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Volume 3, Number 6, August 2005
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Artist Interview: Tony Espinoza and SF Soundworks
Computers Can't Mix
By Marsha Vdovin

Tony Espinoza, owner of SF Soundworks
One of the great things about life is surprises. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I have my preconceived notions about people before I meet them. I also think that, being a librarian's daughter, I tend to want to categorize everyone.

I've been curious about SF Soundworks Studios for a while. Who would open a new studio for music with a bunch of high-end gear when there are studios closing left and right in every major city?
Joe Chiccarelli was coming up from L.A. to mix there and kept trying to introduce me to the owner, Tony Espinoza. All I knew was that Tony was a "dot com" guy. I don't know about you, but as a second-generation San Franciscan, those words conjure up an ugly image: cocktail-swilling, SUV-driving, cell phone-addicted greed.

But during my first 20 minutes at SF Soundworks, before I realized that Tony Espinoza was the studio owner, I simply thought he was one of the young engineers. His young appearance and sweet, humble demeanor shocked me into embarrassment. He is so different from what I expected.

Tony laughed at my surprise. "Well, I am a 'dot com guy,' but first-generation," he said. Tony has been in bands since he was 14 and dropped out of computer music studies at Stanford to become an engineer at Apple in 1990. He became a very successful engineer, manager and entrepreneur. He helped start and sell several companies. With incredible business savvy, he always knew when it was time to move on. He was heavily involved with attempts to distribute music on the Internet in the late nineties. He was often working with
Studio A houses an SSL 9000 console and extensive rack gear
technologies before the market was ready for them, and I think that enabled him forecast the market somewhat, and to predict the future of the music industry. He also made a healthy chunk of money that gave him the freedom to try something new. Tony reminds me of many of the engineers I work with at places like Universal Audio: super nice, super brainy, and passionate about both engineering and music. Within minutes I felt that I had known him for years and wondered why our paths hadn't crossed before.

“The expertise of how to mix music doesn't come in the box with Pro Tools. You can't build a plug-in that mixes music.”

Situated on a pleasant alleyway, in a quiet Filipino neighborhood just blocks from one of the nastiest areas in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, the building that houses SF Soundworks operated for many years as a post-production studio specializing in animated productions, such as A Nightmare Before Christmas and Gumby as well as television series including "Nash Bridges." Tony bought the building in January 2000, and after a massive remodel and vertical addition, opened his studio in August 2002.

The rooms are set up in a modular fashion. Both control rooms have access to the live room and to each other. Tony's pride is Studio A with a SSL 9K mixing console and healthy rack of UA hardware. He also recently acquired a second SSL from

Larrabee Studios in L.A. The second story of the building features a beautiful sound editing suite, and above that, offices, an amazing guest apartment and a roof deck that rivals the hippest New York loft. Tony, his filmmaker wife and baby live in another loft next door.

When we settled down for a formal interview, I first had to ask the big question I'd had before we'd even met.

What on earth made you decide to open a recording studio?
I've always had a studio, ever since I was 14 and I was trying to make synthesizers work and trying to copy "Blue Monday" by New Order. As soon as I had a fancy programmer job and I could afford to buy gear, I bought as much as I could. It was kind of like a hobby/obsession all those years. Having come from CCRMA [the computer music center at Stanford University] and
Tony Espinoza's racks include two UA 1176LN reissues and a UA reissue of the Teletronix LA-2A. Also pictured are two original LA-3As.
working with John Chowning, I was deeply inspired with the advancements in technology. At the most basic level I am an engineer. For me, technical things and making things is what occupies my personality; it's what I enjoy.

I come from the generation of copy/paste computer people, so we expected to be able to manipulate music with computers; it's a no-brainer. Whenever there's that big of change, there's all these connecting pieces that get lost. So when I looked at the studio and what I could do with it, the part that stood out for me right away is that the expertise of how to mix music doesn't come in the box with Pro Tools. You can't build a plug-in that mixes music. I've done things like handwriting recognition on the Apple Newton, so I know what's possible to put in software. Judgment is not something that we've been able to build great software systems to do yet. We've tried since the seventies to build neural networks to figure things out and to have reasoning. Even basic inductive or deductive types of thinking are impossible to do on a computer. We don't know how to do that yet. So that intelligence, that cognitive processing will always be in somebody's ears and head-at least for the next ten years. Software will come and go, there will be the flavor of the month EQ, but we will always need mixers like Joe Chiccarelli of the world to make great records...

