Garage of Dreams

There's an old Los Angeles joke that goes like this: What's the fastest way to the Valley? The answer: Marry a musician! The joke refers to the San Fernando
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There's an old Los Angeles joke that goes like this: “What's the fastest way to the Valley?” The answer: “Marry a musician!” The joke refers to the San Fernando Valley — the area of Los Angeles over the hill from Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica that was made famous by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa's 1982 single, “Valley Girl.”

The Valley has always been relatively affordable by Los Angeles standards and, as a result, is home to numerous musicians, producers, and engineers. It often seems as though every Valley home has a recording studio of some kind. Although there are a lot of personal studios in the Valley, Tony Shepperd's Tonysound has been referred to as one of the top ten home studios — not just in the Valley, but in all of Los Angeles.

Tonysound, like so many other L.A. studios, is located inside a converted garage. It's the fourth studio Shepperd has owned, and this time around he decided to make it as close to perfect as possible. He designed and helped build the studio, and the result has been a huge success — so much so that Shepperd is now in demand as a studio consultant and designer.

Shepperd's bread and butter, though, is his work as an engineer, a mixer, and a producer. His credits include superstars such as Take 6, the Backstreet Boys, Whitney Houston, and Kenny Loggins. He's also recorded commercials for Coca Cola, spots for the NBC Olympics with Neil Diamond and Melissa Etheridge, the Take 6 CD-ROM for Kurzweil (see Fig. 1), and the Yamaha C7 piano portion of the Synthogy Ivory sound library.

A music-business professional for almost 20 years, Shepperd is one of the most personable, practical, and adaptable people you'll meet. I had a chance to speak with him about the design and construction of his studio, the gear he's using, his work style, and more.

What were your goals in building this studio?

I have four kids. As an engineer, I was spending 13 to 15 hours a day away from home. With this studio, I can do almost all my projects here at home, where I can see my family at breakfast and dinner. That was the main goal. Beyond that, I wanted a room that was sonically accurate. I wanted a place where clients would be comfortable and where they could feel confident that the music they created sounded great — not just here, but anywhere they listened to it. That's something that definitely doesn't happen in a lot of studios.

Can you describe the studio for someone who hasn't seen it?

[Laughs] It's been described as a bat cave. It's a room within a room, based on a typical A-frame garage. It has high ceilings, the walls are covered in a fabric that feels like Ultrasuede, the colors are muted, and there are no windows. Some people like natural light in a studio, but I think it's distracting. For me, it's an advantage to have an environment that stays the same all the time. People can drive themselves crazy looking out the window thinking: “The day is going by, we've got to go!” I find it easier to concentrate, chill out, and let the music happen in a controlled environment where I can work until it sounds right without worrying about the time.

The ceilings are high and there are no parallel walls, although that's not immediately apparent because the angles are very slight. How did you work out the acoustic specifications?

I went for high ceilings because I don't like low -compression-style studio ceilings. For one thing, I'm six foot one and I don't like feeling closed in! But also, I just don't like the sound that low ceilings produce. I like to have some air around me rather than surfaces that provide reflections. In my control room, the ceiling is 14 feet. In the iso room, the highest point is 10 feet.

I worked out all the specifications myself. It's the fourth studio I've built, so I've learned by doing. I've also been a connoisseur of other people's studios, so I know what works and what doesn't. And I've read a lot. One of the most useful books around is an old one, from the early '80s, by Jeff Cooper, called Building a Recording Studio [Artistpro.com, 1984]. It has all the fundamentals: things like STC [sound-transmission class] ratings, which is something I pay a lot of attention to.

If you have half an inch of Sheetrock between you and the other side of the wall, you'll have a poor STC rating. If you have two-by-fours with insulation, Sheetrock, and soundboard, you'll have a much higher STC rating. The higher the rating, the less sound transmission you have [through the wall]. Most home studios have only half-inch Sheetrock on the wall; if you tap on the wall, you'll hear it on the other side. That's an STC rating of 30 to 35, which is equivalent to the amount of decibels that it takes to penetrate the wall. If you add thicker materials, you can get the STC rating as high as 50 or 55. You want to raise that class as much as you can.

