Alicia Keys and Kerry “Krucial“ Brothers at the SSL AWS900/Pro Tools–based control room
photo: Courtney Spencer
When old school hooks up with new school, watch out. That's exactly what has happened at The Oven Studios, a world-class facility created for Alicia Keys and Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, founders of KrucialKeys Enterprises (www.krucialkeys.com). Designed by Keys, Krucial and a dedicated team, the facility successfully builds on a pre-existing high-level recording studio in the New York area and puts it into a 2005 context, perfect for a nine-time Grammy®-winning songwriter growing increasingly skilled in her role as a producer.
“I've always written, I've always played the piano, and when I heard these songs in my head, I would know what I wanted the feel and the sound to be,” says Keys, who produced or co-produced 11 of the 15 tracks on the 2003 multi-Platinum The Diary of Alicia Keys. “Krucial was one of the first people to encourage me to take things into my own hands. That's why producing is so important to me. I'm able to hear my thoughts and voices, and I can present it as only I know it should exist.”
After the smashing success of Songs in A Minor and Diary, KrucialKeys decided that a purpose-built recording studio was in order, with a choice between renovating an existing facility or building one from scratch. Realizing that vibe settles in like a vintage wine, the partners opted for the former and purchased an established facility built into an old house, with a quiet town setting and calming shade trees just outside.
“The basic idea is that we've always been very hands-on and always been working in ‘The House,’” states Krucial, referring to Keys' early demos that were recorded in a small Harlem apartment. “We're both into the old sound and we don't mind the big studios, but there's something about the home environment that's more comfortable, so we figured the best way was shaping the studio so it's an extension of the home.”
KrucialKeys got the process going by huddling with longtime engineer Ann Mincieli, who started working with the pair at New York City's Quad Studios in 2000 — a relationship that officially went full-time during the recording of Diary. Mincieli did her research and built a tight, top-tier team capable of guiding the studio's extensive renovations and rebirth: Krucial; Keys; Dave Malekpour of Professional Audio Design; and John Storyk, Beth Walters, Dirk Noy and Chris Bowman of architectural and acoustical design firm Walters-Storyk Design Group.
“Everyone's input went into it,” Mincieli stresses. “Everything in the pre-existing structure would lead us to ask, ‘Why do we need that? How do we revolutionize this? How do we change the face of the industry? How can we be a leader ourselves?’ We had the team, and if you look at the rooms, they're from everybody's input and decisions. It was nice because someone else would frequently have a way of looking at things that you might not have thought of.
Alicia Keys celebrates engineer Ann Mincieli’s Pro Tools move, while Kerry “Krucial” Brothers looks skeptical
photo: Courtney Spencer
“Creating The Oven was a big experiment, really,” Mincieli continues. “Our mic panels aren't everyday mic panels, for example: They have our logo, and the Mytek headphone system built into it has been modified so the noise from the power supply is in the basement, not the live room. All these details we came up with wouldn't have gotten to that level if we didn't have the whole team helping each other. I've been to a lot of studios, but I haven't seen one with a thought process like this — constantly asking, ‘What can we do that's unique?’”
The Oven answers that question first with its relaxed atmosphere, accenting the house environment with green hues and earth tones in the rooms and corridors that surround the fully outfitted upstairs production rooms — Studio B and Studio C — and the heart of the facility, Studio A on the first floor. “My first decision was to get an SSL AWS900,” says Mincieli. “It's a dual-function desk: 24 channels of SSL mic pre's and EQ with a DAW running as a HUI. The design of the modules on the desk is the same as on a K or an XL, but the signal path is shorter, so it sounds even better than an XL. I'd love a K, but I don't have the real estate. This little AWS900 came out and it was perfect, so I made that my foundation.”
