Studio spotlight: Chris Schlarb’s Sounds Are Active

[Editor’s note: this begins what will hopefully be an ongoing look at the people who record music in L.A. & their custom studio environments. -SC]

Studio name: Sounds Are Active

Proprietor: Chris Schlarb

What turns you on most about recording?
I love the transformation that takes place when an idea turns into something tangible. To me, that’s what recording is all about.

Little details (like the recording-in-progress light) are just small indicators of the attention that's gone into SAA Studios.

Hey, Chris, when did you start recording bands?
I started recording bands in high school, about 15 years ago. I was doing sessions for rap and hip-hop groups and one producer paid me with a Tascam 424 Cassette 4-track. I was already playing in a few different groups so I started to experiment with what the 4-track could do in my parent’s garage.

How many albums/EPs/singles have you tracked?
Over 70 if you add them all together. I like working on albums and EPs mostly. I have done composing and sound design for films and as well. Most recently I composed the score for a Nintendo Wii video game called NightSky. It really took me a while to learn what I was doing. I would just sit in my bedroom and read books and magazines to educate myself. I never went to a school for audio engineering, I just kept working away on my own stuff. Eventually friends asked me to record their projects and I started to get more work from there. After 15 years, I still learn something at every session.

Do you exclusively record one kind of music?
Absolutely not. I get bored working on the same kinds of projects over and over. I have recorded noise artists, jazz ensembles, punk and death metal bands, hip-hop, folk, R&B. I listen to all of that stuff, so it makes sense that I would enjoy working on it too.

The day I visited, Rare Grooves was ripping out their new studio LP within SAA's comfy brick live room.

You’ve had some success as a musician, too, eh?
In between all the records I produce and record for other bands, I release my own music on Sufjan Stevens‘ label, Asthmatic Kitty. My last album, Twilight & Ghost Stories, was a single 40-minute composition. Not really mainstream stuff. There were over 40 guests on the album including Sufjan, Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors, Mick Rossi who plays in the Philip Glass Ensemble and ton of other amazing people. I really enjoy bringing musicians from different communities together. Not unlike what Bill Laswell was known for back in the day. A few months after Twilight & Ghost Stories came out some of my guitar playing was sampled for the new Busdriver album, Jhelli Beam.

You run a record label, too. What’s that all about?
I started the Sounds Are Active label about ten years ago. I didn’t want to shop demos around to other labels at the time and decided to just start my own. Funny how things work out though, I don’t even put my own music out on Sounds Are Active anymore. Over the years I have released music from Nels Cline, The Widow Babies, Soul-Junk, Castanets, I Heart Lung and Weird Weeds. Our newest release is a 7″ that I produced by Rare Grooves with Mike Watt playing bass. Autechre just remixed one of our artists, Deneir, as well.

What made you decide to become a recording studio and when did that all go down?
I have been producing more and more for the last five years. Usually, I would have to rent out a studio and take all my equipment in, set it up, record and then break it down again. That can get old pretty fast. I really wanted a place that I could Eventually, my brother and I leased a building where I could set up a recording studio and he could have a workshop for his business. So far it has worked out really well. We have access to giant warehouse with 30′ ceilings in addition to the tight sound I can get from the main tracking room.

Chris Schlarb recorded everything through this compact, elegant set-up. Oh and, yes, there is a Del Taco nearby!

How did you find your studio space and did you go through any crazy processes trying to get it ready for bands?
My brother found the warehouse—it had red brick walls. It was completely empty so we built the studio and office rooms from the ground up: 2′ x 4′ framing, drywall, electrical, everything. It took about a month to get it all set up and we just installed air conditioning, wi-fi, and Sparkletts water. Once you have a Sparkletts dispenser, you know you’re legit.

How many bands have you recorded in your new place?
So far I have worked on the first half of the next Rare Grooves LP and the debut album by NOPAL. I have also done a lot of recording for my record with trumpeter Kris Tiner and guitarist/vocalist Aaron Roche. The first job I got in the new studio was with the Portland-based big band, Industrial Jazz Group.

