Bell (left) and Baxter at Avatar Studios.
For years, Bryan Bell worked behind the scenes as a stage and studio tech and consultant for artists such as Herbie Hancock, Santana, Neil Young, INXS, and Michael Jackson. Then about four years ago, a songwriter named Jim Baxter asked Bell to produce his album. Bell, who's also a guitarist, liked the music so much that he ended up forming a band with Baxter called Strange Angel. “Once we decided that we were making a record as a band, rather than just a demo, I got out my Rolodex, called up all my clients and my friends, and really got serious,” recalls Bell.
The result was Labor of Love (Synth-Bank, 2007), which features Baxter and Bell's songs and vocals, an eclectic mix of musical influences, and, thanks to Bell, a roster of guest musicians to die for. “The electric band was Graham Lear [Santana] on drums, Freddie Washington [Steely Dan] on bass, and Steve Porcaro [Toto] on keyboards,” says Bell, who, along with Baxter and Jay Koder, played guitar. “We had two background singers and an African master percussionist, Obo Addy. Vicki Randall from the Tonight Show band also played percussion and sang background.”
Then there was the acoustic band: “Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney, and Branford Marsalis,” says Bell, rattling off the jaw-dropping lineup. “For the acoustic group, the concept was if Bob Dylan had opened for the Miles Davis Quintet and then forgot to leave. So a singer-songwriter backed by the Quintet. And then the electric band was kind of like Herman's Hermits backed by the L.A. Express [laughs] — pop sensibilities, dual lead vocals, and a smoking band.”
Another story line from the making of Labor of Love was the hybrid recording process. “We worked at Falcon Recording Studios in Portland, Oregon, and we recorded to 2-inch for the main rhythm tracks,” says Bell. “We recorded the drums, the bass, and the guitars analog, and then we bounced to [Digidesign] Pro Tools and MOTU Digital Performer.”
Labor of Love
Next, Bell put together a laptop-based mobile studio and hit the road, visiting the various guest artists and overdubbing their parts either in their studios or in local studios. “We literally made a 22-inch rolling suitcase that was an entire studio, and that blew everyone's minds when they saw and heard it,” Bell says. Its contents included an Apple laptop, a Digi 001 interface, BSS direct boxes, a pair of vintage Neumann U 87 mics, and cables and other accessories.
“We went into the home studios of Freddie Washington and Steve Porcaro, patched in my Pro Tools rig, and overdubbed all of their parts,” says Bell. “In Herbie's studio, we used my directs and went straight in.” Ron Carter's bass parts were recorded at New York City's Avatar Studios. Final vocals were cut at Bell's home studio.
With the remote sessions done, the tracks were brought back to Falcon Studios, bounced into Digital Performer, and mixed on a large-format console. The finished mixes were mastered by Paul Stubblebine in San Francisco.
The irony here is that Bell, who spent so many years developing music technology and helping other artists use it, finally got a chance to apply it to his own music. “The combination of this new, lower-cost, more portable technology and access to some of the world's greatest musicians,” he says, “allowed Jim and I to realize a vision of our songs that would never before have been possible.”
Home base: Portland, Oregon
Sequencers used: Digidesign Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer
Recording formats: 24-bit digital and 2-inch analog
Web site: www.synthbank.com/strangeangel