(This blog was originally posted February 10, 2011.)
I’m always curious to hear about a person’s studio when I meet them, and in last month’s blog, I talked a bit about the creative spaces that Alessandro Cortini and Carmen Rizzo have. Their studios are in humble settings, yet both men are doing pro-level work. After all, what it comes down to is knowing your gear to such a degree that it doesn’t matter if you’re working in a state-of-the-art studio or in the only spare room of the house.
Since participating with Cortini and Rizzo in the NAMM panel “Maximum Output from your Home Studio,” I’ve had a number of conversations with pros about the topics of personal-studio workflow and design. Common issues that come up include finding the right tool for the job, even if it means investing in a high-ticket item, and avoiding distraction. With so many inexpensive products available, it has become easy to amass a veritable warehouse of gadgetry, much of which can distract us from our work. So it’s always wonderful when I talk to artists or engineers who have refined their kit to the absolute essentials: If it doesn’t help them get the job done, they don’t keep it.
I got just such a response from Grammy winning producer/engineer Jacquire King, who uses his basement studio for mixing. We found ourselves seated next to each other at a NAMM event and spent part of the time talking about all the cool stuff we’d seen at the show. At some point I asked him about his mic collection, imagining that he’d have quite a collection of rarities by now. “I don’t have that many,” he replied. “Microphones are only useful for the first part of a project. I’d rather spend my money on something I can use for recording and mixing, such as a compressor.” Whoa. Laser focus.
For many of his projects, King brings home high-resolution digital multitrack sessions and bounces each track off of tape to give it a bit of coloration before sending it back into Pro Tools. When we spoke, he had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he tracked Tim Finn’s new project.
With the NAMM panel discussion still fresh in my mind, I was eager to hear what studio treatments, if any, King added to his basement studio. He noted that, other than a couple of well-placed panels, there wasn’t much needed. He did mention, however, that the window behind him opens to the outside and acts as a giant bass trap. Convenient! It was, however, very important for him to find a way to isolate his work area from unwanted equipment noise, which he accomplished by placing all of the noisy bits in the storage closet next to the studio, leaving him a quiet space to work.
A week later, I had the opportunity to visit the personal studio of LA-based producer/mixer/songwriter Troy Johnson, aka RADIO, who has built a name for himself working with the likes of Will Smith, Chris Brown, the Backstreet Boys, and, most recently, Jennifer Lopez. Immersed in recording technology at an early age—his father is guitarist George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson—he honed his skills at the legendary Boom Boom Room before setting up his own workspace at home, which he not only uses for songwriting and demo recording but also for mixing (including a recent J-Lo track).
What I found fascinating is how spare Johnson’s setup is: a computer, a keyboard controller, a PreSonus FaderPort, a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitors, and an analog summing station that includes an SSL X-Desk, an SSL X-Rack with eight EQ modules, and an SSL XLogic G Series compressor. It’s the summing gear that Johnson expertly uses to get the tough mixes he’s becoming known for. After spending a couple of years exploring all of the technological options available, he settled on this high-end solution for his personal studio because it gives him the sound he wants in a small, and surprisingly portable package.
Most importantly, Johnson’s tightly integrated studio allows him to move between songwriting, recording, and mixing quickly and efficiently. And because it’s in his home, he can work whenever inspiration strikes. Taking a cue from the NAMM panel, I decided to run a few of the same questions by him to get an insight into his workflow.
How do you keep your home and work life separate?
Keeping them separate is not too difficult: I just close the door! [Laughs] Most of the time I work late at night into the early morning because its really quiet and peaceful. I feel really good energy when I work at home during those hours, but if I’m at a real studio, I prefer to work bankers’ hours.
Do you start a new project with a session template or do you begin each new project or song from scratch?
If I’m using Logic, I start with a template of my MPC 60 swings, but that’s all. I try to keep it very simple because I believe each song has its own personality, so I try to make each one from scratch. It’s comparable to making something by hand verses making something in a factory. Each product is going to be one of a kind. I find more excitement in the moment doing things from scratch.
You don’t have much gear, but you’re getting solid sounds. Is it all about the analog processing, or are there other things you’re doing to add oomph to your tracks?
The analog processing is a big part of getting the “Big” sound, but combining it with some of the amazing plug-ins like the SPL Transient Designer, or Izotope Stutter Edit, gives me infinite possibilities.
Have you had any issues with doing mixes at home?
Yes, depending on the song. My room is not tuned. In fact it’s not a “studio” room at all. It’s more like a setup on the go. But to fix that I just use a pair of headphones that I really know or a pair of mini speakers and I usually get pretty close. But I always pay close attention to my music when I play it in different listening environments and take notes. The one advantage to working from home is that I can always change something at the last minute without a problem if I need to.