How would you describe your recording philosophy to a stranger?
When I am recording a band, I like to keep the energy of that band intact and record everyone together in the same room. Every once in a while I will get a little Fleetwood Mac and track instruments one at a time but the style of music and production should dictate those choices. There are no hard rules when you are recording and producing. My job is to both predict and react to the needs of a band or artist.

I was most impressed by Chris' vocal set up. Vocals sounded great—unlike on a lot of made-at-home recordings.

If you don’t mind, please take us step through step through a day at your studio.
Before a band comes in I like to know what instruments they are playing so I can lay out a microphone plan. I have a matched pair of AKG 451 EB’s that I normally use for drum overheads but they sound amazing on acoustic guitars too. It just helps to know what the ensemble looks like and where I will be placing each of them in the tracking room (or in the annex).

Next we need a plan for what songs we will be recording and how much time to budget for each of them. When the Widow Babies recorded their first album, The Mike Watt EP, we tracked the entire record (band, vocals, overdubs) in a single day. Of course the album isn’t that long and the band was very tight. For their next record, Jetpacks, we spent two days of tracking just the band. It depends on the band and how much time they want to put in but I think most groups can record their basic tracks in two days.

After we figure out a time budget we start recording. If we are tracking all day, we usually break for lunch and dinner. I like to start mixing and EQ’ing while I am recording. It can help give the band a better idea of what things might sound like down the road.

If I am producing the band we will take a bit of time after recording to talk about sounds, textures and the feel of the record as a whole. If the group is going to produce the recording themselves, I usually burn a DVD will all the files and let them take it home to work on it the raw sounds.

Schlarb is a musician, too, and he gets along easily & naturally with other music makers.

What’s your favorite kind of performers and/or bands to work with?

I love working with other artists who are passionate and lean towards experimentation. People who leave a little space in their art for chance and improvisation seem to get the most out of working with me and vice versa.

What’s your opinion on the L.A. underground music scene from a sound engineer’s perspective? Do you see things that are good or not so good or both?
I like the experimental/lo-fi sound that a lot of L.A. underground artists are embracing. Personally, I like the idea of mixing hi-fi and lo-fi together. Bad sound for the sake of it doesn’t interest me. If you are using hiss,  distortion and weird mic techniques for compositional effect, that’s something I can get into. It’s all about contrast. Also, I’m a drum junkie. I love recording drums and I love drummers. If I can make a drummer happy with his or her sound, that’s where I like to start a mix.

What are some bands you would love to record (you could limit your answer to the here and now or really get wild here and let us know about your musical fantasies)?
I’d love to produce a Phil Collins record. King Crimson could use some new wine in those old wine skins. Outkast and Squarepusher both come to mind. I’ve had my mind set on doing an R&B album for a while now. I’d like to work with Happy Hollows. I think I could bring out some hidden elements in their sound.

What do you think that you bring to the recording studio that is of unique benefit to the performers you record?
I am a musician first. One of the things I enjoy most about making music is collaborating and if a band in the studio needs help with a melody or harmony, I want to work to make their music better. I also have a ton of different instruments in the studio. Sometimes all you need is a little marimba or tabla. Or clarinet.

Chris Schlarb's biggest asset (besides patience and great ears) is his knowledge of where music's been & where it is now.

Where would you like to see music go in the next ten years?
I like the direction things are going now. More artists are in control of their finances, tours, and copyrights than ever before. I also like the vinyl/digital combo that many artists and labels are starting to offer. I have a feeling that we are getting closer to the  “cloud computing” idea where we will be streaming a lot of music instead of loading it on to our devices. I don’t know exactly how I feel about that yet.

And in ten years, what will you be doing?
I will still be making the music I want to make and working with the artists I want to work with. Technology changes but  a good melody doesn’t.

What turns you on most about recording?
I love the transformation that takes place when an idea turns into something tangible. To me, that’s what recording is all about. Sometimes it’s exact and you know just what sound goes where. Sometimes you are searching around in the dark for the right note or rhythm or inspiration. All of a sudden, every experience is being called upon.

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Schlarb is also a teacher—see his students perform “Baba O’Riley” by The Who

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