L.A. GrapevineAs a one-time major-label A&R guy and full-time music-magazine-editor-turned-independent-contractor, I'm acutely aware of the pressures that come with
As a one-time major-label A&R guy and full-time "music magazine editor turned independent contractor," I'm acutely aware of the pressures that come with working in and around the music business in this challenging decade. This month, I'll take a look at a couple of talented and resourceful individuals who have battened down the hatches and sailed through rough seas by making use of every bit of skill, knowledge, experience and resiliency. Their stories may not constitute the feel-good hit of the summer, but as Spoon put it so compellingly, that's the way we get by.
“As much as I enjoy a good old-fashioned, eight-week camp-out in a Neve room, with runners, a food budget and all the rest, those gigs aren't as plentiful as they once were,” says Ken Sluiter, a Chicago transplant who has worked with such acts as OK Go, Lucinda Williams, Flogging Molly and Pete Yorn since relocating to L.A. in 2003. He and his wife have two kids, ages 4 and 2. “To continue their careers on a full-time basis, engineers have to figure out ways to do professional work in environments other than the standard commercial studio. So I've been branching out.”
This guy is no newbie. In 1992, he helped configure the first Pro Tools system in the Windy City as a college project, and five years later became a partner in Kingsize SoundLabs. He's also recorded a ton of artists, including Steve Earle, Graham Parker and Dave Alvin. “In the last year,” says Sluiter, “my career has taken an interesting trajectory. I had co-produced the last OK Go record, Oh No! When the treadmill video blew up on YouTube, I started getting some interest from a few producer/managers. When nothing materialized, I realized that I needed to get ‘circulating,’ and I decided I would assist if the situation was right.
“I had met Jim Scott [the subject of my July column, in a cosmic coincidence] in 2004 when I was recording Flogging Molly in Studio 2 at Cello,” he says. “I'd always been a big fan of his work, and Jim mixed a few projects I had tracked. I made repeated offers to assist for him, which he refused, saying, ‘I don't like hiring people into a position beneath their skill level.' Finally, I just called him, and said, ‘Look, I just want to work. The reality is that I need to assist if I want to pay my rent, so why not assist for you?’ Eventually, a project came up that one of his regular guys wasn't available for, so he took me up on my offer.”
Since then, Sluiter has run Pro Tools on mixes for Travis Tritt and an end-to-end project for Kathleen Edwards. “I really like working with Jim,” he says. “His client skills are amazing and, in addition to being one of the most musical mixers I've worked with, he's also the fastest. Jim is the man in charge, no doubt, but as the PT operator, you set the pace of the session and Jim likes to work fast. As I said, it makes it much more interesting than traditional assisting.”
Sluiter's most significant non-studio gig has involved recording and mixing a June 14 concert by The Format at the Mayan Theatre (Denver) for use in a concert DVD directed by Sam Erikson. “As the engineer/mixer of their most recent album, Dog Problems, this project gave me the chance to continue my working relationship with the band,” he notes.
Sluiter recorded the two-and-a-half-hour concert, including strings and horns, onto 40 tracks on his portable HD rig using Pro Tools 7.3.1 HD Accel 2, a Mac G4 and hardware from Digidesign, API, John Hardy, Vintech, Universal Audio, Smart, dbx and Empirical Labs. He's mixing the concert in the box with outboard at his home studio, primarily on Yamaha NS-10s.
Gussie Miller is one of many home studio owner/operators in SoCal, but possessing high-end recording equipment and knowing how to use it doesn't necessarily pay the bills. Consequently, this 44-year-old single father of two has been “out there doin' it,” seizing every opportunity to make use of his wealth of technical knowledge and “schoolboy tenor” with its four-and-a-half octave range. That's nothing new for the Columbus, Ohio, native, who came to L.A., like so many others, for the myriad opportunities the showbiz Mecca has always dangled so tantalizingly.
Back in Columbus, Miller was a local TV celebrity at age 12, and started singing jingles in a local studio soon thereafter, where he caught the tech bug at the first sight of a Neumann mic. He's been bouncing between these two overlapping realms ever since, getting his music and vocals into several TV series while doing tech support and sales for companies such as Tascam and Westlake Audio. But his momentum was interrupted 12 years ago by a bizarre accident. “I was drumming in a Lion King event at Disneyland,” he recalls, “when I got crushed between a parade float and a fence and nearly died. My back was messed up, and I started my studio with the workers' comp money.”
Along with running his West Valley studio, Ars Musicai — outfitted with a G4 and a Focusrite ISA 110, running Nuendo 3 and Reason 3 — Miller has made use of his expertise to snag gigs like helping bring Mike Post's private studio in Burbank back online, while assisting on projects for Post and Aussie band Sick Puppies, while continuing to serve as Marcus Miller's go-to tech expert at the bassist/producer's Hannibal Studios on the West Side. Since Marcus Miller heard Gussie's glass-shattering voice, he's made use of it for the CW animated series Everybody Hates Chris, the Chris Rock film I Think I Love My Wife and the bassist's upcoming album.
Gussie is working on a solo album with writing and production partner Alex Alessandroni, which will feature contributions from Marcus Miller, David Sanborn and other high-profile players with whom he's crossed paths during the years. Along with a number of “irons in the fire,” as he puts it, Miller has been chosen as a contestant on the NBC karaoke reality series Singing Bee. “The prize is $100,000, and brutha needs funding for his record,” he says with a laugh.
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