At The Hook in North Hollywood, I found RCA artists Sugar Bomb hard at work, overdubbing with hot young producer Mark Endert. Endert, just off his first Billboard Hot 100 Number One production (Vertical Horizon's "Everything You Want"), has been steadily accumulating credits over the past few years: production and engineering for Semisonic, Splender, Tracy Bonham and Tonic, and recording and mixing on Fiona Apple's Tidal and various Madonna projects, including Ray of Light. He and the Fort Worth, Texas-based Sugar Bomb hooked up after an introduction by RCA A&R honcho David Bendeth.
"When I was in New York, I dropped by his office and he played me their tape," explains Endert, "Out of the box, I was totally moved by several of the songs."
Sugar Bomb is a five-piece who have been together just over two years. The core of the band began with brothers Michael and Daniel Harville, a drummer and guitarist originally from Memphis. Daniel and vocalist Les Farrington, who hails from Austin, Texas, share lead vocalist chores, and guitarist Greg Bagby and bassist Ford Brittain , both natives of Ft. Worth, round out the group. The quintet declines to describe their music, but when pressed, settle for "pop alternative." Uniquely, all five members have, at one time or another, been lead singers and band frontmen. As you might expect, this makes for some pretty cool harmony singing.
Events have moved fast for Sugar Bomb, who played their first show in October of '98. By March of '99 they were recording their first CD, and by August they'd been picked up by RCA. Nine months later, they found themselves driving their band van and a U-Haul filled with gear to L.A. to cut tracks at Sunset Sound's Studio B.
Sonic direction for the album is a combination of old and new; drums, for example, were recorded using a variety of vintage pieces from L.A.'s Drum Doctor rentals. "The band has a classic sound in some of their songs," Endert explains, "so we tried to match those timbres drumwise. A 1920s marching bass drum is the kick drum on most of the songs. It's 26 inches in diameter and 12 inches deep; that floppy sound is great with the correct amount of compression. We also used several Ludwig snares from the '20s and '30s, and some sparkle toms from the '60s. Nothing from 1970 on!"
Conceptually, the songs are also a combination of the old and the new. "You want to be accessible for radio," says Endert, "but, unlike a lot of groups out there, this band doesn't write music that sounds like it's only for today. They write songs that are deeper than that. We picked vintage sounds for the more classic-sounding songs and modern textures for the `radio today' songs. For some, we used three different drum kits. We wanted low-fi groove breaks with a loop feel; the easy way out would be to lay in a loop, but instead we set up a totally different drum kit. Mike would play the section, then we'd cut it up. It's kind of painstaking to do, but it's definitely much more fun than just using some loop. And it definitely sounds like live playing."
How did Sugar Bomb get their name? "We thought we heard someone say `Sugar Bomb' one night when we were playing, and we thought it would make a good name," Farrington says with a laugh. "Later, of course, we found out that what they'd actually said was, `They're sure to bomb!' But here we still are, not bombing yet..."
NRG Recording Services has become the first music recording studio in town with a centralized FibreChannel Storage Area Network. Designed and installed by Paul Levy of Advanced Audio's new division BuyAudioGear.com, the network allows clients to record, edit and mix using multiple networked Pro Tools systems.
According to studio manager Kit Rebhun, each of NRG's three control rooms now contains 24-bit Pro Tools instead of a second analog 24-track. A smaller, roll-around Pro Tools system that is generally used for editing is also available. All systems are tied, through fiber-optic cable, into a central network comprising a large-scale array of 36GB, 10,000 rpm drives.
"It just made sense to do this," she comments. "For the last six or eight months, every session that came in was using Pro Tools, and the second Studers were often lined up out in the halls, just sitting there. Now we have top-of-the-range Pro Tools with G4 computers, the 22-inch flat-panel cinema displays, and almost every plug-in anyone could want. If someone needs any other specialized software, they can just bring it in on a Zip drive. People no longer have to lug around their own huge racks; they can work from any room here, and it comes to the central system. They can track in A, then go over to C, and they don't need to move the rig. They don't even have to move hard drives, because it's all stored centrally."
