Mojave Audio makes some of the highest quality mics at a great value; I've used several of them since they debuted and am a big fan. Dusty Wakeman has been running the company for years. I wanted to know more about his past, and how he ended up at a fine company like Mojave.
I knew of you as a bass player, engineer, and studio owner before Mojave. What was your path to this?
Bass players are always the guys in the band who had to fix the PA or want to record the band. I was that guy in high school. Growing up in Texas, I was fortunate; I was in a really good band. We had a guitar teacher, Dale Mullins, who was kind of a legend down there; he taught me and our two guitar players. He actually had a studio. In fact, we helped him build it. It was a 4-track, part of his house in the suburbs. I just immediately got the bug. I went to school, played in a bunch of bands, and recorded a lot as a musician. I got in this band called The Barons. They played the south Texas dance halls. They owned a studio in a town south of Houston. It was a 3M 8-track, which back then in the early '70s was a pro studio. I wanted to study recording engineering at UT [University of Texas, Austin], but you couldn't back then. There was no curriculum! The Barons owned this studio, they also had a couple of labels and they recorded Mexican bands. They said, "You want to engineer? Here's the key. Your first session is tomorrow." My first session was a mariachi trio. I had two years of just living in the studio, night and day. I was a kid in my early twenties, making good money in that band. Then I got drafted for a band in Houston, Buzz Bone, which was a ZZ Top spin-off. It was the keyboard player, Tom Moore, and drummer, Dan Mitchell, from the Moving Sidewalks [Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top had played guitar]. That's the band that got me up to L.A. to showcase. We drove out in the middle of the summer and ended up recording at Indigo Ranch [Tape Op #103].
From all accounts, that was a really idyllic setting and an amazing studio too.
It was good. I woke up with a view of L.A. that was like paradise. There's the ocean, there're avocado trees, and there's Catalina Island. It was gorgeous. "I want to live here." The band didn't get signed, and I'd gone back to Houston. We were going to re-form out here. I got hired at Brook Mays Music Company, selling guitars and strings. I found out I was really good at that, and I liked it. When I was ready to move out here, I sent out a bunch of résumés. One of them went to Don Griffin, who owned West L.A. Music. The home recording boom had just started then with TEAC 3340s, Tascam 80-8s and 40-4s, and the Model 5A mixer. Because I had engineering experience, I was the only person who could sell those. All these rock stars were coming in, buying, and thinking, "I'm going to save a fortune. I'll get my budget and record at home."
Those kinds of studios were very different from what someone would know now as a home studio.
Nobody used them. They would get them, and pay me to set them up, but they never used them. There was a learning curve. But that was probably the best education I ever got; those three years at West L.A. Music. I went on to manage the place. I was also playing music every weekend, which was against the rules. You weren't supposed to be in a band. You were supposed to be a professional salesperson. I had a client named Mark Avnet that I had sold one of those Tascam studios. He actually used his. At that time his family owned Guild Guitars, and BIC Turntables. He said, "I'm going to start a studio in Venice. You want to do it with me?" I was burned out on retail. I gave my notice and we started a studio. It was January of 1980 that we opened. It was the original Mad Dog Studios.
Where did the name come from?
We went to fill out the paperwork for the business license. We were just calling it MD Productions, Mark and Dusty. It's like, "MD? That's Mad Dog. We can't call it MD Productions. That's boring as hell." We started with a Scully 16-track. It was a giant machine.
You don't see those very often.
No. We also had a Tascam Model 10 console. That lasted about six months. After six months we had an Otari MTR-90 16-track and an Auditronics Son of 36 Grand console, which I wish I still had. In '86, Mark, my original partner, left. His parents said, "All right, you've had enough time fooling around in Hollywood. Come back and join the family business." He took most of the gear. My second partner, Michael Dumas, who was Dwight Yoakam's front-of-house guy, came on board; a fellow Texan. We pooled every resource we could find and bought our first Neve, a 32-channel 8108, and a Studer 24-track from Keith Olsen [Tape Op #33]. There was a period where we worked for Enigma Records Monday through Friday,. We were like their studio. We got to work with everybody from T.S.O.L., to Stryper, to Channel 3. We did a lot of work with Rhino Records, back when they made novelty albums. I got to play on a bunch of those. Those were really fun. I just wanted to live my life and go into the studio every day. That's basically what I did with my life for 25 years.
