I met Chris Schlarb years ago in the Long Beach, California music scene, and we became reacquainted recently when I took on engineer and assistant roles for several of his productions in 2016, my favorite experience being Psychic Temple Plays Music for Airports. Recently Chris opened BIG EGO studios in Long Beach. Spanning genres from gospel, to bluegrass, to garage, what remains constant is a commitment to song, performance, and musicianship. Schlarb and BIG EGO’s philosophy harkens back to a day when records were finished in weeks, and a label’s sound relied heavily on a single studio and its session band. The medium has changed from tape to RADAR, but the vibe remains.
How was your week?
It was good; I mixed two records and had a recording session yesterday, so that was the last seven days. I mixed Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon’s record and the new Sky Chefs record, then had a recording session yesterday for Brian Moore. I’m mixing the new I Come to Shanghai record next week. Next Thursday I’ve got John Herndon, Ben Boye, and Devin Hoff coming in for a session doing a live dub project for Stephen Buono’s Church Chords Presents. A bunch of it was recorded at Electrical Audio – horns, reeds, and organ – then we’re going to mix that in live with what John, Devin, and Ben are playing. I’ve got a children’s record coming in right after that for Jazzy Ash.
What is your ideal process, from artist relations all the way to mixing?
I try to work with people I’m excited about. Everything that I’m working toward is in advocacy for an artist. I want to champion them. I like to have a couple of pre-production meetings, listen to demos, have them play me the songs, and figure out who’s going to play on the record. What shape it will take. I get all the musicians involved, and then set up a few days for recording. We usually knock out two to five songs in a day when we’re tracking. It’s done very much in a ’60s or ’70s session style. I’ve got a stable of maybe 20 different musicians that I’ll pull in for different projects. We’ll usually spend a couple of days recording, then three to five days mixing, and we’ve got a record.
Do you approach a session differently, depending on the type of music or the level of playing?
I prefer not to deliberate too much. When we do a pre-production meeting, I’ll usually hash out a broad structure. But the rubber hits the road when everybody’s in the studio together. I’m always thinking of the macro view of an album. I want to make sure that people are listening to this whole record and we don’t start going, “Oh, I heard this on the last song. It’s like the song before that.” I’m thinking, “Do we have a ballad? An uptempo song? Do we have contrast?”
How do you feel about overdubs?
I have no problems with overdubs, in general; it really depends on the project. We do a lot of things live in the room – that’s my starting point. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that with a band – especially when you’re putting a group together for an artist – there’s no substitute for the artist singing the song with their instrument in the room with the band, because now it means something. It’s not an abstract idea like, “Okay. How many bars until the chorus and then we go back to this section?” Your vocalist is like your lead melody instrument in jazz, right? This is the thing that you’re listening to.
BIG EGO isn’t what I’d consider a retro studio. You have efficient modern gear where you need it. What remains retro is your philosophy.
Absolutely. The biggest decision when we opened the studio was the console – the second biggest being the RADAR system. I spent a year and a half deliberating on what to get. I’d been looking at Neotek consoles. I looked at all those Trident consoles, like Series 65, 70, 80 and so on. I looked at API consoles. I read Pete Townshend’s autobiography [Who I Am] and he talks about running professional recording studios. Then I saw a video of him with the Audient ASP4816 and he said, “We have Audient consoles in all of my studios now, and they have no down time.” I thought, “This guy has owned everything I can’t afford, and he’s decided to go with something I can afford.” It’s an inline console, so it works perfectly with the RADAR. For projects that come in for remote mixing, or things that need to be done into a DAW – we use the [Antelope Audio] Orion 32. For anything that I produce, or that starts here, we use the RADAR. The Leonard Cohen project [Like a Drunk In A Midnight Choir: Record Store Day Celebrates the Music of Leonard Cohen] was a perfect example. With an inline console, you can start to put your mix together while you’re recording, because it’s a different set of EQs and faders. With Avi Buffalo we tracked it in the morning and Devin [O’Brien, house engineer] and I mixed it two hours after he left because the mix was already 80 percent there. It didn’t require any extra work. For me it’s a thousand times faster than doing it in a computer. There are also the wonderful accidents that happen where you go to another track. Let’s say you’re mixing a record on the console and you get your first mix done. The second song comes around and you run it through the same settings, and usually it’s 80 percent there already. And then the exciting, weird things happen where something’s coming in too hot to a channel, but it sounds really cool because it’s being compressed, or it’s being run through a delay or something...
It’s taking the stage when you might not have expected it to. Sometimes a percussion instrument is slammed way up high.
Right. You’re like, “Shit, that sounds great!”
