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Big Bad Sound Flourishes in Mid-Market Niche

By Steve Harvey. “This isn’t just someone’s home studio—it’s a great studio that happens to be in a home.”

Los Angeles, CA—A couple of years back, Tim Armstrong, frontman of veteran California punk band Rancid, stopped by to check out Big Bad Sound L.A., mistakenly thinking it was a different studio. He liked what he saw, decided to record some personal tracks there, then brought in Rancid to track what would become the band’s 2017 Trouble Maker album.

“That was a big moment,” says Jack Ruley, Big Bad Sound’s manager, a validation of the studio’s abilities. “This isn’t just someone’s home studio—it’s a great studio that happens to be in a home.”

“Rancid was a fluke but allowed people to see that we could get a really good sound. That allowed us to do more,” says owner, chief engineer and musician Zach Fisher, who built Big Bad in his home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Epitaph Records, Rancid’s label, continues to bring them projects, he adds.

Fisher and Ruley have been friends for 18 years. In 2013, Ruley had quit his job at a non-profit in Washington, D.C., when Fisher called to see if he wanted to join him in the studio business. “I said, I’m free,” recalls Ruley, who jumped in his car and drove cross-country.

Over the years, a series of mixing consoles has passed under Fisher’s hands at Big Bad. He had been using a Toft Audio desk. “But after Rancid, Jack said, ‘What can I get that would really help the studio?’ I did my Craigslist and Reverb hunt and saw this Neve BCM,” says Fisher.

Picking the classic console up was an adventure—a late-night transaction with Ruley handing “a Mercedes of cash” to a man on a Vespa scooter. “He puts the envelope of cash under his arm and rolls off. But it was perfect,” Ruley recounts.

“One of the things we focused on to grow was ‘engineer porn,’” he continues. “We looked at what the popular plug-ins were, and we got the hardware.”

For example, he says, “We got a pair of Trident A Range modules. I couldn’t mix a song for my life and I can’t hear the difference between gear, but the second Zach ran a guitar through them, a lightbulb went off. I said, cool, I collect these now. So now we have four pairs.

“Sanford Parker, a buddy of ours, an extreme metal engineer, started working with us solely because we had the Tridents. Just finding gear that people want to use has been so big,” Ruley says.

Installing an SSL AWS 900 console, another Craigslist bargain, took things up a notch. “I didn’t realize how little headroom the Toft had until I went to the SSL,” says Fisher. “I’ll clip Pro Tools before I clip the board. That’s a new experience.”

Crammed with equipment, Big Bad’s 12-by-15-foot control room had become too small. After a 10-month search, the pair found a small warehouse building whose owner was retiring to Cuba and they made him an offer. Now, nearly two years later, they have opened Studio A at their new two-room facility.

Constructing a commercial facility is not the same as building a home studio, as the pair soon discovered, but they’re quick studies. They eventually negotiated the city’s permitting requirements. Along the way, they learned a few things. “The main lesson was that we will never build another studio again,” laughs Ruley.

For the new location, they needed a mixing console that would set them apart. “Zach and I aren’t famous. We’re just two dudes,” says Ruley. “We didn’t want to be another Neve room in L.A., so we had to differentiate ourselves. And API stuck out as the sound of America—it’s rock ’n’ roll.”

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Nashville-based equipment broker Joe Bean found them a 48-channel vintage 1970s API Legacy, driving it out to L.A. himself. The API is the centerpiece of Studio A’s 20-by-22-foot control room, designed by Jerry Steckling, CTO and owner of JSX Audio.

Lately Fisher has been putting acoustic guitars and vocals through the Neve BCM, but for everything else, he says, “I’ve been going straight into the board. It’s an API—it sounds great, it’s punchy, fast and has a little bit of cool color.”

But it was some time before Fisher could even work in his own room: “The first thing we booked, before we’d finished building it, was a seven-week project with their own engineer and producer. I hadn’t even gotten a drum sound yet and they were doing an album in here.”

Fisher and Ruley intend for Big Bad Sound L.A. to flourish in a position between the city’s high-end facilities—Sunset, United, The Village—and the area’s many home studios. They believe that market niche is underserved.

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“We can make young bands’ records sound like they hear them in their heads,” says Ruley. “If you’re an indie band with a little bit of success, you can get a budget together to be in here.” Several recent projects have been funded through GoFundMe, he reports.

“All the middle ground studios died when the music industry collapsed, so we built that room,” he continues. “The A&R of a very large label, whose job is to send bands to studios, said as much, unprompted: ‘A place like this does not exist.’ To hear that was very cool.”

Studio B has been laid out by designer Steven Klein with a similarly sized control room to A and floating floors; construction should be finished early next year. It will add flexibility to Big Bad’s business model, enabling artists to record basic tracks in A’s larger live space before moving to B, which will be outfitted with the SSL desk and outboard gear still in use at the old location.

The new facility was a major undertaking for the pair. “But if you’re not scared to do it, you’re probably not dreaming big enough,” says Fisher. “If we had been as safe as possible about the financial risk, we would have built a crappier place and attracted a less strong clientele.”

It’s early days so they’re still in the red, he says. But the studio stays booked and the rate card is priced right to make Big Bad Sound a successful venture.

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That said, “This isn’t a business you go into to become rich,” says Fisher. “You do it because you love doing it.”

Big Bad Sound L.A. •