Wednesday, March 30, 2011

La Fabrique

Currently enjoying the pleasure of working at one of Europe's premiere residential studios, La Fabrique. Located near St. Remy in the Provence region in the South of France, the recording studio rooms of La Fabrique are set up in one part of a very long 3 story building that's been divided up into various residential and working facilities.

Assistant engineer Damien Arlot said that the building dates back to the latter part of the 19th century and was originally a textile mill that made red uniforms for the French army, hence the name La Fabrique. I also relate it to the notion of music weaving together the fabric of the Universe.

Apparently the textile making ceased sometime around the First World War when it was quickly discovered, by painful experience, that red unforms make great targets.

La Fabrique's Control Room is quite large, over 300 square feet with an equally spacious recording area adjacent to it. The walls on either side of both the Control Room and Recording Area are lined with one part of a massive collection of vinyl stored in oak paneled, glass encased shelves. I asked Damien how large the collection was and was told about 3000 but that figure must be a mistake in translation. According to an interview in Resolution magazine with Herve Le Guil who owns and operates La Fabrique with his wife Isabelle, the collection contains about 200,000 vinyls (almost exclusively classical music), 40,000 films and 160,000 books on music and film. It was assembled by musicologist Armand Panigel.

A Pro Tools 002 work station is set-up in one small room, lined floor to ceiling with books on music, for the purpose of digitizing this collection.

The rear of the Control Room has two large picture windows that bathe the room in natural light all day long. The mixing desk is a 72 channel Neve 88R that sounds warm and beautiful and comes equipped with Encore Flying Faders automation. The standard Pro Tools HD rig is augmented with top of the line analog recorders, a 24 track Studer A800 and a 1/2" Studer A80 that I mixed down to. Monitors consist of a set of K & H near fields and a large Amadeus speaker stack for the big speakers. I found the sound of the Control Room to be clear, accurate and easy to get used to. No doubt all the oak paneling helped.

A favorite La Fabrique feature for me is the choice of various "live chambers" that could be utilized for natural reverb. I took full advantage using various reverb chambers on different songs. A very large storage room with a high sloped roof and stone walls gave a bright and lively natural ambience without sounding too big. An arched stone corridor with stairs leading up one flight had hollowed out walls and a sound much more reverberant - great for drums.

The entrance to the Control Room leads through the old mill, a stone room with lots of irregularly shaped surfaces, It gave a very live and warm ambience, also great for drums.

Another interesting acoustic area was in the stairwell leading to the two floors above where the client's and visiting staff residential suites are located. I had a speaker placed on the ground floor pointing up and miced it with 2 stereo condenser mics up on the third floor. This also gave a powerful reverb sound that reminded me of the classic drum sound from Led Zeppelin's, When the Levee Breaks.

Herve, Isabelle and the La Fabrique staff really go out of their way to support the client and visiting technicians. As soon as I set my bags down on the evening I arrived, Herve, also an accomplished engineer, asked me what kind of monitors I like to use? I said Pro Acs. The next day a pair of Pro Acs showed up brought down by their son Maxime who manages and engineers at their sister studio in Paris called Plus XXX and who happened to be coming down for another matter.

One day my laptop decided it wasn't going to power up anymore. The studio very thoughtfully provided me with an Apple Imac to access the internet in my room.

Maxime is also involved with organizing a set of mixing workshops with well known audio professionals such as Michael Brauer, David Kahne, and Andy Wallace. Collectively known as Mixing with the Masters, each workshop is a week long and has limited enrollment. The first workshop is scheduled right after my project with engineer Peter Katis. Tchad Blake has just come on board and is scheduled for a couple of weeks later in the fall.

St. Remy is close to the city of Arles. Both places and the surrounding region were settings for famous paintings by Vincent Van Gogh who spent much of his life in this area. It is said that the light in the south of France is inspirational for artists. I can verify this, although I find it hard to describe. The incredible quality of light gives the effect of everything seeming to be illuminated from within. The psychedelic, luminous quality of Van Gogh's paintings is understandable after seeing the light here.

Every morning I descend two flights down well worn stone steps with this beautiful, invigorating light streaming in. Often, at the bottom of the stairs, a door is open looking out to the lavishly green, well kept landscape of the La Fabrique grounds. Two small potted trees with well-pruned, symmetrically spherical tops line each side of the doorway. They look like bonsai plants only too big, yet much smaller than regular trees. This attention to detail and the light, combined with staying in a large older house near the forests of south France gave the feeling of what I imagined it was like staying at the Prieuré, the school established by G.I. Gurdjieff in the early XXth Century in Fontainebleau.