And the reason you want to raise that class is twofold: to keep unwanted sound out of your studio and to keep the sound that you do want inside, away from your neighbors.

Exactly. You can just about blow your head off with volume in my control room, but [if you're standing] six feet away from the front of the garage you won't hear anything. I have double walls with ⅝-inch Sheetrock, half-inch soundboard and insulation on each layer of the wall, and a dead space air gap between the wall. Not everybody can do that, of course, but you do want to add as much mass as you can to the wall.

Did you do a lot of the construction yourself?

No [laughs], ⅝-inch Sheetrock is really heavy! The guys who did the construction for me are animals, and they worked fast. Since all the plans were basically in my head, I had to be here all the time during the construction of the studio. I used a program called Interiors 2.02 (see Fig. 2) to organize my design ideas, but I had to physically lay out every wall with two-by-fours. I'd say, “Cut it at this angle, lay it on the floor, and let's look at it.” Then they'd cut it, and I'd say, “Okay, it needs to go about two inches to the right.”

What are the wall treatments?

I was going to use [Owens Corning] 703 fiberglass, which is a standard acoustic treatment. But when I brought in a bunch and put it up, it sounded too dead. Instead, I found some fabric that's soft yet a bit more reflective. Behind it is padded material, like you would find in a couch. There's no padding in the ceiling, the front wall is wood, four-by-eight-foot sheets of stained oak. The floor is wood, and there's a wood panel in the back.

What did you do to the floor?

It has a sub floor. The floor is floated on half-inch neoprene, then on green plate — the technical term for it is pressure-treated sill plate; you'd know it if you saw it at Home Depot. It's treated wood that won't rot. Then there's ¾-inch particleboard, ¾-inch tongue-and-groove plywood, then the finished floor. The walls float from the floor, and the ceiling floats from the walls. In the control room, there's also sand in the floor, in between the studs, which provides very dense insulation. But in the iso, there's no sand in the floor. It's more hollow because when I have a drum kit in the iso, I want the kick to have some resonance from the floor. You need to know your purposes, then you think about the sonics. If you have the right materials in the room, it aids the sound.

Do you record a lot of instruments in the control room?

I don't, not a lot of live instruments anyway. If they're in the control room, most of the time they're playing direct.

So the acoustics of the control room were designed more for listening than for recording.

Yes. If it's a live instrument — drums, horns, acoustic guitar — it's in the iso room. The actual size of the iso is 6 × 6½ × 10 feet, and it varies from 10 feet high at the very top to 8 feet at its lowest. With room mics way up in the corner, it can sound like a much bigger room.

How do you mic drums in here?

Generally, I use a [Sennheiser] 421 on the kick and a Shure SM57 on the snare top. I don't do top and bottom on the snare in that room because of phase issues. I use the Marshall 600 series on the hi-hat and 421s on the toms. My overheads are CADs, which are really good yet inexpensive microphones. The floors in there are wood. For percussion I take out the rug, but for drums we'll have the kit on carpet.

When you worked with Kenny Loggins, you recorded a lot of acoustic guitar. How do you like to do that?

On acoustic guitar, especially on a rhythm track, the Marshall 603 works great. I used them on two acoustic guitarists on the track “Little Drummer Boy” for Whitney Houston's Christmas record. It was Paul Jackson Jr. on steel string, and Dean Parks on nylon. We used the Marshalls on both of them, with a Focusrite Red Series mic preamp and a dbx 160X compressor. We wanted them to sound similar, even though they had different strings, and it worked great. They're really naked and exposed at the front of the song, and they sound great.

You've got some expensive mics; do you generally use them on vocals?

I do. I have a Sony C800G and an AKG C12 VR. I have high-end microphones, and I believe in them. I want to buy more. But it doesn't stop me from doing great recordings with less expensive mics as well.

I think it's more important to have a great mic preamp than a great mic. That's where you should spend your money. People don't seem to get that. If you've got an [Electro-Voice] RE20 or a [Sennheiser] 421, which are great inexpensive mics, and if you run them through a Neve or an API, they'll sound terrific. If you run them through a piece-of-junk mic pre, they will sound like junk.

