Installment #3 of “The Shallow Money Trench” by Todd Robbins – point blank war stories amassed from 30 years in the music industry
I am going to open with this: you will find no better studios and no better talent than what you find in Nashville, TN. Sure you may find more famous studios, more well known figures, different creative approaches, and varying musical viewpoints from city to city; however, if you can’t make a killer record in Nashville with Nashville personnel, then you cannot make a killer record. Period. End of story.
That being said one guy has held a perplexing spell over Nashville since the day I arrived in March of 1988. That guy is LA Guy.
Nashville, for all the things it has going for it, has always tried to hitch a few boxcars of its train to LA. Be it producers, engineers, mixers, or musicians there is always a contingent in Nashville who will love them some LA Guy. It’s as if this mythical being adds an extra layer of credibility, or a cool factor, or some kind of street cred. Some think LA Guy can bring instant relevance.
Before we begin we must set the stage. For the first time in printed media I will reveal the events that lead up to LA Guy: [phone rings, you answer, cue dialog, and action!]
- Hey bro, money is tight and since these are just some demos, can you work for free in exchange for us having you record & mix the record when we land a deal? [You’ll never get paid.]
- Hey bro, exciting news! We got a small deal on a small label with a small advance and we are going to make a record! Are you in? [Notice you didn’t get paid for the demos.]
- Hey Bro [uppercase Bro now as you rise in prominence], the budget for the album is less than we thought, can you work for cheap if we promise to make it up to you on the next one. [You’ll get paid a little bit, but you’re probably better off taking other gigs if you have them – your call.]
- Hey Bro, we’re going to make another record! We can pay you a little more this time! You ready? [You’re still better off taking other gigs. Since you worked for cheap on record 1, you’ll be discounted for record 2.]
- Hey Bro, you killed the mixes on the first record, can you mix the second one? You can? Oh good! That’s great! We’re over budget and paying for the mix out of our own pocket, can you give us a deal? [This is where you should be making more money, but instead you’re making less while feeling guilty to boot. The second record takes twice as long as the first one to mix too. People now know more.]
- Bro-man! [additional monikers as your stock rises], We got us a hit! Have you seen the charts? This record is hitting big! [Notice there is no “bonus” for you. No “payback” for working on the cheap.]
- Broooo-hame! We just went Gold baby! I can’t believe it! Whoooo, great job! [Notice there is still no “bonus” and no “payback”, but you did manage to mix a Gold record for half your rate, so congrats on that. You won’t get a plaque, they are too spendy and they’re also recoupable.]
- Bro-bubba-licious!!!! We just signed with A&M Records and we’re flying LA Guy out to record our new record next month! You should come by the studio and meet him! [LA Guy is NOT working at your same rate, trust me. You should go meet him, though. That introduction always feels so good.]
- Bromaximus Legitimus!!!!!!!!! LA Guy is mixing our record! OUT IN LA!!!! We are so stoked! Man, this is killer, huh? [The next time you hear from this artist is after they’ve been dropped from their label. When they eventually call again they will have an investor (a rich guy from their church) and they will be talking big plans. Just start over at the top of this map and work back down again. It will all line up for the encore.]
The Wayback Machine
From 1988-1992 or so I worked with several guys from LA as an assistant engineer. Note these are guys from LA, they are not LA Guy. They were all great producers and engineers and really fun to work with. I was fortunate to work with a few heavy hitters from LA who had some serious credits and incredible talents. Then came disaster. Then came LA Guy, a charlatan who coattails on the credits of his California cousins.
Meet LA Guy
I can’t remember his real name but I remember calling him “Imbecelli”, so it was something similar. Plus he was an imbecile, so it was a perfect fit. A production assistant from LA called one day to book me as an assistant for him on a tracking session with a new and hot Nashville group. I had never met LA Guy but he endorsed a lot of gear and was in a lot of Mix Magazine ads, so he must be baller. Right?
LA Guy would be producing and engineering 3 songs. Nashville labels often did this, where they’d throw some big doubloons at LA Guy for some pizazz on a few singles. They’d stick with the local crew for the album cuts, feeding us whatever scraps were left in the budget.
