Over at Track Record's North Studio, I found energetic producer/engineer Tim Palmer mixing on Track's new SSL 9080 J Series desk. Palmer, known for his work with U2, Pearl Jam, David Bowie and Tears for Fears, among others, was settling in after some major globetrotting, which put him in Dublin, Sydney, London, Toronto, Copenhagen and Rome. It's definitely been a good year for Palmer, who's been called one of the unsung heroes of alt rock. Along with being nominated for a Grammy for mixing several songs on U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind and producing Ozzy Osbourne's latest effort, Down to Earth, he's also been mixing for Irwin Thomas, Off By One and D.A.D. His workload hasn't lightened any since he touched down at his L.A. home base. At Track Record he'd just finished mixing the debut album for Maverick Records' Stage, which was produced by 2001 Grammy nominee Greg Wattenberg (Five for Fighting's “Superman [It's Not Easy]”). And he's currently working on MXPX mixes for a new 20-song compilation.
“Producing Ozzy's record this year was great fun, and new territory for me because I got to co-write a few tracks with Ozzy,” Palmer comments. “But I'd decided a couple of years ago to concentrate a lot more on mixing. Through mixing I get to tackle many genres of music. I've always enjoyed the challenge of mixing a rock record and then, the week after, mixing a pop record. I don't want to get cornered into one area of the market; I think life would get very dull to get up knowing what everybody expected of you every day.
“Coming from a production background,” he notes, “rather than just pushing up the faders, I'm prepared to add an overdub idea to the mix or change the arrangement slightly. But of course, in case they hate it, I always put mixes down in the original form. It's amazing how much easier it is to be creative these days because of digital and Pro Tools. If you want to change the sound of a vocal or guitar it can be done in seconds, whereas in the past, it was a bit painstaking: patching in this, splitting channels, etc., etc. The MP3 format, although fairly primitive, has meant that it's now easy to zoom a mix to Australia for a reference check in no time at all.”
Traveling the world, Palmer has come to rely on the universal setup of an SSL 9000J console, Genelec 1031A speakers, Pro Tools, and “any good analog ½-inch 2-track. I had the same setup in Copenhagen and in Sydney at 301 Studios,” he says. “I can happily sit and mix and it doesn't really matter where in the world I am. I've always loved the SSL 9000; to me it's a very open-sounding console. I return all my Pro Tools outputs straight into the J Series channels to use those lovely EQs and compressors.”
Seeing a Fender Telecaster sitting in a corner that was a gift to Palmer from U2 guitarist The Edge, I couldn't resist asking what it's like to work with the world's greatest rock band. “It's a totally different experience mixing for U2,” he reflects. “With most projects, you're mixing at the very end of a chain and you've usually got about a day to mix per song. With U2, the mixing process is an ongoing thing. We do a mix and see how the song is sounding, but then they might decide they'd recorded a better verse a few weeks ago, so they'll dig it out and we'll try that! For a band that has been around as long as they have, they're a real example of people who don't rest on their laurels. They work really hard, and they're always looking to better things and take it to the next level.”
Other projects that have been done in North Studio (known for its cool drum sound, and whose control room redesign for the 9K was done by Vincent Van Haaff) in the past year are Crash Radio, with Matt Serletic producing and Noel Golden engineering, and producer Raphael Saadiq working on Instant Vintage with engineers Gerry Brown and Danny Romero. Track Record's South Studio, which has undergone renovation with new wood floors and acoustic treatments, has also been busy. On the day I dropped in, producer Jimbo Barton was in overdubbing for Buckcherry on the SSL 6072E console. Other recent projects included TLC with engineer Tommy D, and Courtney Love's Bastard with engineers Matt Wallace, Bjorn Thorsrud and Joe Barresi.
Track Record owner Tom Murphy is celebrating his 31st anniversary as a studio owner, so the install of the 9k was kind of a birthday present. “I've always loved the art of recording sound,” he says, “and I've endeavored through the years to advance the state of that art. I've been fortunate to work with some of music's greatest talents, and by collaborating with the best acousticians, training a talented staff and installing the SSL 9000J — the ultimate analog desk — I plan to offer the best in recording services so that I can continue to do so.”
