L.A. Grapevine

At Hollywood's Paramount Recording Studios, I found producer/engineer Darryl Swann cutting tracks with rising superstar Macy Gray. A 70s vibe pervaded

At Hollywood's Paramount Recording Studios, I foundproducer/engineer Darryl Swann cutting tracks with rising superstarMacy Gray. A ’70s vibe pervaded the Focusriteconsole-equipped Studio C — brought on not by decor andequipment but by attitude — with the studio set up foranything and everything, and an eclectic roster of musician friendsdropping in at all hours for what frequently turned into marathonsessions.

“Macy worked on her last record here at Paramount,”says Swann. “She knows the vibe, and it's comfortable forher. I usually come in early and start organizing things; the wavestarts trickling in around 6, and by 10 o'clock, it's fullspeed.”

The Paramount sessions were continuing a routine establishedwhen, with the goal of harnessing that well-known phenomenon ofafter-show energy, Swann and a mobile studio headed out on the roadwith Gray, accompanying a monthlong string of tour dates. Thetractor-trailer studio, complete with Neve VR and two Studer analog24-tracks, was provided by Remote Recording Services of Lahaska,Pa.

“It was a great experience,” Swann recalls,“traveling in a huge caravan. We'd pull up to the venue, andthe recording truck would get parked — it would take an houror two to get the generator powered-up and to get everything set.Meanwhile, the buses would go on to the hotel. Once we were checkedin, I'd head over to the truck, where I'd work until showtime. Macywould pop in before the show and check things out, then she'd go doher thing, being the grand diva onstage.

“Around midnight, after the show and the PR stuff that hadto be done, she'd walk over to the truck with a couple of the guysin the band. We'd have some food and get going, usually until about6 in the morning. Then it was back to the hotel to sleep a coupleof hours, get on the bus, travel to the next city and do it again.We got some very cool stuff written during that time; some reallyspecial songs were born in that environment.”

Swann, definitely a musician-type producer as well as asongwriter and engineer, started his career as guitar player withthe L.A. rock band Haven. “We were a hair band,” herecalls with a laugh, “playing at the Troubadour, opening forbands like Warrant and Poison in the late ’80s. After that, Ikind of fell into being a recording engineer. My first realsession, out at Silverlake Studios, was with L.A. and Babyface.They were doing ‘Rock Steady’ with The Whispers. Istill remember them driving up in a rent-a-car with their stuff inthe back — you can imagine how cool that was. I guess I wassold, because once I started working in the studio, I didn't pickup an instrument for a long time. But you know, it's like riding abike — when you need to ride, you can do it. When I pick upmy guitar, I'm fluent. I can still riff, and, as a producer, I feelfortunate that I have that skill. I can say to the piano player,‘Give me a Gsuss9’ as opposed to ‘Hey, give me apretty chord there!’ It helps so much to have thatcommunication.”

A longtime Paramount client, who has recently come onboard aspartner with co-owners Adam Beilenson and Michael Kerns, Swann is afan of the 64-in GML automation-fitted Focusrite. Reportedly, oneof only 10 that exist in the world, Studio C's Focusrite wascommissioned for Conway Studios in 1991 and moved to its presentlocation in January 2000.

“It's got the best attributes of a Neve,” notesSwann, “in terms of that transparent, open pipe sound —you know, like a big, old pipe that sound just shoots through. Themic pre's sound good, and the EQs are really clean. It's not one ofthose consoles that takes 10 years to pass the signal!”

“We're using the room a lot better than before,”comments owner Beilenson. “We've had advice from both[speaker tuning specialist Steve] Coco [Brandon] and [acousticdesigner] George Augspurger, so we've been making upgrades based onthe opinions of the specialists.”

Studio C is home to a Yamaha C-7 grand piano, a Hammond B-3organ and two EMT 140 plate reverbs. Mains are Augspurger TADs, andan Apogee Rosetta A/D converter comes with the room. Upgrades tothe control room were made at the time of the console installation;a large, ergonomically located wall of outboard now fills the backof the room, containing, among other items, Summit EQ andcompression, lots of UREI, Lexicon, Neve, Drawmer and dbx gear,JoeMeek and DeMaria Labs compressors and API 550A EQs.

More upgrades were made before the current project started, mostnotably the addition of a rather luxuriously appointed private,upstairs bathroom and a comfy nap nook.

The Macy Gray project is being recorded both to 24-track analogand edited on Pro Tools, with the help of engineer Mike Melnick.“I'm a die-hard analog guy,” Swann comments. “Ofcourse, there are such advantages to recording in the hard drive;editing and arranging in it is great. But I want to make astatement here: People need to remember that Pro Tools is just atool, like a wrench or something. Some people think it's theend-all, and if you've got it, your stuff is automatically going tosound good…people actually talk like that. But I've heardguys tear up some great human grooves when they start lining thosekick drums up and lining those snares up. It loses all that grease,all that human touch. So there are definitely pros andcons.”

While Pro Tools and an Akai MPC3000 were getting hard usage inthe control room, set up out in the studio were keyboard rigs, aselection of guitar amps and, newly purchased by Swann, a set ofKikdrumz. “Victor Indrizzo, an incredible drummer who playswith Beck, and who's also part of our musical family, turned me onto these kits,” he explains. “He had a prototype.They're built by a guy named Miro, who makes them in his garage.Miro brought a kit down here for me to try, and it had one of thebest-sounding kick drums I've heard in my life. I bought one on thespot. It's got a really resonant, big, full tone. Miro says he getsit by using an ultra-thin shell and by having none of the usualhardware holes in the drums, so that it has extra resonance. It's agreat design.”

