With so many new mics on the market, it was time to drop in for a visit with that mythical, mystical and charismatic microphone ma-ven Stephen Paul. I met with Paul and his longtime associate Tony Merrill in their Sherman Oaks atelier, where, on speaking with them, one is likely to imagine oneself in a turn-of-the-century Left Bank artist's loft. Paul, of course, is responsible for the modifications to Neumann and AKG microphones that discerning engineers and studio owners are willing to shell out big bucks for-the U87 modification in particular has become legendary, although mods are also available for the M49, M50, U47, U67 and KM series, and for the AKG C-12, M-251, C-12a, C-414 and C-452. Stephen Paul Audio, as its brochure tells us, was the creator of the world's first and only 0.4-micron capsule (that's the thickness of the wavelength of a single cycle of near ultraviolet light, the smallest wavelength in the visible spectrum) and was the first design firm in the world to engineer ultra-thin film, large diaphragm microphone capsules and the electronics to go with them. Paul's client list-it's a roster of the golden-eared-includes George Massenburg, Garth Brooks, Shawn Murphy, Babyface, Jon Gass, John Mellencamp, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Amy Grant and Linda Ronstadt, among many, many others.
Upon my arrival Paul immediately checked out the mic on my Radio Shack recorder (the man can't help himself) before I got down to business and got myself into trouble by asking the question I've wondered about for some 15 years: "So, Stephen, what is it that you actually do here?"
The easy answer is that the company provides authorized service, sales and support for Neumann, AKG, Sanken and Milab mics, along with custom, high-performance engineering for AKG and Neumann microphone capsules. Beyond that, Paul, a musician for over 25 years (with a new CD titled The Awakening available this spring), probably knows as much about the history and manufacture of microphones as anyone in the world, and he obviously delights in sharing his knowledge.
"Microphones fall into two categories," he explains, "mics that are modifiable, and truly, truly sound better for the modification work, and mics that so far have defied modification because they require so much work to get them to do anything great, and this includes a lot of modern mics.
"We've talked about building a microphone, and it's just a question of time at this point," he continues. "I watch the new plethora of microphones appearing out there, and I'm happy to say that I find when I talk to the owners of some of those companies that they do have copies of the three-part series I wrote for Mix handy in their drawers ["Vintage Microphones," October through December, 1989]. A lot of people have asked, since those articles appeared, 'Why did you give so much away?' but I think that I accomplished what I set out to do. I gave away a lot of the store, but it was a backlash against the secrecy of the past. I truly also wanted to share the knowledge to improve the general awareness of designers all over the world.
"I admit I've sometimes had mixed feelings, seeing all these 3-micron microphones come out, following on my work, but at the same time I realized that if you blaze a trail and nobody follows it you're not a pioneer, you're an eccentric! And most of the people who have been around long enough understand what really came out of here, out of those articles and out of the early work I did. Because, before that, they [meaning Neumann and AKG] had the music world in this grip of utter control that made people honestly think it was better to shove their mics in a closet somewhere and forget about them than to keep them functioning.
"Now those guys had something special, of course. Neumann, especially, was a real pioneering spirit. That's why today we see this enormous number of microphones coming out that are basically clones of a Neumann or an AKG-in Sony's case, they're cloning an 87 capsule, and they're also cloning one of their own capsules, the C37. They still don't understand, by the way, that, in my opinion anyway, a pentode is a questionable tube to use in a microphone. The only successful mic that had a pentode-wired as a triode, mind you-was a U47, but that's a very strange mic, made in a very strange time: 1949 in Berlin.
"These U47s have a resistor in them that is made of toaster wire wound on packing cardboard with German printing on it. There's newspaper over the packing cardboard, and that's the resistor that drops the voltage for the filament in the microphone. That's why it stays warm-they made the body of aluminum in order to act as a heat sink; actually, the whole bell of the mic is set up as a heat sink. They put a couple of pieces of mica in there to prevent shorting out and basically wired up a mic that would have given Underwriters Laboratory nightmares. U47s were known for the fact that if you're not careful when you take them off the stand, there's quite a whack left in those capacitors.
"Anyway, people had incredible microphones sitting in drawers because they refused to send them to the only place in the country that they were allowed to. Old-timers know the story-for years, if you wanted a Neumann fixed it went to only one place, and its serial number was checked to see if it had been brought in through the importer. If it hadn't come in through the importer, it cost you quite a bit of money to get the microphone "licensed" before they would even work on it.
