Dropped in at American Recording where I found legendary blues/rock artist John Mayall recording a new project with producer/engineer David Z (Collective Soul, Johnny Lang, Prince). The laid-back atmosphere at the secluded Calabasas studio must have been deceiving, because according to Z, the team had cut 12 tracks in five days on American's Trident A-Range console.
Mayall, as anyone who doesn't know should, is often called the "elder statesman of British Blues." His seminal group The Bluesbreakers have been deemed more a concept than a band (largely because of its rotating personnel), and they influenced a generation of British musicians. Mayall made his first record in 1964, and he's still prolific, with five albums alone released since 1995. The new album (his 52nd, not counting compilations!) is the third that he's recorded at American. This time around, the project will be a bit different, featuring all-star cameos - many of them by Bluesbreakers alumni - and tunes composed entirely by outside writers.
During the first week of recording, the core band - comprising Mayall on guitar, bassist David Smith, drummer Joey Yuele and rhythm guitar player Buddy Whittington - were joined by key- boardist Billy Preston on clavinet, melodica, Wurlitzer and vocals, plus ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, Bonnie Raitt, organist Tom Canning and jazz saxophonist Red Holloway. Set to participate in the next round of recording in England are Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Also part of the scheduled lineup are Steve Miller and Fleetwood Mac's Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.
Mayall and Z had not previously worked together. "I think he heard Johnny Lang's record or something," laughs Z. "He called me up out of a clear blue sky and said, `I like what you're doing. Want to make a record?'"
Although he is Nashville-based, Z finds himself traveling a lot and easily gets comfortable on the road. Just prior to the Mayall project, he put in a long stint in England on a solo record for singer/actor Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals fame. (Z was producer and engineer of the Cannibals' monster '80s hit "She Drives Me Crazy.") "I travel pretty light," he notes. "I usually bring a few tricky little things, like guitar foot pedals, but John already has all sorts of weird stuff. The only thing I brought this time was my miniature Marshall amp."
The project is being recorded to analog 2-inch tape: Quantegy 499 at plus 5 hit hard (Z: "You're not supposed to see the meters move, right?"), with editing and looping done in American's fully loaded Pro Tools|24 MIX Plus system. American studio manager/staff engineer Bill Cooper has been handling Pro Tools chores, and he says that in the past year editing and DVD sessions have become mainstays at the facility. "We were actually getting bored a couple of years ago and thinking of getting out of the business. Then we bought Pro Tools. I like it and really have fun using it - it's kind of the ultimate video game!"
"It's been a very good experience working here," comments Z. "Bill's a very good Pro Tools operator. And they've got everything I need, really, as well as some stuff I haven't used before - like these [VacRac] vacuum tube limiters. We used them on Billy Preston's melodica, and John and Billy both sang through them. It's a very cool-sounding unit."
No release date is set yet for the record, and all involved are looking forward to the continuing process of recording it. "It's great to be working with John and all the others who are sitting in," says Z. "He's been a catalyst and responsible for inspiring a lot of people. In some ways, he's like everybody's uncle, and they all give him a lot of respect."
At Sonora Recorders in Los Feliz, Meredith Brooks was laying down some mean guitar on a track for the David Darling-produced debut album by Australian artist Gary Pinto. Sonora, owned by engineers Richard Barron and Jeff Peters (who was busy working on the Pinto session), is a word-of-mouth favorite with artists from Elliott Smith to Bruce Hornsby and Nancy Sinatra, popular for its friendly vibe, well-stocked snack table and primo combination of classic and new equipment.
Fitted with an API console, the facility is also home to dual Stephens 16/24 analog tape machines, two Pro Tools systems and an extensive vintage keyboard collection, as well as scads of other eclectic gear that both partners have collected over the years.
Barron was the previous owner of Boulevard Sound in Hollywood, and he recognized the value of Sonora's convenient, freeway-close location. "Boulevard Sound was upstairs over Woolworth's," he recalls. "A huge, old bizarre room. It sounded great, but you had to carry Marshall amps up two flights of stairs, and the neighborhood was a little too scary."
When Sonora, then owned by his friend Dennis Moody, became available, Barron made the move. "Dennis built it from scratch," he explains. "His ideas and basic design were great, but there wasn't much money available to realize them, so we've had to beef everything up. We've insulated, rebuilt walls, and for our latest project, we just had Art Kelm and Van Jordan redo the grounding and wiring.
"The performance space has always sounded really good, so we haven't changed it. It's got a lot of fans - many of them drummers. A lot of our business comes from drummers like Jim Keltner, Curt Bisquera and Hal Blaine. They bring projects here, because they like the sound of the room, so we've never wanted to mess with that."
Barron and Peters hooked up a few years ago when both were engineering on the same project. They hit it off, and it was a natural progression to become partners. "We liked the same kind of music and the same kind of gear," relates Barron, "and I liked the way he worked. We started talking, time went on, and he began dumping equipment over here. Like one day this huge package shows up with two RCA BA-6As that Jeff had found at a radio station in Scranton when he was on the road with the Beach Boys. It was `I didn't know what to do with them, so I sent them to your studio!'
