From left, Mad Dog studio manager Samur, owner Dusty Wakeman and staff producer/engineer Eric Corne.
During the course of this rough-and-tumble decade, many record makers have been faced with the challenge of doing more with less. This month, we take a look at how a pair of cagey D.I.Y. veterans have turned limitations into strengths.
L.A. institution Mad Dog has nimbly done the tighten-up in reaction to a general belt-tightening among its clientele. Throughout its 28-year existence, the facility, founded and owned by producer/bass player Dusty Wakeman, has been a magnet for the roots-rock/alt-country community, from Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams to John Doe and Peter Case, thanks to its plentitude of old-school gear and an atmosphere as comfortable as a pair of faded Levis 501s.
Mad Dog has been at its present location in Burbank for the past decade-and-a-half, but two years ago Wakeman leased out Studios A and B long-term to a film composer and moved his gear into the big room, known as the Stage, which had previously been used for video shoots, rehearsals and pre-production.
Rather than framing out a separate control room, Wakeman decided to position his Neve 8088 board, Pro Tools HD system and racks of hardware in one corner of what is now a 2,500-square-foot tracking room, outfitted with movable baffles and a roomy iso booth. This setup is as organic as a professional recording studio gets — not only is a talkback button unnecessary, neither are headphones. It turns out that a lot of Mad Dog's loyal clients prefer recording face to face, without being separated by walls or windows.
“The experience is very immediate,” says engineer/producer Samur, a recent M.I. graduate who started as an intern during the changeover and showed such aptitude and drive that Wakeman soon made him studio manager. “With no wall between you and the band, you can just stand up from behind the Neve and coach the musicians. The room has its own sound, it's really big and our clients love it. We're doing really well right now, and that's saying something, given the current climate.”
Wakeman doubles as the president of Mojave, the condenser mic division of nearby Royer Microphones, and that connection has added a custom dimension to Mad Dog's requisite arsenal of vintage goodies, which includes UREI, Joemeek and PreSonus compressors; reverbs and delays from Lexicon, EMT, Eventide and Roland; equalizers from Lang, Summit, API and Krone-Hite; and mic pre's from Demeter, API, Neve and Hardy. “There's always a bunch of cool prototype tube mics here, all handmade by David Royer,” says Samur, “and they're just awesome-sounding.”
Mad Dog's appeal is three-fold, Samur offers. “We always keep indie bands' budgets in mind so that they get a good room at a good price. At the same time, we have every kind of gear you could imagine — tons of vintage organs and amps, a Yamaha grand piano. But, ultimately, it's about the vibe here. There are no egos or politics involved. It's like one big family — you're in this giant room together, making a record. So it's like a small club of really good friends who keep the studio going.”
Wakeman still spends as much time as possible at Mad Dog, swinging by to eat lunch and rap it down with the staff, as well as overseeing all the cues for TV commercials that are created there, but he hasn't produced a project at the studio since the changeover. Instead, he's put his trust in Samur, who has expanded the stylistic range of Mad Dog's clientele, which now includes underground hip hop, death metal and hard-rock acts. “There's a new generation at Mad Dog,” he says. “We're attracting a hip, younger crowd and staying current with what's going on, but at the same time Dusty's whole circle of Americana artists are still coming and keeping the doors open.
“The projects vary from esoteric indie stuff to engineers who like working Abbey Road-style,” Samur notes. Clients in recent months have included Craig Schumacher mixing Devotchka's next album, Poison's Bret Michaels filming a TV special, repeat customers The Bonedaddies, Mötley Crüe's Mick Mars and legendary producer Eddie Kramer (a longtime Mad Dog habitué — he does all his Experience Hendrix mixing there), who tracked and mixed an album with Leroy Powell. Looking ahead, Wakeman has been gearing up to record his first solo album — and he wouldn't think of cutting it anywhere else.