"So I gave away the store, and what we did has now gone into the mainstream, in some ways, but still I believe our 3-micron modification will sound better than most of the 3-micron capsules out there. We have a little more edge because of our true understanding of how to design the capsule, and there are still a few things that we do that make it sound just a little bit better.
"And what we do is proven. You can't go to the AES show with a suit and tie, put a rep on the floor with a product, immediately sell your product and have it accepted. It must go through a trial by fire. There's going to be a time period where you have to prove that you are absolutely Everest for something to be a classic. And you either do it through the quality of the work or through the quality of the idea behind the work-or, ideally, you do it through both. In the old days alchemy was considered the perfect marriage of art and science, and in that sense I'd like to be able to say that that's what we do here-alchemy. It's truly not all about business here; in fact, it's not really about business at all! There are artists who have told me that singing into a mic of mine made them sound the way they always dreamed that they would-that's something that's priceless. We're lucky to have done something properly, and to have a lot of people who appreciate that fact."
Over at his Los Feliz home studio, artist/producer/drummer/programmer Chris Vrenna and his compadre, guitarist/producer Mark Blasquez, were working on Vrenna's solo project, titled Tweaker, for Almo Sounds. The multiple-threat Vrenna, a longtime drummer and programmer for Nine Inch Nails who has also collaborated with Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson and Green Day, is a relative newcomer to Los Angeles. But being new in town hasn't kept him from working-this past year he produced Rasputina for Columbia, Underwater for Risk, programmed six songs for Hole's Celebrity Skin, and did additional production, performance and remixing for the upcoming release of the band Flood's album on Glen Ballard's Java/Capitol imprint. He also played drums for Seal, and, along with various other ongoing projects, is currently contributing programming, production and composition to Peter Himmelman's Eyeball.
Whew! Makes you wonder how he keeps all these roles and projects straight. A visit to Vrenna's domain indicates that he's a master of organizing chaos-his home and studio are both exceptionally neat and uncluttered (CDs alphabetized and chronological by band), and the studio is an example of logical, ergonomic design.
"I work on my project for a while, then take on other things," Vrenna explains. "Production and remixing are as important to me as my artist side. So, this was a Tweaker week, the last three weeks were Ebony Tay-that's a singer/songwriter on Chris Blackwell's new label, Palm Pictures, who I'm working with. We did most of that here, then went to a real studio to cut drums and mike guitars onto 24-track, which we then dumped to [Tascam] DA-88 that has timecode reference, brought back here and laid to Pro Tools through the [Yamaha] 02R, eight tracks at a time."
Asked to describe Tweaker, Vrenna laughs and says, "It's constantly changing and evolving, but it's primarily electronic noise. Instrumental audio is what I like-ambient electronic stuff, like the group Autchere. The sludgier and weirder the better, like one loop of something that goes on for nine minutes."
"The kind of stuff that truly enslaves your brain," Blasquez elaborates, "with subtle differences that only people who program and create loops and design sounds for a living would find fascinating. Meanwhile, anyone else who's unfortunate enough to be in the car listening with us will be saying, 'What is that? Just the same thing over and over,' and we're going, 'Listen to that little thing that comes in, check out that filter.'"
"For Tweaker I am doing a more structured, song-oriented format," continues Vrenna, "and getting the whole ball of wax over in four minutes. There are words, with guest vocalists, on about half the record-people I really respect who come from different genres, like King Buzzo of the Melvins, Craig Wedren from Shudder to Think and a rap track I can't talk about yet that's really cool. There's a producer named Tom Grimley who did That Dog, Beck and The Rentals that I brought in, and some of my other producer friends have also helped out."
Vrenna designed his studio himself, with help from Blasquez, whose background includes a long stint at the sorely missed Nadine's Music, as well as work for DigiTech. "Since it's usually just me and I don't ever want to move much," Vrenna notes, "I've arranged it so that I never leave the monitoring field. I can patch and go to outboard world, or synth world, and I just have to rock in the chair.
"I also tried to make just about any point in the room patchable-in and out of all the gear, all the inserts on the board, even the Pro Tools goes digital in and out of the 02R, and all the analog gear comes up on patches as well. So if you want something to just go to a stomp box, you don't have to go through setting up an aux send; you can patch it directly from the analog source. Having analog outs and mults were two of the smartest things we did. I use the mults for guitar a lot. I'm a big fan of direct guitar, and I like highly processed sounds, so we track through a mult-one side wet with whatever weird tone we're using, then one side goes bone dry into Pro Tools so I can repedal it or Amp Farm it. Sometimes I'll use an amp head with the line out, but I always have one side of dry signal that I can change or blend in later."