"Although there are post-production facilities using this, we're the first music studio in town with it," adds NRG owner Jay Baumgardner. "With four fiber-optic connections in each studio, we're able to link all the rooms to centralized storage and backup. You can share files in real time; you don't have to transfer or make copies, and that allows for all kinds of interesting things. You can do simultaneous recording, or you can mix and record on the same song at the same time in two different rooms. And the systems are easily movable. You can pull the fiber-optic cable out of the wall, move the rig to another room, plug it back in, hit the space bar, and continue playing from where you were. Essentially, it's like renting multiple rooms all for the price of one."
Besides convenience and speed, the storage area network provides a means to address the security issue that has lately reared its ugly head in the digital transfer world. "If they're recording on our drives, there are no local drives in the room," notes Baumgardner. "You log in with a password, do your recording and log out. No one has access to your data. It's the same as pulling your tapes out and locking them in a vault every night. To get at a drive, you have to unlock the door to the central system, and you have to have the passwords."
Rebhun finds the security benefits especially important. "The thing about hard drives that has become an issue is the ease of copying," she states. "So this is an added benefit for the record companies. Hard drives are small; they're an easy thing to walk out of a studio with if there's no control. Now, I call the record company for authorization before anything is released, and we keep a safety copy. It's easier to control than tape, really, because sometimes you have tapes in the control room that you don't even know about. But this way, as long as they're working digitally, it's all here under lock and key. The information is safe; it doesn't end up in cyberspace."
Another feature of the system is centralized backup. "If you have individual rigs, somebody has to put a tape in for each one at the end of every night and back them up separately," says Baumgardner. "That takes several hours. This system automatically backs up all 12 drives at 5 a.m. every morning. And it's a smart backup; it only backs up the new information, so it doesn't take that long."
Baumgardner, a producer in his own right as well as a studio owner, has been keeping busy lately with projects for Papa Roach, Godsmack and Orgy, among others, sessions that he has recorded direct to Pro Tools, "There's no going back," he concludes. "Some people still find a need for analog tape, but it's becoming less and less. We're training all our assistants and runners on Pro Tools; it's really our main thing now."
Recent projects at the always busy NRG, besides those produced by Baumgardner, have included The Offspring and Everlast. Those folks interested in checking out NRG's storage area network, along with a 5.1 demo in Studio A, should stop by the Digidesign booth at AES for tickets to NRG's Friday night party.
O'Henry Sound Studios in Burbank has completed a renovation of Studio A and is now online with its custom-built "O'Henry All Discrete" 88-input desk. Refurbishing the console was a labor of love by O'Henry owner Hank Sanicola and chief engineer Harold Kilianski. The new version is a larger, upgraded version of the popular custom API that has been housed in Studio A since its opening in 1993; it features 88 550 A&B equalizers, four stereo cues, 10 effects sends and a 5.1 monitor matrix. It's no exaggeration to observe that the finished product is an example of the kind of custom engineering that's almost nonexistent in today's mass-produced world.
The goal of the upgrade was a traditional, user-friendly, high-quality console that would add inputs and features while continuing to appeal to O'Henry's client base, a mix of both pop music engineers and top scoring mixers.
"I didn't really know how many orchestral sessions we'd done since 1993," Sanicola says. "I counted them up, and it came to over 2,000. It's not uncommon for us to do two or even three sessions in a day. We need things set up so that we can change over quickly. This console is so easy to use; you can just look at it and figure it out. No training sessions are necessary; it's completely straight-ahead."
"The whole mission of this project was to keep the original sound and to improve what we could," adds Kilianski. "The old console was 8-bus and 64-input; it's a testament, and it's a success that a lot of scoring mixers liked to work on it, even though it only had eight buses! They liked the way it sounded. We wanted more buses, we wanted to balance everything to minimize connection issues, we needed more inputs and a 5.1 center section. But in obtaining those things, our emphasis was on a short signal path; we wanted to go through as few electronics as possible in order to maintain the sonic character."
Sixty-four of the original modules were reconditioned. Andrew Isett newly built 24 more, an endeavor requiring painstaking detail: making metal plates, painting and silkscreening. All of the modules are now housed in a frame specially constructed by Dale Manquen.
"The original API frame wouldn't carry the weight and size of this," explains Kilianski. "It was only one-inch tubular steel, and that just wasn't massive enough. Each one of these modules weighs a couple of pounds; they're all discrete, and there is nothing miniaturized about them."
The modules house traditional API-style 2520 amps. The center section, also all discrete, was designed by Kilianski with board design by Steve Firlotte of Inward Connections, using SPA690 amp blocks designed by John Hall. The Flying Faders automation system, reconditioned by Manquen, now supplies 95 automated faders.