"There was lots of stuff like that," Barron continues. "Jeff's influence on the studio has been great. I'm more `get it up and get it done,' and he's very detail-oriented. Jeff makes sure that everything gets nailed down and done properly. It's a combination that works."
Sonora has always been an API room, although the original console was smaller than the current desk, which was installed 10 months ago. The new 32x16x24 desk, one of the few light-colored versions, was previously owned by Laura Nyro. "I have to say one of the happiest days of my life was when this console finally arrived," says Barron. "It was originally built for Kendun Recorders in Burbank. It was at Kendun eight years, and then it went to Laura Nyro. She had it rebuilt and repainted at the API factory, supervised by Art Kelm. Art, who worked at Kendun and at Record One, which was an all API studio, also helped with our install.
"It's a good board to have," he continues. "There are a million studios with Neves and only a few with API. It's simpler, and it has its own sound that people adore. One of the nice things here is that because of the Stephens machines, you can have a Class A, discrete electronics path clear up to the tape head. That's what makes it sound so open. And since the Stephens has no pinch rollers, the high end stays on the tape!"
Sonora is definitely the kind of relaxed, comfy place that makes you want to sit down and stay for a while. ("It's a musician trap," chuckles Barron.) Mood lighting and lots of comfy couches create the ambience, and then there's that gear: an original, double-wide Mellotron, a Chamberlin, a Kawai grand piano, a B3 with Leslie, a Fender Rhodes 72 and several very cool guitar amps.
In the control room: outboard mic pre's by Pultec, Manley, Neve, Jensen and Langevin, unusual stuff like Pye limiter/mic pre's, RCA BK-6 and 25, Manley, Summit and UREI limiters, and two EMT 140 plates, one tube and one solid-state. The mic selection is also good, encompassing the normal complement plus a fair amount of tubes and ribbons.
The main monitor system is a custom three-way with Altec 604Es and Mastering Lab crossovers. There are numerous near-field choices, including Event, Tannoy, Yamaha, KRK, Alesis and Mackie, all powered by Phase Linear 700s.
A separate room will soon be online for that second Pro Tools system, which currently resides in the front office. Other than that, plans at Sonora are just to keep moving and grooving. "We've got great clients, and we love what we're doing," concludes Barron.
Nettwerk Producer Management, a division of the vertically integrated Canadian entertainment entity that's home to Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Dido and Groove Armada, among others, is now up and running in Los Angeles. I stopped in for a visit at their Beverly Hills office with principal manager Alia Fahlborg, who filled me in on the new enterprise.
The current roster at NPM includes, among others, producer/mixers Howard Benson, Rob Chiarelli, Carmen Rizzo, Ed Stasium and Rick Will. The company also handles arranger/composer Jane Scarpantoni, remixes by Groove Armada and DJ Tiesto, and projects for 12 other creative souls, whose discographies cover a wide cross-section of music.
"Our clients are very versatile," comments Fahlborg, originally a musician whose background includes several years of singing in bands, as well as a stint in publishing and five years with Sandy Roberton's World's End Management, where she served as VP and manager. "Since we were building the company from scratch, we had the opportunity to extend ourselves in a lot of different areas. We have people who concentrate in rock, and, because Nettwerk is very much on the cutting edge of electronic music, we also handle electronica and remix projects."
Like World's End, NPM offers production coordination services to its clients, with veteran coordinator Martie Kolbl handling that aspect of the business. "That's a really important part of what we offer," Fahlborg states. "Handling the coordination gives us a much clearer picture of what's going on. We're able to control the budget and make sure things are being taken care of. Also, we can get things done quickly. It might take a label coordinator, who has so many different things going on, all day to take care of one simple detail that Martie can handle in 10 minutes. Martie is really amazing; the producers come to depend on her because she's so good at her job, and because she's always there for them."
Fahlborg studied at both the University of Miami's school of music and Los Angeles' Musicians Institute, and she envisions a multidimensional perspective on the business. "Having been in bands and done lots of demos," she says, "it was very natural for me to understand the whole recording process. Also, my husband is an engineer, and we actually spent three years running a recording studio in [his native] Sweden."
It was upon her return to L.A. after the Swedish sojourn that Fahlborg decided to get into the business end of music. "I thought that, at least, it would be something that I really enjoyed doing all day," she laughs, "instead of all the odd jobs you work at when you're in bands."
A stint at a small publishing company got her started shortly after she went to work for Roberton, one of the godfathers of producer/engineer management. "Sandy has an incredible work ethic and that clicked with me," she recalls. "We really worked together well, and it was great. When the opportunity with Nettwerk came along, it was a difficult decision to make, but it was too good to pass up. It's exciting to be working with a company that can provide so many opportunities. That's their whole vision: to have a synergy within the company that gets everybody working together. With producer management, we're just in the beginning stages of that, but it's exciting to look forward to where we'll be in five or 10 years."