Up in Whitley Heights, where the faded glamour of Hollywood clings to the hillsides, and Mediterranean-style villas built in the '20s look out over the lights of today's L.A., I found engineer/inventor/technician Jonathan Little hard at work.
I first heard about Little and his company, Little Labs, from engineer/producer/guitar guru Joe Barresi, who waxed ecstatic over how one of Little's creations made reamping guitars a cinch. A tour of the tower "laboratory," where he designs and hand makes his products, provided an update on his current official product line, which includes the Multi Z direct box, the PCP Instrument Distro and the AES Digital Audio Mastering Router. That's the official roster. Unofficially, there's that in-demand mic preamp that's been used on vocals for both Don Henley and Sheryl Crow, and other custom work, like the 5.1 console he just finished for top mastering engineer Stephen Marcussen's new facility.
A "technogeek" at an early age, Little learned electronics from his father, a physics professor at Stanford. While in high school, he helped build projects at the Stanford physics department, but, bitten by the music business bug, he declined to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, after high school he began doing sound reinforcement for bands. A stint at San Francisco's College for the Recording Arts led to employment at various studios in Los Angeles, including The Village Recorder, Conway, where he was chief tech, and a 10-year stay at A&M during its technical heyday under the auspices of Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yakus. "I got to know Shelly and Jimmy while I was at The Village," he recalls. "And when they went to A&M, they brought me with them. They gave me pretty much free rein to just build stuff. What was also great was that they would buy gear and then say, `We want it to be better.' So I got to pull everything apart and try to improve it. I also had some of the best engineers in the world to get feedback from. That's how I developed the DI; I just made sure that sonically it would outperform everything so that in a listening test everyone always picked it."
Being hand-built of audiophile-quality components, Little's products are, of course, expensive to produce and to keep in stock. As a practical matter, he's decided to focus, for the time being, on the three items now handled by distributors such as Westlake Audio.
The Multi Z direct box, called "outstanding" by engineer/producer Tchad Blake, and a favorite of users such as Rob Jacobs, Neil Dorfsman and Paul Fox, has four separate input circuits for different instruments with selectable high, mid and low-source impedance and balanced, unbalanced and unbuffered outputs.
The PCP Instrument Distro, called "the ultimate studio tool" by Barresi, is a guitar splitter, triple "re-amp" box, and audiophile direct box for electric guitar, bass and vintage effects. "It's four things in one that work together," Little states. "It's a 3-output guitar splitter with transformer-isolated outputs so you can have phase reverse and ground lifts on it and get true isolation between your amplifiers. It's three re-amp boxes so you can bring stuff back off of tape out to your guitar amp. It also contains the hi-Z section of the Multi Z DI, and it's a line driver - all in one unit. So what high-tech nomenclature is PCP an acronym for? Gotcha, 'cause it's `Professional to Cheesy Pedal.'
"It makes it so you can easily use something like a Pultec before your guitar amp, or you can put a little stomp box on the sends of your console. When you're tracking, you can split out to three guitar amps, and you could have another amp that runs a 100-foot line out to a combo amp that you have to have out in the studio. It's a very powerful tool."
The AES Digital Audio Mastering Router is a sonically transparent, easy-to-use distribution box. It was originally designed by Little when he was at A&M and other available digital routers had failed listening tests. In use at Conway, Ocean Way Studios and at Stephen Marcussen Mastering by both Marcussen and Dave Collins, it has five selectable digital audio inputs for each digital audio output, and is high sample rate-ready.
Little, who has built custom gear for Bob Clearmountain and Toto, among others, has lots more ideas for gear he'd like to build, all in keeping with his philosophy of being both audiophile quality and simple to use. Currently he has about 25 of each of his three main items in stock at any given time, and he does plan to make more of those mic pre's. "Until now, all my gear has gotten know only by word of mouth," he says, "because I was always working in the studio with constant exposure to people who'd come into the shop and want me to make things for them. Now I have distributors and the Web site (www.littlelabs.com), and it's slowly taking off. I don't cut corners, and it's a lot of work, but it's what I love to do. I'm really hoping to take it to the next level, to sell more so I can get on with other ideas I have."
Audio Affects Rentals, a division of The Enterprise Group, has been in expansion mode, adding new services and taking over more space at its Burbank location.
"It really is amazing how the whole thing has grown," says general manager Mark Napier, who, with technical director Ron Garrett, gave me a tour. "Almost 17 years ago, I used to walk from my parents' house to [Enterprise Group owner] Craig Huxley's house, which was where everything - the studio, the rental company - was located. The bedroom was the office, the kitchen was where all the gear was stored and the laundry room was where the cables were hung. When you had to move out a 24-track, you had to make sure it didn't fall in the pool. Now we have four locations in Burbank alone, as well as our live sound rental division in Las Vegas. And here at Audio Affects, we've been bursting at the seams. Now we've been given the opportunity to spread out a little more."