You did about ten years, or longer, at the first Mad Dog space?
It was about 15 years. Crack cocaine had made Venice really ugly, and we'd outgrown the place. We just wanted to be in either Burbank or Glendale, to get out of L.A. We were over here looking at another building; we drove past a rehearsal complex called Studio D, and they were putting up a For Lease sign. Some of the soundproofing work was already done.
You had rehearsed there too, right?
Right. With Dwight Yoakam. We called the room The Stage, because it had been a big sound stage.
How many years was Mad Dog in that location?
It was there from '95 to 2008.
What changed for you at the end of
The model for Mad Dog was I'd have David Bianco [Tape Op #104], Sylvia Massy [#63], or somebody like that in the A Room; almost always with acts on their first major label album with a $150,000 to $250,000 budget. They'd come in there for four to six weeks and do all their tracking. Sometimes they'd mix there, and sometimes they'd go to an SSL room. The rest was indie records and Americana sessions; all the shit I was doing. On a good day, you'd have two of those going on, plus me – a lot of times when all three rooms were booked. After 2001, labels stopped signing new bands. It was the end of artist development. I decided to downsize, move everything to the Stage. I leased out the other side to this poor guy who was doing Foley for the TV show 24. I let him out of the lease eventually and found Scott Cutler; he kind of turned it back into what it was, which made me happy.
What led you out of the studio ownership world?
I worked with a lot of great artists. Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, and all those great people. That could have kept going on indefinitely. I had that down. But then I went and took two semesters of accounting, and it changed my life. I learned how to use QuickBooks and read financial statements; it really helped. I loved it. I was like, "How do people function and not know this stuff?" All of a sudden, one by one, loans started getting paid off, and I actually started making money. The last six years I was there, I was actually making money off the studio for the first time in like 20 years, just through attrition. There was nothing left to buy. I wasn't paying rent, because all my sub-tenants were paying rent. And the gear was all paid off. It was working. It was a great time.
How did you discover the Royer mics?
I had done a Meshell Ndegeocello album [Bitter] in '99 with Craig Street [Tape Op #32]. Craig came in with a bunch of Coles ribbon mics and was using them on everything. I fell in love with ribbon mics. I had a couple of Shure ribbons early on, but we never really used them. I used the RCA ribbons at Capitol for things, but, other than that, I didn't know ribbons. That album ended, and a week later I saw the first thing in Mix Magazine about Royer Labs. My daughter is adopted, and the night before we were going to China to pick her up, John [Jennings, a partner at Royer Labs] and I talked for three hours. I said, "I'm getting burned out on being the guy in that chair. I'm having my second kid now, and I don't want to be an absentee father. I want to be around. I've got a pro audio background, and I've been around a small business. If you ever need anything, or hear of anything, let me know, because I'm kind of looking." Like I say, the studio was doing great, but I was tired of comping vocals in Pro Tools. When you're a studio owner, sometimes you're forced to take projects you might not necessarily want to do otherwise, because you need the income. Then you're sweating bullets over something that just doesn't inspire you. I had such a great run with Pete Anderson [Tape Op #57], Dwight, Lucinda Williams, Roy Orbison and k.d.lang (the duet of "Crying" that won a Grammy), and Jim Lauderdale. I got to play with Buck Owens, mix his record, and play with him live. I lived my dreams. I'm not unfulfilled, at all. When we moved to Burbank, we were able to swap our 32-channel 8108 for a 48-channel one that was much nicer. After a few years, I bought the Neve 8088 from Sylvia Massy – it was a dream console. I lucked out selling the studio when I did. It wasn't for sale. Tony Rancich [Tape Op #94] just happened to cross my path and was like, "I want this console. How much is it?"
Oh, he got that one?
Yeah, it's in the Adobe Room at Sonic Ranch [near El Paso, TX], his fourth room.
