Based out of Santa Barbara, Thom Flowers worked as a producer and engineer at Orange Whip Recording in the mid-‘90s and early ‘00s, with bands such as Lagwagon, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Nerf Herder, and The Mad Caddies. He co-founded Standard Audio along the way (with Ian McGregor), makers of the fabulous Stretch and Level-Or 500 series units. He’s worked with many artists, including ShadowParty and The Ataris, since then, and recently co-produced, engineered, and played on Steve Perry’s Traces album, as well as its reworked follow up, Traces: Alternate Versions & Sketches.
Were you playing in bands in the ‘80s?
Yeah. I was here in Santa Barbara, and my high school band was playing in bars around town. We did the whole move-to-L.A. thing after high school. I started writing and demoing songs on a 4-track, gradually got an 8-track, and then an [Yamaha] SPX90 and a little mixer. Soon after that, I was helping friends record their demos. When I was 21 or 22, I tried to open a studio with some bandmates. We had a 24-track, 1-inch [Tascam deck], which sounded great. It was so punchy. A friend played me some tracks we did way back then, and the drums sounded incredible. I had no idea what I was doing!
What led you to set that studio up?
Mainly just to record our band. Then the idea was to pay the rent, so we’d record other people. We did that for a while. A little after that, one of my bands got a publishing deal and a development deal. With the advance, we bought a 2-inch machine, a couple of Neve preamps, and some microphones and decided to make our own record. I learned a lot. One of the guys in that band, Angus Cooke, decided to open up a proper professional space, which was called Orange Whip Recording here in Santa Barbara. I worked there for many years, until he finally had to close down. Rents went through the roof. I moved to Austin, Texas, for a while and then came back. I’m happy to be back here.
You were doing records with Lagwagon and some of those bands?
Yeah, I was friends with Joey [Cape] from Lagwagon and a few of the guys. We had just opened, and he came by and looked at the studio. He ended up doing several records there. Through that we got a ton of punk rock and ska bands. It was a great way to learn, because we really had to crank on that music. Those kick drums had to cut through and be consistent. It was a great way to cut my teeth and really learn about EQ and compression, carving out room, and getting things to punch through.
When did Standard Audio start?
That was while I was at Orange Whip. Ian [MacGregor], my partner, came here to go to college and get his electrical engineering degree. In high school he’d interned at Millennia Media. He was already sharp, and a pretty good guitar player. He quickly became a go-to assistant at the studio. Eventually I brought him on to engineer some projects I was producing, and we became good friends. He had just started doing some design work for Shadow Hills Industries. We were talking about the 500 series units, and how it was blowing up. I had just done a session at a studio in L.A. that had a [Shure] Level-Loc; I was loving it on the drums. I asked Ian, “Wouldn’t it be cool to get that in a 500 series form?” He said, “Yeah. It shouldn’t be too hard.” We spent a lot of time playing around with different parts and doing listening tests. If you push it hard, it distorts in a cool way, so we added that function in. We also added a faster release time. We thought we’d make 100 of these Level-Ors, have a couple for ourselves, and then maybe make a little money. He started working at a studio in L.A. that was owned by one of the Vintage King guys. He brought a couple units in; they loved it, so they asked if they could sell some – it took off.
Isn’t the Stretch unit based on the old Dolby trick, where you encode but don’t decode?
Yeah. It was one of the ideas we had been throwing around and Ian ran with it. It would have been impossible to do it just like the Dolby schematic. It was such a complicated circuit, and a lot of the parts no longer exist. Being the genius that he is, Ian figured out a way to do what it does with modern parts, a simpler design, and more flexibility. That turned out to be another useful secret weapon box.
These are the only two products at this point, right?
Yeah, that’s the problem. We’ve been doing it for over ten years, but it’s our side gig. We’re both so busy. We have plenty of ideas, it’s just a matter of getting them out. We can barely put the time into making the units, testing them, getting them out, keeping a current website, and doing the accounting.
Do you have a personal studio space in Santa Barbara now that you work out of?
Yeah, it’s in a commercial building. I have two rooms. A big room that’s my control room, and then a little smaller room that’s a booth. I do everything here but drums.
Are there studios in the Santa Barbara area, if you need to track kits?
There are. I have some friends who have studios that are set up for tracking drums. There’s one good-sized studio left in town. But most of the studios that I’ll book for that are still in L.A.
On Steve Perry’s original Traces album, what do you recall about the process, the writing, and expanding on the demos?
He had maybe 30 song demos that he had been collecting over the years. Dabbling, and having fun with making music again. He’d kind of walked away from music. Getting to know him, I realized that he’d personally gone through a lot. The process of finishing these songs was going to be cathartic. There were so many different kinds of music in those demos; different writing and production styles. Some of them were transferred from ADAT into Pro Tools, but most of them were started in Pro Tools. He had just built the room, so we were figuring out the room and making sure everything worked. We talked about his early influences; The Beatles and classic R&B, like Motown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin. My thinking was, “Let’s start there.” Of course, he had this rock history that had to get incorporated. Some of the songs were just piano, or guitar and vocal, or electronic – built on loops, or sparse sketches. It could have gone in any direction; we had to narrow it down.
How did the sessions move forward?
We found this song “Angel Eyes.” It wasn’t produced that way, but to me it had a bit of that R&B march to it. We had Steve Ferrone come in and play drums – he got it immediately. That started the ball rolling. Then Steve had this song “Most of All,” which is a beautiful song. I knew right away that was one I wanted to work on. We had Vinnie Colaiuta come in and play drums. Again, instantly, he brought it to life; it told us where to go. We added bass, piano, and a little guitar. Roger Manning also came in and played some synths over the top. Then we had a couple rockers that we wanted to do. Once we got two or three songs under the belt, it started to take shape. As we spent more time and collected the demos, we knew what we wanted to work on. That gave us more of an overview of what we had to work with and what we thought would hold together.