I see your approach as similar to the jazz and pop recordists of the ’50s and ’60s. That makes me think of Rudy Van Gelder [Tape Op #43]. A warm but still hi-fi sound.
It’s interesting that you say hi-fi, because I never think of my music as being hi-fi.
To me, hi-fi is hearing all the frequencies.
I never classify what I’m doing that way. But I just mastered Psychic Temple IV with Ian Sefchick at Capitol Studios, and he said, “This is an audiophile recording.”
You only use a few effects.
Yeah, I embrace those limitations. We just picked up an Ecoplate II [plate reverb] but the Demeter [spring-based] Real Reverb sounds amazing too. We did a session yesterday where we put the Pearlman mic out in the hall, left the door open, and then in the mix – when I made rough mixes for the client – I took the hall out and ran it pre-fader through the spring reverb. It sounded amazing.
It’s best not to have too many reverbs and delays active in a mix.
Exactly. This is the other reason why we have four effects sends on the console. We’ve got the [Lexicon] Prime Time 93 [digital delay], the plate, the spring, and the tape echo [Roland Chorus Echo SRE-555], and I feel like that’s a really good balance. We basically have two delays and two reverbs.
What about some upcoming projects?
We’ve got the Jazzy Ash record, Swing Set; a children’s album. It’s going to be done in a Folkways style. We’re going to have groups of kids in the studio, and everything live. Maybe a six or seven-piece band. No effects, just what happens in the room. For me, it’s a dream project. I love listening to all the old Ella Jenkins records.
You mentioned a gospel record.
We’re starting a record for the Christian Fellowship Chorale soon. I’m very excited about that. That’s with choir director Timothy Williams. We had a meeting here the other day, but we’re doing the first day of tracking at the end of the month, with the full chorale and the full band live in the room together.
I can imagine that sounding really good with your style. You’re making it sound legit.
Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for. It’s funny, in my first conversation with Timothy I basically said, “If you want this record to sound like Kirk Franklin or something like that, I’m not the guy to produce it.” There are certain artists that come around, in any genre, and they create all these copycats. But nobody ever said, “I want to sound like the artist who tried to sound like someone else.” If you want to make a copycat record, I’m not the one.
Unless there’s a big budget behind it that says, “We need something that sounds like this.”
I’m still not the right person! There are plenty of other people who can do that.
BIG EGO appeals to a certain range of artists, styles, and projects. Are you alienating anyone? Or do you feel those people have plenty of other options already?
Exactly. If I’m not good at it, I can’t even pretend. I know that we already have a narrow group of people who would come to make music in a studio anyway. What I’ve noticed is that as people have come in and worked with us, they leave with a different understanding of the recording process. I can’t see how you can make vital-sounding music without some kind of risk. When we did the Psychic Temple Plays Music for Airports record I was totally broke. That weekend we did two recording sessions. We did the first Psychic Temple IV session with Max Bennett and then we did the …Airports session the very next day. I was exhausted. I was broke. I paid all of those people, with no label support at the time for either one of those sessions. [Joyful Noise Recordings has since released both albums.] I was galvanized by the fact that I had all these great musicians in the room, and then it came together. That’s the risk. Spending $5,000 in a weekend and coming out with nothing.
You participate in a lot of sessions yourself.
I’m always learning. I only started improving because I was putting myself in situations with better musicians than I was.
Now you’re going to launch a record label.
Yeah, BIG EGO Records. My plan is to do quarterly releases. I was working on too many records that I loved and believed in, and I couldn’t see a place for these artists and this music in the current landscape. There is an aesthetic that we’ve cultivated in the studio, and I felt like the best thing to do was to help this community by putting these records out, and making sure that they looked and sounded great. There’s a tradition of this: Motown, Stax, Fame, and Sun. I love studios that also have labels; that’s a direct conduit. What was happening in the room, now it’s out on the record. My hope is that the label helps the studio, and vice versa.
Can you talk about some of the gear you use every day at BIG EGO?
I use the Empirical Labs Mike-E [EL-9] on everything. It was the first piece of what I would call “big boy” gear that I ever bought, and it was the best decision I could have possibly made. I still have it, and I bought a second one. They sound amazing on anything. You can use them as a saturator, a preamp, and a compressor. It’s got a parallel mix knob. It’s essentially a Distressor with a couple of preset attack and release times and four ratios. They’re incredible pieces. I told Dave Derr [EL’s owner, Tape Op #33] this myself when I met him for the first time recently. I bought it because I didn’t have a console at the time. I was using the Dangerous Music D-Box, so I needed preamps to track on the way in, then I needed something for bus compression on mixdown. I was using the two Mike-Es to do that. I mixed one record where the drums sounded so bad that I sent the kick and snare mono into a Mike-E, saturated them, and just blew them out. It saved the record. There are so many variations of what you can do with that piece.
