail your L.A. news to MsMDK @aol.com or fax to 818/346-3061.

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