Mar 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Maureen Droney
On one of those beautiful only-in-L.A., just-after-a-rain winter afternoons, I stopped in at The Hive, 311's North Hollywood studio, where I found New York-based producer/engineer Ron Saint-Germain and 311 band members deep into overdub mode.
A cozy complex replete with a mixture of old and new gear, The Hive was the scene of a heated synthesis between digital and analog. The control room, fitted with two 02R consoles, also housed several of Saint-Germain's custom outboard racks. Tracks were being recorded to both an Otari analog 24-track and to Pro Tools, a division of labor fostered by Saint-Germain, an avowed analog proponent.
Saint-Germain, who in 1995 produced 311's third album, the multi-Platinum 311 (aka the Blue Album), has returned for their sixth effort and is clearly enjoying the project. He gave a brief tour of the homey studio, then settled in to discuss the project and offer some of his iconoclastic views on the state of modern recording.
“The previous album we made together did very well,” he comments. “A lot of people thought it was their first album, because their first two albums sold under 100,000, while the Blue Album went to three million. When you have that big a gap, people think it's the first record, because it's the first one they've heard of.”
The team amicably parted ways after 311, and in the intervening time the five-member, two-lead singer band put out two more albums, while continuing to tour almost nonstop, enlarging their already significant and loyal fan base. They also released Enlarged to Show Detail, a Platinum-selling home video of their live performances edited with glimpses of life on the road. In 2000, when it came time to head back to the studio again, they put in a call to Saint-Germain (Saint, for short), whose credits include Sonic Youth, Soundgarden and Tool, among many others, as well as the single and video mix for Creed's monster hit “With Arms Wide Open.”
“[Singer/guitarist] Nick Hexum sent me out some songs that he'd recorded here on his Studio Vision system,” he recalls. “So I made a few notes for him. [Laughs.] Well, actually, they were pretty copious notes — about four pages. When I called Nick the next day, he asked, ‘Did you listen?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, are you sitting down?’
“I went on for half an hour, and he finally said, ‘I didn't really realize that you got into a song so much; we miss that.’ Because, when you have a successful band, a lot of people will come in and kiss their ass. Me, I'll say what's on my mind — like it or not. I expect an open dialog from everybody, because I've found if you speak your mind, everybody knows where you stand. They might not take your suggestion, but it may trigger another suggestion from them that, in turn, leads to a whole third opportunity that would never have happened without the dialog.”
Songs continued to fly between coasts until Saint headed to Los Angeles in September for pre-production with the whole band. “The plan was during that time to try different things,” he notes, “because that's the period to go all the way out. Once you get into the studio, you've got to have a good flight plan and know what you're going to accomplish. I don't slam the door on creativity and spontaneity, but you need to have a focus. You don't want to go in, then sit around and twiddle your thumbs at two grand a day.”
New arrangements were recorded to Pro Tools, which even analog die-hard Saint-Germain admits is a convenience. “For trying out arrangements, Pro Tools is really valuable,” he concedes. After pre-production, the band took the show on the road, adding the new songs to the set lists of a six-week tour. “We'd rehearse at soundcheck,” continues Saint, “and it got to where they didn't feel like new songs. They didn't have to think about them, which was great. Because, like an actor can't really begin to act until he's off book — until he knows the words — you can't really play the music until you know the song. And that made all the difference, because when we went into the studio, in seven days we did 18 songs.”
Basics for the sessions, which were recorded at Sound City's Studio A, were cut to 16-track analog 2-inch at 15 ips. After tracking, 16-track safeties were made, along with 24-track analog and Pro Tools slaves. For overdubs, the swarm moved back to The Hive, where the antidigital Saint has been bypassing the two installed 02Rs, running mics direct into either the band's Telefunken mic pre's or into his own Neve units, then into the analog 24-track. Other tools he's been relying on include the Esoteric Audio Research 660 compressor. “I use it for vocals and basses. It's modeled after the Fairchild,” he explains. “I love the Fairchild sound. Unfortunately, if you move them, they break, they're difficult to line up, and they're inconsistent from one to the next. This thing has the reliability and stability of today's technology, but design-wise it's virtually a copy of the Fairchild. Sonically, it's actually better.”
Also in Saint's racks (works of art in their own right, by the way, and designed by Vince Gutman of Woodstock, N.Y.) and put to regular use on the project are Pultec EQP-1As, Motown equalizers and two different types of Neve mic pre's/EQs: 1073s and the broadcast-style 3104s. Saint is also a fan of his dbx 120XDs, which he uses to enhance subharmonics. “You have 20, 30, 40 and 50 Hz; it's just subs, period. I have two of these so that I can use them in stereo on the mix, feeding the bass or the kick into them to get that live sub stuff.”