When LA Guy hit town we agreed to meet at the studio to set up on a Sunday evening before the sessions were to begin on Monday. We were tracking at the old Digital Recorders Studio A, a room I always loved.
When I walked in I was immediately shocked by the amount of gear LA Guy had rented for the sessions. I saw tower upon tower of racks with every type of gear imaginable. Of course there was a Publison in one rack. If you ever walk into a session and see a Publison you know LA Guy is near. We had the entire Underground Sound rental inventory squeezed into the control room with half of Dreamhire’s inventory stacked on top of it.
RockIt Cargo also flew in some of LA Guy’s speakers. He had his own NS-10s in a custom case with a rare Electrocompaniet Power Amp from Norway and silver speaker cables that were as thick as the booster cables for my car. I noticed one speaker was modded with a fuse block but the other was not. This would indicate a mis-matched pair. I found that weird, but the going was about to get much weirder.
The initial setup took hours upon hours of patching, plugging, and interfacing all the gear. Finally, at some point around 2 or 3am we deemed ourselves ready for drum sounds the next morning.
Let’s Get Some Sounds!
LA Guy had a pretty conventional mic setup on the drum kit. A D112 on the kick, a 57 on the snare, tom mics on the top and bottom, 414s on overheads, and U87s in the room. In his mic deployment, however, LA Guy was breaking new ground.
He had the D112 in the kick drum backwards, with the black-mesh side of the mic pointed toward the beater and the green strip facing out. His 414s on the overheads were both in cardioid, but one was facing the kit, the other was facing the ceiling. On his room mics, one U87 was in cardioid, the other was in omni. On his tom mics, he got the top mic sounding ok, but the bottom mic was out of phase. When blended together the drum sounded like someone hitting a cardboard box with a pencil. LA Guy seemed pleased. He was getting his vibe. I’m not joking, he never noticed anything amiss with this setup. It sounded so wonky I could not believe my ears. Good thing we were taking advantage of every Focusrite module in Nashville.
The bass player suffered similar fate. His DI sound was good, but LA Guy had the bass cabinet mic’d with a Sennheiser 441 (odd choice, but ok…) and it was out of phase with the DI. When the sources were blended together the bass had the tone of a banjo through an octaver. I was beginning to get a feel for the Imbecelli sound. It was horrid. LA Guy, however, bobbed his head with the beat and made the rock-and-roll devil horns with his right hand.
The towers of racks and mountains of gear were a detriment for LA Guy. All of the mics went through multiple pieces of outboard gear. Getting a simple guitar sound meant visiting four or five different rack stations spread across the entire back of the large control room. It took FOREVER with a lot of running back forth. In the end the whole thing sounded like wet donkey ass. All the money spent on this gear was being pissed down the drain.
On a break during our first day the band started coming to me and asking for my help. Things did not sound right and they pleaded with me to jump in and assist Imbecelli in getting some decent sounds. “What was wrong?” they asked. The answer would break their hearts.
When we re-convened the drummer asked Imbecelli if he could try some things on his kit. I had already backed the kick drum preamp way down and spun the D112 around. I’d done the same with the overhead mics and I also evened out the room mics. The tom mics were now in phase too, and I’d made a lot of “blind” eq and compressor adjustments on all the channels. Boom! Instant improvement. Night and day!
I held my breath waiting for LA Guy to say something…
LA Guy didn’t even notice a dramatic enhancement in tone. He just kept tweaking as if he was picking up where he left off! I’m not kidding! The sound was night and day different and LA Guy didn’t even blink. We were all gobsmacked!
I took care of the bass player’s polarity issues as well. When he started playing again the bottom end was tight and solid. LA Guy didn’t notice that the woofers on his NS-10s were now alive. That Norwegian amp was now singing!