Vrenna's speakers of choice are Genelec 1029s, used with a subwoofer. "I work a lot with an engineer named Critter," he says, "who uses Genelec 1031s. They're my benchmark now, but far out of my budget and also too big for this room. To decide on speakers I rented a different set of active monitors every day for a week. I knew I wanted active-it's much cleaner and better without some big, gnarly amp being one more variable. Out of all the speakers I tested, the 1029s with the subwoofer were the closest to the 1031s."
Both Vrenna and Blasquez are big fans of the 02R console. "Functionally it's fantastic," Vrenna says, "and it doesn't add any sound of its own to whatever's going through it, which I like. A lot of times people choose a board because they want a certain color, but then a digital, clean board isn't what you'd want. The EQs, though, are a little soft-you've really got to crank them; you've got to go plus six before you hear anything."
"Plus when you do as many different things as Chris does," Blasquez adds, "with so many projects coming in and out, it really helps to have recall. Then, when the label calls you up two or three weeks after you've done the 'final' mix and says, 'That's almost it, but there's a new guy here now, and he wishes he could hear...'"
"Yeah, recalls," agrees Vrenna. "I have my little sheets of everything I'm working on, and I have my little scenes for every mix so I don't accidentally overwrite one, and I keep them forever. There's a hundred memories in the 02R, so I can have a hundred separate mixes. Another great thing, it chases timecode or beat clock. When it's in slave mode, going into the MIDI rig, you just hit the space bar to start the sequencer, which then spews MIDI timecode; so it's like the transport control for the whole room is the space bar."
Although he has Pro Tools 24, Vrenna operates mostly in the world of 16-bit, going digital out of the 02R straight to the DAT recorder. "For now I don't want to worry about dithering. We can fight about bits all day, but once I cram a signal through one of my filter boxes, the extra bits really don't matter to me."
A quick rundown of some of Vrenna's favorite gear: "a filter box made in Belgium called the Sherman-I read about it in a magazine. It's this crazy filter bank that you can run in parallel or in series. The input knob is hypersensitive, and all it wants to do is distort and make noise." The Mooger Fooger-Bob Moog is back in business with a stomp box containing a four-pole Mini-moog filter: "Basically it's a lowpass filter. He's also got a box coming out this month that's a ring modulator, and I hear he's going to re-release the Minimoog, with the exact analog circuitry, only it will have MIDI." E-mu samplers: "I love E-mu. I have an E64, and one of my favorite things is the E-mu Audity-all strange sounds and cool drum banks and 300 arpeggio styles. It locks to MIDI, locks to anything, and it has all these knobs on front, so you can mutate sounds really fast. I'm a big fan of knobs, as opposed to 'shift, page, page, page, now, where is the function 2 soft key?' I hate that. I don't want to open a manual too much. I don't have time.
"The Quasi MIDI is really good; it's a weird German thing, and it has my favorite button, Random Sound-you hit it, and it scrambles everything in the unit and puts up whatever it scrambles. So when it's, 'Oh, I'm bored, I don't know, I want a new sound,' you just hit the Random button ten times, and six of the times you'll get the coolest sound you ever heard. I also like the TC FireworX-it's distortion, reverbs, delays, dynamics. You can dial in the tempo you want, and it runs like a Mac-super-easy to use. And let's see, the DigiTech valve guitar system is good; it's got solid-state distortion and a tube section also.
"I don't have mic preamps and compression, you'll notice," Vrenna continues. "I don't do a lot of open mic tracking, and when I do vocals, I just rent the really good stuff-like 20 grand worth of equipment for the day! You've got to do a lot of sessions before you can justify spending that kind of money. Everyone who has project studios can totally relate: 'Okay, I have $3,000 to spend; I could buy one Neve 1073 module, or I can buy three of the new synthesizers, an Eventide and a FireworX.' You've got to prioritize. Already, I think everything I've earned in the last 18 months is represented by a blinking light in this room!"
Although Vrenna generally uses a combination of his studio and commercial ones for a project, he's also been known to go for the "total immersion" approach. "I did Underwater's whole record in this house-they're a goth, trip-hop group from Atlanta. I produced and Critter mixed. I tore my bedroom apart to make a vocal booth and slept on the couch for a week. Mattresses and box springs make great baffling, by the way, I highly recommend it. Packing blankets over the windows, baffled with mattresses-it worked great. I didn't tell the two mastering engineers that I work with, Tom Baker and Steve Marcussen, that I did it here, and when I asked them how it sounded, they both said, 'Great, fine.' So, it's working out pretty good, I guess."