Paid my first visit to Cello Studios, where busy producer/engineer Jim Scott was tracking with Matthew Sweet in Studio 2. The studio occupies what was formerly Ocean Way's 6000 building, and Scott, a Best Engineered Album Grammy nominee (for Sting's Dream of the Blue Turtles ) and winner (for Tom Petty's Wildflowers), is a master of live recording. His long list of credits also includes Red Hot Chili Peppers, Counting Crows, Robbie Robertson, Wilco, Lucinda Williams and the Rolling Stones.
This is his first album with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sweet. "A few months ago we did four songs together," Scott says. "We had fun, and it came out great, so we moved to the next level of doing the whole record. I'm a co-co-co-producer on this one, with Greg Liesz, the best guitar player in the world, and with Fred Maher, who produced Matthew's hit album Girlfriend."
The recordings have been proceeding in a bit of an unusual way; half of them were cut two-piece with Sweet on guitar and Rick Mink on drums; other tracks were cut four-piece with the addition of bass and keyboards; and five or so pieces were cut with a 15-piece rock band. Instrumentation for the large band included two bass players, five guitarists, two drummers, two percussionists, three keyboardists and a Theramin player. And yes, they fit the party all on one 24-track analog machine, Scott's format of choice.
"We used lots of reverb," Scott comments, "and it really sounded quite amazing. The best thing was the response of the musicians in the room-they were thrilled with the lack of nit-picking. You know how it is-when you go to cut a track everybody focuses on the loudest thing, usually the poor drummer, and there's lots of 'Is that a good snare sound? Are the bass and drums good?' But with this size band you couldn't really say that kind of thing. It was such a big sound, all you could go by was, did it feel good?"
With all those players one would expect a headphone train wreck. "Well," laughs Scott, "if we'd had a private cue for everyone it could have been a nightmare. But we didn't, and [assistant engineer] Mike Scotella is the best with headphones. The desk has a separate cue section that allows for two stereo or four mono or anywhere in between; it's ancient, but it works just fine, and in this case the limitations made it better. We had four mono headphone mixes: one for the drummers, one for everybody else who was on the floor near the drummers, one for the back iso booth and one for the front iso booth."
Three drum kits were set up for the project, dubbed the "the good kit," "the bad kit" and "the shit kit." "It's much easier that way to say, 'Let's try a completely different drum sound,'" Scott says. "You don't end up modifying a sound that might be good for something else in a couple of days.
"This is such a flexible room," he continues, "it's sort of the engineer's friend. I did the Chili Peppers in here just before this; Matthew's sound is kind of lush in comparison, and they both worked. Over the years, I've done Danzig, Slayer, Tom Petty's records here. I find in this room it's really simple to make bands sound like what they actually sound like-the room doesn't have a sound that gets in the way. That's really valuable because most people, ultimately, know what they sound like, and that's what they want. A little bit better than that would be nice, but basically they know what they want to hear. This room is great for that, as is Sound City, which is also one of my favorite places."
A fan of old Neve consoles for both recording and mixing, Scott is the owner of two BCM10s and he enjoys working on Studio 2's 40-in 8038. About Cello's love-'em-or-hate-'em ATR124s he says, "I don't really care. I like a Studer because they punch great, and it's what I'm used to. These sound amazing but don't punch as well, so I let the guys that work here do the punches; they're so talented I don't have to worry about it."
Equipment Scott tends to bring to sessions includes a rack of favorite compressors, including UREI LA-175s (the tube version of the 1176) Altec mono tube amps and a Gates Sta-Level mono tube amp. "It's a bit like a Fairchild," he offers about the Gates. "It has six of the same kind of tubes a Fairchild has 12 of, so it has a similar sound and is about a tenth of the price. I use them like reverbs-I don't ever put them on just one thing. Instead, I plug the return of the compressor into a console and feed it with a send. I usually use three compressors, like a left/center/right. I use them to add body so it's more like color and thickness than like actual level compression."
Scott has made somewhat of a specialty of live band recording; not surprising since he got his start at Record Plant, where as well as doing studio work he spent over two years working on Record Plant remote trucks. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he recalls. "With remotes, everything has to be ready at once-all the inputs, all the sounds, the mix. It was really the best training, and it made working in the studio seem almost boring. I never had any luck with synthesizer/drum machine records. I didn't think they sounded good, and they just didn't push that button in me. I was never interested in pushing up ten channels of DI from a drum machine to get something going. I'd rather stick a drummer with a great groove out there. It's fun to watch, and it's fun to listen to."
