Hollywood's Paramount Studios has been hosting a series of Sessions@AOL live performance and interview videos that are Webcast for America Online users. Over the past year, Paramount sessions have included The Wallflowers, Bryan Ferry, John Mayer, The Roots and the Flaming Lips. On the afternoon I stopped in, the featured artist was Dreamworks' Boomkat, which consists of Taryn Manning — singer, actress (8 Mile, Crossroads, White Oleander) and Gap model — and her brother, multi-instrumentalist and beatmaster Kellin.
Sessions streams more than a million videos per week on AOL Music, showcasing everything from new material by Paul McCartney and U2 to Alicia Keys, Dolly Parton, P Diddy and Queens of the Stone Age. “The series covers a lot of bases,” comments Ann Burkart of AOL media relations. “A lot of unexpected things can happen, like when Aaron Carter brought his backup dancers to the studio. We also go to locations: We recorded Tommy Lee at his house in L.A., visited Dave Matthews on the road, Paul McCartney in Texas and Britney Spears in Las Vegas.”
Sessions is hosted by interviewer Chris Douridas, who's previous live-in-the-studio broadcasts include NPR/KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic and PBS-TV's Sessions at West 54th. For the Boomkat performance, Paramount's Studio C was bustling with producers, coordinators, camera people, publicists, etc., as Douridas and his longtime engineer, Scott Fritz, sorted out the setup. Plans had been for a prerecorded backing “track” show, but the date was evolving as acoustic guitars and backup singers arrived unexpectedly to accompany Kellin Manning's electronic setup.
“Things pop up, and there's really no way of preparing for what's going to come,” admits Fritz. “We touch base before the sessions, but the band could come in and say, ‘We decided to bring the bagpipes,’ and you have to be able to react.”
Asked what equipment he prefers to capture performances “live-to-2,” Fritz says, “The only things you can really rely on are microphones. We use studios that have the kinds we need, which is one of the reasons we're at Paramount. The only things I bring with me are [Shure SM] 58s and a Neumann KMR 82 shotgun mic for the interviews.
“Consistent results for me come with a Telefunken ELAM 251, if I can get a way with it,” he continues. “But you always have to assess what else is going on. Is the person sitting down, standing up, playing a guitar? How are you going to fit that 251 in? Because another consideration with video is to make sure that the microphone isn't covering their faces.”
Other favorite L.A. studios for Sessions are The Village and Record One, but Fritz has high praise for Paramount. “Everyone at Paramount knows the drill,” he says. “Adam [Beilenson] and Mike [Kearns], the owners, are very accommodating. Ricky Chao, the assistant, and tech Tom Doty understand the speed we need to work at, which many studios do not. We're supposed to be in and out in three hours.”
“We're very flexible when people want to try something different,” adds Burkart. “Sessions was conceived from the desire to create compelling, original programming. The goal is to get something really unique from the artist's perspective. They seem to enjoy the format and the fact that they're able to reach so many people from such an intimate setting. We've also gotten major kudos on the sound. Most artists aren't used to being recorded live like this, and they're surprised at how good it sounds.”
After working together on live-to-2 recordings for more than 10 years, Douridas and Fritz are experts at the genre. “The beauty of it is capturing the moment,” comments Douridas. “It's an on-the-edge performance. If people are live on the radio, they make it work. The second you go away from live-to-2-track, you open the gates to, ‘Let me just try…’ and you end up with something different. If they know they can go back and fix things, suddenly you're at take 83.
“Live is like walking that razor; you end up with better stuff. I've had people walk out and say, ‘That's the best we've ever done that song.’ Often, it's the first time they've taken the songs into a recording studio since they made the record; you can come out with really rare moments because of that. They've gone on tour for a year, and that song has morphed into something more than they thought it was when they originally recorded it. After they've toured, they come back and do a session with us, and sometimes that song is richer — a different experience.”
Douridas' past focus has been on alternative and emerging artists. He brings that musical sensibility to his Sessions interviews, which tend to feature higher-profile, more commercial performers, making for an interesting juxtaposition. “I was blown away by what Christina Aguilera did live,” he admits. “A lot of times, pop artists aren't given real respect for their music and the amount of work they've put into it. I think she was a little surprised that I was asking her about her music, how she wrote her songs. People don't generally ask [pop artists] those questions. How they put together their music is often a story they never tell because nobody asks.”
Archives of Sessions@AOL performances and interviews are available online at AOL Keyword: Sessions.
