Supervising music mixer/engineer Joseph Magee has had his hands full for the past few months, riding herd on the soundtrack to The Country Bears, Disney's kid-oriented, live action, Behind the Music-style rock 'n' roll satire. Fortunately, Magee is comfortable with diverse personalities, because the cast of characters on the project included John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Setzer, Queen Latifah, Elton John, Willie Nelson, and producers Julian Raymond and Dallas Austin, among others, along with legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns and Don Henley.
“We did have a lot going on,” admits Magee, a veteran of such flicks as Pearl Harbor and High Fidelity. “Generally, for a film like this, I start in pre-production with the producers, the director, the music supervisor and Disney's music department. I get a concept of the picture, get onboard with the songs and go in — either as a tracking engineer or a supervising music mixer — to pre-record. On this film, we have been pre-recording songs at the same time we're shooting music on the set. I alternate from confirming track layout, timecode, sampling rate and [Pro Tools] grid recording in the studio to creating a new playback edit and mix on the set. From the technical perspective, I'm responsible for collecting and keeping all the materials, from pre-record to post.”
The hybrid position Magee fills is new, created to deal with the complexity of many recent soundtracks in which multiple music producers, engineers, studios and formats coexist with intensely compact work schedules. His background, which includes a degree in music and stints in live sound mixing, remote broadcasting and studio engineering, made him uniquely qualified for the role.
“It used to be that a musical supervisor handled everything,” he explains. “But as things got more complicated, technical aspects started to fall by the wayside. Too many things were out of sync and that gets really expensive. Tracks may have to be recut to get them back to where they're supposed to be. Sometimes, you have to go on a very time-consuming excavation dig just to figure out what happened. A couple of times, I've been called in halfway through a film to help out, and that's what I had to do the first two or three weeks — clean up sync messes.”
When Disney's president of music Bill Green and VP of music production Monica Zierhut decided it would be cost-effective to have a supervising music mixer involved from the project's beginning, Magee's troubleshooting experience made him an obvious candidate. “I'm comfortable with filmmakers and with transfers and scoring and dubbing stages,” Magee comments. “I'm also comfortable in the music studio as an engineer, so I'm like a bridge between the two worlds.
“With soundtracks, it used to be that you got some record industry people to create tunes and give you a stereo mix of them that could be played back on the set,” he continues. “There were two completely separate worlds. What's been happening now is that the film often drives the record in a positive way. A record producer may cut the track, then we take it and start to work with it on a daily basis, on camera and in post. The sound of that track may evolve, and then the record producer may pick up that evolution, or not…but it's a much more fluid process. For example, Peter Hastings, the director of Country Bears, is very musical. He's a multi-instrumentalist and a Berklee School of Music grad and very Pro Tools-savvy. He's another example of how those separate worlds of film and record music are getting much closer.”
Slowly but surely, word is getting out about The Steakhouse, a one-studio facility just off Magnolia Boulevard in what has become known as North Hollywood's “Music Row.” Vintage mavens in particular have been taking note of The Steakhouse's private location and custom A3269/A3271 console, which was formerly housed at The Great Linford Manor in England and reportedly the largest working EMI/Neve in the world.
According to Phoenix Audio's Geoff Tanner, who has been associated with the A3000 Series from its earliest design stages at Rupert Neve and Co., seven of the desks were designed and built in the mid-'70s for EMI Records in London. Those seven have since scattered around the world. One, now in Dublin, is owned by U2; one resides in Auckland, New Zealand, where it was used on several classic numbers by Crowded House; one is in Brussels; two are still at Great Linford in the UK; and two have been put together by Tanner to form the 92-input beauty owned by The Steakhouse.
“Apparently, the EMI consoles were so impressive that people asked Neve to put out a whole line of them,” comments Steakhouse studio manager Kelle Musgrave. “But they were so customized it was too expensive to mass produce them. Instead, Neve ended up making a scaled-down version that became the 8078 Series.”
Featuring 56 channel inputs with 1064 and 1093 EQs, 12 effects returns with 2076 EQs, and 24-track monitoring with custom 2-band EQ and Penny & Giles mini-faders, the desk is also fitted with 68 channels of Flying Faders automation with a control panel that has been crafted into the center section.
While the console is its centerpiece, The Steakhouse itself — designed by Carl Yanchar of Lakeside Associates — has a musical history. Hawaii-based brothers Rick and Lee Bench, musician/producers themselves, started building the complex in 1987. The original plan was for it to be a private production facility.
“We knocked down the buildings that were on the property and set about building a studio from the ground up,” recalls Lee Bench. “We went through it all with Carl [Yanchar], from floating the floors to putting in custom power. It took almost a year just to work with the city on plan checks and things like earthquake requirements. Really, when you do this, you find that equipment is only one of the things you're concerned with. Power, for example, was a priority for us because that's something that can distinguish a great room from a good one.”
The studio's direction changed a bit when, not long after the studio was up and running, L.A. session guitarist and Toto principal Steve Lukather came by. Liking what he saw and heard, Lukather struck a deal, moved in his gear and started working. He spent so much time there that the studio became known to many simply as “Luke's Room.”
“For a while, Luke had the time to always be here, and he was driving the show,” Bench explains. “Later, he got more active with Toto and other projects, but he's still very much a part of it, and to this day, on certain projects, we still function as partners.”
Originally, the control room had housed an AMR 24 console, but as the studio headed in a commercial direction, a decision was made to look for something else. “We spent a year and half trying to find a great console,” says Bench. “Finally, we ran into Geoff, who knows where all the bones are buried when it comes to Neve consoles, and he turned us on to the ones out at Great Linford. It was a complicated deal, though, and it took the better part of two years to get them out here and interfaced properly.”
The large studio area, which features hardwood floors and a compression ceiling, along with three good-sized iso booths, has become a favorite for recording drums and acoustic instruments. The complex itself is comfortable with lounges and private, gated parking. Recording equipment includes Studer 827 analog 24-track, Ampex ATR 2-track and Alesis Masterlink; Pro Tools HD is also available. Monitoring is on Tannoy Gold, KRK E8 and Yamaha NS-10 speakers. And an added benefit to the studio is the large collection of guitars, amps and processors that can be made available.
“We're starting to get very busy,” says Musgrave, “mostly with long-term projects. It seems that people rarely come for less than three weeks. We just try to keep the support up and make it a pleasant environment. Our goal is to make clients comfortable so that they want to come back.”
Making themselves comfortable lately have been producer Rick Rubin with engineer Ed Thacker overdubbing on Palo Alto, producer Matt Serletic with engineers Noel Golden and Mark Dobson working on Crash Radio, engineer Sally Browder working with producers John Wooler on Young Dubliners, and Pete Anderson on Dwight Yoakam, and engineer/producers Joe Barresi, Dave Schiffman and Sean O'Dwyer.
About the process of developing the studio, Lee Bench says, “We've never been in a hurry to get somewhere that we didn't want to be. Luckily, we've had so many really intelligent people come onboard and help us with this project. Having friends you enjoy working with really makes it easier to enjoy the process. And it's really important to enjoy the process, because owning a studio doesn't make sense if all you are focused on is the end goal of economic reward from the studio.
“At the end of the day, having a studio is like having a yacht,” he concludes with a laugh. “You meet a lot of people at both studios and on yachts that can lead to other things that make money. But on a ‘one-for-one’ investment level, a hot dog stand in front of a Home Depot probably capitalizes at a much higher rate. But this keeps us around music, and that's what we like.”
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