Just a few blocks away in the same North Hollywood neighborhood, Lon Cohen Studio Rentals celebrated its eighth year in business by opening a new facility. The detail-oriented personality of company owner Lon Cohen is apparent as soon as you enter the building — LCSR definitely doesn't look like any other equipment rental place you've seen: It's got leather furniture, tastefully scattered antiques and a paint job (the designer color “toasty spice,” Cohen says) worthy of a high-priced decorator. Then there's that kitchen fitted with stainless steel cabinets, and the space reserved for a Wolf range that's on the way — this is definitely a class operation.
A further tour shows where Cohen's attention to detail really comes into play: the impeccably maintained guitars, amps and effects that are the core of his rental business. The list of what's available is amazing, and Cohen's printed descriptions of the instruments are akin to those of a wine connoisseur. “It's true,” he says with a laugh, “my anal-retentive nature has served me in some ways. For one thing, I'm very stringent about how stuff is checked in. Obviously, when your amps and guitars are in the studio with a microphone in front of them, they're under the microscope. It's really important that there are no buzzes or rattles. We check everything thoroughly before it goes out, and when it comes back in. We listen to the controls, switches and jacks to hear if they scratch, and the speakers and cabinets are inspected for noise. It's an inexact science, of course; amps have tubes that go bad as they get old, but we do as much preventive maintenance as possible. And we're pretty good. We rarely have a problem.”
There's a padded, dead tech room where amps get turned up to 10 for testing, and next to that are the racks of guitars, which also get set up, tuned, and checked both in and out. The collection is extensive and includes not only classic guitars of all kinds but also other stringed instruments. If requested, a tech also accompanies the equipment, tuning and setting up for clients.
“I've got all the normal stuff like bass guitars, acoustics and electrics,” Cohen notes, “including lots of classics and one-of-a-kinds. And then there are all sorts of little treasures and oddball stuff, including one of the largest collections of rental ‘lefty’ guitars that I know of.”
The oddball stuff includes a banjitar banjo-guitar hybrid, an authentic Indian tamboura and sitar, Mexican instruments such as guitarrons and vihuelas, and something called a guitorgan — a '70s invention with the guts of an electronic organ in the body and frets of an electric guitar, allowing organ and guitar to play at the same time through separate outputs.
Cohen's amp collection is also extensive. Stored in a carpeted room in niches labeled with their vintage, it includes some items he refuses to rent. “I'm really proud of this stuff,” he comments, “like one of my 100-watt Marshalls. Mike Doyle, who wrote the history of Marshall, thought it was one of the very first ones, which were made for Pete Townshend. He trashed most of them, but it seems to be one of the survivors. There's also one from when Marshall first started, with the metal badges. Rumor is that they're actually casket tags — that the first Marshall shop was next to a mortuary where Jim Marshall got a hundred tags that he used as labels.
“It's kind of a Noah's Ark,” he adds, surveying the room. “I started collecting a long time ago. What I've tried to do, when I'm listening to or playing a guitar, is to think of it from the artist's perspective. As a guitar player, you can play ten guitars and one out of the ten is really magical. That's how I've tried to collect. If I find one that's really awesome, I get it. The same with amps; I try to find ones that sound exceptional, that are going to have an impact. I believe that, from a musician's standpoint, when you have an instrument that really sounds great, it inspires a performance. You're comfortable with your own instrument, but if you play another one that feels so much better, you're going to play that much better. The payoff for me, I guess, is the thrill I get watching people get inspired and later thanking me for having such great stuff.”
Cohen carries new as well as old equipment. “When it comes to new equipment,” he states, “I try to work with manufacturers that I feel are on the cutting edge of tone and performance. There are some people making great stuff out there and I enjoy great relationships with them.
“It's interesting,” he concludes. “Lately I find that a lot of the producers I work with are becoming really inventive and creative; they want to try different sounds. In the past, if a producer was doing a rock record, they'd get a Fender Precision bass and an Ampeg SVT; that was it for the rock sound. Now, guys are trying really cool, interesting things — using amps like this Acoustic 370 from the '70s, then overdubbing on it with an Ampeg B15 from the '60s. They're blending and mixing and there are some really interesting textures coming out on records now.”
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