It was kind of strange for urban L.A. The air smelled like barbecue, and across the street, two country-looking geezers, sunk deep in porch chairs, stared as I parked and then buzzed for entrance into the nondescript compound that is the Foo Fighter home base. I offered a friendly wave, got two in return and sauntered inside, expecting a funky, home-style (okay, grungy!) studio; you know, ancient couches, shaggy carpet, tattered posters. Instead, I found an operation: a spacious, high-ceilinged complex with offices, tour production, lounges, a full kitchen and a parking lot — complete with forklift — where an efficient team was grilling chicken for dinner.
At the heart of this hive is the studio: a nifty, craftsman-inspired control room and a huge live recording area where In Your Honor, the Foo's new double-album, was recorded and where, on the day I visited, the band was rehearsing for their upcoming tour.
“My original intent was to create something really low-key like my basement studio in Virginia where we made the last two records,” says head Foo Dave Grohl. “It was homemade, low-budget and low-tech, but a lot of good shit came out of there. I thought that was our vibe. I didn't start out to create the Abbey Road of the San Fernando Valley. It just grew.”
“Yeah, it's more than we originally pictured,” agrees a bemused Nick Raskulinecz, In Your Honor's producer, who's worked with Grohl since the 2002 release, One By One. “But we wanted a nice big control room where people could smoke if they wanted to and it wouldn't drive everybody else out. And then it just made sense, since Dave had tons of gear scattered around the country, to build a place big enough to store it all.”
Studio designer Steven Klein and producer/engineer Allen Sides consulted on layout and acoustics, but lots of homegrown energy did, ultimately, go into the studio's construction. The bulk of the woodworking was done by Foo bass tech Jeff Templeton and guitar tech Sean Bates, who also happen to have master carpenter skills. Grohl, along with Raskulinecz and various crew members, also swung some hammers.
A Pat Schneider — restored Neve 8058 console, hooked up to a Neve BCM10, is the control room's centerpiece. Both boards are automated with Flying Faders, and racks of API gear — from a 32-input desk previously housed in Grohl's Virginia studio — are wired into the 8058.
Obviously, this is not a place where everything gets done “in the box.” Analog front end is key to the Foo's sound. Outboard, both vintage and new, abounds, and In Your Honor basics were recorded to 16 reels of 24-track analog Quantegy GP9 (used over and over due to the current tape shortage and a desire save money) before being bounced to Pro Tools for overdubs, editing and mixing.
Raskulinecz — who, with engineer Mike Terry, handled recording — also mixed the rock half of the release; noted producer/engineer/surround sound expert Elliot Scheiner mixed the stereo and 5.1 versions of the acoustic sides.
In Your Honor was a long time gestating but a relatively short time in the making. After touring until the end of 2003, Grohl took six months off to write. Then, just as pre-production for the new record geared up, an ideal location for the studio was discovered. Suddenly, both construction and the album were under way.
“I put a drum setup and a Pro Tools demo situation in Dave's garage,” relates Raskulinecz. “Then I gave him Pro Tools lessons. He ended up doing everything himself. He writes the songs on acoustic guitar, then plays all the instruments, working really fast. For demos, he'll lay down drum tracks and record a complete song — with vocals — in about an hour.”
After some demo refining, Grohl gathered the band (drummer Taylor Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendal and guitarist Chris Shiflett) at North Hollywood's Mates Rehearsal Studios. “We ended up with three or four different versions of about 30 songs,” says Raskulinecz. “In hindsight, we might have gone a little too far. [Laughs] But part of the reason was we were waiting for the studio to be done. Finally, it got to the point where I didn't want them to play the rock songs anymore. I was afraid they were going to get stale.”
With deadlines looming and the studio still unfinished, Grohl, Raskulinecz and the crew descended on the construction site, “hammering, stuffing insulation — doing whatever to speed the process.” By the middle of November, walls were still just insulation, but the gear was in. Construction moved to the graveyard shift and recording commenced from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day.
Although the walls in the 25-foot-high recording area are now covered with classic (and hard-to-find) acoustic tile, when recording began, neither it nor other acoustic treatment was in place.
“It was kind of bombastic [-sounding],” admits Raskulinecz, “but Jeff built us some baffles really quickly, as well as a huge bass trap in the corner. We were working with a lot of differences in sound because we were in various stages of room construction — and also because we switched up a lot of the drums.”
Ultimately, Hawkins used different kit setups in different places in the room for just about every song. One constant was Raskulinecz's 22-inch black Slingerland kick drum, “which is,” he points out, “the same kick drum we used on the last record.”
