On one of those beautiful only-in-L.A., just-after-a-rain winterafternoons, I stopped in at The Hive, 311's North Hollywood studio,where I found New York-based producer/engineer Ron Saint-Germainand 311 band members deep into overdub mode.
A cozy complex replete with a mixture of old and new gear, TheHive was the scene of a heated synthesis between digital andanalog. The control room, fitted with two 02R consoles, also housedseveral of Saint-Germain's custom outboard racks. Tracks were beingrecorded to both an Otari analog 24-track and to Pro Tools, adivision of labor fostered by Saint-Germain, an avowed analogproponent.
Saint-Germain, who in 1995 produced 311's third album, themulti-Platinum 311 (aka the Blue Album), has returned for theirsixth effort and is clearly enjoying the project. He gave a brieftour of the homey studio, then settled in to discuss the projectand offer some of his iconoclastic views on the state of modernrecording.
“The previous album we made together did very well,”he comments. “A lot of people thought it was their firstalbum, because their first two albums sold under 100,000, while theBlue Album went to three million. When you have that big a gap,people think it's the first record, because it's the first onethey've heard of.”
The team amicably parted ways after 311, and in the interveningtime the five-member, two-lead singer band put out two more albums,while continuing to tour almost nonstop, enlarging their alreadysignificant and loyal fan base. They also released Enlarged to ShowDetail, a Platinum-selling home video of their live performancesedited with glimpses of life on the road. In 2000, when it cametime to head back to the studio again, they put in a call toSaint-Germain (Saint, for short), whose credits include SonicYouth, Soundgarden and Tool, among many others, as well as thesingle and video mix for Creed's monster hit “With Arms WideOpen.”
“[Singer/guitarist] Nick Hexum sent me out some songs thathe'd recorded here on his Studio Vision system,” he recalls.“So I made a few notes for him. [Laughs.] Well, actually,they were pretty copious notes — about four pages. When Icalled Nick the next day, he asked, ‘Did you listen?’and I said, ‘Yeah, are you sitting down?’
“I went on for half an hour, and he finally said, ‘Ididn't really realize that you got into a song so much; we missthat.’ Because, when you have a successful band, a lot ofpeople will come in and kiss their ass. Me, I'll say what's on mymind — like it or not. I expect an open dialog fromeverybody, because I've found if you speak your mind, everybodyknows where you stand. They might not take your suggestion, but itmay trigger another suggestion from them that, in turn, leads to awhole third opportunity that would never have happened without thedialog.”
Songs continued to fly between coasts until Saint headed to LosAngeles in September for pre-production with the whole band.“The plan was during that time to try differentthings,” he notes, “because that's the period to go allthe way out. Once you get into the studio, you've got to have agood flight plan and know what you're going to accomplish. I don'tslam the door on creativity and spontaneity, but you need to have afocus. You don't want to go in, then sit around and twiddle yourthumbs at two grand a day.”
New arrangements were recorded to Pro Tools, which even analogdie-hard Saint-Germain admits is a convenience. “For tryingout arrangements, Pro Tools is really valuable,” he concedes.After pre-production, the band took the show on the road, addingthe new songs to the set lists of a six-week tour. “We'drehearse at soundcheck,” continues Saint, “and it gotto where they didn't feel like new songs. They didn't have to thinkabout them, which was great. Because, like an actor can't reallybegin to act until he's off book — until he knows the words— you can't really play the music until you know the song.And that made all the difference, because when we went into thestudio, in seven days we did 18 songs.”
Basics for the sessions, which were recorded at Sound City'sStudio A, were cut to 16-track analog 2-inch at 15 ips. Aftertracking, 16-track safeties were made, along with 24-track analogand Pro Tools slaves. For overdubs, the swarm moved back to TheHive, where the antidigital Saint has been bypassing the twoinstalled 02Rs, running mics direct into either the band'sTelefunken mic pre's or into his own Neve units, then into theanalog 24-track. Other tools he's been relying on include theEsoteric Audio Research 660 compressor. “I use it for vocalsand basses. It's modeled after the Fairchild,” he explains.“I love the Fairchild sound. Unfortunately, if you move them,they break, they're difficult to line up, and they're inconsistentfrom one to the next. This thing has the reliability and stabilityof today's technology, but design-wise it's virtually a copy of theFairchild. Sonically, it's actually better.”
Also in Saint's racks (works of art in their own right, by theway, and designed by Vince Gutman of Woodstock, N.Y.) and put toregular use on the project are Pultec EQP-1As, Motown equalizersand two different types of Neve mic pre's/EQs: 1073s and thebroadcast-style 3104s. Saint is also a fan of his dbx 120XDs, whichhe uses to enhance subharmonics. “You have 20, 30, 40 and 50Hz; it's just subs, period. I have two of these so that I can usethem in stereo on the mix, feeding the bass or the kick into themto get that live sub stuff.”