Cello studio manager Candace Stewart and director of studio operations Steve Holroyd gave me a walk-through of the five-room facility along with a rundown on the renovation plans. Major design and refurbishing work, headed up by studio bau:ton, is scheduled for the 12,000-square-foot space, with lightening and brightening a top priority. Already, a reception area has been added to the front of the large complex, and a new, incredibly well-stocked mic locker (an M49 previously owned by John Lennon, Coles from the BBC, etc.) has been built. Lots of major and minor improvements are under way, including a completely new entryway, new lounges, the opening up of previously unused loading doors that lead directly into the studios, wiring of the whole building for computer access (all rooms are already fitted with IMACs), a roof garden and extensive secured parking.
Keeping the loyal Ocean Way client base shouldn't be difficult; there will be little change to the tried-and-true control rooms and studios themselves. According to Stewart, the only improvements planned for those areas are new carpeting and the addition of ambient lighting.
Projects in since the changeover to Cello include a big band tribute to Duke Ellington with George Duke producing, Latin superstar Luis Miguel self-producing with Rafa Sardinas and John Sorensen engineering, Don Was producing for Ziggy Marley with Rik Pekkonen engineering, Rick Rubin and Sheryl Crow working on a cover of Guns N'Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" for a film soundtrack, Brian Wilson collaborating on a track with Brian Setzer, and B.B. King with Stewart Levine producing and Rik Pekkonen engineering.
Over in Tarzana at CanAm's Studio A, producer/engineer Neal Avron was finishing up mixes on four songs for new MCA artists Skycycle. Avron (Everclear, Wallflowers, My Friend Steve, Shawn Mullins), I found out, is originally from Florida and has a background that's an unusual combination of musical and technical. After starting out as a trumpet player, he went on to get a degree that combined a major in music with a minor in electrical engineering at the University of Miami.
"After school I got a job at Criteria as a tech for a year," Avron says. "Then I heard they were looking for a tech at Sunset Sound in L.A. I applied, and a week later they called me and said, 'When can you be out here?' I stayed a tech for about a year. It was never what I really wanted to do, and these days I prefer not to worry about that kind of stuff any more-I like to let other people handle it. But starting out as a tech was my way of getting into a top-notch studio. I figured once people knew who I was they'd be comfortable putting me in the studio as an assistant-which was what happened. After a year as a tech at Sunset Sound I took a pay cut to go in as an assistant. I did that for three-and-a-half years. Then I went independent; I worked with producers like Rick Neigher and T-Bone Burnett who I'd met at Sunset Sound and who then recommended me to others. I started engineering a lot and slowly worked my way up."
Avron was first drafted just to mix the Skycycle record. When, toward the end of mixing, the four-piece band decided to record four more songs, they asked him to produce. "We hit it off," Avron says, "and had a good working relationship. They trusted what I did, and at the same time knew I was open to hearing their suggestions. It's never a 'my way or the highway' kind of thing with me. The band had a lot of visions for what they wanted, and a lot of good ideas. They wanted me to go for it, but they definitely knew whether they liked a sound or not. They have good instincts, and they're really creative."
It's not surprising that Avron, with his Sunset Sound background, prefers API consoles for tracking and overdubbing (the tracks he produced for Skycycle were recorded at Sunset Sound's Studio 2). "I tend to be one of those people who will, to a degree, make do with what they have," he comments, "but like many people, I like to record on boards that have less buttons and knobs. I like dedicated knobs so that if I want to add high end to something I just have to grab the proper knob on that channel instead of thumbing through a menu; I don't like thumbing through menus when I'm in the middle of a tracking date."
CanAm's Studio A worked well for the mixes. "I do like to mix on SSLs," Avron says. "It's something I've been doing since the Everclear record, and I don't know if I'm going back. I've started getting really used to them, and of course the record companies expect to be able to recall mixes, which is a lot easier to do with SSL. I also tend to like smaller control rooms, just because I feel the sound sometimes can get lost in huge ones, especially when you work a lot on little NS10s."