Victorian Arts: Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins Crafts Sounds in the Ballroom of his 1870s San Francisco Mansion

Somewhere in San Francisco, an upscale neighborhood is oblivious to the fact that one of rock’s most ingenious vocalists/producers is banging out yet another masterpiece right beneath their noses. Hell, if it wasn’t for the video crew packing up their van as we walked down the street, we might have never known that Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins was inside laying down some tracks in his new recording facility. So, come join us as we check out Jenkins’ new digs, and speak with him and his in-house engineer Sean Beresford about building a studio, choosing gear, and tracking hits.
Author:
Publish date:

Somewhere in San Francisco, an upscale neighborhood is oblivious to the fact that one of rock’s most ingenious vocalists/producers is banging out yet another masterpiece right beneath their noses. Hell, if it wasn’t for the video crew packing up their van as we walked down the street, we might have never known that Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins was inside laying down some tracks in his new recording facility. So, come join us as we check out Jenkins’ new digs, and speak with him and his in-house engineer Sean Beresford about building a studio, choosing gear, and tracking hits.

This place is absolutely amazing. Tell us a little bit about your pad.

Jenkins: It’s a Victorian-era mansion that was built during the 1870s. The original owner was a prominent figure in the early 20th-century music business, so there’s an incredible ballroom on the west side of the house where some popular musicians used to come and perform. It even has a balcony in the corner where opera singers would stand and sing. It’s really cool. The mixing room is separated from the main house in a building where the horses and carriages were kept.

How much time and planning went into turning the house into a recording facility?

Jenkins: Sean and I designed my last studio, so already had logged a lot of time in figuring out all of the ergonomics of how we wanted to work.

Beresford: It was two years ago when we first came in here, and we spent three months going through everything and deciding how everything would fit together. After the designs were completed, it took about six months before the first hammer fell.

Did you guys design everything yourself?

Jenkins: We had our friend Chris Pelonis [of Pelonis Sound and Acoustics] come in and design the studio. He has done many well-known studios, and he’s really good at what he does. Basically, I wanted to be able to say, “This is what I want to do,” and then get it done. I didn’t want to deal with a lot of set up, so everything is interconnected and wired. For example, we have a 6' x 6' amp closet that is plugged in and ready to go, and we even wired the bathroom for mics.

What considerations did you keep in mind when designing the rooms?

Jenkins: Even though we are blessed to have these grounds, we’re still in an urban environment—which means we have neighbors all around us, and cars driving by. Also, as the house is considered an historical building, the outside could not be remodeled or changed. The inside, though, was completely redone.

What were the most important changes that had to be made?

Jenkins: We had a big argument about keeping the windows. One of the things I love about this studio is that it has natural light and natural air. My usual experience with studios is that you’re in a dark hole where air is being pumped in, and it’s always too hot or too cold. So we kept the windows, and then installed another set of thick, half-inch panes on the inside to keep noise in and noise out. The room had a tile floor, and we took it down to the concrete, and left it pretty hard so that it would reflect bright sounds. Some walls had to be sheared, some had to be rebuilt, and then we built a classic “w”-shaped rear wall to offset reflections and act as a bass trap.

How many rooms did you end up with?

Jenkins: We closed off one section to make it a small live room. We originally laid down some carpet, but we pulled it out, and put in a slate floor to make the area a little more live. We do rehearsals with the band in here, and even though it’s really tight, it’s bigger than the room the Beach Boys made Pet Sounds in. The piano sounds really nice in there. I don’t use it for drums— except for rehearsing—but it’s great for guitars. All the amps are set up and good to go, so it’s kind of like having a [Line 6] Pod, but with real amps. If there’s a guitar sound you’re looking for, you can just go in there and grab it.

What about the main house and that massive ballroom?

Jenkins: The main house has not been messed with at all. Before I bought the place it was a popular bed and breakfast, and it’s still completely decked out with Victorian-era furnishings and trim. The three-story ballroom is acoustically flawless— there wasn’t anything we could have done to improve it. The only thing we had to do was have the wiring done, and that took a lot of time to test everything to make sure it all worked.

