Musicians worried about how to make a living in today's uncertain music business climate should sign up for lessons from the remarkable Ventures, whom I found recording their latest CD at Front Page Recorders in Glendale.
Now in their fourth decade, the group has built a solid career by maximizing every opportunity with what's been called "Ventures' Capitalism." Acknowledged to be the best-selling pop/rock instrumental group in the world, they have released more than 150 albums globally, and have sold more than 85 million albums worldwide, collecting six Gold albums and four Gold singles. They're the only band ever to have had two Top 10 hits with different versions of the same song: "Walk-Don't Run" and "Walk-Don't Run '64," and their Play Guitar With the Ventures series, are the only instruction albums ever to appear on the national Billboard charts. Although most of the bandmembers are in their 60s, they still tour regularly, including an annual three-month stint of almost-daily sold-out shows in Japan. They're credited as an influence by artists such as Jeff Lynne, Eddie Van Halen and The B-52's. And, perhaps most amazingly after all these years, they're still friends.
I found all four Ventures-founding members Don Wilson (rhythm guitar) and Bob Bogle (bass, lead guitar), member since '68, Gerry McGee (guitar, bass), and drummer since 1997, Leon Taylor (son of the original drummer, the late Mel Taylor)-ensconced in Front Page's Studio C, touching up final mixes on a Euphonix System 5 console.
These guys have actually managed to do something they haven't done before: The new release, Acoustic Rock, engineered by Craig Nepp and featuring guest performer Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, is an all-acoustic album featuring remakes of hits, originals, classic covers and Venture-ized versions of current chart-toppers like Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" and Fastball's "The Way." The common thread, as in all of The Ventures' work, seems to be an appreciation for great songs.
"After 41 years of recording, we're just doing our very first acoustic album," Wilson commented. "And we're having a lot of fun! It's a little bit different than what we're used to, so we're spending a lot of time at it. Sometimes we plugged in; that's why we don't want to call it 'unplugged.' We don't want to fool anybody with that, and anyway 'unplugged' is a pretty overused term."
Although some pickups were used on the new CD, there were no amps, and it's basically acoustic, with none of the band's trademark solid-body guitars in evidence. The idea for the album came from the popular acoustic segment that the band has been performing on their Japanese summer tours. As endorsers of Aria, The Ventures use almost exclusively that manufacturer's guitars and basses, with a few Fender guitars and amps thrown in. When queried about the difficulty of getting their acoustic chops up for a whole record, McGee laughed and said, "You just put lighter strings on." The band did admit that Wilson's signature "tika, tika, tika" rundowns were a bit harder to do on acoustic guitar. "We probably used ten or more different acoustic guitars to get different sounds," he said. "If I wanted to double a rhythm, I'd get another guitar."
Taylor is also into Japanese equipment. His kit is DW, but he uses custom Canopus snare drums, including a very heavy model hand-carved out of a single piece of Japanese hardwood. Another favorite Canopus snare is his father's signature "Mel Taylor" model.
Since the group prefers to rehearse and record at the same time, little pre-production was done for Acoustic Rock. "We used to rehearse and rehearse before we ever came into the studio," recalled Wilson. "In 1970, when we did our tenth anniversary double album, we rehearsed for something like three months. Now, we come in, take over the studio, rehearse, and once we've got a song, we record it."
"Sometimes when you rehearse, you use up all the ideas," McGee interjected, "then when you get to the studio, you don't have a lot to add. Working this way, there's a lot of spontaneity. We're at the point now where we listen to a song, rough out a chart and sit down and run through it a time or two. Then we kick a few ideas around and cut it. It usually takes us a full month on each album."
The Ventures are no strangers to Front Page Recorders. They've recorded several previous albums there and have known owner Biff Vincent for decades. In fact, Vincent himself put in a stint as the Ventures' keyboardist on the road. Later, the band was among his earliest clients at his first home-style 4-track studio, and he's engineered and co-produced several of their albums. Times have changed: This album was recorded on Front Page's SSL 4000 Series desk to a 32-track Otari DTR-100, then transferred to a Euphonix R1 for mixing through the System 5. According to Nepp, who called the System 5 "awesome-the fastest thing I've ever worked with, and even easier to run than a Euphonix CS3000," the tracks were also mixed to two tracks of the R1.
As the group heads toward its fifth decade, they show no signs of stopping. Acoustic Rock will be released first in Japan, as many of their albums are. They've signed with Pat Boone's new Gold Label, and a June 20 release is scheduled for their appropriately titled Gold, combining tracks released only in Japan with four previously unreleased titles and updated versions of signature hits, including "Walk-Don't Run" and "Apache."
Obviously, these musicians love their work and will continue to crank out "the ultimate in twang" for a long time to come. "It's show business, and we love it," said McGee. "It's a way of life. Music keeps you young. It keeps you vital."
