It was obvious that something different was up on the Universal lot as I idled my car in line one Friday night, waiting to get into a taping of Jimmy and Doug's Farmclub. Typical Los Angeles transport - Mercedes, Range Rovers and Lexus SUVs - was nowhere in sight. Instead, the cars surrounding me were beat-up clunkers slathered with bumper stickers reading "Free Tibet," "Korn" and "Kid Rock Rocks!"
I collected my pass from a couple of retro-punk outfitted gatekeepers, who were also dealing with entry logistics (I'm the drummer with one of the bands, man, and I've got a problem!) and headed over to Stage 42. There, I found engineer/producer Thom Panunzio (Black Sabbath, U2, Ozzfest) ensconced in the recording trailer with TV music-mixer extraordinaire Bart Chiate ("Arsenio," "American Music Awards," "Arista's 25th Anniversary Special").
Farmclub.com is, of course, one of the new breed: a commingled record label/Web site/TV show. The brainchild of producer/engineer/businessman Jimmy Iovine and label exec Doug Morris, Farmclub.com is part of the Universal Music Group. The hook is unsigned bands upload their music at will to the Web site, where Farmclub members check it out, review it and vote for the artists they like. Winning bands earn a slot on the Monday night TV show, where they may find themselves appearing in the same half-hour with high-profile talent like Kid Rock, NWA, Macy Gray, Limp Bizkit, No Doubt or Eminem.
Hot stuff, and the scene on the Universal lot reflects the vibe. On the stage, DJs, streaming video, computer effects and exotic dancers pump up the live audience. Outside, there's another party going on, with plenty of camera action catching celebrity arrivals and cameos, while at the velvet-roped "Boom Boom" greenroom, the party gets going. All this and then there's the tram ride from the Universal Studios' tour chugging by, filled with picture-taking tourists.
The job of Farmclub's crew is to translate all this excitement onto tape, and the veteran crew does a pretty good job of it. Panunzio, who serves as live music producer for the show, is an obvious choice for the job - he's a hybrid engineer who's done both live and studio recording all through his career.
The first couple of Farmclub shows, which debuted January 31, were mixed pretty much live, but the process soon became more elaborate. Posting is now done at the Valley's Frameworks with the help of mix engineer Ken Dahlinger. "Originally, we mixed in the truck, in about an hour after the show," says Panunzio. "But now, it's gotten more like making a record than mixing a TV show. For some bands, like for Tommy Lee and Methods of Mayhem, we'll end up spending a couple of days mixing. But it's still pretty live. I think we've only done one overdub since we started; we're kind of against overdubs."
Setups vary wildly, from the normal three or four bands over two days to an eight-band show, where four groups soundcheck on Thursday, four more on Friday and two shows tape on Friday after soundcheck. "That gets a little difficult," Chiate comments, "because by the time we get back to the first band we did on Thursday, it's pretty hard to remember what's what."
Yamaha O2Rs are the heart of the audio systems: Three are used in the recording truck to feed 48 channels of Tascam DA-78 (recording to 24-bit), and three more are used for by FOH mixer Randy Faustino. Luckily, the O2Rs' automation helps out, with EQ and fader moves logged during the soundchecks. "It's all digitally stored," Chiate continues, "with the exception of the mic pre's, which are reset manually by our assistants."
Two bands at a time are set up on a revolving stage. Separate setups are used for each band, with up to 150 microphones being used on an eight-band show. A 56-pair snake is plugged in for the first band; when the stage rotates, that 56-pair gets patched into another stage box that is preset for the next band. "I reuse inputs all the time," says Chiate, "but it's not a problem because I can store snapshots. A fader can be a vocal for one band and a violin or an electric guitar for another; it doesn't matter, because the different settings are stored.
"We do try to use the same mics. The first two inputs are always for bass drum, an SM91 and a 421. The snares are always 57s top and bottom. So, unless a band absolutely insists on using their own mics - in which case we accommodate them - mic pre changes are minimal."
After taping, Panunzio heads to Frameworks for posting. "We're mixing to picture, but it's not final, just the line cuts," he notes. "When the picture is done, Ken [Dahlinger] lays the sound back onto the finished cut. Then [laughs] he has to sit there and edit out all the obscenities. That's one of the main reasons we can't mix in the truck. With a lot of the bands, there are so many words that we have to cut out, we really need Pro Tools. Some of them, like NWA, end up pretty much as an instrumental, with every third word gone. It's time-consuming. We also mix it with the obscenities in, because hopefully there's a Farmclub album coming soon, and that won't have to be censored."
The most fun show so far? A quick debate ends with a unanimous vote: the NWA reunion, with original members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Wren and Snoop Dogg in Easy E's slot.
"It can get pretty stressful," Panunzio admits. "The setups can be huge, like Kid Rock's. Sometimes people come late, and there are schedule changes. You can't run over; if you go two minutes over people start sweating because you're into golden time. You don't want to be the one to ask to do a song again because timecode dropped out or a mic went down. It's rock 'n' roll, but it's not that casual. If you have to do something again, they have to re-film it and everybody has to do it again. You definitely don't want that!"