The tireless Samur also somehow manages to operate his own Seahorse Sound (www.seahorsesoundstudios.com) in San Bernardino, which he opened in the fall, making for 18-hour work days and one helluva daily commute. With the price of gas, he's just breaking even on the Mad Dog gig. “But you've gotta do what you love, do it now and do it all the time,” he says. “I had to make a decision: Did I want to work as an assistant on big-time projects at a big studio and be able to throw names around, or did I want to make records that I felt good about being a part of? And I decided that it was better to be in a position to make a difference rather than being the weakest link in the chain. Mad Dog is a great studio, and I believe in it.”
Greg Laswell recorded his brand-new Vanguard EP, How the Day Sounds, completely by himself, which is the way he's been operating since transitioning from a bandmember (Shillglen) to a solo artist in 1994. That's when he taught himself to make records as a sort of one-man band, coming up with the parts, playing and programming them, engineering, producing and mixing.
Mix and Electronic Musician served as Laswell's primary textbooks as he studied the ABCs of recording. “Those magazines were like porn to me,” he says jokingly. The neophyte producer made his first solo album on a Roland 1680 16-track recorder, then he hunkered down and sold copiers for nine months to “go computer,” as he calls it, “and I've never looked back.” His digital palette presently includes a high-mileage Mac dual G4, MOTU Digital Performer, a 1296 interface and Apogee Big Ben clock. He also does some work in Propellerhead Reason and makes extensive use of an Electron PCN plug-in reverb. “It's a modest setup,” he says, “but it's better to get a few really high-end things and learn the shit out of them than it is to get a bunch of low-grade stuff.”
The seven-song EP follows Laswell's 2006 album, Through Toledo, his first for Vanguard. That record not only drew critical accolades, it also generated the opportunity to make money on the road while leading to song placements in TV series including Shark, Smallville, One Tree Hill and Without a Trace. Concurrently, he's continued to serve as producer/player/programmer on various indie projects. The combined income from these activities has allowed him to make a decent living.
As he's done ever since getting the bug, Laswell has used part of any extra income, as well as the recording advances from his label, to upgrade his rig. His most critical acquisition has been a Millennia Origin Twincom compressor/limiter. “I pretty much send everything through it — vocals, guitars, drums,” he says. “There's a really great switch that you can flip on the left-hand side that makes everything magically sparkle.”
He's also fallen in love with the drum-sample libraries of Drum Kit From Hell and, for the latest project, BFD. “I can play drums,” he points out, “but I end up programming them most of the time because it's now extremely hard to detect that they're not real drums. On the EP, the drums are completely programmed using BFD, and then I just added some real tambourines, shakers and handclaps, which help to legitimize the tracks. It's the easiest thing you can do to make a track a lot better.
“On the EP, I did a bunch of the drum parts first,” Laswell continues. “The drum part for ‘Embrace Me' came right out of BFD, and I liked the drum part so much that I decided to write a song around it. I don't even really play on that song — I just hold down whole notes on the piano, get out of the way and let the drums take over.”
Laswell conceived and executed the EP's title song in a sustained burst of inspiration, enabled by his trusty set of digital tools. “I stumbled across this little piano line that I liked and laid it down really quickly so I wouldn't forget it. Then I decided to put down a quick guitar part, too. At that point, it got a hold of me, to the point where I started singing a melody over it just so that I could remember it. So I sang my fake lyrics and I actually liked the fake lyrics, so I decided to finish the song right then and there. I got all the verses by looping them, came up with a chorus, went back and programmed the drums. I literally wrote it and recorded it simultaneously. That's one of the great things about a home studio — and GarageBand is a big part of the process because you can immediately listen back to an idea and get an objective view of it.”
Laswell remains in his comfort zone with Digital Performer for both recording and mixing his projects, and he's been planning to pick up a top-of-the-line Mac to replace the G4, but he wasn't about to do so in the midst of recording the EP, knowing from bitter experience the perils of changing horses midstream. He's also getting into Logic after receiving an NFR copy from Apple. “It's an amazing program, and I'm thinking of using it next time around,” he says.
In December, Laswell started work on his next full-length, once again commuting between his Hollywood apartment and the garage studio in Santa Ana he leased before cutting the EP; he decided to separate life and work when he moved up from San Diego six months ago. But work remains play for him on a fundamental level. “You have to love the process as much as the end result,” he asserts. “If you don't love the process, you'll never get there because the process can be brutal.”
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