There are a lot of relatively inexpensive microphones out there now. The [Audio-Technica] AT 4033/CL is great, and it's only $300. We used that a lot on Kenny Loggins's record. We also used the Marshall MXL-603 microphone on his acoustic guitar. You can get a recording pack of two separate Marshall mics for $110. That's an amazing deal. The CAD mics I use cost $400 or $500. You can have a selection of different-toned, inexpensive mics, and if you put them through something good at the front end, they'll sound great.

Vintage Neve mic pres are rare and pricey. What else do you like?

The Aphex 1100 [Thermionics Class A tube mic pre]. It has its own 24-bit A/D converters. It's got a mute button, a built-in mic limiter, and phantom power. It generates tone so you can check your signal flow. It also has polarity, a pad, and a low-cut filter. It's an amazing value. It's sonically great, and it has two channels — all for $1,800. It's a wonderful tool.

The API, which is a one rackspace unit with four mic pres, is very cool. There's no EQ, but I'd rather have a great single-purpose mic pre than have one with EQ. Unless you know what you're doing with EQ, don't mess around with it. Keep the signal clean.

In general, you should get quality pieces that will last you. You want something that you'll be able to keep for a while so you can really get to know it.

How about compressors?

I love my [Tube Tech] CL 1B; it's a great tube compressor (see Fig. 3).

What are the most important pieces of equipment in your studio?

My [Apogee] Big Ben master clock (see Fig. 4) and my power backup, which has 30-minute backup time.

Why the Big Ben?

It's one of my biggest assets. For one thing, it makes reverbs sound so much better. You can hear the tail end on them like you've never heard it before. I've discovered that, by using a $1,200 clock, you can make any decent reverb sound like a $12,000 one. I use Reverb 1 a lot — the one that comes with Pro Tools. With the Big Ben clock, you hear it trail off and ease out of the picture instead of cutting off and truncating. It sounds so much better.

What else do you do to maximize your Pro Tools system?

Instead of routing all the tracks to output 1 and 2, I route all of the outputs to bus 31 and 32. Then I assign a new stereo audio track with an input of 31 and 32, and an output of the analog out 1 and 2. Instead of bouncing to disk, I then record to disk. Because of the superior sonics of the internal structure of Pro Tools, I actually like the sound of it better.

You have your workstation off to the side of the room, instead of in the middle of the speakers.

I use a Gefen Extend system, which is basically an amplification system. On the one end I plug in my Mac, and it pumps up the USB for the keyboard, the video, and the mouse, allowing it to run on an Ethernet cable, 60 to 70 feet if I want, off of a single Cat-5 cable. That way, I have anything that makes noise in my entryway behind a door, instead of in the control room. I also use it like an umbilical cord in the control room. If I'm mixing, I roll my keyboard to the middle of the room. But when the producer comes in, I just slide off to the side, and he sits in the sweet spot.

What do you monitor on, and why?

Yamaha NS10s without a subwoofer. But some producers want to hear a lot more bottom, so I also have Yamaha MSP10s, with a Yamaha SW10 powered subwoofer. At the end of the night, if I'm getting tired, I crank that up. When that bottom hits you're definitely fully awake.

Working out of your home can be isolating. And, you work a lot. Your time is at a premium. How do you keep up with new products and technologies?

There's a group of people that I get together with — engineers, producers, and artists — at least once a month for what we call tech breakfasts. There are anywhere from 10 to 20 people, and we just talk tech. The sense of community that you get from working at commercial studios is gone now, for most people. I can count on both hands the amount of commercial studios I've been in in the past year and still have some digits left over, so getting together specifically to talk tech fills a need.

Give us an idea of a how a typical project works for you these days.

Lately, a large amount of what I do is mixing. For example, I got a call the other day from Eric Dawkins, who was producing Ruben Studdard from American Idol. I was at lunch when I answered the phone, and he told me he had two songs that needed mixing. They absolutely had to be done that day, but he said rough mixes would be fine.

