I caught a smashing performance by Shelby Lynne and her new band one November morning over at KCRW, the Santa Monica-based National Public Radio station.

I caught a smashing performance by Shelby Lynne and her new band one November morning over at KCRW, the Santa Monica-based National Public Radio station. I realized the importance of NPR, and particularly of KCRW, to music some years ago when I was in New York City for the (late-lamented) New Music Seminar, the annual conference that preceded Austin's South By Southwest. Courtesy of a friend who volunteered at the station, I was outfitted with a badge sporting the KCRW call letters, and found myself deluged with tapes, CDs and the eager attention of indie artists who recognized a chance to be heard. They all seemed to know that at KCRW, if someone liked their music, they could actually (gasp!) play it on the air.

A very few commercial stations — L.A.'s KROQ, for one — are known for having the power to break bands, and, armed with that cachet, enjoy some wiggle room within the draconian formats that dominate today's airwaves. But the new music that even those “edgier” commercial stations air stays format-compatible. At KCRW, on the other hand, the jocks get to play what they call “hand-picked music.” That means, when you tune in to one of KCRW's 20-plus music shows, you're going to hear stuff that you won't get exposed to anywhere else.

Each of KCRW's music shows features its own style, from the ethnic/world and jazz championed on Tom Schnabel's “Café L.A.,” to Jason Bentley's beat-based “Metropolis” and the alt rock on Tricia Halloran's “Brave New World Morning Becomes Eclectic,” in the weekday 9 to 12 a.m. slot, is probably the least style-driven, and while you won't hear Aerosmith, N' Sync or even Bonnie Raitt, it's also the most pop/rock-oriented. Over the years, “MBE” has been instrumental in breaking a slew of artists, from Beck and Björk to Dido, Travis and David Gray. Hosted for the past three years by Nic Harcourt, “MBE” is also known for pioneering live-in-the-studio performances, with CDs compiled from those performances used as revenue-raisers for the listener-supported station.

KCRW's offices and studios are housed in the basement of Santa Monica City College. On the day I stopped in, Lynne was debuting cuts from her just-about-to-be-released CD Love, Shelby. Studio A was a blitz of controlled chaos as show producer Ariana Morgenstern and the rest of the staff organized the eight-piece band's appearance, while Harcourt smoothly helmed the first part of the show. In the music mixing booth, KCRW engineer Mario Diaz and Gennaro Rippo, Lynne's FOH mixer, were setting up for the live-to-2-channel broadcast and recording.

The control room is fitted with a 24x4 AMEK Big desk, which features 24 channels of dynamics and snapshot recall. The band's live stereo mix is routed to master control, where Harcout punches it up for both broadcast and streaming (along with video) on kcrw.org. Harcourt also creates a mix-minus (his mic, CDs, carts, etc. — everything minus the band) that Diaz selects through a Pacific Recorders BMX22 radio console and combines with the band's mix for archiving. Meanwhile, the band mix is recorded through an Apogee Rosetta A/D to a Panasonic SV 3800 DAT for archiving, then via AES to a TC Electronic Finalizer Plus and finally to an HHB CDR-850 Plus.

Diaz, who typically engineers up to three “MBE” shows a week, along with various other audio production tasks, is proud of the station's mic assortment and quality outboard collection. In Studio A's rack are two UREI LA-4s, an 1176, a Grace 101 2-channel mic preamp, a Klark Teknik 30-band graphic EQ, dbx 902 de-essers, and dbx 905 and 907 comp/limiters, as well as Lexicon PCM 90 and 81 reverb/delays. Mics include Neumann, Coles, AKG, Schoeps, Sennheiser, Beyer and Shure.

“We do anything from a string quartet to rock 'n' roll,” he says. “Typically, I put up mics the night before, position everything and do a line check. We usually start at 8:30 a.m., setting up backline and headphones. We try to keep it 24 channels, mainly because we have 24 channels of built-in dynamics and that gives me more flexibility to add a compressor on-the-fly if I need it.”

Recording live-to-2-track definitely captures a kind of magic that is, as the show's first compilation CDs were dubbed, Rare On Air. (The latest compilation, available on Mammoth Records, is simply titled Morning Becomes Eclectic.) “You don't have time to stop,” Diaz admits. “You get your soundcheck, and that's it.”

“MBE” is successful as well as influential. Much of its popularity, of course, is due to host Harcourt, who, drawing from KCRW's 50,000-title library and his own 5,000-plus collection, puts together a five-day-a-week show that is the top fundraiser for the station. A native of Birmingham, England, Harcourt came to KCRW by way of WDST in Woodstock, N.Y., where he served as morning show host, music director and program director. “KCRW is such a unique station in many ways,” he comments. “The music is just one aspect of it. The most unique thing about the music shows is that, although they each have a slant depending on the time of day, basically they are free-form. That's the big difference: We're in a really important market, and there's no computer-generated playlist. We're not a 24-hour music station, but when we're doing music, the programmers pick their own. That's really unusual.”