Other cool gear includes a Moog 3-band parametric EQ, MXRphaser/flangers, a Lexicon 200 (“The forerunner to all of theLexicon gear,” he says.), Marshall Time Modulators, CooperTime Cubes and a prized Datamix EQ, reportedly from a board used byJimi Hendrix. “I've had it since ’74 — justknowing that his hands were on this makes it great!”
An April release is hoped for; expect a more classicallyaggressive rock sound from the band this time around, mixed withloops and elements from the dance world, such as jungle, trance andtrip hop. “A lot of what attracted me to this band in thefirst place was that, at the time, they were a very unique hybridof a lot of styles,” states Saint. “They weregroundbreakers for bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn. But 311 stillencompasses a larger hybrid of music. Plus, they're all amazingmusicians, really good players, which is a rarity these days.
“It feels like a great marriage this time,” heconcludes. “Everybody's really excited, happy to come to workand anxious to play. Even with the Pro Tools, we're still havingfun, so I know it can be done.”
Next stop: a few minutes away at Burbank's Master Control.Manager/co-owner Ron Corbett showed me around the SSL 4000E-equipped facility, where a two-year redecorating process wasrecently completed. No longer the spare, concrete industrial spacethat I remembered from the past, the studio's original exposedbrick walls and high ceilings have been enhanced with new texturesand carpet in warm earth tones. A mixture of art now adorns thewalls, including some collected by (co-owner) Larry“Shea” DeGasperin on his travels to China. Also new area kitchen and a separate Pro Tools suite.
“We started redecorating at the end of ’98,”says Corbett with a laugh, “and I can definitely say thatwe're sick of remodeling. We've done it slowly, one piece at atime, because we're not the kind of business that can take out abig loan and slam it. We didn't want to have down time. Instead,we'd do a room or part of a room, working on weekends or at nightand stopping when clients were working. That's why it took usalmost two years.”
Master Control is known as a reasonably priced place to bothtrack and mix and in recent years has played host to long-termprojects such as Toad the Wet Sprocket with producer GavinMacKillop. In addition to the 52-input SSL, the studio provides aNeve 12-channel sidecar with 1063 EQ/mic pre's and a goodcomplement of outboard, including plenty of vintage pieces byPultec, API and UREI, and some specialty items, such as two CBSAudimax II tube limiters, a Trident spring reverb and an Ursa MajorSpace Station. The spacious complex features both a large22×20-foot control room and a massive 25×58-footrecording space. During the renovation, the recording space, whichis graced by a Steinway Model C 7-foot grand piano and several verycool backlit drum kits, was made more sonically flexible with newflooring, carpet and an abundance of full-size baffles.
When Master Control was originally opened in 1984 byproducer/engineer/musician John “Ace” Otten, it wasequipped with a Trident Series 80 console. The SSL console wasinstalled in 1986, and the first sessions booked on it were forMadonna's True Blue album. Now owned by three partners, Otten,DeGasperin and Corbett (who handles the day-to-day management), thefacility plays host to projects that run the gamut of genres.Recently in have been pop-rockers SR-71 with producer/engineer NealAvron, the Rounder Records' Woody Guthrie children's series withFrank Fuchs producing and Static-X with producer/engineer UlrichWilde. On the day I stopped by, new artist Sled was mixing withproducer Mark Kendall and engineer Jim Faraci.
“We're more of a by-the-project than a by-the-hourstudio,” comments Corbett. “I'd say our niche ishigh-end tracking and mid-level mixing. We get a lot of mixesbecause of the size of the control room. And now, with the ProTools room, it works out even better for our clients. They can beset up in a separate place, but if they need the system in thecontrol room, they can have it there instead.
“Most of our projects come from the producer orengineer,” he continues. “They call up and book thetime themselves. We have a lot of regulars, so as long as ourhandful of clients is working, we're working. I like the sort ofmid-level niche that we're in. Although we share a lot of the sameclients with other studios, we're really not directly competingwith anybody.”
According to Corbett, the recording space is also a favoritewith drummers, and he recalls a session with ex-Policeman StewartCopeland. “When the session was over, he hung out for severalhours just jamming by himself, because he liked how he sounded inthe room so much.”
A good number of Master Control's sessions are still analog.“Our 2-inch machines definitely still get used, and thebiggest trend I see is the hybrid between analog anddigital,” he notes. “People use the technology indifferent ways for different projects.”
About the finally completed renovation, Corbett notes:“Your day rate doesn't go up because you put in new doors orchange the carpet. Recording budgets haven't gone up, and that canmake it difficult for a studio to spend money on improvements. Butyou want to put things back into the business to let your clientsknow that you care about them, so you do what you can. Our goal wasjust to make it feel like someone's home and to make it acomfortable place for people to work.
“In the end, I couldn't tell you how to stay in business,we really just try and service the business that we have. Youalways have a certain number of new business each year, and you tryto make them repeat clients. And, of course, you hope that yourregular clients do well, because if they have work, so doyou.”
E-mail L.A. news to MsMDK@aol.com.