International recipe for success: With positive energy in the music business in short supply lately, it was a treat to hang out with the super-hot writing/production team The Matrix. The trio — Brit Lauren Christy, Scotsman Graham Edwards and resident alien (with an American accent) Scott Spock — had already been busy with a wide variety of projects when their collaboration on Avril Lavigne's cool single “Complicated” (as well as four other cuts on Lavigne's Platinum debut Let's Go) took off like a rocket. Now, The Matrix are fielding projects left and right; recently, they've joined forces with Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, Nick Carter, Liz Phair, Hootie & The Blowfish, and Evan & Jaron.
One of the most interesting things about The Matrix is their diversity; disparate backgrounds make them comfortable with all sorts of music. Co-writer and lyricist Christy, a Golden Globe and American Music Award nominee, was previously a critically acclaimed Mercury Records solo artist who has cuts on film and TV soundtracks, including Batman, The Color of Night and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Edwards, who is married to Christy, is a songwriter/bassist who has worked as a sideman, songwriter and/or producer with artists from Go West, Robert Palmer and Mick Jagger to Celine Dion, Janet Jackson and Natalie Imbruglia. Spock, the tech-head and arrangement expert of the group, has also scored for film and is a writer/producer who numbers Chaka Khan, MDFMK and the Backstreet Boys among his credits.
Together for three years, The Matrix apply a hybrid style to recording. Although they often adjourn to commercial studios, I found them in a suburban house just off Mulholland Drive — complete with patio and pool — where they've set up two studios. They also use a hybrid approach to production. “We feel we have the ability to take an artist who has a vision,” explains Spock, “and, without clouding that vision, pull them toward the mainstream so that everybody else can see their vision, too. Part of the way we do that is by helping them write singles that are classic and, hopefully, will stand the test of time.”
Writing brought the three together; producing came about when their demos, including Lavigne's “Complicated,” ended up as final releases. Their general production M.O. is to get to know an artist in casual surroundings before diving into the writing. “Scott comes from the urban side, I'm more rock and Lauren ties us all together,” comments Edwards. “We come from different directions, and we all bring something to the music that mixes well.”
“When we work with an artist, we tend to bond, have fun and become friends,” adds Christy. “Sometimes that happens in just one day. We bring in all of our history and our past, but our most important aim is figuring out what they want to get across. We want to keep their vision, not to make it sound like a ‘Matrix record.’”
Among them, the three have four recording systems. The main studio in the house is based around Pro Tools and banks of synths, with portable rolling racks. “We can pack it all up in two hours and re-set it up in two-and-a-half,” Spock asserts. “That's what we did in Miami for Ricky Martin, both at his house and at Hit Factory.”
“Complicated” was recorded in one day in a house in L.A.'s Valley Village, and also mixed there, “in the box.” The album features a Tom Lord-Alge mix, but both TLA's and Matrix's mixes are getting radio play. “We're able to put a track together really quickly,” says Spock. “Everything goes into Pro Tools and we've gotten the signal-to-noise ratio really low. We use Apogee AD8000SE converters for live recording — they're the bomb — and we interface our 72 outputs of synths with Digidesign 1622s. Most of the time, for vocals we use Avalon mic preamps or a Neve 1272 preamp through a Distressor. As far as I'm concerned, Pro Tools is great. Hopefully in the near future, we'll have software versions of all of this in a laptop, with just a one-rack interface and a guitar, instead of all these boxes.”
In keeping with low signal-to-noise, Spock is excited about his recently installed Isobox, a portable ATA-approved version of their studio model, which he's using on one of his racks. “It's great,” he says. “Until I closed the door, I didn't realize how much noise the rack was generating.”
All mixing isn't done at home; not long ago, The Matrix had three rooms booked at Burbank's The Enterprise, with mixers Dave Pensado, Paul Lani and Rick Travali all working on Matrix-written-and-produced songs for different artists on different labels. With so many projects going on, Spock jokingly says, “Retrospect [archiving software] is getting a real workout.”
“Next week, we'll be going from hip hop to rock,” says Christy. “Sandy Roberton, our manager, doesn't let us work on any one thing for too long, which, actually, I think is very good for you mentally. We never get bored. The joy is coming into a room and going, ‘Okay, what are we doing today?’”
