Billy Perez is the manager of IIWII Studios ("It Is What It Is," part of the SST Production Facility) in Weehawken, New Jersey. Their already rare Focusrite console at IIWII was thought to be a goner when it was found soaking in five feet of saltwater after Hurricane Sandy struck. Billy explains why John Hanti, the studio's owner, decided to invest two years into the restoration of this unique console, what makes it unique, and how it fits into IIWII's vision.
So what's the deal with this Focusrite console?
There are actually only six in the world now. There were ten made, but three of them were parted out as preamps. The ninth console belongs to us at IIWII and was partially destroyed in the flood caused by Hurricane Sandy. We restored our Focusrite #9 console using parts from Focusrite #2, which was parted out after its stay at Paramount Recording. It originated at Conway Recording Studios in L.A. Ken McKim of Retrospec [Tape Op #86] helped me figure it out. The model we now own works like new, and we dubbed it #11, which is a combination of #9 and #2. The big deal is that the preamps are outstanding; they were designed and built by Rupert Neve [Tape Op #87] to the specifications of Sir George Martin. Those two heads together produced what I believe is the best microphone preamp for tracking, bar none. Focusrite's new gear is fantastic; but you can't beat the old Lundahl transformers in the original ISA 110 preamps, as well as the top of the line potentiometers and the genius wiring of [Focusrite's] Rob Jenkins.
When I saw the console after Hurricane Sandy hit, it was soaking in saltwater. Did you ever think it would be up and running again?
I was not inclined to think it could be restored after seeing its condition post-storm. Myself and some other techs confirmed that the hull of the console was FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition), given the amount of damage. The only option was to replace the chassis and aux modules, as well as most of the wiring. This could only be done by acquiring another console that had those things, as well as a center section that worked, including lots and lots of dry transformers. Luckily I found one of the old parted out consoles that a guy named Tom in Texas happened to have, and obviously couldn't sell. It's not worth much without the preamps. To make a long story short, we bought the console from Tom and trucked it to New Jersey. We had to rewire the preamps to work with this console. I learned what "rewire" actually means during this process. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't too hard either. There were lots of other problems too. It took almost two years, not working daily, but chipping away at it when we could. It was a real pain in the ass, but it's all done now and I really love it.
You got to track the Rolling Stones last year on the Focusrite. What was it like working with them?
It was surreal. I was very lucky to be able to do it. Right place, right time. We had the space they were looking for to just get together and jam a bit, as they hadn't played together in five years. We happened to have a recording studio attached to the space (our live room), and they liked the studio. I got to record everything they did for a week, and at the end I got to multitrack them in more of a studio-esque style. It was great. We kind of played a part in getting the Stones back together for a tour. That's what I like to think!
How does a place like this get known by the "who's who" of the music industry?
It's because you can do anything at IIWII. No one bothers you. I manage the studio, along with a couple of other guys helping out, and we all cater to the artist and production personnel. We leave them alone to do their thing, and we never kick anyone out, even if it's 3 a.m. People like that. They won't get it anywhere else. Definitely not in New York.
Does that have anything to do with the console?
Yes, plus we try to do things differently. The owner of IIWII is a rare bird named John Hanti. He is attracted to the exotic and out of reach. The console is not only unusual, but also uncompromising in quality. When Hanti wanted to build a studio, he had to have something different than everyone else. Anyone with money can buy a Neve, an SSL, or an API. We're different in both the way we deal with our clients, and our interests in gear. Both a bit out of the ordinary.
You've said it's the best tracking console, but not the easiest to use for mixing. Can you elaborate on its strengths and weaknesses?
I wholeheartedly believe that this console is the best tracking console, at least for our room. It does anything you want. It has amazing summing and it mixes great. It's challenging to mix on this console, due to having no recall and only fader automation. Any analog console would have that problem.
What's in store for IIWII Studios?
In the future I want to create a following that feels that IIWII is a place they can go to relax; where there isn't a clock, or some asshole gunning them for $80 an hour, watching his wristwatch. I'm willing to work within fairly low indie budgets, as long as I'm having a good time, which is usually always. I know that people are on tight budgets with their music, but that shouldn't become a compromise in their sound. That makes no sense to me. I'll record bands I like for less money. That's my solution. I want to create an atmosphere where a moment can occur that is special and that I can capture. I don't get bogged down on gear or whatever; I just need what I need to be sure that I'm going to capture that moment properly. That's what we're doing at IIWII. It's a really nice place to record music, or just spend time in general.