It’s well-known to the public that Jeff Bridges is an actor with film credits both popular and critically acclaimed, including The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Big Lebowski, Starman and Against All odds. To his friends and colleagues, it’s also well known that he’s a musician and songwriter. In a singular stroke of fate, when Bridges decided to build a studio in his Santa Barbara-area home, he hooked up with Chris Pelonis, another multiple-threat studio designer, musician and producer. The end result was a studio, a CD and a record company.
“I gave him quite a challenge,” Bridges recalls. “I wanted a screening room where I could watch DVDs and video tapes. I also wanted it to be a jam room where I could gather people to play. I wanted it to be a place to record music, and, finally, I wanted a place where I could store all my CDs.”
Housed in a former garage, the studio is an ingenious marriage of design and function. Pelonis, who specializes in creating studios out of existing environments, worked with interior designer Jarret Hedborg and graphic artist Nancy Kintisch to create an elegant but no-frills workspace, done in grays and earth tones with a textured concrete floor and Picasso-inspired graffiti-style art. The space, dubbed The Pump, was christened with the sessions for what became Bridges’ new album, Be Here Soon.
“You’ve only got so much space in a room like that,” says Pelonis. “We had to make everything have a function. Instead of just having bass traps, we turned them into equipment storage racks. The soffitt where the surround speakers live is also trapping and diffusion.”
There’s no separation between control room and studio at The Pump. Instead, a raised control area looks over the combination screening area/recording room that’s dominated by a giant, cozy couch. Set up for 5.1 with Tannoy AMS-12s LCR and Tannoy System 800s as surrounds, The Pump is also equipped with a Mackie D8 console, 24 channels of Tascam DA-88 and a MoTU hard disk system.
Pelonis is particularly conscious of background noise generated by equipment, and in an all-in-one-room facility like The Pump, it becomes an even more important consideration. “one thing I’m careful to do,” he explains, “is to completely isolate the video projector. It shoots through optical glass, and we even run air conditioning in there to keep it cool.”
Part way through the project, Pelonis, whose background includes six years as staff producer at Hollywood Sound Productions, asked Bridges to play him some of his music. “He pulled out what looked like the yellow pages,” he laughs. “And started thumbing through years of his music. It was time to make a record.”
Bridges started amassing that body of work at age 14, when he first picked up a guitar. These days a guitar and tape recorder accompany him to every movie location, and when at home he’s a regular attendee at a long-standing Wednesday night jam session.
“You’ll find that a lot of actors play music,” he says. “I look at it as the same thing, creative expression. It comes out in a different way, but it’s basically the same assignment, getting out of your own way and letting stuff come through.”
Now a team, Pelonis and Bridges set about committing the songs to CD almost before the studio was finished. Pelonis decided to go for a warm, natural sound, but he took a rather unusual approach to get it.
“I went for a very purist approach,” he admits. “For the drums we used just one mic, a Manley stereo gold. I hand-selected the capsules, and I also took the transformers out and put tube mic pre’s in. They’re basically hot-wired to the capsule, so there’s no transformer in-line. Then, I looked at the way the drummer played and placed the mic over his head so that it would pick up sound from his perspective. Because that’s where the dynamics and the sound really come from, how the musician perceives it. When the drummer listened back to the recording it was as close as he’d ever heard to how he sounds to himself acoustically; he was blown away.
“So that’s how we recorded most of the album. If we wanted something to be panned off we’d put the stereo mic up, use two tracks and move the guy over to the side. When we mixed the record, all the imaging was already in place.”
Bridges and Pelonis played guitar on the record. Guest artists include David Crosby and Michael McDonald. In another twist of fate, McDonald co-produced Bridges’ album with Pelonis and the actor, and the trio is releasing McDonald’s CD on their Ramp Records.
“We’ve really hit the ground running,” laughs Pelonis. “It’s like we gave something a push, and all of a sudden we’re waterskiing behind it!”