That's perfect. It's an amazing place out there. How did you end up working with Mojave Audio?
John Jennings came over one night with a prototype of the Mojave MA-200. Eddie Kramer [Tape Op #24] was working at my studio, and he had my [Neumann] U67s out for drum room mics. Eddie said, "Put it up there." We listened and thought, "Okay, any of these three could be 67s." I said, "What are you going to do with these?" He said, "We're starting this new company." We talked for hours. I said, "If you need any help with that…" He said, "We're looking for somebody to run it, but it's a full-time job." I was like, "Sign me up, bro!" It was perfect. That was 11 years ago.
It's been that long? You work within the Royer facility and share David Royer as a designer.
David's the gold card. I wouldn't even try to do this without David. I get to work with a true genius. Royer was already a hit, so I was able to follow in their footsteps. I knew how great the mics sounded, how good our products are, and what a great value they are. But having that David Royer opener, people are willing to give it a shot. I'm the President of the company, so I do everything, other than what David and John do. It's still stressful, but it's not stressful like owning a studio is. That's a different kind of stress.
With the Mojave products, are they partially made in China? How does that process work?
We were the first company to do this, but now everybody has mics done like that. We use Jensen transformers, and the tubes – various parts we source here. We have to ship them over to the factory; they build the mics, and then they come back. For the tube mics, we burn them all in for 24 hours. David listens to each one. There are little things we do back in the shop. Like we'll put a dab of Loctite on all the screws on the capsules. Just little things like that. We have a list of things we like to do.
You're able to keep the price point reasonable.
That was the whole point. To make great-sounding mics that people can afford. When I was coming up, there was nothing like that. We love our customers. I'm not a great businessman; I'll take the short end of the stick anytime to make the customer happy. If we have a mic in more than two times and can't get the bug out, we just send a new one. Mics are tricky. They're fussy little things.
Anything that's electromechanical...
And with a tube in it, and a capsule. Some of the capsules we get in look like the surface of the moon. They didn't use a pop filter. There's spit and dirt all over it. We're super customer-centric. In the early days, our shock mounts sucked. They were generic. It made me so mad that I got on a mission to make a better shock mount. We took the basic thing, but used these handles that come on tripods. It cost us $7 a piece.
Your day-to-day is just managing. Do you have to figure out the Chinese situation, like what the timing is going to be to get product?
Oh, man, it's such a bitch to try to look that far down the road. I've got a batch of MA-1000s now that are a month late. They've been sitting there, and it's all because of the logo badge. We had to reject the logo badges, and we had to find somebody else to do it. Now we're installing the capsules and transformers here more and more with that mic – getting what we can from China and finishing it here. That's going to speed things up and be better. It saves money, in the long run. With the MA-1000, that's basically David's ELA-M 251. That's gone so well, other than being able to keep up with the demand. It's such a hit.
Is that a higher price point than previous mics?
Yeah. It's $3,000 retail. It's winning shootouts like crazy, so that's fun. There again, if I were a better businessman, we probably should have priced it higher. I do all the purchasing, bookkeeping, as well as all the marketing and advertising. It's stressful at times, but I love it. It's a blessing to be here.
What do you see with the future of Mojave?
I'm working right now on a dynamic microphone. I would have thought the dynamic mic market was saturated, but, according to our dealers, it's not. So a good dynamic, something in the $200 range. David Royer hates dynamic mics. He says the only reason to have a dynamic is to hammer a nail, or for target practice. "Why would you want to use a dynamic when you could use a ribbon or a condenser?" I kept explaining to him that people buy dynamics for tours. He just wouldn't do it. So I tricked him. I got a big bag full of capsules, a bunch of samples, and I said, "Which one of these do you like? Which one of these is the best?" He said, "Well, this one's not too bad." I said, "What would you do to make it sound better?" He said, "I'd design a damping circuit, a network, to take the peaks down and smooth it out." I said, "Why don't you do that?" He finally did it.
Obviously you're not going to make ribbon mics.
I can't make ribbon mics! That's a Royer thing. We can make anything but that!