In our July 2006 issue, producer/MC Thes of the L.A. hip-hop duo People Under the Stairs (also including MC/DJ Double K) had so much to say about the bedroom that he converted into his music studio, we couldn't fit it all in. Here are a few extra photos of the studio-in-progress, along with Thes One's insight into the areas of lighting and power for home studios. Also, Thes One talks to Remix about the latest People Under the Stairs album, Stepfather.
LIGHTING & AIR CONDITIONING
I put in those lights that you see. That was the beginning of the shit hitting the fan period. There's not a whole lot that can go wrong with the wall construction. There is some, but it's not rocket science. Putting walls up and using a drill to put in screws is not the most difficult thing in the world. But the electrical side is where things got complicated.
The lights were a problem. This was a do-it-yourself thing, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I thought it would be really nice to put in some hanging track lights, and I put a dimmer on them. Those little halogen track lights you would get at Home Depot, and the dimmer is controls all of the track lighting; this is all simple stuff anyone could do.
So here's the problem. Some track lighting has transformers in it. In other words, some track lighting is low-voltage lighting, so the voltage comes in normally at 110V, and then the transformer steps it down. The fact that these things have transformers, and they're hanging down like that basically makes them big radio antennas. So that's like three giant car radio antennas above my console—not good. In addition to that, when a commercial or cheap dimmer from Home Depot dims the lights down, the extra electricity that is not going to the lights is sent down the wires of the house. It's not just disappearing; it's getting kicked down the line. So everything in your studio is going gets all this extra electricity sent to it, and everything that has a chassis ground—your turntable, DJ mixer, etc.—basically becomes a giant antenna. The first time I plugged everything in, it was picking up radio so fricking loud. That was discouraging, and I didn't know why it was happening. I had to get rid of those lights and get regular voltage lights. Low-voltage lighting is a definite no-no—not good for the studio!
Somehow I figured out that if the lights are off, there's no radio. But there was still a buzz, and it turned out it to be the dimmer on the lights. But I still wanted a dimmer in my studio, so I had to get this crazy, giant transformer that you put in your wall to absorb the extra current. It's definitely not recommended. It's like this giant knob, just so I can dim my lights. I would say stay away from dimmers, or holler at me, and I'll tell you what to get, because that is a very difficult thing to do in the studio.
Also, we put the air conditioner in that's above the speaker there. That was another problem to solve: how to get an air conditioning system for the room. That's a Japanese-style air conditioner. They're really cool because they sit on the wall, but they don't make a big whole in the wall. The hole is only an inch and a half on the other side of that, and it's just a metal tube that goes to the outside where you have your fan. It doesn't make any noise in the room at all. It just blows cool air into the studio and it sits up on the wall. I had that professionally installed. Those things can run anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000.
I wanted AC because of my console, which kicks out tons of heat. It gets hot to the touch, where you can't even touch it. That's my console sitting there in a million pieces getting ready for me to start putting that back together. It's a Neve 5116. If you have someone just using Pro Tools and there's no console involved, you studio's not going to get as hot, so air conditioning may not be necessary. Depending on where you're located, it may not even be necessary at all. But my theory was if I'm going to spend this much money, time and effort on building a studio, and it's in my home that I own, an extra $2,000 for an air conditioner that I can control just for the studio has definitely come in handy during the summer. When it's 4:00am and you're still mixing, it's not comfortable and it's getting balmy and humid in there. It's nice to turn the air conditioner on; it keeps you awake. It's just a little bit of a luxury. —Thes One
I finally got the console up and running, which was a whole story in itself. Some of the console problems were too obscure to go into, but one problem was that the console was too big to fit through doorways. Any way you try it, it's an inch too thick. At my old house when I moved it in, I was renting and I didn't give a damn. We just took a hammer to the doorframe and went right through that bitch. But now at my new house, my friends were like, "Should we just go through the door frame?" And I'm like "Hell no! Not in my house!" So we had to disassemble it down to a level where it probably had never been disassembled before. Putting it back together was a mess. I was having a lot of electrical issues here because in my neighborhood, there are big power transformers, so I was getting a lot of buzz and noise on my electrical lines. And no frickin' Furman power conditioner could do jack about it. So I talked to some old-school studio heads, and they were saying the same thing. They were like, "Yo, throw your power conditioner in the trash can. You need to go to this place called C&H electrical surplus out in Pasadena, where they have all of this surplus stuff left over from the aerospace industry. You need to buy a giant power transformer." It's this big ol' transformer that you would put in a closet somewhere. Basically you plug in the electricity from the wall on one side, and it goes out the other side to you studio. This giant transformer just absorbs all the bullshit and kicks out a very steady, superclean voltage. It's only around 8-by-12 inches, but probably weighs 70 pounds; it'll break your back lifting it. I had to get one of those for the console.
