Driving up to Indigo Ranch one rainy weekday, I felt I'd left L.A. and headed, instead, into the California that first enchanted me, years ago, with its rocky cliffs and ocean vistas. Set on 60 acres in Malibu that were once the site of Chumash Indian musical ceremonies, and later part of actor John Barrymore Sr.'s hunting estate, the studio has a special vibe that can't be denied.
It was 26 years ago that Indigo's owner, engineer/producer Richard Kaplan, started the studio, along with partners the Moody Blues. In the years since, Indigo has played host to multiple music eras, managing to participate in hit records from almost every genre. Neil Young worked on nine of his Gold albums there, including Rust Never Sleeps, Trans and Ragged Glory. In the '70s and '80s, lots of jazz was being cut, with Kenny G, Jeff Lorber and Level 42 in residence. Pop is no stranger to the facility, either; olivia Newton-John worked on her biggest album, Totally Hot, at Indigo Ranch, and Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand cut "You Don't Send Me Flowers" there. Lately, the studio has become a favorite for alt rock, with producer Ross Robinson often on site; the first two Korn records were both recorded and mixed at Indigo Ranch, and the facility has also played host to Limp Bizkit, and Sepultura, among others.
"We go through eras," muses Kaplan. "Whoever's up here attracts a bunch of like-minded people. We got into alternative when Ross started doing Korn; since then, we've had one hit after another in the alt field. A lot of them are young bands who like to stay here-there's a separate cabin with sleeping accommodations-and it becomes like their home."
Indigo Ranch's location is actually in Solstice Canyon, where, according to Kaplan, the Chumash came to hold their summer and winter solstice drumming festivals. After driving up the winding roads and hearing the stories, I wasn't surprised by the atmosphere, but I wasn't prepared to find the treasure trove of vintage equipment that's stockpiled at the facility. Indigo Ranch is kind of a modern-day Ali Baba's cave-all those obsessed folks hanging out on the audio pages at Ebay could not, in their wildest dreams, imagine what Kaplan has amassed. No wonder he just chuckled when I asked him for an equipment list...
To start, there are several hundred pieces of vintage outboard, all carefully housed in wooden boxes and stacked to the ceilings, including classic standbys and plenty of pieces I'd never seen before, from Pultecs, Fairchilds and LA-2As to 40 tube limiters, with manufacturers' names like Altec, Collins, SAE, Ampex, Cinema engineering and Aengus ("The best there ever was," Kaplan asserts).
Then there are Electrospace Straight Gates, the English version of Drawmer gates with a faster attack time, EXR exciters, Marshall Time Modulators, Ursa Major Space Stations, Dolby 301s with the cards removed for vocal processing, Bel delay lines, Eventide 910 Harmonizers (another piece Kaplan swears by, "If you compare the 910 to the 4500, the 910 sounds better-the 4500 has all the effects, but it doesn't have the balls; when you want to make a left/right guitar it will win every time"). There are also Universal Audio Little Dippers and...lots of MXR gear, military limiters, BA6As, LA1s and 2s (not As!) and bunches of 1176 predecessors, 173s, 4s, 5s and, Kaplan's favorite, 176s ("the best-sounding limiter ever made by anybody," he states).
on to what really hooks those rock guys: more than 400 vacuum-tube guitar amplifiers and over 800 pedals. Last but not least are the tube mics-more than a hundred. The more ordinary of those mics include a dozen U47s, five M49s, U67s, 269s and C12s, including what Kaplan tells us is a Beatles' vocal C12 bought from the Abbey Road auction.
"I've been collecting one piece at a time for 30 years," Kaplan explains, "and I only kept gear I liked the sound of. When people were throwing away tube gear because it wasn't up to spec, I gathered all I could; there was a time when you could buy a U47 for a paperweight! I started with mics, then moved to outboard gear, then on to pedals, and finally to guitar amps. We have dozens of vintage ribbon mics, some of which I don't think appear anywhere else, like an RCA C1 Black, the only one that RCA knows of. We have lots of Altec 'birdcage' 339 mics, with the ribbon and dynamic in the same body with a crossover; you can use them both at the same time and get very interesting polar patterns."
There's a perfect RCA 44, a Bang & olufsen ribbon, which Kaplan calls "an unbelievable guitar mic," ribbon Telefunkens, exquisite art-deco Americans, and mics from the gun deck of a battleship that are currently called into duty as the house room mics.
There's also a stunning number of preamps. "I have several of virtually every mic pre that was ever devised," asserts Kaplan. "Just so they can be compared to the console inboard pre's, which always win! We have Neve modules, API, Crown, Quad Eight from the Deane Jensen era, an old UREI with 508 EQs, UREI UA console strips from the Van Halen board-I've got half of the old United Western UREI board. We've tested everything, but the inboard Deane Jensen stuff always wins."
That's saying a lot, although the 32x24 API-manufactured custom Aengus console was installed by the legendary Jensen himself. The electronics are also all Jensen custom, as is most everything in the control room. "Deane Jensen didn't look at a control room as separate pieces of equipment," Kaplan says. "He looked at it as one unit, and that's part of why everything works so well together. For example, the main monitors have hand-wound crossovers so they're time-aligned. Everything was impedance-matched; we've got more transformers than you could believe."
It's not just the gear and the vibe at Indigo Ranch that make it unique: The cliffs a few hundred feet from the studio have also been used sonically a few times. "We've had many a band stretch cables out here and record the echoes across the canyon," says longtime Indigo Ranch engineer Chuck Johnson.
For the record, new gear isn't banned at Indigo Ranch. As a matter of fact, on the day I stopped in, producer Robinson was in recording with At The Drive In, who were using a Sony 3348. There's also an Eventide 4500 in the control room stack. "We have the fanciest new samplers, and we use Pro Tools when necessary," Kaplan concludes. "But the sound of the new stuff really never comes close."