L.A. Grapevine

Over at Future Disc Systems, they've found that cutting across the spectrum can be a successful business strategy. Chief mastering engineer Steve Hall

Over at Future Disc Systems, they've found that cuttingacross the spectrum can be a successful business strategy.Chief mastering engineer Steve Hall continues to work on stereohits for artists such as Sisqo, Babyface, Lionel Richie, JillSobule and Green Day (whose Platinum HDCD Nimrod wasmastered by Hall), while also venturing seriously into surround,with projects under his belt for the prestigious Pioneer ClassicsSeries, as well as for Earth, Wind & Fire, Deep Purple'sclassic Machine Head DVD-A reissue, and Emerson, Lake& Palmer (Rhino's Brain Salad Surgery DVD-A). Down thehall, in response to client demand, a DVD authoring suite staffedby Dave Conrad has been set up for audio and video encoding.Meanwhile, Future Disc's vinyl department has been going non-stop,with vinyl expert Kevin Gray working his custom Class-ANeumann/Zuma disc cutter for both audiophile reissues by artistssuch as The Eagles, Al Green and Elvis Presley and 12-inch clubmixes for Madonna, Cher, Ricky Martin and William Orbit.

There's more. Mastering engineer Kris Solem has kept busy withprojects such as Master P and Enrique Iglesias, and engineer PeteThomas has been specializing in edits, both clean and radio, forartists from Mötley Crüe to Snoop Dogg.

Hall, whose highly customized suite is set up for 5.1 surround,is staring to become known for helping make surround mixes soundnatural. His tools include a custom Class-A console, Manley and GMLEQs, Pacific Microsonics HDCD converters, a Weiss digital consoleand Sonic Solutions.

He's particularly proud of the work he did on the surroundre-mastering of Earth, Wind & Fire's Gratitude. Theproject, which was remixed by Paul Klingberg, looks to be one ofSony's first DVD-Audio releases. “Paul mixed from bakedoriginal 24-track tapes at Kalimba Studios with [EWF leader]Maurice White,” he explains. “One reason it was greatto work on it is that Paul has become a genius at the centerchannel and how it should be used. So many people don't use it, butthe way Paul does has made me a believer in it, because it totallyanchors the front image.”

Once the EWF masters arrived at Future Disc, Hall did somefine-tuning and enhancing, mainly using a TC Electronic 6000 andcutting 88k, 24-bit, 6-channel. “We panned the back to thefront sides a little bit to make it feel more like you were in theaudience,” he notes. “A lot of the guys that startedgoing from 2-channel to surround make a division between the frontand the back. But the idea that the space is really circular issomething that people are starting to experiment with, and in thiscase, it worked really well. We also used a ‘concrete parkinggarage’ program that's in the TC's surround environment,which was great, because it gave us a more cohesive environment andopened it up into an arena. The result is a really great concertexperience.”

Another surround project that's been ongoing at Future Disc ismastering and authoring for a classical series recorded in premierEuropean acoustic environments and released on the Pioneer Classicslabel in association with the production company MediaHyperium.

“I believe they were recorded for the BBC originally, someof them 10 or 15 years ago,” Hall comments. “They cometo us on Digibeta, we clean them up and de-noise, then we blow themout to 5.1. It's been very effective, and we've gotten some verygratifying reviews.”

Some of Hall's tools for stereo to 5.1 expansion are made byAMG. He also makes heavy use of TC Electronic's TC 5000 and6000.

“I went to the AMG world Website and read up on ambisonicrecordings,” he says, “then got one of AMG's boxes. Itcreates a phenomenal center channel where, basically, the sweetspot is as wide as your left and right speakers. You don't have tobe right dead center to hear the whole front image.

“Working in surround has definitely been achallenge,” he states a bit ruefully, “because thetools to do this aren't all intact. It's like bits and pieces ofequipment that you have to try to get to work together. I'm hopingthings progress rapidly and new technology comes out that makeslife easier for multichannel mastering.”

Studio 7, the DVD authoring suite, came into being because ofclient requests. “The DVD process is complex,” Hallnotes. “When a project gets loaded and/or modified by severalengineers in facilities with different systems, it can cause errorsand degradation. Preparation of a final DVD master should really bedone at the mastering level, where they can retain the bestpossible quality.”

About DVD-Audio in general, Hall comments: “It's startingto take off. It's been a slow start, partly because the labelsreally have to commit to it for it to succeed. And with all the newmedia transitions going on — all these formats andtechnologies coming at the same time — they've had theirhands full. But it's obvious to anyone who has heard good surroundmixes that it's going to happen. There's just no goingback.”

