Larrabee Studios: The Best of Old-School/New School, With Style

On a Tuesday night in late 2012, past the 11 o’clock hour, Larrabee Studios in North Hollywood was crazy packed and jumpin’. Jimmy Douglass was mixing Justin Timberlake in Studio 3 with Timbaland, who was also down the hall working with Brandy and a couple of other artists on pre-production in Studio A. Jaycen Joshua was working with T.I. in his room, Studio 1. Manny Marroquin was working on mixes for Bruno Mars and Christina Aguilera back in Studio 2. If not typical, then an almost typical night.
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Alex da Kid (left) and Manny Marroquin

Photo by Brian Petersen

On a Tuesday night in late 2012, past the 11 o’clock hour, Larrabee Studios in North Hollywood was crazy packed and jumpin’. Jimmy Douglass was mixing Justin Timberlake in Studio 3 with Timbaland, who was also down the hall working with Brandy and a couple of other artists on pre-production in Studio A. Jaycen Joshua was working with T.I. in his room, Studio 1. Manny Marroquin was working on mixes for Bruno Mars and Christina Aguilera back in Studio 2. If not typical, then an almost typical night.

Nearly a year later at the time we put together this cover story, producer Big John was in with Marroquin playing music for a new UK signing, the Vaults. In another room, Paramount Pictures head of music Randy Spendlove was in with Linkin Park finishing a song for a movie. He stops by Marroquin’s room, hears some cuts, and mentions that a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a new Transformers franchise is coming up. Maybe there’s something there…

It feels a bit like the 1970s, bumping into musicians in the hall and playing on each other’s records, but with a decidedly present-day slant. Vocal recording. Drum programming. Mixing in three rooms. Networking. Song placement. Albums. Singles. Hits. Larrabee Studios has a legacy of hits. Studio 2, red-hot mixer Marroquin’s comfortable and vibe-y home base, is one of five studios in what was once known as Larrabee North after Kevin Mills purchased it in 1991 from composer Giorgio Moroder. The first main project? Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Since then? Just in the past few years, hits by the likes of Imagine Dragons, Alicia Keys, Usher, Justin Timberlake, Chris Bown, Miguel, Linkin Park, Bruno Mars, John Mayer, Mary J. Blige, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Kanye…the list goes on and on.

The original Larrabee Sound Studios dates back to 1969, opened by the Mills family. That’s a 45-year run if you’re keeping score. And it feels like the place just opened as the new hot ticket, velvet rope, gotta-be-there kind of studio. The rooms remain accurate and true; the style has been updated to reflect a thoroughly modern yet completely home-y vibe—the lounges, the hallways, the reds and the blacks, the open-air patio and an outside mural on the way. The two newest rooms are known as The Bordello and The Rat Pack Room.

The producer-mixer duo pictured on this month’s cover, Alex da Kid and Manny Marroquin, embody that sense of modern style meets old-style groove. Their recent work on Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions was last year’s breakout smash, and their collaborations on Rihanna, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Skylar Grey and others over the past couple of years represent the best in a producer-mixer relationship.

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The Bordello, which has found its niche in pre-production, features an SSL Matrix.

Photo: Brian Petersen

“I do everything I can with Manny and Larrabee,” says Alex da Kid, a London native whose songwriting and production work rolled across the U.S. like a tidal wave of hits these past couple of years. “When I first came to L.A., I was driving around with a guy and he was telling me about who had recorded at Larrabee. It seemed like a magical place. Then I met Manny and started mixing with him. There’s such a great vibe and we have such fun. We’ve done so much here. He’s drawing off of 25 years of experience and I want his opinion and his taste, even beyond the music. I turn to him all the time for his opinion…then I usually ignore it [laughs].”

