Skip Saylor caught the town by surprise with an announcement of the installation into his "back room," Studio B, of an SSL Axiom-MT digital console. Although Saylor's a die-hard SSL fan, and well-known for keeping his studio stocked with the latest and greatest in equipment, he's never been known for going out on a limb with technology. Not to say he's conservative (after all, he owns a recording studio!), but he makes decisions with the born-of-experience, hard practicality of a sole proprietor, and a move like this makes everybody sit up and take notice.
The MT, designed to have a short learning curve for SSL users, features 48 multitrack, 12 main and 12 aux buses, more than 200 mix returns, 192 moving faders and 96 channels equipped with all the traditional SSL in-line capabilities. All controls are dynamically automated, including the surround panning on both large and small faders. The desk's "channel banking" feature enables a 48-fader control surface to manage any combination of the 96-channel/200-plus input system from the mixer's "sweet spot." Surround capabilities include a 6-channel main mix compressor and two sets of 5.1 monitor outputs, with insert points in both main and monitor outputs.
"It's the great-sounding, fully automated desk I've dreamed about since I first started engineering 25 years ago," Saylor says. "I'm serious when I say I've been waiting my whole career for this board. And I postured myself to be ready for it; I laid out of the 'J' race so that I could be ready for what I was calling the 'K.' Only it wasn't a 'K,' it was an 'MT.'"
Saylor has not been a digital maven; his studio-known for the mixes of classic albums by Guns N' Roses, k.d. lang, Everclear, DJ Quik and the Foo Fighters-has been a bastion of high-quality analog gear. "I've never been a big fan of digital except for its cleanliness," he comments. "Sonically, it just never got all the way to the party. The bottom end always lacked a certain amount of 'fur on the bear,' the part of the sound that you can get from analog that makes the hair stand up on your arms. And for me, the top end was never right, either. So I was really surprised when I heard this console. I listened to it, I tested it, I held their feet to the fire on it, and I thought it was fabulous. I compared the converters as a separate unit to my new Apogee 24/96 converters, which I thought would kick ass on the MT's, and when I passed signal through both converters and listened, the SSL was brilliant.
"So it sounds great, and it can handle the most demanding mix session. Talking to SSL about what I was looking for, I said, 'I want to duplicate a session that we did in '91 with Guns N' Roses. Two 48 dig machines, 48 analog, a piece of analog gear over every channel, and, by the way, throw in 48 channels of Pro Tools, because if it had been around in those days they would've had that in there too.' Well, we can do that session."
Queried about the dreaded delay issue, Saylor replies, "You just feed your analog tracks to different buses than you do your digital, and delay the digital buses with the built-in programmable delay so they match with the analog delay. We've tested it. It works. It cures the problems. The delay is only 1.2 ms anyway, so in many cases you might not even hear it.
Saylor Recording's Studio A has stayed busy through construction. On the day I dropped in to check out the improvements, producer and engineer Erwin Musper (Van Halen, Elton John, David Bowie) was mixing away on new artist Anouk. Musper was unperturbed by the activity in the back of the facility, where Studio B was being upgraded with new maple hardwood flooring in preparation for the MT install. Those of you who remember Studio B from its days as a rather small and dark API room will be surprised; the addition of a lounge and patio have completely changed the vibe, and the control room itself is now more spacious. It also boasts an innovative new feature that Saylor has already installed into Studio A: White ash swing-out equipment racks now cover the back walls of both control rooms, housing all that famous outboard with easy access to the rear of all the units.
Designed by Saylor and his longtime contractor and studio builder, Lyle Ireland, the cabinets-dubbed "Skip's Wall of Sound"-are bound to be copied in other studios. "I was acquiring so much gear that I'd used up all my access space to my racks with more racks!" Saylor laughs.
Other acts in lately have been Snoop Doggy Dogg with Chris Purim engineering, assisted by Ian Blanch and Tracy Brown; Santana with T-Rey and Anton mixing, assisted by Brown; and Toni Braxton with G-One and The Outsiders and Noontime producing and Brown assisting.
"When I opened Studio A in 1987 with the SSL, I was an A-list studio," Saylor concludes. "When I laid out of the 'J' race, I dropped down to an A-minus or a B-plus. But now, I'm establishing a new A-plus list. Everybody in town is looking at my taillights and I'm loving it."