Beresford: We were really concerned about running 200 feet of cable. I think it’s supposed to be around 150 feet where a twisted-pair maxes out, and by the time we got the snake running halfway across the floor, we were somewhere around 230 feet. I kept thinking, “Is this going to be horrible? Are we going to degrade our signals to the point of no return?”

Did you look into digital snakes?

Beresford: At one point, I was convinced that would be the way to go. We tried these $25,000 systems with beams and all this crazy stuff, but none of them seemed to work.

Jenkins: Although, we were totally stoked about the prospect of laser beams flying around.

Beresford: Yeah, it sounded really cool, but when push came to shove, we ended up running a cable of 48 tie lines—or 24 pairs—up to the main house. The second we got the console in, we put up some microphones, and started testing. We did some classical recordings with the grand piano up there, and there was only one- or twopercent signal degradation after running through all that copper. Most of our microphones didn’t react too badly by taking them at mic level, and powering them from the console. But we’ve kept some Millenia HV-3D preamps up there, because if we do any serious string or classical recording, we’ll run the microphones straight into the preamps, and then route the signals to the cable run.

How did you decide on what gear to purchase?

Jenkins: We acquire a lot of gear after listening to it.

Beresford: And stealing it.

Jenkins: Yeah, we just go down to a lot of studios and take their stuff. Isn’t that what everybody does? But really, we tend to do a lot of gear shootouts and blind taste tests. We have Helios Olympic Studio preamps, a rack of Neve 1073s and 1081s, and a bunch of other stuff, such as Brent Avril API knockoffs. I really like the Brent Avril API because it has this terrific presence and crispness. The Mercury Audio Grand Pre also tended to win a lot of our listening tests, and we used it on Vanessa Carlton’s last album because you actually felt you were in a better mood when you listened to it. But ever since the Wunder Audio Wunderbar console arrived, we practically don’t need our mass of mic preamps anymore, because everything on that console is so good.

Beresford: We really messed around with recording media, too. For a while, I was convinced the iZ Technology RADAR V Nyquist was the bestsounding thing, and we did almost all of Vanessa’s albums on the system. It was really painful to edit on, but it just sounded so good compared to everything else. We borrowed the RADAR for like three months because we just had to discover which medium was better—analog, RADAR, or Pro Tools?

And what did you find?

Jenkins: I think certain things sound better recorded in different ways. Drum sets and bass guitars are more pleasing to me in analog. In the digital realm, a lot of it is in the converters. A mediocre converter versus a really good converter is a much bigger difference than a good converter versus analog tape.

Beresford: So we use a Studer A827 analog 24-track for some stuff, and everything else runs through a Lynx Aurora converter and an Apogee Big Ben Master Digital Clock into Pro Tools at 24/96.

What do you like to use for monitoring?

Beresford: Chris Pelonis built us these great speakers that are recessed into the wall. We use those a lot for glory. We’ve always had Yamaha NS10s as basic reference monitors, but we were looking for something we could listen to for hours and hours on end without getting fatigued. Of course, we did another one of our shootouts—this time with every pro-audio speaker we could find. At the last minute, we found these really wacky-looking Barefoot Micromain MM27s with subs on their sides. They were by far the sweetestsounding speakers all the way across the spectrum. We never looked back. I even bought a pair for myself to use at home.

How about microphones?

Jenkins: On my first album, I was extremely uptight about what to do, so I begged and borrowed every vocal mic by every dead German you could think of, and the Telefunken 251 won out repeatedly. I ended up using it for the whole record, and I finally convinced the guy I was renting it from to sell it to me. I must have paid for it three times—including rental fees—but it was still worth it.

Is that the only vocal mic you ever use?

Jenkins: If I’m doing something where I want to move around, or if I’m working with an artist who wants to move around, the Shure SM7 is a really good mic. We use those a lot, and the Neumann U67s often get used for backing vocals.

