Apr 1, 2002 12:00 PM, by Maureen Droney
Walking into arranger John Philip Shenale's Studio City workplace is like entering some Harry Potter-ish magic shop, except instead of cauldrons and wands, the place is packed with keyboards. Shenale, who is acclaimed for his work on many rock records, and whose string arrangements have been called “magnificent” by Rolling Stone, is a serious collector; to get to the digital workstation where he writes and records, you first have to negotiate a thick forest of vintage Hammond organs, way cool analog synths and intriguing old one-offs.
It's in this lair that Shenale has created hybrid soundscapes for artists such as Bette Midler, Tracy Chapman, John Hiatt, Jane's Addiction, and for Tori Amos — with whom he is a longtime collaborator, having worked on five of her albums including the 2002 Grammy-nominated Strange Little Girls.
Although he usually works with sequencing and notation software instead of paper and pencil, and uses samplers as well as live orchestra, Shenale remains an arranger in the classic sense. He has a fine-tuned sense of the capabilities of individual instruments, and his recording setup is fine-tuned also; based around Digital Performer DP3 with its QuickScribe scoring program and an original manufacturer Kurzweil K250, it also features a highly modified Soundcraft 6000 console, with new op amps and upgraded capacitors that give it, he asserts, a much better frequency response than a standard issue.
“I did start out composing on piano,” he explains, “but I've been into electronics since I was a kid. In college, I was a physics major, but I also played in a rock band. Eventually, going on the road with the band won out over college. I'm actually a performance rock 'n' roll musician based in classical music, but there's a technology aspect that runs through everything I do.”
These days, Shenale handles most of his own engineering, as he did on the tracks he arranged for Strange Little Girls. “When I made the connection that engineering is like orchestrating, engineering became fun,” he comments. “I enjoy the timbral aspect. Selecting the right mic pre or compressor for a particular voice or instrument becomes a lot easier when you look at the sonic nature of it and ignore the brand. Also, I was able to put my electronics to work because I could design a mic pre or modify a piece of equipment.”
Although well-versed in DSP, Shenale prefers not to use plug-ins, making the case that a direct A/B of what's currently available with their hardware equivalents proves the virtual creations lacking. “The human mind adapts continuously,” he says, “so we hear things and at the moment think they sound like the original. But what we have now is a very narrow bandwidth of software plug-ins. When you put them side by side with the instruments they're emulating, there's a great big difference. I wish there was some way to make manufacturers really understand that.”
For the tracks on Strange Little Girls, Shenale traveled to Amos' home in Devon, England, along with some primo keyboards that he'd assembled for her studio. “Because she's such a good keyboard player, they can't just have cool sounds, they have to be very playable,” he says about the collection that included a Wurlitzer, Mooger Foogers, a Panther organ, a Vox Jaguar and a Ken Rich-modified Fender 88 suitcase Rhodes.
Shenale laid down piano parts as a basis for the orchestration, then returned to L.A. to finish. A cut that's garnering particular attention is the Eminem-penned “97 Bonnie & Clyde,” for which Shenale used custom samples from his Chamberlin and “The Sideman,” a circa 1952 vacuum-tube drum machine.
“Whether I'm tracking or making samples,” he notes, “I use extra mics to enhance the realistic ambience as much as possible so I don't necessarily have to use effects for ambience later. For ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ that created an ‘other worldly’ sound.”
About arranging for rock music Shenale notes, “You have to be aggressive, obviously, and much bolder. It's not backup as a beautiful orchestration in an MOR or pop song might be. Instead, it has edges to it; things pop out, and often the melody line is tightly woven. Emotions have to be much more at the surface. It's not superficial, but it's at the edge with nerve endings more exposed.”
Over in Van Nuys, songwriter/producer Rick Neigher has set up shop at the Sound City complex in what was formerly Good Night L.A. Studios. Neigher, who's labored in the songwriting trenches with artists such as Sonichrome, Closure, Michelle Branch, The Go-Gos, Melanie Doane and Leah Andreone, has recently struck several successful collaborations: As co-producer (with Ben Dunk) of the Canadian band Wave, who has been nominated for three 2002 Juno Awards, and as co-songwriter of a single (with singer Kristyn Osborn) for country faves SHeDaisy.