Downtown on North Main Street, in the artists' loftcommunity known as The Brewery, three enterprising youngengineer/musicians have set up a “weekend-run”recording facility dubbed Blue Ribbon Studios.

Partners Kent Verderico, Nathan Smith and Jeff Champlin, who metwhile studying recording at USC, took over the 1,800-square-footlive/workspace a year ago. The trio then proceeded to lie out somemajor sweat equity enlarging the control room to over twice theoriginal size and improving the existing tracking space.

Downtown is not the first place most Angelenos in the musicbusiness think of for a recording studio location. But USC isdowntown-close, so the partners were familiar with the area. And,during their hunt for studio space, they found the price at TheBrewery to be right. Actually, getting into a space there was astroke of luck, because, in consideration of the graphic artistswho dominate the building's population, only five of the lofts aredesignated to be recording studios.

“It was pretty seedy when we moved in,” commentsVerderico, while taking a break from setting up for the weekend'ssession. “There had been this kind of gothic, punk bandliving here and rehearsing, and there was a small studio. We tookover and worked every weekend for nine months to build itout.”

Now, Blue Ribbon is equipped with a DDA AMR-24 console that waspreviously housed at Santa Monica's busy AdMusic, where Verdericospends weekdays working as an assistant engineer and studio tech.(All three partners have industry-related “day” jobs,hence the description “weekend-run” studio.)

“It's a British board that's had a lot of modificationsdone on it by AdMusic,” he says. “It has a customClass-A API stereo bus, and it's retrofitted with Uptown movingfader automation.”

Blue Ribbon offers a Pro Tools 5.1 system, as well as 24 tracksof hard disk recording using three E-mu Darwins, which clients cantransfer to ADAT or Pro Tools if necessary. Verderico, who spentsome time working for E-mu, is a fan of the rather esotericDarwins. “These came out in '95, and were totallystate-of-the-art,” he explains. “They basically hadthen what Mackie and Tascam have just come out with. They were socutting edge then, and, personally, I think they still are. Thesound quality and the craftsmanship were really welldone.”

For those who must have analog, there is also a Soundcraft24-track 760 recorder. “If nothing else, it lookscool,” laughs Verderico.

Smith, meanwhile, is a Pro Tools fan, as well as a computermaven, and has modified his Macintosh G4 laptop with a Magma CB2expansion bay that allows him to run up to 32 tracks of Pro Toolson it. “Digidesign doesn't officially support Pro Tools forlaptops,” he notes. “But this has been pretty reliable.And it's very cool, because if I record a band at the studio andthen need to grab a vocal or a guitar track somewhere else, I cando it with just my laptop. The ideal is, if you're on a trip andyou want to mix on the airplane, you can do that too.

“Another reason I like using the laptop for liverecordings in different locations,” he continues, “isthat, besides convenience and the use of multiple inputs, with ProTools, there are plug-ins with great analyzers such as Spectra Fooand Waves. I can go into a hall where I'm going to work and do awhole room analysis from each microphone — reverb time,phase, frequency response and just about anything else I could askfor.”

That kind of creative approach to equipment is one of BlueRibbon's strong points. Another is the goal of taking a verypersonal approach with each client. To that end, Champlin andVerderico, who have worked together on several albums as well assoundtracks and demos, often find themselves serving as an in-houseproduction team for Blue Ribbon projects.

“We're just getting started,” Verderico comments,“working with bands doing demos or making their own CDs anddoing voice-overs. We've also done some commercials and independentfilm score work; we have picture and SMPTE capability, so we can dothings that require locking picture and sound. We're into prettymuch whatever comes along.”

Monitoring at Blue Ribbon is on Tannoys and NHT M10s with customThomas “Beno” May passive crossovers. Outboard gearincludes Alesis, Lexicon and Yamaha effects, a Demeter tube mic preand Apogee Rosetta 24-bit A/D conversion. Instrument-wise, BlueRibbon's recording space is home to a Hammond T-200 organ with abuilt-in Leslie, a Hohner Clavinet D6, a Fender Rhodes 88 andvarious guitar amps.

A plus to recording at a studio in what has been called thelargest artists' community in the country? Barbara's, The Brewery'ship, on-site restaurant, featuring 12 different beers on tap andthe potential for a David Hockney or other artist-type celebritysighting. Hey, it's L.A. — you never know.

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