The trend of working outside traditional studio environments is still going strong. A villa in the Malibu hills, dubbed Morning View Studios, has become popular with those into build-your-own; Chicago-based alt metal band From Zero hunkered down there with producer/engineer Warren Riker to record their sophomore Arista release. At Morning View, panoramic ocean vistas, lush gardens, a pool and seclusion have appealed to artists from STP to Incubus, but Riker and From Zero managed to put their own special spin on the surroundings.
A party atmosphere prevailed on the sunny day I dropped in. In the kitchen, friends hung out and the scent of barbecue wafted. The rest of the house was filled with cables, guitars, gear and what looked like every packing blanket in the greater L.A. area.
“We got the gear from Allen Sides' Classic Rentals,” Riker explains. “When I gave them the list, everybody was like, ‘Do you really want to do that there?’ Actually, I had three lists: ‘Whaddaya kiddin' me?’ ‘You must be nuts,’ and ‘We might be able to do that.’ I think we came in just a little under ‘Whaddaya kiddin' me?’”
Ernie Woody, Classic's general manager, agrees that the setup was unusual. “We've done a lot of location recordings at various places,” he says. “We'd previously done three projects at Morning View, but Warren's package was by far the largest and most elaborate. He had us deliver a 40-input Neve 8068 with Flying Faders, a huge 48 I/O Pro Tools system with 24 faders of Pro Control, and a ton of outboard — everything from eclectic vintage stuff to the most modern — along with a Studer A800 and various DATs, CDs and CD-Rs. They also had drum risers and a lot more baffling than other people had used.”
Included in the package mic-wise were, besides what Woody calls the “meat and potatoes,” lots of tube and ribbon models along with Audio-Technica ES-943/c lavaliers for toms. Sides himself put together a pair of Ocean Way custom main monitors and came out personally to tune them. A Mytec Private Q headphone system was part of the package, as well as a large P.A. and a video communication system.
Riker, a veteran of the Manhattan recording scene, may be somewhat of a wild man, but he's also extremely meticulous. Having previously recorded on location, he knew what was required and had mapped things out in detail beforehand. He admits, though, that there were numerous unforeseen challenges. “We spent almost a week getting everything in and buttoned together,” he says. “The following week, every other day we were sussing out problems and getting them fixed. For example, we had to get curtains — 40-foot-high draperies, actually — because there was a lot of flutter echo in the rooms. But after that, we were all right.”
According to Woody, setup for such remotes is usually, “two days of madness and one day of refining. For this one, we had eight bodies and two professional movers to get the console and the multitrack upstairs. The first day was carrying all those racks of equipment upstairs and getting the console on its feet. Then there were two days of sussing out the console and a day of plugging in the last mics and fine-tuning.
“After that, it's maintenance. Usually, they'll go two to three weeks of tracking, then we'll scale the package back for overdubs. Finally, it's just a vocal setup and one driver as needed, picking up and dropping off. During a week, we'll probably make five trips: They'll want to try a mic or need more outboard or monitors than they'd anticipated. Each time, it's a challenge. We always want to prove what we're capable of doing, so people keep calling us for these kinds of projects.”
It's all worth it when the guitar player can rip a solo, with his own stage monitors, on a balcony overlooking the ocean; the programmer has a room with bay windows and a chandelier; and the singer makes his bedroom his vocal booth. Everything except vocals was recorded to 16-track analog on the Studer, then dumped to Pro Tools for editing and mixing.
“I've got a lot of little operations going on at once,” notes Riker. “Kid, the drummer, has the huge room with high ceilings all to himself. [Guitarists] Pete [Capizzi] and Joe [Pettinato] have rigs set up throughout the house. [Anthony] Fu [Valcic], the programmer, can shut himself in his room and crank it up. [Lead singer and bassist] Jett has another Pro Tools rig in his bedroom with different vocal mic combinations. We just switch hotswap drives between the rooms.”
“We decided to do this, rather than living at corporate housing and traveling to the studio every day,” adds Jett. “I didn't want these sessions to be the usual, ‘Okay, there's your 12 hours; that's it.’ Sometimes we want to sing at one in the morning, and sometimes we want to work till 6:00 a.m. It becomes something different when you make a record in a vibe area like this, living with your producer. If you can make that connection, you become like family. The record turns into something very different than if you just hired a producer who was into your music but who punched out at midnight.”
“You really get to know each other when you're sharing the same house for two months and staring at each other at the breakfast table,” Riker says with a laugh. “The one thing we all have in common is the desire to make a kick-ass record. That takes precedence over all. Costwise, working this way comes to the same, or maybe even a little less than booking a major studio, and we save on lodging and eating. Luckily, these guys love to cook — whoever isn't cutting tracks is cooking! It's been great being out here. I haven't worn shoes and socks for two months!”
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