Mics for that stalwart were a Sennheiser 602 inside and a Soundelux 251 outside with the Yamaha NS-10 “polarity reverse” trick added in: reverse the leads on the speaker so it's pulling rather than pushing and plug it into a mic pre. “You've got to have a lot of gain,” Raskulinecz notes. “We used the console mic pre with the shit cranked out of it.”
Tracks were mostly cut in layers. Drums were played to a “stripe” comprising the band's rough version of the tune, then guitars and vocals were added; bass went on last. “Bass is so important,” Raskulinecz explains. “By doing it last, you can really tailor it for tuning, parts and sound. The traditional way is to do drums, then bass; you get this massive bass sound — the greatest thing you've ever heard. But then you put the guitars on, and they're small because the kick drum and bass guitar are taking up all the space. So you pile on 25 guitar tracks.
“Whereas if you do the drums and then the guitars, you can fill the hole that's left with bass. And sometimes that hole wants a certain frequency that isn't traditional for bass, but you have to go with it, which is even more fun.”
After recording about 20 electric songs, the band turned to the acoustic tunes, which were recorded in approximately two weeks. Instrumentation included drums, acoustic guitars, and electric and upright bass with guest appearances by Norah Jones, Wallflowers' keyboardist Rami Jaffee, violinist Petra Haydn and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on mandolin, piano and Mellotron.
Generally, two mics were used on Grohl's acoustic guitars: a Soundelux 251 placed close to the soundhole and an RCA 77 on the neck, “at about the 12th fret, exactly the same distance from the guitar as the 251,” says Raskkulinecz, a phase freak who admits he put tape markings on the floor and insisted Grohl use them for positioning. “For a couple of songs, we went with the 77 over Dave's shoulder and a Coles up high in the room. On ‘Friend of a Friend,’ for what's maybe my favorite sound on the record, we used the 251 close, a pair of Royers spread on each side and farther out on the sides a pair of Earthworks, with everything pointing at the same source spot.”
The 251 was also used as a room mic on Mellotron, piano and all of Grohl's vocals. “We used it into a Martek preamp and a dbx 160XT compressor, which is kind of funny — $7,000 worth of gear into a $200 compressor. But it sounds great.”
The 160XT aside, Raskulinecz prefers tape compression to electronic, especially for guitars. “Dave is really sensitive to compression,” he notes. “There's almost none on the record, including in the mastering that Bob Ludwig did. I should also mention that since we wanted to preserve the dynamics of the record, we deliberately didn't master ‘loud!’”
With the acoustic record in the can, it should have been smooth sailing into the mixes, but, instead, “We did the acoustic record,” continues Raskulinecz, “then Dave started feeling that it was better than the rock record. So we went back into rock world and recorded eight more songs that Dave wrote on the spot.”
The rock tracks were mixed in stereo a song per day to, concurrently, ½-inch analog, Pro Tools at 88.2 kHz and DAT. Raskulinecz monitored on Yamaha NS-10s, ProAcs, the studio's Allen Sides/Ocean Way mains and a tiny pair of Realistic speakers he's had “since I was a kid.”
Scheiner mixed the acoustic cuts to ½-inch analog for stereo and a Studer 827 2-inch 8-track for surround at Capitol Studios in Hollywood on a Neve VR console fitted with a surround matrix. Scheiner monitors on Yamaha NS-10s for stereo and powered Yamaha MSP-10s for surround. He also arranged a loaner for Grohl's studio of a 2005 Acura TL Sedan — whose standard equipment includes the ELS 5.1 surround system that Scheiner helped develop — for 5.1 mix monitoring.
“I was really impressed with the recording on this project,” Scheiner offers. “It's not often that I get to just put up the faders and hear something outstanding. To me, the music and the recording have a timeless, classic feel, like something that will have a lot of longevity. These guys are very concerned with quality and that made it fun for me to come to work every day.”
“We were too busy to leave the studio, so we started working with [Scheiner] before we even met,” says Raskulinecz. “Thank God for ISDN! We didn't really know how it would go, but after Elliot played us his first mix, we just looked at each other, then said to him, ‘Okay, which one do you want to do next?’”
The end result: two albums and two dual-discs. The rock album's flip side contains a Making of DVD, while the acoustic album's side 2 features a 5.1 DVD-A.
“Recording the rock album was great,” concludes Grohl. “I love that kind of music; it's what we do. But making the acoustic album made me really happy. Being able to stretch out and do different things on it let me realize that I want to keep making records for a long time.”