One morning I noticed that the light even made the ordinary breakfast items: the bottles of juice, the bread, preserves, the cups, saucers and eating utensils appear magical, as if illuminated from within. I can't help but wonder what effect this light has on audio perception because, as I mentioned, it bathes the studio Control Room all day long.

St. Remy also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the famed visionary Nostradamus.

I will talk more about the incredibly talented artist I'm working with at another time when the project is complete.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bear Comes Home

A counter-cultural icon, and ground breaking audio engineer, Augustus Owsley Stanley III aka Bear shuffled off his mortal coil after a car accident about a week ago in Australia.

Bear was the alchemist who brewed up the acid used in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests given by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the '60's. The Grateful Dead were the house band for these events. The Beatles and Hendrix also gained inspiration from his services and it reflected in their music.

Bear was also a sound engineer with the Dead for a number of years.

The New York Times obituary says about Owsley:

He also lent the era much of its sound, developing early, widely praised high-fidelity sound systems for live rock concerts, including the Dead’s towering “wall of sound.”

A highlite of my audio education at The Institute of Audio Research back in 1984 was a lecture by Dan Healy who was also an early, and long time engineer for the Dead. He talked about putting together sound systems starting in the mid-60's when sound reinforcement for music was unheard of. The only public address systems where designed for speeches and announcements. When the Beatles played Shea Stadium in 1964 the only sound reinforcement was the Voice of America loudspeakers used for announcements.

Healy talked about how a group of young audio researchers in the Bay area that included John Meyer of Meyer speakers and Dan Countryman collectively got together to figure out the most efficient ways for sound system designs to broadcast rock music in a loud, clean way. They were pioneers of audio design in the live sound field.

Healy mentioned that the Grateful Dead, rather than spending their money on yachts and other frivolities, invested their profits back into audio research and development. Bear did the same with the profits from his Brotherhood of Love ventures.

A few weeks after that lecture I experienced the latest Grateful Dead sound system, engineered by Healy at a concert in Giants Stadium by Bob Dylan and the Dead. The sound was incredible! Loud but with the smoothest mid-range, great for vocal clarity.

I don't own or know that many Grateful Dead recording's but one of my long-time favorites is a collection of live songs called Bear's Choice. It's mostly on the acoustic country blues side of things.

For anyone who may not know the pun, The Bear Comes Home, is a book by Rafi Zabor that I highly recommend to anyone interested in music and consciousness. I also feel it's not unrelated to some of the exploits of Augustus Owsley Stanley III.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mark Growden - Lose me in the Sand

One of my favorite projects to work on last year was Mark Growden's album now known as Lose me in the Sand. At the time it was simply known as Tuscon because he had assembled all the musicians from Tuscon and it was recorded there.

Inspired by the musical vibe in Tucson, Bay Area musician, composer and singer Mark Growden employed an all-star lineup of country and blues players from the Old Pueblo to record his explosive new album last year at Loveland Studio. Lose Me in the Sand explores some of Growden's musical roots while planting new seeds in the Sonoran Desert.

While he focused on the accordion on his last album, 2010's impressive Saint Judas, Growden mainly plays clawhammer banjo here. Robust accompaniment is provided by guitarist Clay Koweek (who also plays mandolin), fiddler Tim O'Connor, Dobro player Connor Gallaher, harmonica player Tom Walbank, upright bassist Ian Stapp and percussionist Andrew Collberg. They use the wooden instruments to kindle a fiery brand of old-time bluegrass that's also warm and inviting.

Quoted from here.

Loveland was a challenging studio in some ways but also had strong points like being able to record to 16 track 2" tape. It was recorded live in the studio with minimal amount of overdubs and repairs. Everyone was in a single recording room except for Tom, the harp player who I put in the control room. Some baffles were strategically placed to help with isolation. The room wasn't that large and there were a lot of open mics including two room mics placed at either end. All this bleed of the instruments into different mics resulted in a lot of depth of field in unusual and unpredictable ways. The live sound of a group of musicans playing their guts out in a small room, capped by Mark's passionate and soulful vocal delivery is what makes this record so vital and exciting.