Other cool gear includes a Moog 3-band parametric EQ, MXR phaser/flangers, a Lexicon 200 (“The forerunner to all of the Lexicon gear,” he says.), Marshall Time Modulators, Cooper Time Cubes and a prized Datamix EQ, reportedly from a board used by Jimi Hendrix. “I've had it since ’74 — just knowing that his hands were on this makes it great!”
An April release is hoped for; expect a more classically aggressive rock sound from the band this time around, mixed with loops and elements from the dance world, such as jungle, trance and trip hop. “A lot of what attracted me to this band in the first place was that, at the time, they were a very unique hybrid of a lot of styles,” states Saint. “They were groundbreakers for bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. But 311 still encompasses a larger hybrid of music. Plus, they're all amazing musicians, really good players, which is a rarity these days.
“It feels like a great marriage this time,” he concludes. “Everybody's really excited, happy to come to work and anxious to play. Even with the Pro Tools, we're still having fun, so I know it can be done.”
Next stop: a few minutes away at Burbank's Master Control. Manager/co-owner Ron Corbett showed me around the SSL 4000 E-equipped facility, where a two-year redecorating process was recently completed. No longer the spare, concrete industrial space that I remembered from the past, the studio's original exposed brick walls and high ceilings have been enhanced with new textures and carpet in warm earth tones. A mixture of art now adorns the walls, including some collected by (co-owner) Larry “Shea” DeGasperin on his travels to China. Also new are a kitchen and a separate Pro Tools suite.
“We started redecorating at the end of ’98,” says Corbett with a laugh, “and I can definitely say that we're sick of remodeling. We've done it slowly, one piece at a time, because we're not the kind of business that can take out a big loan and slam it. We didn't want to have down time. Instead, we'd do a room or part of a room, working on weekends or at night and stopping when clients were working. That's why it took us almost two years.”
Master Control is known as a reasonably priced place to both track and mix and in recent years has played host to long-term projects such as Toad the Wet Sprocket with producer Gavin MacKillop. In addition to the 52-input SSL, the studio provides a Neve 12-channel sidecar with 1063 EQ/mic pre's and a good complement of outboard, including plenty of vintage pieces by Pultec, API and UREI, and some specialty items, such as two CBS Audimax II tube limiters, a Trident spring reverb and an Ursa Major Space Station. The spacious complex features both a large 22×20-foot control room and a massive 25×58-foot recording space. During the renovation, the recording space, which is graced by a Steinway Model C 7-foot grand piano and several very cool backlit drum kits, was made more sonically flexible with new flooring, carpet and an abundance of full-size baffles.
When Master Control was originally opened in 1984 by producer/engineer/musician John “Ace” Otten, it was equipped with a Trident Series 80 console. The SSL console was installed in 1986, and the first sessions booked on it were for Madonna's True Blue album. Now owned by three partners, Otten, DeGasperin and Corbett (who handles the day-to-day management), the facility plays host to projects that run the gamut of genres. Recently in have been pop-rockers SR-71 with producer/engineer Neal Avron, the Rounder Records' Woody Guthrie children's series with Frank Fuchs producing and Static-X with producer/engineer Ulrich Wilde. On the day I stopped by, new artist Sled was mixing with producer Mark Kendall and engineer Jim Faraci.
“We're more of a by-the-project than a by-the-hour studio,” comments Corbett. “I'd say our niche is high-end tracking and mid-level mixing. We get a lot of mixes because of the size of the control room. And now, with the Pro Tools room, it works out even better for our clients. They can be set up in a separate place, but if they need the system in the control room, they can have it there instead.
“Most of our projects come from the producer or engineer,” he continues. “They call up and book the time themselves. We have a lot of regulars, so as long as our handful of clients is working, we're working. I like the sort of mid-level niche that we're in. Although we share a lot of the same clients with other studios, we're really not directly competing with anybody.”
According to Corbett, the recording space is also a favorite with drummers, and he recalls a session with ex-Policeman Stewart Copeland. “When the session was over, he hung out for several hours just jamming by himself, because he liked how he sounded in the room so much.”
A good number of Master Control's sessions are still analog. “Our 2-inch machines definitely still get used, and the biggest trend I see is the hybrid between analog and digital,” he notes. “People use the technology in different ways for different projects.”
About the finally completed renovation, Corbett notes: “Your day rate doesn't go up because you put in new doors or change the carpet. Recording budgets haven't gone up, and that can make it difficult for a studio to spend money on improvements. But you want to put things back into the business to let your clients know that you care about them, so you do what you can. Our goal was just to make it feel like someone's home and to make it a comfortable place for people to work.
“In the end, I couldn't tell you how to stay in business, we really just try and service the business that we have. You always have a certain number of new business each year, and you try to make them repeat clients. And, of course, you hope that your regular clients do well, because if they have work, so do you.”
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