L.A. Grapevine, September 2009
Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa
I had two reasons for visiting what was previously the A&M Records lot in Hollywood: one professional, the other personal. My destination was the top-line facility now known as Henson Studios, where the bulk of the overdubs and mixes for Alice in Chains' new Virgin album Black Gives Way to Blue were done. (See cover story on page 26.) But I also wanted to soak in the present-day atmosphere of a spot where I'd spent five of the best years of my label life during A&M's golden age in the 1970s.
Entering through the back gate, I look around, and, apart from some cosmetic changes — a brick surface replacing the asphalt of the courtyard and fresh paint on the buildings, along with plenty of landscaping — the lot is unchanged from the last time I'd been here more than a decade ago. I spot what used to be the carpentry building (now bearing the nameplate the Barn), the photo department (the Loft), international (with a giant Kermit the Frog now popping out of the front wall) and the art department, later the HQ of IRS Records (the Shack). After peeking into the window of my old office in the publicity bungalow (the Schoolhouse), I gaze at the front gate, above which another Kermit, decked out in Little Tramp duds, poses on the spot where the iconic A&M trumpet logo had stood until 1999, when Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss sold the company to Universal Music Group.
Taking a left toward the front doors of the building that houses the studios, I notice that the Chaplin Soundstage is still in use, and above it the row of offices that had been the product management department where I'd worked with Jeff Ayeroff, Jordan Harris and the late Jamie Cohen, sharing space with staff producer David Anderle.
Jaime Sickora, the chief engineer, gives me the tour. We walk into the control room of Studio A, where I spent many hours with The Tubes as they recorded their 1976 album, Young & Rich, with producer Ken Scott, and the memories come flooding back. The Neve that once sat here was removed soon after the sale; in its place is an SSL SL 9080J that's slightly smaller than an aircraft carrier.
We head down the hall to B, where The Carpenters once made records, and where producer Nick Raskulinecz and engineer Paul Fig completed the Alice project, working outward from the SSL SL 6072E/G, while playing back through Van Haaff/A&M hybrid main monitors. Meanwhile, on the other side of what Sikora refers to as “a secret door,” Randy Staub was simultaneously mixing tracks on Studio Mix's 6072E/G.
“Henson has the best-sounding control rooms in Hollywood,” says Raskulinecz, explaining why he chose the facility. “And the quality of the studio is just untouchable, from the tech to the equipment to the maintenance. A lot of it had to do with having Randy come down from Vancouver and start mixing before we were done. I knew he mixed Metallica's Black Album in there, and that it's his favorite place to mix in L.A. It just made sense for us to be recording and for him to be mixing right across the hall — it was perfect.”
“I worked at Henson as an assistant back in the mid-'80s [when it was A&M],” Staub says. “I've mixed so many records there that I have a point of reference right away, and it saves me a lot of time and energy.”
The SSLs were another attraction for Raskulinecz. “On every record I make, I like to track on Neves and APIs and then overdub and mix on SSLs,” he says. “I consider that the winning combination. The 8058 we were tracking on at Studio 606 was just 36 channels, and by the time we left we were up to 60, 70, 80 tracks, so it was great to be able to give everything its own fader. Summing all that stuff in Pro Tools just doesn't sound good to me, so I'm really into spreading it all out. I'd rather sum it in the console in a stereo bus because that's what it was made for, with a lot of head room. Plus, the stereo buses in those consoles at Henson have been modified and they sound great. We pushed computers and hard drives to the max; it was really fun using all the technology.
“The first time I worked in that B room, I loved it, man,” he continues. “Aside from the sound in the control room, the live room is the perfect size — and there was enough room on the floor to play our dice games, which was very important. That was honestly the first record where I've ever done something like that, and it was a great tension-breaker when we were recording guitar tracks, getting performances and dealing with tuning issues. Somebody'd say, ‘Let's roll some dice,’ and we'd all stop what we were doing and get down on the floor. We probably wasted a lot of studio time, but we had a damn good time. And I won a bunch of money.”
Sessions are going on in the mix room and the SSL-equipped Studio D, where Emmylou Harris and I collaborated on the Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers 1976 anthology, Sleepless Nights, so both are off-limits. So is C, which is now in its eighth year of a long-term booking; Sickora is not at liberty to name its occupant, nor today's clients, in keeping with Henson policy. They're extremely protective of their clients here.
When I ask her what qualities draw clients like Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake and Pearl Jam to Henson Recording , Sickora says, “It has to do with the sound of the rooms, our gear, our staff and the first-class service we provide,” adding that nine-year-veteran studio manager Faryal Russell “does an incredible job of taking care of people.”
On the way out, I wander around the lot, breathing in the still-magical vibe. The campus of the Jim Henson company remains as charming a work environment as you're likely to find in L.A. It also serves as a downright ideal setting for making records.
Send L.A. news to Bud Scoppa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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