The other gear problem was that I have an Akai MPC3000 with eight unbalanced outputs on the back, and I had to interface that with the console. The solution we came up with was a custom-made, 8-channel direct box, where you plug in all eight MPC outputs into it, and it kicks out eight balanced outputs. Now that I have this network of wires, I can patch those outputs around and send that signal anywhere in the studio right through the walls. So that's definitely a plus.
I could make any cable in the world, and I could interface anything between anything, but for the life of me, I couldn't get the MPC to interface correctly with the Neve console. It was as if the studio had become so rigged up and professional, that a little unbalanced drum machine that was made for consumers was not fitting into the equation. So we had to make that piece of gear. I'm surprised no company has marketed a product like that yet. —Thes One
Where the window is in the photo, that was just a solid wall for the bedroom closet. First, you want to make sure that whatever you cut out is not load-bearing. Those little tiny pieces of wood that are going out aren't load-bearing, those are just little 2x4s that are there so you can put a wall up. So we took an electrical saw and cut into the wall and cut that middle stud. Then we laid that piece of wood across between the other two to make that square frame right there. That was fairly simple. Then you go to a glass place and we had them make a window, which cost about $110. So after we put the wall up and everything and framed it all out, you just basically slide in the window and you're good to go. It was actually fairly simple. In this picture you can also see all the boxes for the electrical and the audio. You're looking at the back of the vocal booth, so you can see the XLR cable going up to the back of the blue box for the vocal booth. To the right, you can see how the cable comes down and comes to a hole in the wall. And then you can see the two big 3-gang boxes where those faceplates with the TRS plugs ended up. The yellow wires are electrical wires that you see going through the studs, and then there's two slabs of mineral fiber stuck in between the studs right there. —Thes One
Remix: What was the timeline like from building the studio to producing the Stepfather album?
Thes One: We moved into the house in the spring of 2004. The actual studio construction of putting up the floating walls and everything happened in just two weeks. We could have done it quicker, but it was two weeks to get everything up and another two weeks to put the glass in and get the window in the vocal booth. There was a lot of time spent wiring. I had to get those faceplates and the soldering iron and I had to match up the colored wires with the right plugs. That was like another month and setting up equipment took another month. It wasn't until mid-fall of 2004 that I turned everything on and was like, "Uh-oh, we got problems." All winter I was troubleshooting, and then I mixed the Giant Panda record Fly School Reunion (2006, Tres) at like the end of February 2005. That was a practical application where I put the studio through its paces and fixed problems that I could never have foreseen.
I had been stockpiling records, and I hadn't really been making beats, so I started right after that. We worked really hard on it. We recorded all of spring and summer of 2005 and into the fall. I mixed it at the beginning of this year.
It was pretty much just short of a year working on the studio. What's interesting is that in the meantime, I did a lot of listening. For the first time as a professional musician, I went a whole year without making anything, but I was listening and forming all these thoughts about what I don't like and do like about what I'm listening to. So by the time I got around to actually sit at my sampler and make something, I had all of those thoughts, ideas and information in my head, and I just started banging out all this weird shit that ended up on the record. It was cool, because I think later on in life when I look back at my music career, that's going to be a new start for me. Starting with this record and going onto whatever else comes out after this.
The record in general seems a lot more ambitious and labor-intensive than before.
All the things I learned while setting up the studio and all the things that happened changed the way I looked at studios and the way I looked at making music. On all the other People Under the Stairs records, my focus was the beats. I wanted the drums to be loud. After doing all stuff, I just wanted you to be able to hear everything. The vocal I wanted to be really clear. I felt like why do all of this if I was just trying to do the same thing I had done before. So I was trying to do something I never could before, and I never felt comfortable putting my vocals up in front of a mix at a pop level. I always hid them behind a beat or I tried to turn them down to this underground hip-hop level.
