L.A. Grapevine

Nov 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Maureen Droney

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I dropped in at Skip Saylor Recording's Studio B and found busy quadruple-threat Claudio Cueni behind the SSL Axiom MT console. Cueni, a producer, engineer, songwriter and musician, was mixing three new cuts (one of which he'd written) for England's A-1, the boy band currently ensconced in the Number one slot on the Brit charts.

Originally from Switzerland, where he got his start playing keyboards with rock bands, Cueni is a genial fellow who finds himself a bit bemused at the twists and turns of fate: These days, he's best known for his work with R&B and hip hop favorites like Immature, Shanice, Smooth and Boyz II Men.

"I started out at 15 as a keyboard player for hire," he recalls, "touring with rock groups who had keyboard parts on their albums but no keyboard player in the band. Then I got a job with PolyGram Germany, where I moved to New York and babysat their groups who were recording there. They needed some-body to make sure the bands ate, had a place to live and were on a guest list if they wanted to go out at night. Again, they were rock groups without keyboard players, so I'd also play on their rec-ords. [Laughs.] I don't know what job description that would be - I've always seemed to do a lot of things."

Eventually, Cueni decided to try his luck in L.A., where he hoped to get work as a musician. Instead, he quickly found himself an assistant engineer position at Paramount Studios. "I still don't know why they hired me," he laughs. "I'd spent a lot of time in studios, looking over engineers' shoulders, but I hadn't engineered myself. I knew if you pushed a fader up it would get louder, but that was about it."

Following was a year of on-the-job training. "I think the saving grace was that, at that time, a lot of the clients at Paramount were doing their first demos. They didn't know much more than I did, so we kind of learned together. Then, some of the people I worked with started getting deals and calling me to work on their records.

"It was a great place to learn. It was one of the only studios in town to have staff engineers, and you didn't have an assistant. You had to set up, align your own tape machines, figure out a way to work around any problems...And, there was every kind of recording you could imagine: storytellers reading children's books, heavy metal, rap and everything in between."

Throughout his travels as a musician and engineer, Cueni had always written songs. "I never had any hits, but I'd had a couple of placements on records and a publishing deal," he explains. "When I started working on R&B and hip hop, I said, `I can do that!' I went out and bought myself an MPC60, a couple of keyboards and started writing tracks."

His first songwriting break came while engineering Immature's second album. Recording for the project was almost complete when the need arose for another ballad. Cueni volunteered to write one. "It was like three in the morning when it came up," he says. "They said, `If you have something by tomorrow noon we'll try it.' I stayed up all night, they came back the next day, wrote some lyrics and we recorded it. A month later MCA called me to say, `Congratulations, you've got the first single!'"

The song, "Never Lie," hit the Top 5. These days, Cueni divides his time about 70/30 between mixing and production and writing, with a goal of making the ratio 50/50. He has no plans, though, to give up engineering.

"I like to mix," he asserts. "You could lock me into a mixing room, preferably with an MT, and throw away the key. Just feed me once in a while, and I'll be happy."

Cueni has a definite penchant for digital consoles, which he attributes to the keyboardist side of his personality. "On a digital console," he says, "I can do whatever I want: automate EQs, do crazy routing, whatever. I've always liked the flexibility of total automation that digital consoles provide, but pre-MT, I never thought they sounded as good as analog consoles. It was always a bit of a struggle between `Let's make this not just a creative mix, but a good-sounding mix.'

"When Skip [Saylor] bought an MT, knowing how big an analog fan he was, I had to take notice. He was definitely at the top of the list of people in this town who I thought would never buy a digital console. So I had to check it out. I called him a couple of times, and he was always booked! But finally the opportunity came up to work on it, and I was like, `Skip, put my name on the door, because I'm not leaving!' I truly think it's the first time digital has sounded better than analog. It's really phenomenal."

While Cueni didn't get that sign on the door and exclusive rights to Studio B, he has become a regular client. He's also now a client of Saylor's engineer management company, HitMixers.com.

When not mixing, Cueni often finds himself editing projects on his home system, a Digital Performer setup. "I use Pro Tools, I like it a lot," he says. "But for my home system I went with Digital Performer. Being a keyboard player, I already know the program, and it's so much cheaper. I don't miss anything; it does everything that Pro Tools does. I'm a little scared of spending 20 to 30 thousand on hardware that might be obsolete pretty quickly. Here I'm spending $5,000. Performer with an 02R is a really cool combination."

Cueni is still writing on his MPC, but now it's a 3000. His home studio is also fitted with an Eventide H3000, Lexicon gear and a pair of Focusrite EQs. The gear he absolutely can't live without? "My Dynaudio BM15s. I'm not endorsed by them or anything," he says, a bit wistfully, "but I've been carrying them from session to session for the last two years. Now I'm getting ready to get a pair of the newer, powered ones, the BM15As."

