L.A. Grapevine

Larrabee North was buzzing over the new Nikka Costa project, so I stopped in for a visit with mixer Manny Marroquin to see what the excitement was all about.
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Mixer Manny Marroquin (left) and producer Justin Stanley worked at Larrabee’s Studio 2 for Nikka Costa’s latest release, can’tneverdidnothin, due out October 5.

Photo: Maureen Droney

Larrabee North was buzzing over the new Nikka Costa project, so I stopped in for a visit with mixer Manny Marroquin to see what the excitement was all about. Marroquin, who’s known for his work with Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Santana and Usher, among others, and who’s worked steadily at North for some years now, played me some cuts from Costa’s upcoming Virgin album, can’tneverdidnothin.

The daughter of arranger/producer Don Costa, Nikka Costa is—intimidatingly—also the goddaughter of Frank Sinatra. It’s her own singular style, however, that’s drawn critical raves and Platinum sales in Europe and Australia on her previous projects. For can’tneverdidnothin, she’s assembled a hot team: Aussie producer (also her husband) Justin Stanley (The Vines), Marroquin and management by über-manager Irving Azoff and Randy Jackson (the first-call session and touring bass player-turned-A&R man/American Idol judge).

On the evening I visited, there was more than the usual abundant selection of gear stacked in Larrabee’s Studio A. “When I get a chance to work on a project that’s as much fun as this with some room for experimentation,” says Marroquin a little sheepishly, “I start bringing in all the toys.
“It’s kind of rare these days,” he continues, “because it seems like most people want to stick with the same formulas. It’s, ‘We’ve got 12 hours, can you make it happen?’ Well, of course. But the bottom line is, how much attention to detail do you want? That’s why this project was so refreshing. The songs are great. If we’d mixed them in a day, they’d still be great. But to try to capture something unique for each one, where the sonics match up with the emotion that was intended when the songs were created, takes a little time. It’s about making the mixes an extension of the song rather than making the songs fit a mix formula.”

The album was recorded at Cello Studios, Sunset Sound Factory, and at Costa and Stanley’s home studio. “I love Cello and Sound Factory,” says Stanley. “They’re really creative environments. There’s always gear in the hallways, instruments lying around and, especially at Cello, the doors to the other studios are generally open. People like Jim Scott, George Drakoulias or Jon Brion are working down the hall from you, and there’s a feeling that people are open to sharing instruments and ideas. There’s privacy if you want it, too. But sometimes a player on another session walks by your studio, pops his head in for a listen and ends up laying down a great track for you. Jon Brion did that for us. That’s something you’ll never get in a home studio.”

Costa and Stanley fleshed out the ideas at home to the point where, Stanley says, “We had to get some musicians in a room together to bash it out.” Stanley admits that he and Costa “have a thing for drummers.” Among those bashing it out were L.A. stalwart Jim Keltner, Prince cohort John Blackwell, Ahmir ?uestlove, Brian Reitzell and Abe Laborial Jr.
Tracks, in the main, were recorded to 2-inch analog tape at 30 ips using Dolby SR. Marroquin mixed to 1-inch Quantegy GP9 analog at 15 ips/plus 3, as well as to Pro Tools 24-bit/192 kHz and 24-bit/96 kHz. Classic analog equipment played a large role, from Neve and API consoles for recording to Motown, Pultec, Quad 8, Fairchild, Gates and Tube-Tech gear on the mix. Says Marroquin, “Our overall goal was to accentuate and exaggerate the emotions of the songs with the sounds."

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From STP to studio owner: Eric Kretz at his Bombshelter Studios in downtown L.A.

It was the first really hot day of summer. Temperatures had breached 100, and when I pulled up to the downtown building that houses Bombshelter Studios (www.bombshelterstudios.com), I found owner Eric Kretz out in front carefully watering some thirsty new plants. In spite of its recent gentrification, downtown remains a mystery to many Angelenos. But Kretz, a drummer and founding member of Stone Temple Pilots, knows his way around, having lived for more than 10 years in an industrial loft not far from his new studio.

