Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa
During the course of this rough-and-tumble decade, many record makers have been faced with the challenge of doing more with less. This month, we take a look at how a pair of cagey D.I.Y. veterans have turned limitations into strengths.
L.A. institution Mad Dog has nimbly done the tighten-up in reaction to a general belt-tightening among its clientele. Throughout its 28-year existence, the facility, founded and owned by producer/bass player Dusty Wakeman, has been a magnet for the roots-rock/alt-country community, from Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams to John Doe and Peter Case, thanks to its plentitude of old-school gear and an atmosphere as comfortable as a pair of faded Levis 501s.
Mad Dog has been at its present location in Burbank for the past decade-and-a-half, but two years ago Wakeman leased out Studios A and B long-term to a film composer and moved his gear into the big room, known as the Stage, which had previously been used for video shoots, rehearsals and pre-production.
Rather than framing out a separate control room, Wakeman decided to position his Neve 8088 board, Pro Tools HD system and racks of hardware in one corner of what is now a 2,500-square-foot tracking room, outfitted with movable baffles and a roomy iso booth. This setup is as organic as a professional recording studio gets — not only is a talkback button unnecessary, neither are headphones. It turns out that a lot of Mad Dog's loyal clients prefer recording face to face, without being separated by walls or windows.
“The experience is very immediate,” says engineer/producer Samur, a recent M.I. graduate who started as an intern during the changeover and showed such aptitude and drive that Wakeman soon made him studio manager. “With no wall between you and the band, you can just stand up from behind the Neve and coach the musicians. The room has its own sound, it's really big and our clients love it. We're doing really well right now, and that's saying something, given the current climate.”
Wakeman doubles as the president of Mojave, the condenser mic division of nearby Royer Microphones, and that connection has added a custom dimension to Mad Dog's requisite arsenal of vintage goodies, which includes UREI, Joemeek and PreSonus compressors; reverbs and delays from Lexicon, EMT, Eventide and Roland; equalizers from Lang, Summit, API and Krone-Hite; and mic pre's from Demeter, API, Neve and Hardy. “There's always a bunch of cool prototype tube mics here, all handmade by David Royer,” says Samur, “and they're just awesome-sounding.”
Mad Dog's appeal is three-fold, Samur offers. “We always keep indie bands' budgets in mind so that they get a good room at a good price. At the same time, we have every kind of gear you could imagine — tons of vintage organs and amps, a Yamaha grand piano. But, ultimately, it's about the vibe here. There are no egos or politics involved. It's like one big family — you're in this giant room together, making a record. So it's like a small club of really good friends who keep the studio going.”
Wakeman still spends as much time as possible at Mad Dog, swinging by to eat lunch and rap it down with the staff, as well as overseeing all the cues for TV commercials that are created there, but he hasn't produced a project at the studio since the changeover. Instead, he's put his trust in Samur, who has expanded the stylistic range of Mad Dog's clientele, which now includes underground hip hop, death metal and hard-rock acts. “There's a new generation at Mad Dog,” he says. “We're attracting a hip, younger crowd and staying current with what's going on, but at the same time Dusty's whole circle of Americana artists are still coming and keeping the doors open.
“The projects vary from esoteric indie stuff to engineers who like working Abbey Road-style,” Samur notes. Clients in recent months have included Craig Schumacher mixing Devotchka's next album, Poison's Bret Michaels filming a TV special, repeat customers The Bonedaddies, Mötley Crüe's Mick Mars and legendary producer Eddie Kramer (a longtime Mad Dog habitué — he does all his Experience Hendrix mixing there), who tracked and mixed an album with Leroy Powell. Looking ahead, Wakeman has been gearing up to record his first solo album — and he wouldn't think of cutting it anywhere else.
The tireless Samur also somehow manages to operate his own Seahorse Sound (www.seahorsesoundstudios.com) in San Bernardino, which he opened in the fall, making for 18-hour work days and one helluva daily commute. With the price of gas, he's just breaking even on the Mad Dog gig. “But you've gotta do what you love, do it now and do it all the time,” he says. “I had to make a decision: Did I want to work as an assistant on big-time projects at a big studio and be able to throw names around, or did I want to make records that I felt good about being a part of? And I decided that it was better to be in a position to make a difference rather than being the weakest link in the chain. Mad Dog is a great studio, and I believe in it.”
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