Adding to the 230-square-foot control room is a wide selection of mic pre's, including the 24 ultralow-noise preamps in the AWS900, plus four more external SSL mic pre's, 16 additional channels of API and two original Neve 1073s. The highly flexible SSL patchbay was custom-made by PAD for The Oven, laid out to maximize integration between the console and the 24-in/48-out Pro Tools|HD system, while keeping all cables concealed via an under-the-floor routing scheme. The Augspurger and Yamaha NS10 monitors, multiple mics and myriad other gear build on a perfectionist attention to detail within the recording space, sporting a matched look with Aston Martin Metallic Silver 2001 paint selected from a local car dealership.
Everything is set up to capture the magic that awaits in the adjoining live room, a 535-square-foot space with a stone wall and a staged floor plan created especially for Keys' vocal and piano mastery. “The pianos in that big live room have such a clear, crystal, gorgeous clarity,” Keys says. “At the same time, we can set up anything else we want. It has the stones on the wall that gives a more intimate, personal feel. The point of the room is to capture a multitude of sounds.” Also on The Oven floor are a 160-square-foot drum room and 80-square-foot iso booth.
When hard drives are rolling, Mincieli frequently employs a Telefunken Ela M 270 stereo mic for recording Keys' Yamaha piano and a Telefunken U47 or Sony C800 for her vocals. “Knowing that there's going to be a piano in the room and that the other primary instrument will be a world-class vocalist, you do things differently,” says Storyk, lead acoustician for the project, of the live room. “You make this room as reverberant as possible, while still ensuring mid- and high-frequency reflection control. Most pianists like a wood floor, and so does Alicia. Some people think that the resonators we used for low-frequency absorption are meant to look like the black keys on a piano, but the rhythm of their placement stems from the fact that they're affixed to columns in the walls. The end result is an appealing mixture of architecture, acoustics, aesthetics and ergonomics.”
Is the melding of living spaces and workspaces an emerging trend? “I would hope so,” Walters adds regarding Studio A's aesthetic. “They spend a lot of time here [in Studio A], and their work branched out into the rest of the facility, as well. This is definitely as much of a living space as it is a workspace.”
The team that built The Oven. Front row: Keys and Brothers. Back row, from left, Beth Walters of Walters-Storyk, engineer Ann Mincieli and Dave Malekpour of Professional Audio Design
photo: Courtney Spencer
Studios A, B and C combine to make The Oven a full-service facility — not just for KrucialKeys, which recently mixed Keys' Unplugged here for J Records, but for their collaborators and select outside clients such as Donna Summer and Keyshia Cole. Especially enticing is the Pro Tools|HD3 — equipped Studio B, where dark wood and natural light combine to create a naturally meditative state and an extremely attractive destination for writing, recording and pre-production. Studio C offers a complement of Korg and Roland synths and Akai MPC workstations to add to the available sonic palette.
According to Malekpour, The Oven is a perfect example of the direction that accomplished artists are now taking with their personal facilities. “At PAD, what we've seen happen is a shift from larger-scale commercial facilities to artists wanting their own larger-scale personal-use facilities. They're built around a person's way of working, and they want to be in there without the clock ticking so that even if they go away for two weeks on tour, they can get right back to working the way that they want to work.
“This studio has ramped that up: It's a pro facility that's privately owned, and they've considered how to use it for session work when they're not using it themselves,” he continues. “I won't be surprised if we replicate this kind of studio in the future: a mid-sized room with great acoustics and everything in the control room within easy reach designed around production and creation as opposed to having this giant object there. The SSL AWS900 has such a small footprint that it allows you to do a lot more.
“It's also exciting to work with someone who really cares about the end result. Alicia's a unique artist because she's involved with all aspects of her production, and when you see her perform, you see that this person is deeply devoted to her craft. She's also surrounded herself with some good people, and that's a key component to every studio environment.”
With the creation of The Oven, it seems that one of the world's most successful performers is happy to find herself fully immersed in the science of recording. “When it comes to songwriting, the essence is the voice, the song and one special instrument,” Keys reflects. “So it starts in this simplistic way, but when you get into the audio aspect of making a record — not a song, but a whole record — it really makes a difference; not just the people you're working with, but the types of things you're working on. A good song is a good song whether you have good audio engineering or not, but it does enhance the experience. We're blessed with having so much to create the best audio experience for the listener.”
David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.