Were there songs that you had to let go?
Oh, yeah. Some never got finished. There were some on the deluxe package, the bonus songs, that we felt didn’t fit. But we finished them anyway.
How did the George Harrison cover [“I Need You”] come about? That’s cool, morphing his song into something slow and different.
He said that as a kid he loved that song. He always heard it as a bigger song than the way it was treated on The Beatles’ record [Help!]. He’d sketched up this demo. Once again, we put Vinnie on it, and it came to life. Pino Palladino played bass on that one. What a rhythm section!
Yeah, I know! You know, before he was in Journey, Steve worked as a tape op for a while.
He didn’t tell me that!
At Crystal Sound, which is now Barefoot Recording. Steve was a tape op there when he was in his early 20s. He’s always loved that side of music. When he built his studio, he wanted to do drums there, so he bought some drum mics and a few more mic pres in order to do that.
Steve told me you walked in and said, “Oh, yeah; I can make this space work for drums.”
His main tracking room isn’t all that small. I’ve worked in smaller spaces. It is bigger than a drum booth, and it doesn’t have any parallel walls. He had a lot of great mics and preamps – everything you’d want to record a drum kit. I was confident that we could get something good in there. It turned out to be a great-sounding drum room. There’s a low end bump in there that really works with drums.
He said there wasn’t an urgency to getting the album done.
No. He wanted to finish these songs more for himself, to enjoy the process, and to have a finished product that he was proud of. In one of our first conversations he told me, “I don’t even know if I want to release any of this. I just want to finish it.” One of the things I love about Steve is that he’s got so much energy. He’s still creative and curious. Once he found that spark again, he couldn’t stop it. We got some momentum, and we got in the studio and made progress every day. It was a lot of fun. One of the big things with Steve is feel. He has this reputation as a perfectionist, which he is, but not in the way that some people might think. For him, it’s about feel, energy, and emotion – not necessarily being perfectly in time or perfectly in tune. Even on the recording side, we have some demo vocals that have distortion in them or a bus going by, but it captured some emotion for him that we didn’t want to lose, so we worked with it. It’s speaking to him. Chances are that if it speaks to him, it’s going to speak to other people.
A lot of times people mistake that
type of perfectionism for a technical perfectionism.
You assumed a co-production role on Traces and ended up playing guitar on it too.
Yeah. I showed up thinking I was going to help him get drum sounds. Up until that point, with the exception of a few engineers coming in, he’d been doing it all himself. You know how hard that is. He needed more than an engineer; he needed a musical partner to bounce ideas off of. The fact that I could play guitar helped, because we could get ideas down right away. For the most part, it was just the two of us, plus a few great drummers and the occasional bass player or keyboard player.
Was it crazy working with that voice? He has an iconic sound.
We did most of the vocals in the control room. The first time we did vocals, I was sitting maybe three feet away from him. It’s a powerful voice. You can hear it through the headphones, especially when he starts belting. That was pretty impressive!
How did you guys approach mixing on Traces?
I do a lot of mixing; I’m pretty comfortable with that, but I felt we should hand it off. He had the budget and he was totally game, so we tried a few. There were some good mixes but neither one of us were totally happy, so we tried one. We sent all the mixes to [mastering engineer] Bob Ludwig [Gateway Mastering Studios, Tape Op #105], who Steve has had a long relationship with. He said, “You guys know what this record should sound like, and you’ve found it. Continue on that path.” That’s what we did, and we had a lot of fun doing it.
What led to the reworking of Traces as Traces: Alternate Versions & Sketches?
We’d been playing around with some live possibilities. He’d been talking about it. One of those possibilities was maybe an acoustic set. We started playing around with stripping down some of the songs. Immediately some of them came together nicely; that started that ball rolling. Again, it was without even talking to the label, or any intention of releasing anything. It was more about the process, having fun with it, and exploring. When you strip the layers away – especially when you have a singer like he is, who’s singing with so much emotion – it gets everything out of the way and the songs are great.
Were there other musicians who were brought in for this second version of Traces?
Yeah. Waddy Wachtel [guitar] came in; another person who Steve had known forever and wanted to work with. He played the acoustic guitar on the George Harrison tune. Some I played on, like “Most of All,” where we replaced the guitar solo with an acoustic guitar solo. We added or replaced a few instruments here and there to make those arrangements work.
You’re in Santa Barbara and he’s near San Diego?
Yeah. I would stay down there when we were working for any length of time. He would come up here sometimes, stay for a few days, and we’d do some work. I would start the mixes in my space, because I was more comfortable, and then I’d bring them down to his place and we’d tweak from there. Somehow, we worked it out.
Does that disrupt your personal life?
I have a wife and two kids, so there were stretches where I was getting a little homesick. But it was more in chunks of time. It wasn’t really long. Three or four day weeks, so I was home for a few days and then gone for a few days. We’d take a break and I’d be home for a few weeks. He is a great guy. After all these years we’ve become great friends. That’s one of the best things to come out of this. He comes up here and we’ll hang out. We talk almost once a week. We spent, off and on, a good year and a half on Traces. For the most part it was just the two of us in his little studio. Occasionally we’d go out for lunch or dinner, but we were in close quarters. After that you either can’t stand the person, or you grow to love them!