Audio Affects is, of course, a full-service rental company, in business for approximately 20 years. Its complement of equipment reflects that span of time, from everyday items like A-to-D converters, DA-88s and ADATs to vintage microphones and outboard, to Sony 3348s, Pro Tools and the brand-new Sony R-100 digital console. Now AA has added three new services: a transfer division, a cablemaking department, and ARC, which stands for Authorized Service Center.
"All of it has been a natural progression with our clients, who range from engineers and producers to studio managers, label reps, production coordinators, assistant engineers...and artists," Napier notes. "When you have good relationships with people, they come to you for all sorts of stuff, from, `Do you know where I can buy this?' to, `Do you know a good guitar player who's in town this week?' So we're trying to broaden off of that."
ARC came about at Audio Affects when it became apparent that, with so many machines of their own to maintain, paying retail for parts was prohibitive. Becoming service-authorized just made good business sense.
"It started with taking a Tascam course and becoming authorized to benefit our own company," explains Garrett. "And then people started calling us to fix their DA-88s. We do Disney's machines, Warner Bros.' and others. Then we did the same with Alesis, Panasonic and Mackie. We do it all, and as time goes on we're becoming authorized at it all. There's really nothing that we don't do. And, of course, we're full service. We don't only fix your Mackie board, we can rent you a replacement, pick up and deliver. We really work at getting things back to you quickly. Also, our hours are so long (7 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with 24-hour paging availability) that you can pick up your repaired DA 88 at 10:30 at night."
The transfer service came about much the same way: The equipment and staff were already in place. "Everyone's on a different format these days," comments Napier. "Even guys in the same band! The drummer's got DA-88, the guitar player's got ADAT. They're overdubbing to 2-inch at the studio, and they all need to make copies to take home. We offer a great service: The label A&R admin people, like Mary Hogan at Virgin, have realized that they don't have to book a three-hour minimum at a studio to make a transfer. We don't have the overhead of a million dollar console, so we can offer a better rate."
"Some of these transfers are difficult," adds Garrett. "Going from different digital formats through a converter. Often a studio won't have the necessary experience or equipment, whereas we have three techs available all the time. Not to mention if there's an equipment problem, they can grab another machine! Not everybody can go SDIF to TDIF or MADI to optical; we can. We have every conversion possible. Studios don't need to have that one piece of gear onhand; it doesn't make sense for them to own it. But we do."
The third new area AA is offering is cablemaking. "We deliver cables to everyone, on every order," says Garrett. "And people are always telling us how great our cables are. It's true, they're indestructible. For rental standards, they have to be. Now people are asking for that quality for their home studios, and we make them. We'll customize them for you...any length, any connectors, we'll even put your name on them!"
Home studios, once thought to be the bane of the music industry, have actually helped rental companies like Audio Affects thrive. Rentals are, as Napier notes, the lifeline for those solitary outposts. "In a way, they're an island," he muses. "They're not a studio with support. So they need us more than ever. It's interesting how the industry has changed. There are the two camps, the analog SR guys and the guys with the digital 48s and Pro Tools, DA-88s or PCM800s. We feed both sides of the world. To us, it's the more the merrier. I wish there were even more formats!"
What's new and exciting in the rental department at Audio Affects? "We have the M6000 by TC Electronic; actually we have the whole line," says Napier. "The 2000, 3000, 5000...We have the Lexicon 960L, the surround sound item that replaces the 480L. And the small Sony console, the R-100, looks like it's going to be a great board; we just got two in last week."
When you call Audio Affects for your rental or repair, make note that Napier is probably onsite. This guy, who works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., hasn't missed a day in 17 years. The staff at AA has to force him to go on vacation, and then, when they finally get him to take one, they have to field his phone calls all day long.
"It's true," he laughs. "There just aren't enough hours in the day, and I'm still excited about what I do. Being in rentals for all these years gives me an interesting vantage point; we have a little bit to do with hundreds of sessions at a time. Instead of being in a studio with two or three rooms and two or three clients at a time, we're dealing with rappers, 110-piece string sections and everything in between, every day. I love the business, and I love the personalities. That's what keeps me going. And I've got some great stories - like that guy who actually called me from jail to book rental gear for the next day. He said, `I don't know if I'm in or out, but the session's got to happen!' Think about that. His one call wasn't to his lawyer - it was to me!"