It’s hard to talk about the RADAR because most people who use it don’t think about it very much. Do you just arm the tracks and record? It does have other features.
Yes, but I’m not using many of them. Obviously RADAR 24 doesn’t have take folders or anything like that. I’ve started to get pretty fast with editing on it. Overdubbing is a breeze. It’s very much like old school punching in and out. I think the beauty of the RADAR is like any good technology; it’s like it’s invisible, it’s magic, and it never gets in the way. It never breaks down.
And you also have the Roland Chorus Echo SRE-555.
That’s my go to for vocal slap or echo. I don’t think there’s really anything that sounds like it. The tape’s old and every once in a while you get those little hiccups in the tape; a little crinkle, or some wow and flutter. A normal technique that I use is to throw the Chorus Echo onto the snare. I’ll turn the send all the way up, solo the snare and the echo return, line them up so that they’re in time with each other, and then I take it off the snare. Then I can put it on anything, and it’s in time. I did that on Cherry Glazerr’s cover of “I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen. Clem [Clementine Creevy] was playing a whole note on electric guitar and then the echo turned it into a dotted quarter. We printed that echo when we tracked it. That way, when we mixed the track down, I was able to use the chorus echo on a voice and we already had the print from her guitar.
You seem to favor ribbon mics.
We just picked up an AEA R44, which I love. They [AEA] let us borrow one for a Pretty Polly session with Stephen Hodges. Arin [Mueller, second house engineer] and I used three mics on Hodges: a Royer 121 on his kick, a Beyer [Beyerdynamic] M201 on the snare, and the R44 on overhead/floor tom. It sounded so good, I had to buy one. We’ve also got an AEA R88 stereo ribbon, which we use all the time on drums, choirs, rooms, and reeds. It’s a modern classic.
Any novel uses for the ribbons?
We did a double quartet record for Anthony Shadduck, and we had Chad Taylor and Danny Frankel playing full drums. We used the 4038 overhead for one, the RCA 77D on overhead for the other, and the Royer in between their kick drums. So it was three mics on two drum sets. Then I can pan one kit hard left, and one hard right with the kick in the center.
Any condenser mics you’re in love with?
We use the Neumann KM 184s on everything. They always sound amazing on acoustic guitar. We’ve even been using them on snare drums. I remember reading Terry Manning [Tape Op #58] talking about all those great records that came out of Memphis. They used the old Neumann KM 84 on Al Jackson Jr.’s snare. I also read that they use KM 84s on all those on all those Big Star records for the acoustic guitar. To me, that’s the best acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever heard – like the acoustic guitar on “Thirteen.” I thought about buying 84s, but there’s nothing wrong with the 184. We’ve got the Pearlman, which is a great mic. I love it on double bass at the f-hole. Great room and floor tom mic too. For vocals, we’ve got an AKG C414 with the CK12 capsule. We also use the RCA 77D and AEA R44 a lot. I love the [Electro-Voice] RE20 on vocals all the time. It’s what sounds best on my voice personally, I think. Thom Yorke uses them on his voice, right?
Do you still use the Shure KSM32?
Yes, all the time. It’s a sleeper mic!
BIG EGO is built on the skeleton of an older recording studio. You did serious upgrades before opening day.
When we came in here, it was just a shell. There was a control room and an iso room, but the live room and the control room were a mess. There were soffits, but they were empty and ragged. The first thing we did was put new flooring in. I hired my friend, Brian Moore, a master carpenter, to come in, and he did all this beautiful walnut work in the control room. I put up cedar shingles on the outside of the iso room and Brian framed it out with walnut. He built our racks, as well as the desk for the Audient console. Ken Rains, who used to work at Wally Heider’s, gave us the plans for the polycylindrical diffusers and [furniture designer] Peter Deeble made those for us out of walnut. My wife and I put up some curtains in the control room. Brian retrofitted the soffits with walnut and put up the wainscoting on the back wall. We got lovely velvet drapes from a company called Sew What? in Compton. We have two big [acoustic] clouds in the live room and treatments on either wall. I think we got out of it fairly cheaply, but it still cost us about $60,000 to get everything up and running. Which, for a husband and wife with three kids, is still a ton of money. We’re expanding already, and we took over the unit next door.
Where do you see BIG EGO in five years?
Our lease is up in 2020. Honestly, I jumped into this whole thing because making records is a compulsion. There’s no substitute for being in a room and having a song come together. I did this because I needed a place to work every day.