To complete the project, Studio A was shut down for two months. In addition to the console rebuild, the control room was stripped down to cement and redone, complete with new floor and wall treatments. Wiring was replaced, with accommodation made for the increased amount of digital technology now in use. The large recording area, often used for 30- to 45-piece orchestras, was also improved.
"Everybody liked the top end of this room," observes Sanicola, "but what used to happen, sometimes, because of the tile floor and flat ceiling, was that during loud pieces, strings and brass could get a little out of control. So, with the help of [mixer] Armin Steiner and [design firm studio bau:ton's] Peter Grueneisen, we decided to put cylindrical diffusors on the ceiling with trapping behind them. We also replaced the floor with 31/44-inch oak. Now it's much more even."
One of the first sessions in the new Studio A seemed to confirm that the goal had been achieved; top scoring mixer Shawn Murphy mixed a CD release of Star Wars' The Phantom Menace soundtrack, and according to Kilianski, Murphy said, "I'm very familiar with this recording, and I've never heard it sound so good."
"We were starting from something good," concludes Kilianski. "We knew that people liked what we had, and as long as we didn't mess it up, we were going to be okay. But when we really got into it, it took on a life of its own, and to do it right, it became a monstrous, expensive project. I really have to credit Hank's vision. We quadrupled our original budget to hand-build all these things and to do it right. But we feel it's been worth it."
Over at Electric Mayhem (the Studios Formerly Known as A&M), I found singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins overdubbing on Studio A's new 80-in SSL 9000 with co-producer Julian Raymond and engineer Greg Goldman. Mullins, an Atlanta native, was putting the finishing touches on his latest project, his tenth album and his second for Columbia, a follow-up to 1998's Soul's Core, which spawned the hits "Lullaby" and "Shimmer."
The new album, tentatively titled Beneath the Velvet Sun, was recorded both at Studio A and at Crossover Rehearsal Studios in Atlanta and combines formats as well as musical styles. The Atlanta tracks were recorded direct to Pro Tools, while Studio A's were cut to analog 24 on BASF 900 tape, then bounced to Sony 3348 for vocals and overdubs.
The L.A. tracks, co-produced by Raymond (Fastball, Suicide Machines, Chris Perez Band), were laid down by "The Wrecking Crew 2000," drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist John Pierce and electric guitarist Michael Ward, along with Mullins on acoustic guitar.
"Shawn's guitar is a very important part of the recording," notes Goldman. "He's a really good guitar player with a distinct style, and a big part of recording with him is capturing that."
Goldman used mainly a Neumann KM140 on Mullins' Gibson J200 guitar. "It's very similar to the old KM84 and the newer 184," he says, "but you can change capsules, and it has a pad on it."
For vocals, Goldman stuck to classics: a Neumann tube U47, a Neve 1073 mic pre/EQ and a Fairchild 670 compressor. "With Shawn, you're really just going for performance," Goldman continues. "It's not like there's only one take where it's really right. It's always good and you get to choose among different performances. His voice has a lot of great low end that I wanted to be sure to get, and the 47 captured the full range of his voice."
Goldman (Melissa Etheridge, Bodeans, Michael Penn) started his career as a staff assistant at A&M in its Iovine/Yakus heyday, and he is generally a fan of old gear. He was especially fond of Studio A's previous classic Neve console and was surprised to find himself reaching for fewer vintage knobs this time around. "I ended up using the console an awful lot more than I usually would," he says, "because the 9000 sounds so good. I like the mic pre's and the EQ a lot."
Goldman and Raymond (who, in addition to his indie production work, is a Hollywood Records staff producer) work together frequently; they've just completed the new Fastball effort titled Harsh Light of Day. The two hooked up with Mullins when they cut a new version of an old song for him on his The First Ten Years CD, a Sony Music compilation culled from his five earlier independent releases.
"We really enjoyed working together," recalls Goldman, "and when it came time to do the new album, he invited us to work with him again. His last album before the compilation was made independently, then got picked up by Sony and had a hit. I guess that makes Shawn, after something like ten years in the trenches, one of those overnight successes! So this time around, he's getting a chance to flesh out his songs a bit more and to try some different flavors. I can't say we did anything really unusual in terms of recording on this record, but we certainly had a lot of fun making it because the songs are so good."