The freeway-close, eastern Hollywood space previously home to Music Box Studios has become Studio Atlantis. Now owned by engineer (and former Music Box manager) Jonathan Newkirk and managed by Michelle Moore, the facility has added a second, studio bau:ton-designed room. The new Studio A, outfitted for surround, features a MadLabs-upgraded Neve VR 60 console with Flying Faders automation, a George Augspurger monitoring system, two Studer A800s and Pro Tools MixPlus|24.

Newkirk, who started his career as an intern at Music Box, had long envisioned creating a larger complex. When the opportunity arose to expand into adjoining storefronts, he enlisted the help of bau:ton's Peter Grueneisen. Skylights were added, and original walls of sandblasted brick are now juxtaposed with modern textures of Lumasite, brushed aluminum and Ardex-treated concrete. Base colors of ochre and blue, tall plush curtains, unexpected angles and exposed industrial elements combine to create an environment reminiscent of a theater's backstage.

"I let Peter run with it, and it came out great," Newkirk comments. "I wanted something different that got people's attention when they walked in, and bau:ton nailed it."

"Jon is not a guy to cut corners," notes Moore, an engineer and producer in her own right, whose career dates back to David Kershenbaum's Studio 55. "He wants things to be creative, comfortable and absolutely top-of-the-line. "

A drummer since the age of 16, Newkirk's first recording studio experience was at Music Box, working for then-owner Mike Wolf. "I started here in '94, interned for six months and began assisting with no real engineering background," he recalls. "Then I took time off to go to the L. A. Recording Workshop, came back and began firsting. When, in '98, Mike decided to sell, buying the studio was the logical step for me."

At the time Newkirk's intentions were to revamp the original studio, but he soon decided on a larger plan. "Mid-level studios are getting hammered these days," he says. "You need to either step down or step up, and I decided to step up. I purchased Music Box in January of '99, acquired two more spaces and started construction about five months later."

The MadLab mods to Studio A's VR console, often referred to as the "Conway" mods, include, extensive rewiring and new power supplies, as well as the audiophile CP-8 center section that provides eight buses and 6-channel surround capability. Newkirk decided on the purchase after he worked on one of the original versions at Conway Studios itself. "I heard it and loved it," he says simply. "It's just so clean and punchy."

The dual Studer A800s in Studio A are also highly modified for sonic upgrades by chief tech Tom Herzer. The facility's outboard complement includes Avalon, Manley, Neve, TC Electronic and Lexicon, including the Lexicon 960 L. Monitoring, besides the Augsperger surrounds, includes self-powered KRK E8s, Yamaha NS10s with Bryston amps and additional Bryston amps for the convenience of those clients who bring their own monitors.

Atlantis' original room, now dubbed Studio B, remains unchanged, an economical option that has played host to artists from Hole to Dishwalla to Wayne Kramer to The Temptations. It is equipped with a Trident Series 80-B console, modified by Herzer and fitted with Uptown moving fader automation, Studer A80 24 and 2-tracks and plenty of quality outboard. The 40x16-foot live recording area houses a Yamaha C7 grand piano.

With Studio A complete, Newkirk is continuing on with plans for the future. In the works are gated, underground parking and further expansion into the complex to add a tracking room and more lounges.

ASCAP's 12th annual film scoring workshop held its final class at Fox's Newman scoring stage this year. Course participants had the opportunity to conduct their own cues, which were performed by 40-piece orchestra and recorded by top scoring mixer Armin Steiner.

This year's class totaled 17 members, selected from over 200 applications received from around the world. The intensive, month-long program was mentored and moderated for the third time by composer Richard Bellis. Guest lecturers included, among many other notables, recording and mixing engineer Alan Meyerson, composers Jeff Rona, Steve Bramson and James Newton Howard, music business attorney Steve Winogradsky, contractor Sandy DeCrescent of Sabron, Inc. and Recording Musicians of America president Brian O'Conner.

The curriculum for the class ranges from the musical to the practical. Through lectures, Q and A and supplemental material, it covers a wide range of topics, which include working with an agent and/or attorney, preparation for scoring sessions, conducting tips and that all-important subject, how to price one's services.

Sponsored by the ASCAP Foundation, the program also receives contributions of resources and talent from Fox Music and the Newman Scoring Stage, Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures, Sabron Inc., the Recording Musicians Association, Jo Ann Kane Music Services, SuperScore, Segue Music and Mix and Keyboard magazines.

"There are not many programs available for composers that offer the opportunity to be exposed to the realities of the film and television business," comments Michael L. Todd, ASCAP's associate director of film/TV music. "This program enables participants to record with a top Los Angeles session orchestra and to get first-hand points of view from industry professionals. We are very grateful to those individuals and organizations that contribute and provide assistance to the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop. It's a great way of cultivating our next generation of rising composers."

Applications for 2001's workshop, scheduled for July and August, must be submitted by March 30, 2001. Submissions require a 10- to 15-minute CD of original music along with a bio/resume. For more information on how to apply, call ASCAP at 323/883-1000.






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