What do Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, LL Cool J, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, U2, Mick Jagger, AC/DC, The Damned, The Posies, and Rage Against the Machine all have in common?
They all belong to a long and diverse list of artists that have had David Bianco touch their music. I fondly remember my own daily ritual of going into Toast Recording in San Francisco, in 1997, to work on my band's (Black Lab) debut record for Geffen/DGC. David and I have been friends ever since. I recently caught up with him at his studio, Dave's Room.
Your studio here in North Hollywood used to be Mama Jo's. Can you tell me a little about the place?
It was built in '69 or '70 and was built from the ground up to be a studio by Freddie Piro. He and a couple of techs had a brain trust, and they put it together with the right amount of fabric and wood in the live room, so you get a really good sound everywhere. It's got double thick walls with resilient channel, a serious build-out, and was a studio that was competing with Ocean Way and Sunset Sound and other big studios back in the day.
Who were some of the people that worked here?
Alan Parsons [Tape Op #42] liked it. He did some work with Ambrosia here. George Duke worked here. He actually four-walled the place for months and months at a time. I believe it was one of Neil Giraldo [Pat Benatar's husband and guitarist] favorite places to work. And Rick Rubin did some work here with Jack Joseph Puig.
Tell me about the setup here. There's no console, just a [Digidesign] ProControl, an Audient Sumo summing amp, and loads of nice outboard gear.
You noticed. I went around and around about this, and my wife and I actually had some very heated discussions. I wanted a place that I could multitask in, and have a workflow that could be pretty quick, because I do a lot of mixing in here for people all over the world. People that I don't even meet, but I just send files and emails to. When I started, back in the 70's, we had old API consoles at Record Plant. We used to wake up every morning trying to figure out how to patch around the console. We had [Universal Audio] 1176s — that people worship nowadays — that were just about unworkable. We had to constantly call Universal Audio and say, "These power supplies suck!" It's very interesting how nowadays people worship these vintage things, but they had so many problems. We had to figure out the clearest path to get from point A to point B. From the microphone to the preamp, from the preamp to the tape, and if you had to, an EQ. The [console] bussing's active combining amplifiers were noisy as hell! With this in mind, I thought, "Boy, I really don't want to have to deal with that. I have my vintage gear, I have the lovely preamp that I like, I have my lovely compressor that I like, and I don't want to have any crap in between." The more I thought about it, I realized that, "What do I need a console for?" You need a console for combining things. Back in the day, when we had 24 tracks, we had kick, snare and drums left and right. That was your drum allocation. Those four tracks. So you had to balance your cymbals and your toms on the left and right tracks to be perfectly in phase with your kick and your snare, and it had to be a solid thing, so that when you put your faders at zero you heard every nuance of the drums. It worked. Sometimes you had the luxury of two more tracks and put the toms on a separate track, but that was rare. Sometimes, you might even be able to put room ambience on two separate tracks. But for the most part, you combined everything and it was a nightmare to say the least. Now we have infinite tracks, everything can have its own track, so the whole idea of combining through a console is moot. So what do you need a console for? Headphone mixes? I'm not going to spend $50,000 to 75,000 for a headphone mixer! I send your headphone mixes out of Pro Tools, to the HEAR headphone system, and everyone can mix themselves. When it comes time for mixing I don't have to turn down my outputs or anything to accommodate an old funky Neve or anything like that. I can just go. There are times that I like that coloration, so I have a Neve that I can patch stuff into to warm it up if I wanted to, but for the most part it really fits my needs to be able to just record and then in the same day do a mix project. I can bring a mix back in seconds. I'm too old now to bend over a console and mark settings down. As a second engineer, I used to mark down the SSL before total recall came in, and that was a nightmare resetting all those knobs. I took the gamble. I know that some guys like to have a big console in front of them to feel important, and I respect that, but for a clear signal path and a fast way of doing mixes, I find that this is what works for me.
What monitors do you use?
A turning point for me was getting a pair of Tannoy Gold monitors. I realized I needed something consistent that could overcome any dead acoustics areas of wherever I was working — a carpeted remote truck or just a dead control room. I needed something for when the band would come in for playback that I could turn up a little, at least as loud as their headphones, and they could get excited about it. It was a big turning point for me, getting the Tannoys and an amp that could power them and carting them wherever I had a job. I had my cases and I would ship my speakers. It gave me a consistency and comfort zone. When I took them to Mike Campbell's house when I was working with Tom Petty, I knew what I was listening to and that what I was getting was good. They're detailed, but not hypey. They make you work. When it sounds good on the Tannoys it translates everywhere else.
Getting credit for our work can be difficult.
Not too long ago, I mixed a Bettye LaVette record called Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Bettye had been sort of overlooked in her early days in the Detroit scene. She saw the tail end of some singers that went past her, and she never got to be the lead singer. But she's had such a great resurgence now in her 60s on ANTI- Records. I never got to meet her because she lives with her husband in Orange, New Jersey, and I mixed it out here in L.A. I would send files back and forth via email. We never even talked on the phone. So the record came out, was getting rave reviews and she was really on top of the world, here was a big party at a friend of hers house in the Hollywood Hills. All of the ANTI-/Epitaph staff was there; a big crowd. I walked in through the back door and I saw her in the kitchen and introduced myself to her, "Hi I'm David, good to meet you finally" and she just sort of said "Oh, hi", and I could tell she had no idea who I was or that it didn't register. So feeling slightly deflated, I went out back and started drinking with everyone else, talking to the A&R guy. She comes out with a glass of champagne and she says, "Thank you all for coming out tonight and supporting my record. This has been such a long time coming. And I want to tell you one thing here, THAT man..." pointing at me and she tiptoes over in her high heels and hugs me and says, "This man mixed my record. When I said I wanted to make it purple, he made it purple..." and she gave this whole speech in front of all of these people. "I can't thank him enough." The A&R guy next to me says, "Well, that was pretty fucking cool." So that was gratifying.
You've also had some fun working with your son's band.
Well, these guys are just great. They're called Dead Things and War. DTAW as they are called by their fans. My son [James Bianco] and Jake Handler have known each other since grammar school. They were in their first band in 7th or 8th grade. Various members have changed over the years, but they have writing and playing together for years. They were way into the more math-rocky type thing, but now Jake who was originally just the singer has started playing guitar and it has gotten more blues based and has a lot of soul to it. I'm very proud of him. I just think the level of playing is just amazing, and they are really starting to blossom. We did a record and it just grows hair on your balls. For those that aren't afraid to rock and turn it up...