Alex da Kid is often portrayed as a “laptop producer” and songwriter, and he’s fine with that. When writing, he prefers to be alone with Logic and his own sounds. But there’s a backstory. After becoming enamored of Fruity Loops at 19, he enrolled in an audio engineering program and landed the equivalent of an internship at the world-renowned Metropolis Studios. There, he would record all night, analog and digital, dropping objects on the floor and recording it, borrowing some medieval percussion, gathering sounds that would become the foundation for much of his songwriting. Even today, being in the studio makes him feel that it’s time to focus, time to get serious.

“In terms of the mix, we have a great system,” he says. “I spend a lot of time, I guess, premixing. Instead of telling Manny what I want, I’ll automate all the vocals, I’ll automate all the drums. What Manny is great at is finding the space for every individual thing—the vocals, the instruments. I make everything pretty big, and I tend to limit my stuff a lot, so he’ll make it sound just as loud but it will have way more dynamic range. And he keeps it true to the demo, what I’m feeling. We are at that point where we can communicate without talking.”

Studio Synergy

Marroquin, who has been associated with Studio 2 since “around 2000,” remembers first walking into the room and seeing Kevin Davis at the SSL for a project he was working on with Tricky Stewart. “Honestly, it was love at first sight,” he recalls. “I’d never seen a room that was that sexy and cool and vibe-y, and I thought this is one of the best I’ve seen.” Fast-forward two years, and he calls then-studio manager Jamie Way looking for a home.

He’s never left.

Marroquin has exquisite taste and an artist’s sense of style in all that he does, from selecting the wine to redesigning his lounge to the mixes he delivers. Over the past few years Studio Manager Amy Burr has overseen the expansion of the two new rooms, at an economic down time when many thought she was nuts.

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Studio manager Amy Burr in Studio 4, the ‘Rat Pack Room,’ the newest addition to the facility, featuring an SSL 4056 G Series console.

Photo: Brian Petersen

“It was simply a matter of buy low, sell high,” she explains. “We knew it was a bad economy and that we were going against the grain. But you know what? Records are still going to be made. Music is not going away. The monetizing of it has changed but music is still here. Within the first couple of months we do the whole Justin Timberlake first album here, then a bunch of Miley Cyrus, then Linkin Park came in for a couple of months, and they may do more. There’s that synergy of people wanting to be in a place like this. They want to be catered to, they want to know that everything works. You have to pay attention to detail, from the front desk to the hi-hat sound. I learned that from Rose at Record Plant.”

“My dream was always to be part of a one-stop shop,” Marroquin says. “One spot where you can come in with an idea, record it in the small production room, cut a rough vocal, then go record it in a room, whether it’s a live band or programmed synths and drum machine, then walk down the hallway and mix the shit out of it. [Laughs.] The only thing we’re missing is mastering, and hopefully someday we’ll have that and we can walk down to radio or send it straight to iTunes.”

With all that is going on, Marroquin is proud to be part of this 45-year legacy and the “incredible team” in-house. Studio manager Burr, who worked with Rose Mann at Record Plant, came onboard three years ago. His assistant engineers Chris Galland, Delbert Bowers and Ike Shultz, along with personal assistant Jennifer Silvers, make it seamless for him to juggle all his creative and technical duties.

It also helps to have another A-list mixer in-house, three-time Grammy-winner Jaycen Joshua, who lives in Studio 1, the former home of Dave Pensado. Besides T.I., Joshua has done recent work with Rick Ross/Jay-Z, Chris Brown, Ludacris, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, and many others. “I used to work at a music store, Music Plus, when I was 19,” Marroquin says in summation. “We had these Saturday morning meetings, and this one store manager who just got hired was super excited. At his first meeting, he said, ‘Rule number one of retail: Get ‘em through the door!’ For whatever reason, that stuck with me, and I’ve always discussed it with Kevin Mills.”

“We’ve always been confident,” Burr says. “Get the artist in the door and watch what happens. We’ve always trusted in that if we execute it right, if we greet them out front and the service is incredible, and the mixes are amazing, we just need to get them in the door. If we’ve done our job, they’re going to want to stay.”

Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.