Do you have tried-and-true ways of recording, or are you constantly experimenting with new techniques?

Beresford: We still use traditional methods so you don’t regret something later on, but, for me, it’s all about randomly trying things. For instance, I haven’t used a Coles 4038 in a long time, because I never found an application where they sounded good. But we had to put the drum kit up in the corner of the chamber just to tidy up, so I thought, “What if I put the Coles behind the drum kit?” Suddenly, they sounded amazing. So, you see, sometimes it’s just pure experimentation— something a little different.

Jenkins: Some very successful producers tend to go, “This is my trick. This is my setup. This is how you do it. We’ll double the guitars on the verses, quadruple them on the choruses, and then put everything on the grid.” That’s not the approach we are taking at all.

Beresford: It’s not really an esoteric type of thing—it’s just fun to try new things. Like today, we got this Heil PR30 top-address microphone, and we set it up on an amp. After listening to it, we thought, “God, it sounds horrible.” Then, I accidentally knocked it almost upright, but I left it there, and it ended up sounding absolutely fantastic. If you look at it now, you might think I’m using the mic wrong—like it’s a side address— but it just sounds really good in the “wrong” position.

Like you’re getting the off-axis response?

Beresford: Right! But it’s not like we think we know better than anyone else—it’s just like, hmm, we’d like to give that a try.

Jenkins: I think what Sean’s trying to say is that we have no idea what we’re doing. We’re just trying to figure out what these things do [laughs]. But, really, I think that’s a much more exciting way to record. You start with a song, and you get excited about it. There’s something appealing that energizes it, and you say, “Great, how do we put it together? What amps should we use?” Then, you choose something, check out how it makes the song feel, and you start fiddling with things until you like the result. I mean, we’re being funny about not being thoughtful about the recording process, but not thinking too much does allow for spontaneous creativity.

Do you track with EQ and compression, or do you save those until the mixdown?

Jenkins: We’ve definitely been taking a more natural approach. Our focus is on the player and where it all starts—the part, the fingers, the instrument, the microphone, the mic preamp, and just trying to get everything in that combination. So we basically leave EQ and compression out. For example, we have a really beautiful chamber to work with, so we’ve been tracking vocals more “Sinatra style.” If you want the vocal to sound more open, just back away from the mic. If you want the feel of some compression, then get closer to the mic. Sean always has his hand on the gain, so he’s the compressor.

Beresford: [Laughs.] I’m not nearly fast enough to actually work like a compressor, but that technique has been working very well. I like tracking things raw. I used to try too hard. I’d hit the EQ hard, and I’d really hit the compressors hard. Now, it’s so much more about having a great instrument in a great space with a great player.

Jenkins: At the end, when everything is together, is when we’ll go, “Okay, there are still too many mids.” That’s when we bust out the EQ and compressors, and start to explore the sound more thoroughly.

Beresford: We use quite a bit of compression when mixing. Sometimes, every last piece we have is being used for the mixes. We’re using the Mercury Audio M66 compressor on the vocals a lot.

Jenkins: We’re also using the Thermionic Culture on vocals to add a little sweet harmonic distortion to my life. We also put a lot of the guitars through it, because it just sounds fantastic.

Beresford: We don’t use a lot of outboard gear for spatial effects. In fact, the only outboard units we have are an old Sony SRE-777 sampling reverb and an AMS RMX16. So far, we haven’t even turned up the aux sends on the console. We do use a fair amount of plug-ins. We love the SoundToys stuff and Altiverb for creating environments and thickening things.

What is the greatest benefit you discovered while recording your upcoming album in this new space?

Jenkins: The thing I’ve realized from having such a great space to record in is this: When you’re tracking an acoustic instrument—particularly drums—you’re not really recording the drum, you’re recording the room that it’s in. That’s the reason Led Zeppelin’s drums sound so amazing—the engineers were focused on the sound of the room. So when you listen to our new tracks, a lot of what you’ll be hearing is the sound of the ballroom. That natural approach definitely gives the instruments a largerthanlife sound that is going to punch you in the face.