As the day progressed I started coming in behind LA Guy and improving most everything – making adjustments, tweaks, and eq changes. I would sneak out and move mics, and I even replaced a few mics with better choices, claiming made-up technical issues. Soon I was “shadow-engineering” the project. I constantly slid in behind LA Guy to tweak things. The band knew it and was much appreciative. LA Guy never once got wind.
We were set to record on 2” analog tape @ 15ips with Dolby SR. Great setup! LA Guy, however, was convinced I did not know how to align the Dolby rack. He insisted on doing it himself because he used to do it at A&M Studios (in LA) all the time and he knew a few tricks in the alignment process that made it better. Be my guest sir, those Dolby racks were a pain the ass to align. As part of the alignment procedure you must bypass the Dolby rack…
We recorded a take of the first song and on playback I noticed right away things sounded very “non-Dolby”. I went into the machine room and saw that LA Guy had left the Dolby rack in bypass. Genius! Luckily the band decided to record the song again, so I ran in and engaged the Dolby rack in time for take-two. LA Guy was none the wiser. He never even heard the difference!
While we worked, LA Guy really put on a show:
- During a good take of one song he drew a Mercedes Benz logo on a piece of paper and held it high in the air. He told the band they would all be driving expensive cars soon.
- At one point he asked everyone in the room if we were afraid to fly in small planes. He told us we’d never walk through an airport again, but we’d be flying private from now on. An odd promise considering he flew Southwest from LAX with a stop in MDY.
- During playbacks he would stand by the speaker, place his index finger on the cabinet, and stare off into space as if the sound mystically traveled via his finger to his auditory processing units.
- He demanded we work with the lights dimmed so low we could barely see anything. I had to go buy a flashlight for the sessions. I invoiced for it, of course.
- He ordered a plain Ruth’s Chris hamburger, cooked rare, with a glass of milk for dinner every evening. Just meat and bread. And milk.
- He was to cussing what John Keats was to the sonnet.
- He wore flip-flops everyday and his toes looked like the hooves of a mountain goat – a possible reason we kept the lights dimmed.
- He was a close-talker and always had a toothpick in his mouth which would damn near poke you in the face, if those toenails didn’t get you first.
- He wore v-neck t-shirts and 3 crystals on necklaces that were constantly entangled in a wad of grotesque chest hair. He would untangle his chest hair and flick the hair on the SSL while working, as if he was sprinkling magic dust on the console.
- He called everyone “bubby”.
At some point any worthy A&R man or label executive would’ve called bullshit on LA Guy. Oh sure, our session sounded different than any pop/CCM session I had been on before, without question. But better? Not a chance. Instead, the label execs overlooked his ineptitude in exchange for the street cred they hoped his name would bring to the project.
How on earth were they fooled? What did they do to vet LA Guy ahead of hiring him? Who were his other victims? In the end the project was partially re-recorded and then mixed by a Nashville engineer. Oh irony.
I’m not sure how Mr. Imbecelli, LA Guy, rose to such prominence. I have no idea what would spur major gear manufacturers to feature him on their advertisements.
I saw his name around for years after our Nashville encounter. He ended up doing a Barbara Streisand record at one point and was interviewed in EQ Magazine. He did full-page endorsement ads for Otari RADAR and then Avid Pro Tools. The guy was (is?) a total poser.
LA… The City of Angels… Hollywood & Vine… The Sunset Strip…. Ventura Blvd… Beverly Hills + Rodeo Drive… Mix them together, land yourself on a few music projects that rise above the fray, build up a vibe, and let ‘er rip. Watch your step, bullshit abounds. Somewhere someone is writing a chapter on how to be LA Guy. I write to expose him.
There is unquestionable talent out west – major, sickening, earth-shattering talent. This is not about that talent. This is about LA Guy, the charlatan who rides the fringes of the vortex these talents leave in their wake. It’s about those who can’t recognize talent when it’s in the palm of their hand or in their own backyard. It’s about forsaking tangible assets for intangible lore, and not realizing when you’ve veered off course.
You will still find LA Guy in Nashville from time to time, talent be damned. Remember, we travel the shallow money trench. Stay tuned for more…
This is a true story.