Not far away, in the Santa Monica arts and media district near Bergamot Station, I found Shake-a-Leg Music's Elyse Schiller and Jim Watson ensconced in their gallery-like studio. The two musicians, partners in the boutique music and sound design company, specialize in creating edgy hooks for the television branding industry, with clients that include E! Entertainment Television, BET, ABC Daytime, HBO, MTV and Sony Pictures, among others. Recently, the duo have expanded their scope, forming, with the help of some musician friends, “Porkpie,” an electronica music collective that's landed cuts in several television shows including Felicity, Fanatic Undercover, and MTV's Undressed, as well as in the Darryl Hannah/Jennifer Tilly film Dancing at the Blue Iguana and American World Pictures' Hitchcockian drama Fogbound.

With attention spans growing even shorter in our fast-paced lives, “branding” has become an important concept. The ability to create it is a much-in-demand skill, and to that end Schiller and Watson have become expert at honing musical ideas that communicate quickly.

“Mostly, we work with graphic design companies,” explains Schiller, a vocalist, songwriter and keyboard-playing veteran of the art/club world. “Our job is to help provide identity to visuals by coming up with music that will give immediate recognition. For example, right now we're doing a project with Jim Kealy, a very cinematic designer with a company called 3 Ring Circus. Working from storyboards, we created a 30-second spot for a Korean television company that wants an identity for its network, which has several different channels.”

“A lot of people recreate orchestras with samplers, but we're really not interested in that,” adds Watson. “What we do is kind of outside-the-box and textural. A lot of it is about placing sounds and creating mini-environments.”

Watson, who started out as a drummer, puts his rhythm chops to good use at Shake-a-Leg; his live drum tracks often form the basis for looped grooves. He also handles most of the engineering chores, with the core of Shake-a-Leg's studio operation being MOTU's DP3 running on a Mac G4/533 MP. “I've been using the program since it was just Performer,” he notes. “I work really closely with the guys at MOTU; when you find something that can be improved, you can call them up and they're really responsive. Through them, I've also made good connections with other software companies.”

Watson's setup is impressively fine-tuned. Mic preamps and DIs are connected to a MOTU 1296 24-bit, 96kHz interface for A/D conversion, and routed back from DP via ADAT Lightpipe through a MOTU 2408 to a Yamaha 02R for monitoring.

“MOTU is really ahead of the Pro Tools curve,” he states. “You can do 24/96 in 10.2 surround on their system right now. I find that many plug-in designers like the MOTU audio system better because, instead of being 24-bit integer, it's 32-bit floating point. That finer precision gives better resolution, especially for things like EQ. It's fractional, but you're always trying to make it sound more like analog and not have that digital grain, and this system really sounds great. Metric Halo, for example, makes a great piece of software called Channel Strip. It's the best software EQ, made for both TDM and for MOTU. A lot of people think it sounds much better in MOTU.”

Watson also routes signals digitally from DP, via AES and S/PDIF, to his outboard effects units, such as a TC Electronic M1 and M3000, and a Lexicon PCM 90 and 80, bypassing the converters in those units. “The MOTU 308 digital interface has eight channels each of optical, S/PDIF and AES,” he continues. “Once the sound is in the computer, I don't have any more conversions and re-clocking.”

The outboard collection at Shake-a-Leg is extensive, and Watson has established personal relationships with many small manufacturers. “I'm not an electrical engineer-type,” he observes, “but I have a lot of respect for the people who are and who manufacture this kind of gear. I got on the Joemeek bandwagon early on; I have one of the ones that Ted Fletcher was making in his garage. The same thing with Jim Demeter's compressors — now there's a guy who really knows what he is doing! I have one that's numbered #28.”

Recent additions to the collection include two Wade Chandler Neve items: a repackaged 1073 preamp/EQ and a 32264 compressor, as well as two Telefunken V72 preamps, purchased from Germany and racked and modified with Jensen transformers by Jamie Sutton at Valley Sound in Burbank. “You can use them for DIs,” Watson notes, “especially for bass, because they have a lot of bottom and are really fat.”

While Schiller and Watson enjoy the short-form work they do, they've also been branching out into scoring for soundtracks, contributing 20 minutes to No Maps For These Territories, the critical fave documentary on sci-fi writer William Gibson, which features appearances by Bono and Daniel Lanois.

“We like all sorts of projects,” says Schiller. “Sometimes I feel like we're really just two bees working away in a hive. The identity things are a lot of fun, because we have to tell a whole story in just a few seconds, creating this little sonic package. For the long-form things, it has to flow more, and we get to stretch out. But it's still about communicating feeling and thought. We just like to create music that fits visuals.”

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