...and good musicians.
That's the other end of the equation. From the studio perspective, mixing is something that a computer can't do for you.

I think the most valuable thing that a digital audio workstation does is it allows everyone to have their own. So everybody has the power to create. They're not at the mercy of getting signed to make a record anymore, period. They can do it on their own. If you look at what it takes to make a record, there's a lot of things that suck about going into the studio to make a record. I have this document on my computer that I keep called "Why Studios Suck." Some day, I am going to publish it. Every time something goes wrong here, I put it in there.

Sometimes I think it's unbelievable to remember the era when bands spent months and years actually writing their songs in a studio. Now everyone comes in with the songs written and rehearsed and ready to record.
That's the beauty of it. Instead of spending a zillion dollars at the studio, you can spend ten thousand building a studio at home, and you work your butt off as long as you need to do it. That's cool! I think that part of it makes sense.

I remember when I bought this studio, there were music industry people--fixtures in the business--that thought I was crazy.

Guest apartment
I was one of them.
Then you know what I mean. For me, I wasn't looking at what's happening tomorrow: who's going to try to come in and mix, or record. I'm trying to figure out, in the next ten years, what's a useful facility going to look like?

The one place I know we have tons of value is by combining a kind of analog mixing capability that you don't have--you're not going to put an SSL in your house--and the people that know how to use it...and to get the people that know how to use it into San Francisco. You have to grow your own. You have to have the Joe Chiccarellis come and teach us...

Did you have support from the local music community in building the studio?
Absolutely. Jerry Harrison was one of the guys I talked to who validated that an accessible high-end SSL 9000 is something that the Bay Area would benefit from. Jerry introduced me to Jack Crymes, who is an amazing electrical engineer. He's been instrumental to the design of our facility, from wiring to acoustics to analog gear maintenance. He built and ran the original Record Plant recording trucks for years and has more experience than you can imagine. I can't imagine doing this without Jack. In fact, I attribute a lot of our success to having met him. Thanks Jerry!

So how do you get clients? How did you get New Order to come from England?
We're tied into other powerful things: iTunes is a powerful thing. New Order played five dates in this country on this record tour. They toured a lot in Europe, but only five dates in this country and Oakland was one of them. They wanted to promote the record and put out an exclusive seven songs on iTunes. So Apple brought them here to record and mix the songs.

How did you land the Apple gig?
Well, a year ago we did Apple's first original music recording with Alanis Morissette. That was a freak accident. There was a person working for one of the producers that had recorded in the back room back when I first bought it. So, when he thought of doing a gig for iTunes, he thought of coming up here.

Staff engineer Justin Lieberman (left) and Tony Espinoza
My fantasy from the beginning was there would be a community around the studio, and luckily that's kind of what happened--and Chiccarelli is one of the hubs. I introduced Chiccarelli to Vanessa Carlton because I didn't want the record to get mixed in L.A. They were about to send it down, and I thought, why don't we bring one of them up here? And I called up Joe.

He had found me really randomly. He's always in the know. He knows everybody. If new stuff comes out, he's checking it out. He's always scanning the horizon. He caught me in that state before this room was even open. The process of building this place is in your head for years, you'reworking on this plan, and you just hope that it'll work, and then that one day your phone rings and you pick it up and miss it, and check the messages and it's, "Hi this is Joe Chiccarelli." And you're like, "Wait a minute, someone's actually calling!" He was the first person that did that to me.

When did you get your first bit of UA gear? Is all the stuff you have vintage?
No, we have a mix. We have a lot of UA stuff. I love the new stuff. I've been really meticulous about this. All the gear we have is hand-picked. Joe helped because he has amazing ears.

The UA hardware reissues are absolutely the best reissues of any type that have come out. Many people have attempted to remake the classics. I don't think anyone has done it as well. We've actually standardized on it-the reissues are what we're putting in the new rooms. There are two levels of usefulness for us. One, they work, they sound great, they perform like the old ones. But on top of that, there's recognition in the community that these are great products. So, you've got Joe, you've got other people that trust them. It's very hard for something that's been made since 1967 to have that kind of support. The guys that come here and want to use all these classic stuff are looking for the real thing.

How much tracking do you do here?
We do a decent bit.

Do you ever have a project that comes in that you decide to track somewhere else and then bring it back in for mixing?
We do everything here. Vanessa did some piano here. She tracked the bigger stuff up at Skywalker Sound, but we did drums, vocals, all that stuff here.