A singer and multi-instrumentalist with a degree in music and a major in voice, Neigher started out as a performer, fronting a band that recorded for Capitol. Later, a stint at Rondor Music Publishing brought his songwriting skills to the fore. He garnered covers by artists including Joe Cocker, Wilson Pickett and Tuck & Patti, and became a staff writer for, first, Rondor, and then Warner Chappell, placing songs with numerous artists as well as in films and on television. During all that time, he maintained a small studio at Sunset Sound where he worked with up-and-coming artists. Since his move to the Sound City complex, Neigher has hooked up with manager Frank McDonough with whom he's been developing several different genre-crossing artists, including budding alt-soul-pop diva Rhiann, Australian rocker Michelle Joan Smith and Indian soul singer Shaheen Sheik.
“I see myself as a developer kind of producer, the one who helps to focus artists early in their career,” he comments. “I have a good environment here to be very creative at that seminal point where you begin to make music and write songs.
Neigher's studio setup is built around what seems to be standard these days for muso-type producers: Digital Performer's DP3. “I started on it when it was just a MIDI program,” he says. “So when it became audio as well it was a logical thing to use. The latest 3.0 version is great; they just make it easier and easier, and the plug-ins are fantastic. Now there are starting to be programs I like that don't work with Pro Tools, that only work with Logic and Digital Performer. Like Propellorhead's Reason. It's awesome. I've also been messing with Battery, a drum sample player by Native Instruments, who also make Absynth. And I use things like Unity and Retro, all from within DP.”
A Mackie 2408 console handles any outboard processing such as his Berenger Ultra Q Pro equalizer and Focusrite Voicemaster. Mixing is to DAT; TC Electronic's Spark mastering software and T-Racks' multiband compressor/EQ/stereo spreader are employed on final mixes, which often get sent out by MP3 over DSL. “In five minutes it's over to anybody who needs to hear it,” he says.
Neigher is optimistic that the music business cycle is coming around to a new emphasis on singer/songwriters. “For quite a while now, there hasn't been much courage in A&R,” he contends. “But, like in film, where there are those few movies that are made from love and have important, rich stories to tell, there are exceptions in the record business, too. I love getting my hands dirty, and really being inside the music-making. I want to be the person who connects the artist with what they need to make the greatest possible record.”
It's always sad when a recording studio closes its doors. Sony Music's Santa Monica facility shut down in December, and it was good to hear from former chief technical engineer Peter Barker, who has embarked on a new endeavor.
“It's been a long, strange couple of months,” he says. “Shutting down a studio that you built and improved over 10 years is not a pleasant experience. That's especially true when you know it was a very good studio, one that hosted Elton John, Pink, Diana Ross and Tim McGraw in just the past year.”
There was plenty of interest in the studio's equipment, particularly the highly modified Neve 80 Series console. As it turns out, Marc Schrobilgen, an AVID editor and video producer and a former Sony employee, has purchased all of the facility's equipment. Schrobilgen, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Incubus, Britney Spears, Ozzy Osbourne and the Backstreet Boys, tried to obtain a lease with Sony for the facility, but negotiations failed when Sony decided that they didn't want an independent studio in the space.
Schrobilgen has assembled a team that includes Barker and Sony's former chief mastering engineer, Stephen Marsh, and has formed Threshold Sound and Vision, a company that's already doing mastering, CD duplication, audio duplication/transfer/restoration, and AVID video editing out of a temporary location in Santa Monica while they finalize arrangements for a large, permanent facility in the same area. Threshold plans to add more recording and mastering spaces, and to offer a broad range of video post-production and creative services.
“As you might imagine, we're very excited about this new endeavor,” says Barker. “We look forward to serving the clientele we had at Sony as well as expanding our service. If anyone would like to contact us please give us a call at 310/451-4550 or e-mail us at Thresh email@example.com.”
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