The Kikdrumz stay set up in the large recording space and areoften augmented by a stash of vintage keyboards provided by Zac Rae— including such pieces as a Hohner clavinet, a Wurlitzerpiano, an Arp string ensemble, an Optigon and a Chamberlin.

“He's got about 50 cool instruments,” says Swann.“We stay miked up, just in case. [Laughs.] There's always amusician around, eating pizza or whatever, so if we're on tosomething, we can try it right away. I'll be playing a beat on theMPC, somebody can just jump on it and we can hear it live andintegrate it.

“What we're doing here is combining the best of the oldwith the best of the new. Macy's got that spirit; it brings out thecraziest, most eclectic kind of stuff, but it's rooted in old soul.She brings both worlds together, and she does it reallywell.”

Sometimes it seems that hidden behind every other door in theSan Fernando Valley is a music recording studio. I was reminded ofthis when I stopped in for a visit with Cody ChestnuTT at the“bedroom operation,” out of which he produced hiseccentric and very funky CD, titled The Headphone Masterpiece.

Masterpiece came about when the multi-instrumentalist ChestnuTT,who was dropped by his label and deserted by his band, decided tomake his own record. He retreated to his TascamPortastudio-equipped home recording space, dubbed The SonicPromiseland, and began woodshedding. Five months later, he emergedwith a double-CD, 36 tracks of music that range from rap to pop andsoul, with a hefty dose of British invasion added for goodmeasure.

“I had a lot of things going on, and I had to get themout,” ChestnuTT says. “My band, The Crosswalk, was mysecond effort as a recording artist, and it broke up after we weredropped by Hollywood Records. I was on my own. The tracks werewritten, my ideas were down and I didn't know how I was going toproduce them. I kept making music so I wouldn't be depressed, and Ijust decided that I was going to do it all myself. One vision, onesound, one room, undisturbed and undistracted. No one to arguewith. I got to put down everything I heard in my head, put everycolor to the canvas.”

ChestnuTT's influences, as depicted on Masterpiece, run acrossthe board. The stacks of CDs and vinyl that fill his house attestto this, with artists ranging from The Cure and Ray Charles to JudyGarland, David Bowie and Johnny Cash. With the exception of a fewsaxophone parts, ChestnuTT played all of the instruments on hisproject. Those included his collection of classic guitars, aWurlitzer piano and a Gulbransen organ. He also sang all of thestylistically diverse vocal parts and did all of his ownengineering. One mic (an Audio-Technica AT4033A), no samples, noPro Tools — as a matter of fact, one track was recordeddirect into the sampling functions of two Akai MPC2000s lockedtogether. The rest ended up on a Tascam Portastudio 424MK III,using its internal mixer and an additional Tapco 6201 6x2 board.The entire project was then mixed down to a Sony DATman.

As the title implies, The Headphone Masterpiece was produced togive the listener a parallel experience with the one ChestnuTT had,while recording and monitoring on his headphones of choice, SonyMDR-7506s. “I wanted the listener's experience to be as pureas my thought process,” he explains. “I designed it forour generation's stereo — the Sony headphone — whichsounds like a stereo wrapped around your head.”

Masterpiece was mastered by Brian “Big Bass” Gardnerat Bernie Grundman Mastering. Gardner, whose credits, of course,include Dr. Dre, Eminem, Tony! Toni! Toné! and Beck, amongothers, is no slouch at determining what's funky, and he had highpraise for ChestnuTT's effort. “It was a trip working withhim; he's a real talent,” Gardner says. “All his songs,even though they were rough, sounded complete and finished. Hereally blew my mind when he brought in all his equipment. Nothingmatched, the cables were all weird, some with different polaritythan the others — I was running around finding replacementcables. But it was funny how it worked: I just plugged it all up,pushed Play and there it all was. The balance was perfect, we hitRecord on our digital machine and it was done. That's neverhappened to me before. I consider it a miracle, but it kind ofdepicted what went on with all his songs while we were EQ'ing them.They all had a little magic to them. Cody's a definite talent, andI wish him total luck on this.”

“It's the classic ‘Doing it all yourself out of thehouse’ kind of thing,” says ChestnuTT's manager PhillipDeRobertis, of Ready, Set-Go, who hooked up with the artist whenDeRobertis was managing Westlake Studios and ChestnuTT wasrecording there. “We've been through the business wringerbefore, and we don't mind doing it again. But this time, we'redoing it more our way.”

DeRobertis is actively seeking a distribution deal forMasterpiece; already receiving airplay on Los Angeles station100.3/The Beat is the cut “Serve this Royalty.”Meanwhile, the prolific ChestnuTT has already written a batch ofsongs for his next CD.

“As Judy Garland said, ‘I was born toentertain,’” he concludes. “We share that incommon. Someone once told me that you survive in life how you seeyourself; so that's what I try to do. If you see yourself as a highspirit in life, that's what you'll be.”

E-mail your L.A. news to MsMDK@aol.com or fax to 818/346-3061.