"Well, at least we keep telling ourselves that," Wilson said with a laugh. "But consider the alternatives. Bob and I started out as construction workers, so we know what that's all about. I don't think any of us have ever seriously considered retiring."
Paramount Studios, that Hollywood hotbed of up-and-coming recording artists, has expanded and added a second location in the San Fernando Valley with the purchase of Ray Parker Jr.'s Ameraycan Studios. I dropped in at that Lankershim Boulevard facility for a chat with the two new owners, longtime business partners Michael Kerns and Adam Beilenson.
The two, who hooked up 15 years ago, took the plunge with a second two-room studio when they found themselves so booked at their Hollywood location that they were turning clients away.
"We expect Ameraycan to serve as more of a lockout facility for us," explained Beilenson. "We're so heavily booked at Paramount, unless you're booking way in advance, if you want to get in for a month at a time, it's really hard for us to do. We plan to dedicate these rooms to daily, weekly and monthly lockouts-no hourly. It will serve a different kind of role for certain members of our clientele."
In the process of amassing seven rooms in 14 years, the duo have also acquired a lot of equipment. Ameraycan is outfitted with two SSL consoles, a 4056 in Studio A and a 4048 in B, both with G Series automation. Tape machines are Studer 800, 820 and 827 Series, and monitors in both rooms are Augspurger TADs. The outboard complement is none too shabby: Plenty of UREI, dbx, Lexicon, Eventide and API gear is available, along with a sprinkling of GML, Neve, TC and AMS. The facility also features private, secure parking, a kitchen and lounges, and Studio A is equipped with a Yamaha C7 grand piano.
On the day I stopped in, Studio B was undergoing refurbishing, and Studio A was busy with producer/engineer/Renaissance man (and Macy Gray collaborator) Darryl Swann, who was sussing out a Macy track for remix ideas. "I'm really happy they got this place," enthused Swann, "because Paramount was just too busy. They've got such a niche over there that everybody and their mother is trying to get in all the time!"
In the past, Ameraycan has been a bit of an unknown entity except to those who were regular clients. "We weren't all that familiar with it," Kerns admitted. "It was low profile. They never advertised, and Ray used Studio B a lot for himself. But we found out a lot when we started asking around, and it was all good. When we first purchased Paramount, it was kind of a rude awakening, because we didn't realize it had a bad reputation. We took quite a hit from that, and it took us a long time to overcome it."
"So this time, we were careful," added Beilenson. "We asked many of the producers we know what they thought, and they were unanimous that Ameraycan was a good place. They all said it needed a little fixing up, but that it was basically an excellent studio. And there is a loyal clientele: For example, Cypress Hill has made four records here. Other recent clients include Tool, Everlast, Face to Face and Control Machete. We're also lucky in that we've got Brandon Abeln, who has managed the place for six years. He knows the existing clientele and how the place runs, and that's made it easier for us.
"Another thing: We've now got one of the best young techs in L.A., Tom Doty, who cut his teeth at Larrabee. Of course, now he has to run back and forth over the hill, but thank God it's freeway-close. The studios are only about 15 minutes away from each other."
Meanwhile, at Paramount, things keep on humming. Studio A has an SSL 6056, Studio B an SSL 4000, and Studio C a 64-in Focusrite with GML that previously made its home at Conway. Studio D, mostly used for pre-production, is set up with a Sound Workshop 34B, and Studio E is a mastering suite with both Sonic Solutions and Pro Tools. Beyond the album projects, Paramount also specializes in scoring, and Studio C can accommodate 25 players comfortably and affords video lock to picture.
In the 14 years that Beilenson and Kerns have owned Paramount, they've made plenty of changes, such as installing new consoles in every room. "It's pretty much always for SSL when we get the call," commented Kerns. "That's another reason we went for the expansion. We've got four SSL rooms now. Then, if someone wants something different, we've got the Focusrite, with 64 inputs and moving fader automation, which is as good or better than a Neve. We had a Neve previously, and the Focusrite sounds better."
There are no real plans to change the focus at Paramount; it's still a place where new acts germinate. Recent acts in have included Black Eyed Peas, Montell Jordan and KRS-One.
"We work with all kinds of artists," Kerns said. "New, old, small budgets to large indie labels and majors. And even more than that, the production guys like Claudio Cueni, Rob Chiarelli, Mike Schlesenger, Jim Goodwin, Jamie Seyberth, Susan Herndon-a lot of them got there start here. We like to think we're nurturing, and we try to cut deals with people. A lot of them get their start here, and we're fortunate-a lot of them end up coming back."
"The industry may be shrinking," Beilenson stated, "but not in L.A. That's one of the reasons we decided to take the plunge. It's the hub here."