Taking a break from triple-digit Valley heat, I headed over the hill to Satellite Park, the Malibu studio of producer/engineer Geza X and his partner, musician/songwriter Josey Cotton. Located just north of Topanga Canyon, and a couple of miles into the hills east of PCH, the studio sits square in the middle of a nature preserve. While the secluded site, with its mountain and ocean views, is spectacular, the studio itself is quite unpretentious. It's stylishly simple, designed with a particular focus on ergonomics that fosters creativity with a minimum of hassle. X is known for his early work with bands such as Dead Kennedys, Germs and Black Flag, as well as his production of Meredith Brooks' 1997 smash single "Bitch," and recent projects for 1000 Mona Lisas, Saboteur and Soak. Also, he previously owned City Lab studio in Hollywood.
"City Lab, which Josey and I were also partners in, was more like a converted garage," he recalls, "although I did a lot of major-label records there, including 'Bitch.'"
This time around, X and Cotton spent a year building the studio and enlisted the help of designers Ken Goris and Stephen Klein. "Ken did a lot of the architectural touches," X continues, "and Stephen was very good with the overall dimensions and the soundproofing. For the cosmetic stuff, Ken describes it as a jam session where we all contributed ideas and it came out improvisationally."
The clutter-free, extra-large control room houses a Euphonix CS2000 console and a variety of new and old gear, including a well-maintained Stephens analog 24-track, and Pro Tools. X designed the console and Pro Tools layout to provide good visual contact into the recording room-something that can be a challenge to achieve these days.
"I work with Pro Tools almost exclusively lately," he explains. "I have many channels of it going into the Euphonix. I also need to be able to handle live tracking and the techno type of electronica, because I combine all of those into my rock productions. I wanted to harness all those things, keep the Pro Tools located at the center of the console and still be able to look through the control room glass. That took arranging right down to inches.
"Most people are moving to a larger-frame Euphonix, but the small frame of the CS2000 made this setup work," X continues. "The channels are the same, but the center section is different and the meter bridge is lower. It allowed me to put Pro Tools controls in the center section, and the external monitor front and center. I've also pushed everything up close to the control room glass, more like you might usually find in a mix room, because I like feeling that I'm right there with the musicians."
In fact, that visual contact into the tracking space is most often made with the drummer, as the 17x22-foot control room is spacious enough to fit most bandmembers.
"I do most of my guitars, etc., directly into Pro Tools using amp simulators and Amp Farm," X notes. "Everybody plays in the control room, and I have the tracking space pretty much tuned for the perfect modern drum sound. It's a very fast room to work in; everything is arranged to have a clockwise information flow from the recording to the mixing stages."
A musician himself, X plays guitar and bass, so he had a vision of the kind of creative space that he wanted Satellite Park to be. "I've had many bands of my own," he says, "but more recently I've settled into producing. I decided to create my dream environment, which is a studio with open windows, in a nice place where I could work at the level of quality, energy and vibe that I always wanted. There really is an unmistakable energy that happens here. Everyone feels it. We don't know exactly what it is, but we attribute it to the Indian history of the area and the environment itself."
Even though the studio's location seems remote, it is actually not far (for L.A.!) from the airport, restaurants and other amenities, so there's plenty of action and no danger of too much isolation. Satellite Park also has available on-site living accommodations.
"I've always been into creating environments and scenes," X continues. "In the punk days I worked as a sound man, but I was also instrumental in setting up clubs and events. My vision is of a kind of creative oasis, maybe like a latter-day, West Coast version of Andy Warhol's Factory, but with an element of nature rather than the urban element. To that end, I've been known to cut local bands outrageous deals because I want to keep the scene alive!
"And it's working. People come here and they do their best work. We've been open since January first, and I can't believe how fast it's growing. I was expecting the typical two-year business startup, but we've been booked solid."
Although he records digitally, X is a fan of vintage gear. "Let it be said here that I like the sound of digital," he laughs. "It's a totally legitimate sound on the musical palette. But I use whatever sounds good, and I have some unbeatable analog stuff. our old Altec 438A compressor is a monster on the snare, and the RCA BA6A is great for vocals. I've got an Altec V8 multichannel amp that I use to overdrive things, and a really nice Pultec mic pre that was modified by the San Francisco naval shipyard; it rocks on bass guitar."
Another favorite piece of gear is the Alesis MasterLink 9600, which X has been using for mixdown, calling it a "surprisingly good mixdown box, on a par with half-inch tape and better-sounding than DAT."
Satellite Park's freestanding mains are somewhat surprising: UREI 811s enhanced with a subwoofer. "I'm very fond of them because they sound identical to NS10s, just bigger," X asserts. "This is kind of a new approach to 811s: to use them freestanding with the subwoofer. It gives them the thump that they have in a soffit, but you hear them dead on and they don't suffer from being up in a corner where they may acquire too much of the sound of the room."
X just finished and is particularly excited about a CD for Michael Aston of Gene Loves Jezebel fame. "It's almost like beatnik poetry set to jams, but with pop hooks," he says. "The songs are fantastic-very stylistically original. And we used a lot of reverb, which is practically illegal these days! I don't know what to call it; it's just totally different and great."
