Interstate 10 is the longest highway in the U.S., traversing Arizona, New Mexico and the Gulf states as it stretches from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla. The highway is also the link for a thematic exploration of American music titled The I-10 Chronicles, set for spring release on the Virgin-associated Narada/Backporch Records. The compilation was jointly produced by senior VP of Virgin and president of Point Blank John Wooler and guitarist Randy Jacobs, with executive production by Virgin executive VP Ken Pedersen and recording and mixing by Sally Browder. Featured artists include Willie Nelson, Adam Duritz, Joe Ely, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, Charlie Musselwhite, Tex-Mex great Flaco Jimenez and Buena Vista Social Club's Eliades Ochoa.
I stopped in at Record One's Studio A, where the team was mixing on the SSL 8000 G-Plus. After hearing Nelson's lead vocal on a poignant rendition of "Everybody's Talkin'," I can vouch that the project has achieved the much-sought-after, and often elusive, no (control-room) glass effect.
The path to making The I-10 Chronicles was almost as long as its namesake. Recording and mixing were accomplished in only 18 days, but the participants' complicated schedules required more than three months to organize. While those involved ruefully admit that coordination of the project was infinitely more complicated than anticipated, all agree that once the concept was under way it developed a life of its own.
The I-10 journey began when Wooler, producer of Ochoa's Grammy-nominated solo record, discovered that the performer would be in L.A. at the same time as Musselwhite.
"Ken and I talked about getting them together for a recording," Wooler explains. "And then we began to consider who else within the Virgin umbrella we could invite. Flaco Jimenez came up, and Joe Ely, and things started to come together. Then Ken came up with a concept that gave it the glue."
"The music was getting really good," continues Pedersen, "but we needed a thread to tie it together. The idea became to take a musical journey through Americana, from west to east, using the longest thread in America."
"The original subtitle was Take the I-10 to Cuba," Wooler laughs. "But then the record took on much more of an American feel, although there's certainly still a Cuban influence. I've learned, through experience, that when you try to put an American player on traditional Cuban music, it often doesn't work, because the format and style of the traditional music is extremely rigid. But if you do the reverse, as we did, taking Eliades and putting him on an Americana track, it can work brilliantly."
Ideas for song choices came from both the producers and the musicians. "It was 50/50," says Wooler. "We tried to place the more established covers with singers who would give them a distinct form of style, like Willie Nelson on 'Everybody's Talkin',' and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on Warren Zevon's 'Carmelita.' Santa Fe singer/guitarist Bill Hearn-who isn't well-known to the general public but who is an icon to artists like Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett-did a great rock version of Guy Clark's 'L.A. Freeways'."
I-10 was recorded at Ocean Way's Studio B in two marathon stretches that totaled only nine days. A core rhythm section of Sergio Gonzalez on drums, Nate Brown on bass and co-producer Jacobs on guitar laid down the tracks, and the plethora of cameo artists took turns sitting in. The guest roster changed daily, as did the artists' schedules, and both vocal styles and instrumentation ranged wide, from accordion to blues harp, trumpet and dueling guitars. Fortunately, Browder (Dwight Yoakam, Geraldine Fibbers, Wayne Kramer, The Muffs) is no stranger to engineering bands and is ace at working quickly.
"We usually had half a dozen people cutting a track," she recalls. "Our setup had to be really flexible because the instrumentation was different every day. And, of course, we wanted to keep it as live as possible, with very few overdubs, but we were also trying for a minimum of leakage, and everybody wanted to be able to see each other. Also, we were working very fast. It seemed like no one had more than six hours available! With Willie Nelson, we only had about an hour. In that time, he did his lead vocal then played guitar and sang backgrounds on another song. You get the picture-there was definitely a lot going on!"
Tracks were recorded to analog 24 on Ocean Way's Ampex ATR-124s through Studio B's customized API board and mixed to 11/42-inch analog on both Record One's SSL and Extasy South's 80 Series Neve. "I enjoy recording in new places and trying out new gear," comments Browder, "so I'll work pretty much anywhere and on anything. I'm equally comfortable using old analog equipment or Pro Tools and digital; I don't really care what my crayons are. I do generally mix to 11/42-inch, though. I like to touch analog tape somewhere in the project."
With lots of different axes being wielded, guitar sounds were an important element on the record. About recording them, Browder says, "Ocean Way is a big candy store for mics, so I could use pretty much anything I wanted-the caveat being, I had no time to experiment. Whatever I picked, I had to stick with. I have to admit, though, there's sort of a built-in safety net when you're working with such great musicians. It wasn't like I had to create a lot of sounds-I just had to capture them. I had a few mics set up for the guitars: a Sony 55P, an SM57, an AKG 451 and, I think, an SM81. I adjusted between them depending on how much the players were moving around, what guitar they were using and whether they were singing at the same time."