Some days, this job is really fun. Say, for example, the afternoon Dolby Labs' John Kellogg took me for a spin in Dolby's “Surround in Motion” tricked-out BMW X5. Built to demonstrate how Dolby's technologies can be used in a vehicle — from 24/96 DVD-Audio and DVD-Video to Dolby Digital, Pro Logic 2 for CDs, Dolby surround headphones and Playstation 2 — the car has been making the rounds of auto manufacturers, licensees, record labels and audiophiles. Outfitted with gear from Panasonic, Alpine, Tag McLaren and others, and featuring subs in both the rear and side rears, the car is Dolby's evangelical demonstration of what's currently possible to install in your roadster. “It helps people — and car companies — imagine the possibilities,” explains Kellogg. “Auto systems providers don't just think of it as car audio anymore; it's really mobile multimedia, with navigation, XM [satellite radio], DVD, in-car Web-based communication — all sorts of things.”
The goal was to use available “stock” ingredients, but Dolby engineers, led by Martin Lindsay, had to do some creative routing. All of the components run on 12-volt DC, but a Tag McLaren home unit had to be converted for use as a switcher. “We're heading toward a digital solution with 1394 connectors,” notes Kellogg, “and it all works pretty well.”
Think about it: Kids in the back listening with Dolby Headphones to a 5.1 DVD-V of Lion King, while the front seat's occupants enjoy Mozart in surround on DVD-A. Cool features include settings to optimize for different seating arrangements and a lockout on the front screen to prevent the driver from becoming more interested in Die Hard 2 than the road.
Kellogg, having lived through the DVD-Video marketing curve, is confident that DVD-Audio is finally on track. “There's no doubt that in the next couple of years, you will see American high-end auto manufacturers including DVD-Audio and other Dolby technologies,” he comments. “But it takes time. There's a long design curve in a smokestack industry like auto manufacturing.
“DVD-Audio is following the same trajectory that DVD-Video did,” he insists. “There are always companies that hold out until the last minute and then come in strong. Now, the tools are cheaper, everybody's stable and they've figured out production flow. We recently did a seminar with 10 hardware manufacturers and four record labels joining in together. It was passionate and it rocked. The industry is finally getting on the same page, figuring out how to do this, and DVD-Audio is moving full speed ahead.”
Pacifique Recording threw a party to celebrate the installation of their 96-input SSL XL 9000 K Series console — only the second in Los Angeles — into West Studio. The well-attended bash brought a crowd of engineer and press types to the facility, situated on Magnolia Boulevard's “Studio Row,” for a look at the new desk and a listen to an M&K surround speaker system. To date, according to SSL's Phil Wagner, 16 XLs have been purchased and eight installed; Pacifique's, at 96-in, is the largest among them.
A major console purchase is a brave step in the currently struggling studio business, but according to Pacifique co-owner Joe Deranteriasian, “You have to keep moving forward or people will forget about you. We love working in the music business, and we want to stay in it, so we have to upgrade.”
Deranteriasian cites the improved sound of the second-generation 9000 Series desk as its main selling point. “Sonically, it was impressive, with more headroom,” he says. “We had clients and their engineers listen to it; they told us that they'd love to work on it. We also liked that it's dedicated to 5.1. Another big feature is that it's integrated with Pro Tools.”
The two-room Pacifique has always kept moving forward. The studios, which opened in 1984, are owned by three Deranteriasian brothers — Joe, Ken and Vic — all of whom come from musical backgrounds. Built from the ground up with the help of Wave:Space's Carl Yanchar, Pacifique was originally known as a well-equipped, economical overdub studio. Equipped for the past several years with two SSL 9000 J Series boards and a huge collection of outboard, it's evolved into a high-end mix facility that, thanks to hits by Christina Aguilera and Destiny's Child, was listed as one of Billboard magazine's top mix studios in 2000.
Wave:Space and Yanchar returned for West's redo that accompanied the XL. New wall treatments, including dark-wood speaker soffits and super-bright plasma screens, give the suite a new look, while a re-routing of the air conditioning gives the room a new feel. “Now it's not blowing on the necks of the mixers,” says the genial Joe D., who has always seemed to take the studio business in stride.
East Studio, which was closed for the party while regular client Dexter Simmons jammed on finishing a mix for new J Records artist Monica, remains fitted with its 96-input SSL 9000 J with SL959J 8-channel monitoring system. Other recent projects have included mixes by Simmons for Will Smith and Beyonce, Brad Gilderman mixing the British girl group Atomic Kitten and a Wyclef Jean-produced project for Tom Jones, as well as projects with mixers Dave Way and Rob Chiarelli.
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