From a production standpoint, as soon as Double K came to the new studio and was a lot more comfortable here, it definitely enabled us to experiment more on the new record, solely because we had a far more comfortable recording environment than before. This was one that was thought out, and all the gear was in the right place. When he had to do scratches, it wasn't an awkward situation for him where we had a foldout table with turntables. Everything was laid out correctly. That in turn enabled us to take the record to places we had never gone before because we were so relaxed doing it. That was really fresh, and the proof is in a lot of the songs.
Stepfather comes with a free DVD, and in it there are two studio sections. One of the sections is the making of the record, and all of the stuff we've been talking about you can see in the DVD. There's footage of Double K scratching in the studio. You can see the acoustic treatment on the walls, and there's a good pan shot of the studio. There's a great shot of us in the vocal booth recording the verses on the record. It will make a lot more sense for the people reading.
So the studio actually helped you musically?
It's dope because how all of this affected us as a group musically is kind of big, and we couldn't have foreseen when we were building it how your recording space and your environment—like the ergonomics of the recording space—affects what you actually create.
The song "Pumpin'" is a prime example of the evolution.
One part to it is having the studio that technically enables me to try to do that thing that's festering in my brain and try to get something popping out. But also, fundamentally, Double K and I have reached a point where we're so bored, and I mean I don't want this to sound bad. There's definitely people out there doing their thing, but for the most part, the home studio revolution has created an influx of really mediocre music in the world. There's a lot of people with talent doing a good job, but for every one person with talent, there's a lot of stuff I get on CD when I'm touring, and I want to call the dude and say, "Why did you give this to me? what did you think I was going to say about this?" It's one of those things where I admire anyone who's putting their heart into it, but you've got to at least try. And I felt like as a producer, people were always throwing around the same terms when describing us: funky, old school, golden era, throwback and whatever. It really made me question if I was starting to play into that because that's what I'm classified as? So my thinking was that as soon as Double K gave me the green light to say, "Let's stretch out, we don't have to be the People Under the Stairs that people think we are," we just went for it.
With "Pumpin'," I didn't even know what Double K was going to think when I played it for him, because it was so atypical for us. But he was right. He was like, "We're just two dudes who make music, and we'll make what we want. If you like it and I like it, than it is People Under the Stairs."
We definitely tried and made some shit that we feel good about. There was theory at play here from a drum programming perspective. I didn't want much of the typical hip-hop drum programming on this record. The drum programming on "Pumpin'" is almost like a disco thing beneath all of the jazz brushes. There's a lot of four on the floor, and it's very much a departure from a lot of the underground hip hop I hear. There's a lot of classic albums with those beats, but here we were definitely trying to do something different.
"Tuxedo Rap" is another dope track.
Yeah, I had this Mexican record that I found down in Mexico City. I won't say what it is; I think it's pretty obvious what it was emulating. I was just trying to have a good time with it but try to do a drum break that people haven't heard before. It came out well, but again, I owe a lot to Mike [Double K] and the environment and all that stuff that enabled us to just stretch out and say, "Fuck it, we don't care anymore and we'll just have fun with this and experiment a little bit."
All the samples from the movie Hollywood Shuffle were really funny.
Word. There's a lot of movie stuff thrown in there. It's definitely not a concept record, but we were trying to tell a narrative through the whole thing, the way it was put together. The working title we had for Stepfather was I'm Trying, but the Kids Don't Listen. We had that before Stepfather, but that's kind of how we feel at this point. We feel like stepfathers, where we're gonna come in, and the kids aren't going to listen to us regardless, because we're not hot or whatever. But we're wholesome dudes, and we're just trying to do the right thing.
What else are you going to be working on in this studio?
I have an instrumental record coming out towards the end of the year called Lifestyle Marketing. It's kind of like a theme project where I'm remixing all these old commercials from the '70s. It should be interesting. I've had a lot of those beats done here and there. After that, there's a few MCs I'd like to work with that I'm going to get out to, and we'll just be making music for sure. We'll also be on the road touring, but I definitely look forward to being in my studio this summer with that air conditioner on.