In the spacious third-floor lounge of Hollywood's Edmonds (as in Tracy and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds) Tower, I found John Rhone and Ontario Haynes of the Whole 9 taking a break from their busy schedule. We sat looking south over Hollywood as the two-originally from Oakland, now living in L.A. and managed by Yab Yum Entertainment-discussed their recent projects. The Whole 9 have garnered lots of metal recently: They have produced and written for Silkk the Shocker with Mya, Tru, DRS, Mr. Serv-On, and the Foolish and Jason's Lyric soundtracks.
The Whole 9 (as in "the whole nine yards") was a well-chosen name; Rhone and Haynes do it all, from songwriting and playing to arranging, producing and mixing. Their workspace is self-contained, too: Many of their recent successful projects-including cuts for Silkk the Shocker's Made Man, C-Murder's Bossalinie and Tru's The Crime Family-were done completely at their home studio, where Rhone handles mixing chores on their Yamaha 02R/Akai DR16 setup.
The duo met in high school, where they both played in the symphonic band: Rhone on saxophone and Haynes, as he sheepishly admits, on bassoon. "Not a good instrument if you're trying to be cool," he laughs. "You definitely can't get any women playing bassoon. I think it was assigned to me because I was tall and bassoon is a big instrument! I used to think, if I'd been handed a sax or a trumpet, I could have played that instrument for years and years! But now I think, well, maybe if I'd done that I wouldn't have gotten into writing songs and producing."
These days Haynes plays most of the keyboards and writes most of the musical parts on The Whole 9's productions, while Rhone covers drum programming and mixing. The two started working seriously together in 1991, when they discovered that the music they collaborated on got a much more positive, instant response from their friends than the work they did alone. Once they got going, it wasn't long before they were writing and producing out of their basement studio for the likes of DRS and Simply E. When Tony! Toni! Tone!'s Dwayne Wiggins came over to check them out, they ended up as writers on the song "Slow Wine" for the Sons of Soul album.
Living and working in Oakland, they came to the attention of MC Hammer. His RWI Entertainment was in its heyday at the time, and he signed them on as a team. The move to L.A. happened almost three years ago when their business manager, Len Turner, secured the team a publishing deal with Jobete Music. "I had been adamant about not living in L.A.," Rhone laughs, "but they were more adamant that we had to be here. And once you live here and figure the freeways out, it's not such a bad place."
Asked about how they come up with ideas or a plan for a song, Haynes says, "It's pretty spontaneous-we just attack it! We like to work that way because sometimes if it's too planned out, it will sound contrived. Sometimes it's really just better to walk in with a clean slate and say, 'What do I feel like this second?' Then you just go at it until you're done. We pretty much work six days a week at it, ten to 12 hours a day."
Lately, the Whole 9 find themselves working at lots of different studios-among them The Enterprise, Larrabee and Tracken Place in the Edmonds Tower. So they bring along a few of the things they can't live without-such as their MPC3000, which they sequence with Digital Performer. "We've been forced to use other sequencing programs a couple of times," Rhone confides. "But we try not to because it's always more time-consuming and stressful. For me, any time I've got to pull out a pad and pencil and do math to program, something's wrong!"
Other must-haves on a session are their E-mu ESI 4000 sampler, a Korg Trinity, the E-mu synth module Planet Phat and the Studio Electronics SE1.
At their home studio, Tannoy Reveal speakers are the monitors of choice. "They look good, too," Haynes laughs. Vocal sounds are, of course, a priority. The mic of choice usually is a Groove Tube through Avalon mic pre's, and a Joe Meek compressor. "We're pretty religious about the vocal setup," Rhone says. "All the vocals go through the Avalon; we bypass the pre's and the EQs in the 02R, but use the 02R to convert and send to the hard disk recorder. It sounds so good that way when we get to the mix there's not a lot to do...The vocals are fat right there."
No wonder these guys were taking an opportunity for a break in the lounge. On the day we met, The Whole 9 were in the middle of several projects: 3rd Storee, Beverly Crowder and Shya for Yab Yum/Elektra, 3D for DreamWorks. They'd just returned from a trip back to Oakland and some work on new Foster/McElroy-produced En Vogue tracks. Gotta hand it to those 12-hour workdays...
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