Kretz has logged a lot of hours in a lot of studios, forming opinions about what makes a studio a good one along the way. He’s also realistic about the current—and probable future—state of the studio business. “Home studios are amazing,” he comments, “because they’re convenient, flexible and always available. But when you bring a band in for weeks at a time, it just doesn’t work. With STP, I worked in so many great studios around the country. I learned which ones were the most creative for us and what things lead to a great recording experience.”

Carved out of what was previously a fancy soap factory, Bombshelter boasts 100-year-old sandblasted brick walls, 16-foot-high ceilings and lots of space: think half-court basketball in the lounge. The recording area can hold a 44-piece orchestra; there are also three large iso rooms. The control room is big, too. Its centerpiece is a 48-input SSL G+ refurbished by Professional Audio Design; also part of the setup is an 8-channel vintage Neve sidecar. Says PAD’s Dave Malekpour, “It was an exciting project because I got involved early on when it was just cement floors and open space. We’ve been reconditioning consoles since 1997, and I have to say that Eric’s console is a particularly nice one. It has 44 channels of E242 EQ, the ‘black EQ’ that’s favored for rock, as well as four channels of G292 EQ, and it has all the latest upgrades and G+ grounding mods. It’s way above its original spec.”

Kretz himself did the facility design and then worked with Brad Keeler of Progressive Designs to realize it. The end result is stylish but warm and comfortable, managing to evoke an art gallery vibe without the intimidation factor inherent to most galleries. The control room ceiling is unique: A skylight allows natural light and metal squares suspended perpendicularly from the ceiling to act as sound diffusers and design elements, a means, Kretz says, “to help it sound great while also playing with the open architecture.

“I’ve worked in some control rooms where the sound didn’t translate to your car or your home system,” he explains. “I know how important it is that the control room sounds right. I also wanted it to be large. It’s not good to have six or seven people in a control room breathing down each other’s necks. [Laughs] Musicians tend to have tremendous egos, so the more space the better.

“But also, STP recorded two records in houses and we really liked the results. That taught me that you didn’t have to work in a traditional studio. For Bombshelter, I wanted to duplicate some of that living room vibe that really helps to relieve the stress of recording.”

Not surprisingly, a drum kit or two is usually set up for recording. The studio is also home to a large collection of guitars and amps, along with a piano and a Hammond B3. “When musicians see a space this big, they tend to ask if they can store their gear here,” says Kretz with a laugh. “My answer is, ‘Can we use it?’”

The control room houses a loaded Pro Tools|HD2 rig along with a respectable array of outboard, including dbx 160s, UREI blackface 1176s, Empirical Labs Distressors and a FATSO, as well as Demeter, Summit, Pultec, Alan Smart and Tube-Tech pieces. “It’s pretty much everything you need,” Kretz observes. “You can always have more, but then, that’s what the mics are for. Because in the end, it’s all about the performances.”

The inaugural session on Bombshelter’s new console was mixing for Fu Manchu with producer/engineer Brian Dobbs. Upcoming are projects that Kretz is producing, including the San Francisco Bay Area’s Spiral Arms, which he describes as “straight-ahead rock” and British-style folk rockers 2 Cent Penny. “My goal as a producer is to capture the thrill of committing to a performance,” Kretz says. “I worked with [producer/engineer] Brendan O’Brien a lot: He taught me that it’s a much more exciting way to record than to tweak over and over until you lose sight of what you were going for in the first place.”

Kretz sees Bombshelter as somewhere between a private and a commercial studio. “Up until now, it was private,” he relates. “I had a Sony DMX-R100 console and it was great for writing and bringing friends in to play. I’d like to keep that feeling even though we’ve upgraded. I don’t want it to be a traditional commercial studio. I never envisioned this as a vehicle to make money from. That’s hard, or impossible, to do today. And I don’t want to lose sight of what a studio is all about: music and creativity. It would be great to have three or four resident producers who are friends who can do their projects here. What’s important to me is to be known as a place where bands can have a great experience and make great records.”

Got L.A. stories? E-mail MaureenDroney@aol.com.