Since he was working at a studio near where I was having lunch, I went over and picked up a DVD of the two songs. I started mixing; he came by around 9 p.m. to check the mixes out. After he left, I finished them up and put them up in AIFF format on [Apple] iDisk, where I have a gigabyte of storage. I gave him my password. The next morning he downloaded the mixes, checked them out, then sent them on to Clive Davis at J Records who was waiting to hear them.

I didn't hear back from him for almost two weeks, so I gave him a call and said, “Whatever happened to those mixes — do we need to tweak them?” And he said, “Oh, one of them is going on the record.” I was surprised that we didn't need to change anything. It went straight to mastering for the record.

As it turned out, they had me do two more songs. When I sent those out, they asked for some small changes on one of them: to take Ruben and the choir down a decibel, so that it would sit more in the groove, which, now that I'm mixing in the box, was easy to do.

The funny thing is, they were surprised at how fast I could turn things around. Especially fixes. When they called and I said I could have it done and back to them in 30 minutes, they didn't believe it. At major labels, I guess they're still working with engineers who are using big consoles — recalls take more time on those.

You use the server on Apple's iDisk for your clients to get references.

Having an iDisk has made my life so much easier. When you're having a conversation with somebody, you don't have to second-guess. You can just say, I'll send it to you.

I go to my public folder on my iDisk account, where I just drag-and-drop the file. It loads in the background while I'm working on other stuff. A 50 MB file takes only ten minutes. You can use any format that you want, and it's only $60 a year for the initial amount of space, although I pay an extra $40 for 512 MB.

A lot of composers and songwriter-producers come to you to mix their work.

Yes. Sometimes they just want me to get it in a rough kind of order so they can present it to people. They'll say to me, “Can you just throw something together?” But I don't do that. I don't just throw things together. I work fast, but I'm always doing a real mix. For example, I did a mix on a theme for General Hospital for a friend of mine. Again, I didn't hear from him for a while, then he called to say that they were at a local commercial studio and were having trouble matching my mix. They wanted me to come over and finish it off.

I said, “Okay, but all I really need is two faders.” Because I'd mixed it in Pro Tools, I just needed to bring over my drive and play it back for them. Some of the people from the show were there, and some of them had requests for changes, which I was able to do on the fly. They were knocked out. Everything they asked for, I was able to do really quickly. When we started listening locked to picture, I had some ideas for adding reverse cymbals as the graphics were going by, which was easy to do because I bring an arsenal of my own sounds with me wherever I go. I just popped them in, did a pan, and they said, “This is great!”

So you bring a lot of your sounds around with you.

I've started keeping a template with previous mixes that I've done, so if someone says, “You know that song you did with so and so, and that effect you were using? Can you do that on this song?” I say, “Sure,” and just import session data off those mixes. I keep storing all my mixes. I have some on the desktop, and I have the full mixes archived on DVD. So it's easy to steal from myself if I want to.

What's some studio-designer advice you can offer to other people with home studios?

Use your ears. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't. People will be doubtful, and they'll kind of come to me for reassurance. “It sounds okay, doesn't it?” Well, no, it doesn't. If your initial reaction was that it didn't sound good, go with that feeling and make it better. I walk into a lot of people's rooms that don't sound good. And they just sit down and start working. Turning knobs. But you need to make your room workable first.

Take a CD; take a lot of CDs. Take a day, or a week. Listen to projects that you like and ones that you don't. Don't work, just listen. Then move the furniture and get some drapes for the back wall or gobos if you need them. I see people go into any room and just throw their gear in. They can't trust what they hear in there; but they start EQing based on what they're hearing in the room. Let's first make sure what we're hearing is accurate.

Maureen Droney's engineering credits include Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G, and Tower of Power, among many others. Currently she is Los Angeles editor for Mix magazine and general manager of House of Blues Studios.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Backstreet Boys, Never Gone (Jive, 2005); recorded

Whitney Houston, One Wish: The Holiday Album (Arista, 2003); recorded and mixed

Kenny Loggins,It's About Time, (All the Best, 2003); recorded and mixed

Lionel Richie, “Ball and Chain,” from Just for You (Island/Def Jam, 2004); recorded

Ruben Studdard, selected cuts from I Need an Angel (J Records, 2004); recorded and mixed

Take 6,Join the Band (Warner Brothers, 1994); recorded