L.A. Grapevine

I dropped in at The Cave, Billy Bob Thornton's Beverly Hills studio, to chat about Hobo, his latest release, only to find him working away on a whole
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Billy Bob Thornton at home in The Cave

photo: Myriam Santos-Kayda. All Rights Reserved

I dropped in at The Cave, Billy Bob Thornton's Beverly Hills studio, to chat about
Hobo, his latest release, only to find him working away on a whole new batch of songs. This guy just plain loves making music. If he's not directing, acting — or both — he's writing, recording or performing his original music with bunches of very cool musicians.

The Cave, it's rumored, was originally a speakeasy, part of a neighborhood network of private clubs built during Prohibition. When you're down there with master storyteller Thornton and friends, it's easy to believe that the tales are true. The studio itself was built for the home's previous owner, guitarist Slash, by studio designer/tech Art Kelm and engineer Jim Mitchell, a mainstay engineer for Slash and now for Thornton.

Co-written by Thornton and songwriter/guitarist Randy Mitchell, Hobo was co-produced by Thornton and the two (unrelated) Mitchells. It's an evocative record, an amalgam of poetry and music with a smoky, hipster sound.

Although Hobo was written, recorded and mixed almost entirely at The Cave, its beginnings were in a Chicago hotel room. “I was talking on the phone to my mom,” Thornton recalls, “about how my grandmother used to feed hobos at the back door. That led to a song about a street person in Santa Monica [Calif.] whose grandmother fed hobos and realizes he's become one.”

A string of other songs ensued about California and those who come here pursuing dreams. The music, which sounds like it was performed live by a band, was, in fact, almost entirely played by Mitchell, who composed loops and beats and then overdubbed guitars and both electric and keyboard bass; Matt Laug added live drums. The result is moody, groovy and picturesque.

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Emmy-winning production mixer Dan Cubert, a “Family Guy” since day one

photo: Maureen Droney

“The album is a story,” says Thornton, “in the sense that the songs are all about the pilgrimage to California. But they also all stand on their own. I come by this stuff honestly; I was practically a street person myself for a while. I came to California without much of anything and I starved for 10 years before things started to happen.”

Because he's a director, it's no surprise that Thornton writes songs from a visual standpoint. “If you tell the story well enough,” he explains, “it should cause people to not only listen to the sounds, but also to conjure up images.”

The tracks, originally recorded by Randy Mitchell on a Digidesign Mbox, were transferred to Pro Tools for drum recording by Jim Mitchell. Mixing took place on The Cave's Trident Series 80B desk to an ATR Services 1-inch 8-track (rented from Design FX) on Ampex 456 tape at +3. Joe Gastwirt mastered the project at Joe's Mastering Joint.

Digging deeper: Time and space intervened and September's “Sound for Picture” story on
Family Guy, Fox Television's outrageous animated feature, fell short in describing the show's fundamental: dialog recording. Fortunately, I got to take another trip to the Wilshire District for a tour of the Fox Animation suites where the hard-working crew records and edits dialog in studios of their own design for Family Guy and its sister production, American Dad.

Emmy-winning production mixer Dan Cubert, who's been with Family Guy since its very first recording, showed me around. Set in the middle of an a office building with an open floor plan, Family Guy's vocal production studios comprise modular, prefab booths that look as solid as bank vaults.

“We had to get a studio up and going as quickly as possible without any construction,” explains Cubert. “Mike Sirna and Charles Rowe of Acoustic Systems put together these rooms for us. They went up in two days and then we did the wiring and install in a half-day. Acoustic Systems modified things for us, and thanks to the plug-and-play nature of today's equipment — and RSPE and Russ Belttary, our equipment suppliers — it was two-and-a-half days from nothing to a real studio. For our application, which is recording the absolute cleanest possible dialog, it's perfect.”

One booth serves as the control room, another as the main recording space and a third as a smaller iso. “The modular booths are incredibly cost-effective,” says Cubert. “They're not inexpensive, but they can be moved, stored and re-used in another location. And the building's management loves them because they're so unobtrusive.”

The recording chain is the same for everyone: Neumann TLM 193 microphones through the Yamaha DM1000 console's preamps and Aphex 661 compressors, “the piece I insist on,” notes Cubert. “The TLM requires zero EQ, other than rolling off everything below 80 Hz. [Family Guy and American Dad creator] Seth [MacFarlane] likes it, and he knows music. It has a high mid bump that cuts right through.”

Recording to Pro Tools|HD is “straight-ahead,” with no plug-ins involved. “We use very light compression with the Aphex,” states Cubert, “and we use limiting in the sense that we like to keep our levels between -6 and 12 [on a zero to -20 reference] so there's at least 6 dB of headroom.”

The current crew includes Steve Dierkens, who records and edits for Family Guy, and Shawn Kerkhoff, who does the honors for American Dad. Cubert himself, until, as he says, “I lost my mind,” recorded and edited both shows. Also in the loop has been “dialog editor Daniel Ben-Shimon, who came into the process on the second episode of American Dad for the first season and a part of the second season.” MacFarlane (the voice of multiple characters on both shows) is a perfectionist. Each script goes through several rewrites, with new bits added up until the very end. Cubert gives high marks to the show's coordinators and Family Guy production supervisor Brandee Stilwell for keeping all in order.

What is it like working with MacFarlane doing voices for Stewie, Brian, Peter and Tom Tucker — all at the same time? “He just goes,” Cubert says with a laugh. “It's a weird thing. Logically, we know it's all Seth, but we refer to [the characters] as different people. I've worked on animated cartoons for years, but I've never been on a show that makes me laugh so much. I crack up while recording, I crack up during editing. This show makes me laugh every time.”

Mix would like to extend a heartfelt congratulations to Maureen Droney, who has accepted a position with The Recording Academy's P&E Wing. Tune in for her last “Grapevine” column in the December issue.