The ever-busy Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park has figured out a way to get even mo' busy, with a digital upgrade to Studio C. I dropped in to check it out, and Rumbo manager, Vicky Smith, along with chief engineer Shawn Berman, gave me a tour.
Studio C, long known to be an economical overdub room fitted with a Trident Series 80 desk, is now surround-ready, housing two Mackie D8B consoles.
"With the demands of digital, 5.1 surround and everything else that's going on," explains Berman, "we felt it was time to start moving in the digital direction with the installation of the two cascaded D8Bs. We've had our own Pro Tools rig for about a year; now we are also offering it at a discount with Studio C bookings. It's a 24-mix, 24-I/o system, with three 888s running off a 9600, two 9-Gig removable Glyphs and a 25-Gig AIT drive. We've also added some high-quality preamps to the room; Studio C now has two GMLs and four Focusrites.
"All of the assistants at Rumbo know how to use Pro Tools," Berman continues. "But most projects seem to have their own Pro Tools engineer. They'll rent our rig, and either the main engineer knows how to use it, or they'll bring in their own operator. In fact, there probably hasn't been a session here in two years that hasn't had a Pro Tools rig attached. Right now, all three rooms are running, and all three have at least one Pro Tools system."
"We find that most sessions don't go straight to Pro Tools," adds manager Smith. "What seems to be the most popular format is for people to track analog, then go to Pro Tools for fixes, etc. Then they bounce back and forth as needed. It does seem, though, that we're heading to where every room will have to have a Pro Tools system, in addition to analog multitracks."
Studio C comes with the two Mackies (dubbed Hal and Spock), a Studer 827, a nice complement of outboard and that discount rate on Rumbo's in-house Pro Tools. According to Berman, in order to install the Mackies and reconfigure the room, a wiring upgrade was necessary. "Basically, the room had to be rewired," he comments. "We put in a new Bit Tree patchbay and all Mogami cables. We also set up our Elco system to have 96 tracks. A lot of our clients are running 24 tracks of Pro Tools, plus 24 tracks of analog, and they need to be able to make transfers at the same time. Now, we've got our Elco system set so everything can transfer into everything else. We also now feed this room with both video and word sync throughout.
"Since each one of the Mackies has 72 channels," he laughs, "we've never even really had to fire the second board up yet. But we're ready!"
Berman also notes the changes that have occurred in SMPTE standards, from the old 30 non-drop-frame SMPTE to the current 29.97 with video reference. "All of our rooms now have Horita black boxes running to the Lynxes," he states, "since every session goes back to Pro Tools, which wants to see a video reference."
Rumbo has already developed business with several Web companies. "Hits magazine does all the sound here for their Daily Double.com segment," comments Berman, who engineers those sessions. "Because broadband and DSL have allowed higher sample rates, Web companies are realizing that they have to go with higher-end audio. Hits is a good example; they made that move immediately. We do the audio here and upload to their site. It's definitely the way things are going. Right now the process is a little slow, but, for example, once everything hits broadband, a producer will be able to go online right from the studio and let somebody from the record company hear the mix as he's doing it."
Also new at Rumbo is Soul Kitchen Rentals, a joint venture with producer/guitarist Neil Geraldo that features outboard gear from Neve, Pultec, Focusrite and others. "We've got Neil's great vintage Neve modules, worked on by Brent Averill, three sets of 8058 preamps and three sets of 31102s, as well as the compressors from that board," Berman notes. "We've also got available Fairchilds, Tube-Techs-just about anything you can imagine."
The rest of the three-room-plus Rumbo complex continues its tradition of being a "down home" and fun work environment, with half-court basketball (used by some clients lately for roller-hockey), private lounges for each studio, and a large common lounge with a full kitchen and patio.
"Clients have privacy when they want it, but they do tend to mingle with each other on barbecue days," says Smith with a laugh.
The 2,300-square-foot Studio A remains a favorite for large tracking sessions with its Neve V/Flying Faders console and five to six iso booths. For most of the past two-and-a-half years, A has been base camp for a well-known "mystery" band. I'm sworn to silence about the group's identity, but let's just say their final mixes are very eagerly anticipated.
Studio B, with its 40-input Trident 80C, has recently been lightened with new cosmetic treatments and sonically brightened with new wood paneling to make for a bit more of a live sound. B also has that tiled, airlocked bathroom that's been used as an echo chamber on more than a few recordings.
In business for more than 20 years, Rumbo is owned by Darryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille fame. Berman and Smith have both been there for the past 12 years and have been instrumental in developing the family-style atmosphere that's created a loyal clientele, including producer/engineers Matt Wallace, Mike Clink, Ron Nevison, Lee DeCarlo and Ross Hogarth. Recent projects have included Flybanger, Ruth Ruth, Pete, and Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society-all clients who appreciate recording in a comfortable facility with affordable rates, plenty of secure parking, and (very important!) the largest studio menu notebook in town.