Over at Sony Music Studios, I found engineer Dave Schiffman recording the Patrick Leonard-produced solo debut for Ronan Keating, vocalist with the British pop band Boy Zone. Originally from New Jersey, and a onetime staffer at both Skyline Studios in New York City and Ocean Way Recording in L.A., Schiffman has more recently kept busy working with producer Rick Rubin on Sheryl Crow's Grammy-winning "Sweet Child of Mine," projects by artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash, and soon-to-be-released efforts by Eagle Eye Cherry and Palo Alto. Schiffman, a fan of classic gear who seemed quite happy working on Sony's 40-in Neve 8078, has also just finished mixing for new Warner's act Mephisto Odyssey.
At Sony, Schiffman-along with keyboard tech Todd Shoemaker, programmer Dave Channing and assistant engineer Sam Barela-had put together a hybrid setup that was a flexible combination of live musicians, MIDI interfaces, digital and analog.
The ace band, all previously members of the sonically legendary Toy Matinee, included drummer Brian McCloud, bassist Guy Pratt and guitarist Tim Pierce, with producer Leonard on keyboards. "They're all amazing musicians," commented Schiffman. "Pat will come in with the chart, they'll work it out, and two takes later, it's a song. It sounds like a record already with just the four of them."
The live tracks were being laid down to Studer 827 analog on BASF 900, but also interfaced into the system was Pro Tools and, with a Mackie sidecar mixer, Leonard's RADAR system. "Our challenge was to be able to marry everything," explained Schiffman. "Pat wanted to be able to reference back to the song demos he'd cut on RADAR, to sequence off of his MIDI system and to play live with the band. We've also pulled a sample or two off the RADAR to make loops."
Hybrid-style recording is just fine with Schiffman, who is comfortable moving back and forth. "I'm not really sold on total Pro Tools digital technology yet," he commented. "It's still missing that depth to me. For some stuff, it's great, and it definitely has its place. But I still think live instruments-especially drums, bass and guitars-come back sounding better off analog. For me, because digital doesn't really do anything to the sound, it doesn't help it either. Pat's into both digital and analog, so we've got the best of both worlds going. After we have a complete track, we drop it into Pro Tools to do any little nips and tucks that need to be done, then we'll punch those back into the existing analog tracks. If there's a drum fix in the first two bars of the chorus, we'll just punch those first two bars and try to retain as much of the true 'analogness' as possible."
Plans for the project were to record most overdubs directly into RADAR or Pro Tools. "That's a great way to do vocals," Schiffman asserted, "in that you have a ton of tracks and you're able to move around and comp so easily. Dave Channing is Pat's Pro Tools guy, and he's phenomenal at it."
A tour of the recording setup showed that Sony's piano had been moved into an iso room to provide a comfortable tracking environment for the band, whose personal spaces surrounded McCloud's baffled-off drums. C12VRs were in use on overheads, with close ambience mics including an M149 tube and an AEA RCA44 reissue. "They wanted a tight sound," said Schiffman. "Even though the room here is not huge, it can be deceptively roomy-sounding. We threw these four baffles in here, did a bit of a tunnel on the bass drum, and it totally tightened up the kit."
Guitarist Pierce's extensive (and neat!) setup included something a bit unique. "Tim has lots of toys," Schiffman said with a laugh. "One thing I especially like is that I can put an SM57 on his amp that he runs back into his rig. It goes through his own mic preamp, then through whatever effects he wants, and he gives me two DI outs. That gives us the direct sound, all his effects, and I'm also mixing in the cabinet as well. It makes for a nice, wide stereo sound."
Sony's 12-in (eight mono, two stereo) Private Cue brand headphone system seemed to be a hit on the session. Coincidentally, the system was first developed at Skyline Studios where Schiffman had been a beta tester for it. "It's brilliant for tracking," he said. "It sounds great, and it gets loud enough. It's nice to be able to set it up for the musicians and then not have to deal with mixing headphones. Most musicians love it."
Schiffman himself, of course, carries a rack, albeit one fitted with fairly esoteric gear. It includes a U.S. Army Corps Federal limiter ("I can't explain what it does, but if you mix it in with something, it gives a little more punch"), Anthony DeMaria limiters, a Nightpro EQ3D ("very 'Pultecian'-it has this thing called the 'air bus' where you can get in really high-sometimes it works great on the stereo bus"), and Neve 2254s ("the best compressors ever invented").