Plans are in the works for at least one concert featuring all the I-10 performers, with hopes for a TV special as well. "A lot of the musicians have been asking to get together again and take it on the road," says Wooler. "They want to do more. It wasn't at all like a competitive pop situation; the players had great mutual admiration and respect. That's something that made our job a lot easier, because it created a warmth that you can really feel. There were no phoned-in parts on this record; you can tell that everybody was in the same room."
"The reasons for making this record were all musical," Pedersen concludes. "We just said to people, 'This could be a cool session-hope you'd like to be involved.' And they all showed up! It's one of the few times where the record company had the ideas and the concept and put it all together. Maybe if it's successful, we'll start a wee bit of a trend."
Gold Circle Studios has opened on 20th Street in Santa Monica, part of the rapidly developing media neighborhood adjacent to Sony Music's Colorado Boulevard headquarters. The new facility, developed by media entrepreneurs Norm Waitt and Dave Kronemyer, was constructed from the walls up and features a Euphonix CS2000 mix suite with a Genelec monitoring system and an extraordinary collection of signal processing. Two wall-sized outboard towers dominate the room, filled with Neve, Neumann, Telefunken and other vintage gear as well as up-to-date pieces by Manley, Avalon, GML, Focusrite, Summit, etc. And the list goes on: Roland, E-mu and other keyboards are available, and the control room's back wall is lined with a pristine collection of guitar amplifiers, part of the collection owned by guitar aficionado Kronemyer.
Studio manager Robin Bulla, known to many for her five-year stint as administrator at The Village, gave me a tour of the complex. In addition to the mix room, Gold Circle houses an Avid editing suite and offices for several Sony-distributed labels, including the world music Triloka, the jazz-oriented Samson and an as-yet-unnamed "left-of-KROQ" imprint. The building has a modern but funky look, with galvanized fixtures and furniture, brick-and-glass walls and high ceilings with exposed ducts and beams.
In-house productions have been keeping the studio busy, but outside projects are welcome. A combination of both have been working since the November opening: David Crosby narrating a '60s/'70s musical documentary titled Stand and Be Counted, Rita Coolidge and Walela, a Steely Dan tribute record featuring Dave Koz on sax, soundtrack music for the upcoming film The Whole Shebang and Charlie Bravo.
Although there is a space for overdubs and tracking, the focus of Gold Circle is definitely on mixing, with 5.1 and mix-to-picture capability. The mix focus comes along with a philosophy elaborated on by Kronemyer. "I've noticed that acts often don't differentiate properly between the recording and mixing processes," he explains. "You can count on one hand the really great acoustic spaces in town; everybody knows where they are. Bands sometimes think that where they got their tracking sounds is the place to mix, but often those places aren't properly set up for mixing. What we're concentrating on here are the mixing and remixing aspects of the equation. We do have a little overdub room, because you always want to fix that vocal track or that guitar that didn't turn out quite the way you planned, but we designed the studio to be a superior mixing environment."
To that end, a lot of attention was paid to basics like the electrical path. Two hundred amps of filtered and balanced power were pulled into the studio on a separate line, an important detail in such a densely occupied multi-use neighborhood. According to Kronemyer, Gold Circle's Euphonix installation is one of the quietest around. Add to that pristine signal path the approximately 250 channels of outboard EQ and dynamics that come with the room, much of it Class A and vacuum tube, and it's obvious that Gold Circle provides a very versatile mixing environment.
"The Euphonix itself is like a great big blank canvas," he says. "It's extremely well-automated, fast and versatile, but sonically, it's kind of neutral. With other desks, you may find it hard to decide. You may want API for this, Neve for that-with the Euphonix, that's not a problem. It has a transparent sound and a ton of insert points. Depending on what you feel like doing, you can mix and match and build a sort of virtual console.
"I don't think anybody has implemented that mix-and-match philosophy in the same way that we have," he continues. "We tried to combine the old with the new to come up with something unique. The control room, which is tuned by Bob Hodas, sounds great. It's a trapezoidal shape, with a 10D incline from front to back, and the Genelec [1032A] mains with the Genelec [1094A] subwoofer really work well. The sweet spot is large: It runs the length of the desk and 3 feet back. It's extremely accurate, very critical and revealing."
On the day I dropped in, mixer Ross Pallone and producer/composer Randy Peterson of Orange Tree Productions were behind the Euphonix mixing a continuing collection of musical pieces on America's most beautiful places called the National Park Series. Orange Tree was founded in 1992 to create the series, and yes, those involved do get to go to all those wonderful places to record sounds and develop the music. Ain't the world of audio wonderful sometimes?
Gold Circle's enterprises also include an off-site 1,500-square-foot soundstage equipped with a P.A. and a moving light system, where rockers Poison were recently ensconced rehearsing for a new album release. In addition to rehearsal and recording, the soundstage is available for film, television and video productions.