Traffic manager K Lemasters
Why did you make that choice?
For New Order we did a set of songs tracked throughout the rooms. Bernard has terrible tinnitus, so he didn't want to be in the same room with the drums so we had him off the tracking room, separated from the others.

They didn't know who I was, so the initial plan was that I would just be tracking the stuff. I was really flattered because they let me try mixing one of the songs, it was "Love Will Tear Us Apart." I sent it to them, and they said it was excellent and they asked me to finish mixing the rest of the stuff. That was a big deal to me.

Do you have any specific gear you like to use on tracking?
When I tracked Alanis Morissette's vocals, I used a combination of the LA-2A and 1176.

Each of them has its characteristics. When you take someone like Alanis--she's an amazing singer. She did six songs, first take-all in a row, just minor breaks in between. The one restart we had to do was because one of the guitarists had the wrong tuning. We're not talking about AutoTuning any of this stuff. For her vocal chain, what I really wanted to do was accentuate all of the funky stuff that she does with her mouth and all of the articulation. She kind of sings out of the side of her mouth sometimes. She uses a very sensitive mic--a C-12, a vintage AKG. So, I needed a weird combination. From listening to her records, I knew that she must love compression because it brings out a lot of stuff. The LA-2A is a pretty forgiving, beautiful-sounding compressor. But I also needed level control because I'm printing digitally to Pro Tools. I wasn't going to get multiple takes out of her, so the 1176 had got the FET processing that's fast enough to be a peak limiter, and it has a tone. The 1176 has a nice crisp, bright top end on it, which I think accentuates what Alanis does really well, but it doesn't necessarily sound sibilant or anything. So the two things together, using gain off of the LA-2A with the 1176 was a perfect combination.

Sound design room
Joe used the LA-3 on Vanessa's vocal when mixing. Most compressors change the texture; they might change the feel of it, the frequency response. The LA-3A has kind of a three-dimensional quality to it. For a lead vocal, an LA-3A can actually take a vocal and push it out of the speakers toward you. If I was trying to blend something in, I might not use the LA-3A, but for really bringing a vocal up front, but not making it sound artificially enhanced--keeping the thickness intact and making it sound natural but right up there--that's what an LA-3A does that the other two don't.

When did you buy the TDM plug-ins?
When we opened the second HD room; being an analog mixing place, we were kind of afraid of plug-ins because all the ones we had experience with were a big step down from their analog counterparts. I just don't believe that most of the plug-ins emulate the analog very well. But there's really a standard around the 1176 and LA-2A. People mix with them all the time. So we really had to offer some kind of digital version of them. People were coming in and needed more. So we tested them out--we did a shootout with the Bomb Factory versions, and it was a no-brainer. We use the UA plug-ins.

If Universal Audio could make your dream product, software or hardware, what would it be?
My favorite idea for a product that I want to talk somebody into making...hmmm. We need something specific, because more than half of the mixing that we do is for bands that are small and haven't recorded at Ocean Way. They've recorded at home. They come here because we've got real Pultecs, and 1176s. But one of the tools I have to use quite a bit is multiband compression, and I really don't like any of the digital multiband compressors. So I bought a Tube-Tech--a really great multiband compressor. But it's just the Tube-Tech flavor. So my fantasy
The roof-deck view from SF Soundworks
product is a Class A--really high-quality framework with crossovers in it, and let me pick three different compressors to put into the multibands. So I could put an 1176 on the top end, an LA-2A on the bottom, and a 175 on the midrange. That would be the next level up that would add value to everyone's compressor collection. Whether they are using on a bus or a vocal or drums, it would add multiple dimensions to how they use their compressors.

Really great mixers, when they are working on a J, [SSL mixing console] a lot of them will use multiple buses of compressors. So you might pick one of the compressors that has great bottom end, like an LA-2A, and channel your bass and kick back in there and copy it into the mix. Or the 1176 with all-buttons in--do something crazy, you get these pumping effects. Throw some vocal in there, throw some overheads in there, now you've got this rock component that you're being able to blend in as you want. But you only get to use them on a single file. If you had a crossover in there, you could make broader decisions and combine your compressors different ways to get different sounds. I do that using the console, but I have a zillion-dollar SSL to do it. If I had another tool, I could do it faster and easier, and more people could do it.

Ok, UA doctors, get to work.


Good luck to Tony and the gang at SF Soundworks. For more on the studio, visit their Website.

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