Meanwhile, Sony Studios manager Roger White told us about other improvements made to the facility since the Neve was installed. The CR's front wall was rebuilt, a 32-inch flat screen video monitor was installed, and the TAD/Augspurger mains were flipped over to provide a bigger "sweet spot." An Otari UFC (Universal Format Converter) is now standard equipment in the room. Since the 8078 came online, projects have included country superstar Tim McGraw, with producers Byron Gallimore and James Stroud; producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner recording vocals with Olivia Newton-John; and saxophonist Dave Koz cutting tracks with producer Jason Miles and engineer Joe Chiccarelli.
All the studio managers in town have Synthesizer Systems Technologies (SST) in their Rolodex, and most probably make the company their first call for keyboard rentals. But until I stopped in at SST's shop for a visit with partner, VP and manager Ed Winquest, I didn't realize just how much gear the company has available, including one of the largest vintage keyboard collections in the country. In business since 1987, SST was one of the first rental companies to realize the potential of computer-based systems, and over the years, they've continued to expand in both digital and vintage directions. From Pro Tools and other digital recorders, the latest in samplers, digital keyboards, storage mediums and interfaces, to vocoders, B-3s, Clavinets, Moogs, ARPs, Wurlitzers and assorted accordions, these guys have it covered. And they know how to work them all!
Winquest, who came to L.A. from Omaha, Neb., and started in the rental business at Audio Rents, is, of course, a keyboardist himself and he has toured worldwide in bands. He remains genuinely excited about the gear that he rents. "A lot of people don't know that we rent ADATs, DA-88s and Pro Tools," he said. "But it's logical because our main focus is computer synthesizer systems. We were actually one of the first companies to rent Pro Tools; we were doing it back when it started as Sound Tools. It came easy for us because we were already doing Performer, Vision, Cubase-all that stuff. Now we specialize in it and have several systems."
While SST ships all around the world, they cater to a studio clientele, rather than a touring one, which may explain the excellent condition of their equipment. Everything gets a thorough checkout upon return, and there are cables, manuals and sound libraries for everything. "We're available 24 hours a day," stated Winquest. "With staff in the shop from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. After that, the pages go to me."
Between Los Angeles and the 4-year-old Nashville branch of SST, the company has a dozen employees, most of them musicians. "We have a great staff," Winquest continued. "We don't have much of a turnover. All but one have been here five years and up; the youngest one has been here two years. For us, SST has always been a service company. It's never been 'go out, drop it off and leave it.' We follow up with the clients. Electronics are electronics, and there are bound to be isolated instances where equipment or software goes down, but we'll always get you a new one as fast as we can. I think people respect us for that."
SST stays in touch with manufacturers and on top of trends. "Pretty soon modeling will be standard," Winquest predicted. "Taking a snapshot of a Minimoog and putting it on a chip so you can call up the Minimoog and play it in your computer. They're already doing it with speaker modeling, like on Roland's VS1680, and Antares' new box is a microphone modeler."
Current popular units are E-mu's Planet Phatt and Orbit. "They're great for the dance people," Winquest explained, "because they sync to MIDI timecode and do arpeggiations and things like that. Then, a lot of the synths coming out now give you that analog control again, making editing much less frustrating. Like the Novation Supernova, which is great for both sound and versatility-it's got the richness of a good old Prophet 5 that a lot of guys are looking for. A lot of people like Korg Trinitys and Tritons, because you can get your sound without doing a lot of editing. And the Roland Vdrums are really exciting. They feel like the real thing but trigger samples so you can push a button and get the sound of a 1969 Ludwig kit."
So what's Winquest got in his own home setup? "A D70 that I use for my master keyboard. It has that great string patch called 'Slow and low,' and it's a good controller keyboard as well, with 76 keys. I have my computer set up with Digital Performer and modules-a TR rack, a Planet Phatt. I'll interchange things depending on what kind of song I want to work on. And," he said with a laugh, "I'm testing out the Vdrums at my house right now. I had to arm wrestle my partner for them!"
SST is obviously not just a business for Winquest. "I love it," he concluded. "I get to check out everything that comes through the door. I've never gotten bored with it, and I don't think I will. And I love meeting the people in the business. I like to talk to our clients on the phone myself whenever I can. People know that we're here, that they'll get a good price from us and that we'll take care of them."
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