This Tuscon experience of producing and recording this project with Mark and company, is certainly up there with other classic recordings I've been involved with. I don't really know how to describe it but the performance atmosphere was electrically buzzing and vibrating with the feeling that something real was going down. This atmosphere is on the recording.

Check out the video for my song "Settle in a Little While" from the new album.


Video by Liliana Mejia and myself. Made with a Buddha Board and a blow dryer. Filmed while I was attending an artist residency at HEREKEKE in Lama, NM.

Where to Purchase "Lose me in the Sand"


The best place to purchase my new album Lose me in the Sand is directly from Porto Franco Records here.

But if you prefer iTunes or Amazon you can get them there too.

"Lose me in the Sand" National Tour Continues


Big Bend, TX.

After these two days off in New Orleans, we head out to North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Northern California, Oregon and Washington. I hope we're coming to a town near you.

Here are the details:

Appalachia/Heartland/Rockies Leg:

The NorCal/Northwest Leg

More shows will be added for April and May. Here's what we have so far:

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Nabintou Diakite

March 1: Nabintou Diakite is a popular Wassoulou singer we were scheduled to film at the site of the former Presidential Palace. Three cabs are organized and we load up. Most cabs are plain yellow, their universal color? The car I got in was yellow with the writing:
on the side. Our driver is wearing Matrix sunglasses and drives like he's in the movie. When we reach the main road, all 3 drivers pull over for a pit stop refreshment of gunpowder tea before heading out.

We got there an hour before Nabintou was to arrive. David, Jim, and Aja, the senior production crew, immediately began looking for a location that hadn't been used before.

On the other side of the spring from the Palace grounds, they found a nice rock plateau cropping out from a gorge in the side of a hill just downstream from a waterfall. The roar of falling water amplified by the concave stone gorge causes concern for the Director that the audio will be compromised. We can only set up once - if the sound doesn't work, the day is wasted. I say, let's try it and estimate a 75% probability for success.

Steep stone steps carved out of the rock makes for a treacherous descent to the spot. A man with jet black skin wearing a blue work shirt rests by the bank of the spring smoking a cigarette. He then resumes fishing with no pole, throws out and reels in a line with a hook. Some of us venture to the edge of the small waterfalls and douse our heads in the cool water. A nice temporary relief from the 100 + degree temperature in the hot afternoon sun.

Nabintou arrives and negotiates her way down the stairs with some assistance. She's wearing a formal dark maroon dress with gold embroidery. After some conferring with Wardrobe, she walks down a ways and disappears behind a tree to change into less formal, more traditional attire. It's a dark blue dress with lighter blue stripes that looks somewhat like a structured tie dye.

An elderly woman appears who is said to be the caretaker of the Spirits of this location. After being introduced, Nabintou sings a 5 minute song of praise to her while holding her hand in a handshake as a show of respect. I guess the Spirits will be on our side for this one.

A kamale n'goni player shows up to accompany Nabintou dressed causally in blue jeans and a bright orange T-shirt. Wardrobe quickly rushes out a brand new pea green KSK T-shirt emblazoned with a silhouette design of an African musician named Taga Sidibe. Coincidently, the n'gonist has the same surname. His name is Kasim Sidibe.

The rock plateau we are set up on is split into two halfs with about a 4 foot gap in the middle that you wouldn't want to fall into. One half is just the right size for a 'stage', the other half has just enough room for the camera tracks and the jib. My station is at the back of the gorge in the shade. The performers are positioned so that the camera angles will pick up the waterfalls behind them. The thinking is that if you see water in the frame, it will make sense to hear it as part of the audio recording.

The micing was very simple: the Sanken lavalier mic and the U87 for the vocals, a DI for the n'goni pick-up. The U87 was positioned as close as the camera guys would let me get it without compromising the shot. The lav worked well to pick up Nabintou's vocals with very little of the rushing water sound bleeding through. The U87 sounded great combined with the lav adding clarity and a quality of openess to her vocal sound. It did pick up the water sound but this was still in the background to her vocal.

They performed 4 songs as a duo then Nabintou sang a song acapella for two takes. Her singing was smooth, captivating and authoritative. Angelic was an adverb I frequently heard to describe her voice. I found it mesmerizing and transporting. She was most emphatic on the chorus of the acapella piece. I asked what it was about and was told it's a song about women acting honorably. Empowering women is a common theme in the songs by Wassoulou female singers.