No one really knows how many recording studios or record producers operate in Los Angeles. The Southern California studio list of The Music Connection Directory of Music runs for 6 pages of small type. Many are very famous with walls full of gold and platinum records; others are rented spaces with foam sound proofing and a computer and microphone. But one studio that is unique for its history, vibe and sheer size is Bedrock LA in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood.
Bedrock is not hard to find. The building and its wrap-around mural by the artist Cyrcle can be seen from space. It has its own radio show, its own retail store, even its own Octoberfest, along with over 100 music rooms plus recording studios, drum nooks, lounges and game rooms. Founded by three musicians in 2009 – Cosmo Jones, KamranV and Phil Feinman. – as essentially a friendly small town for all kinds of musicians, it hosts about 2500 artists a year plus videographers, technicians and friends.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of Bedrock LA by Eugene Toale, one of La’s finest and most interesting music producers and a permanent resident of Bedrock LA. After touring the building – a maze of recording studios, practice space, lockout rooms, video game consoles, pin ball machines, and plywood paneled halls with many, many doors out of which occasionally leaked drum beats and guitar riffs, we retired to Gene’s studio and talked about producing music.
It is easy to see why the Brooklyn-bred Grammy nominated former Hip Hop Engineer (Kanye West, Wu Tang, Brandy) has been at Bedrock LA for a decade. He is positive, open, and friendly and excels at developing talent to be their best – a perfect fit for the highly professional but super welcoming cultural mix vibe of BedrockLA. He loves the fact that the flow and jumble of people means he and everyone can access each other’s creativity, while the structure itself allows him to sit in his studio alone and make his creativity happen.. Which is one reason why he has become the go- to producer for Latin fusion bands in Los Angeles. Another is that he and his wife, Fernanda Ulibarri, leader of the bilingual rock band The Mexican Standoff, shuttle between Bedrock La and Mexico City, cross-fertilizing music on both sides of the border.
Our conversation covered not the how of producing music, but the love of doing it. “You must love producing, you must be driven to do it. You don’t do this for any other reason” he says, emphasizing that producing is far more work than glamor.
Toale’s secret is developing talent to do better than they thought they were capable of. “The best way to make beautiful music is to work and talk and teach and go back and forth with the artist. If you can bring the level of their music up, the record sounds better than thought they could make – and it is an honest improvement; it is them, not me,” he says. To Toale, a producer is an artist, a teacher, a technologist, and often a musician. But, he is quick to add that sometimes a producer can be none of those things, but instead is a magic person who pulls the best out of a band or artist. He illustrated this with a story of his mom being in the studio one day and sprinkled her magic on a singer Toale was recording, bringing out an even better performance that Toale was getting.
Toale notes that there is a downside to the small town of BedrockLA or any studio – the feeling of loss when a project is completed and the band leaves. “You mix it, you go through it like a term paper before you turn it in, you have faith that this is the best and you hand it to the band. A week, a month, maybe six months later it comes out. It is weird,” he says,” you spend weeks or months with a band every day, especially at the end when you are finishing, and then they are gone. You don’t see them for weeks or more if they tour.” He said that this can make him a little misty-eyed, but by now he is used it…mostly. “With some bands, like Las Cafeteras, it does hit me. I spent 18 months with them while we wrote and produced an album together, and then they went on tour.” But, Las Cafeteras and other bands he works with come back. They see one another at gigs, give hug and kisses, and return to Bedrock LA to do it again.
I asked Toale for advice for would-be producers. He was succinct:
- Don’t do it unless you love it. Producing looks attractive from the outside, but is a whole lot of work on the inside. You must be driven to do it.
- If you are a musician, get invited into the studio, play on other peoples’ albums; be there
- The most important thing is education – you need someone to show you the ropes. Look at audio school. Get experience
- You are learning to take responsibility for someone else’s music, for their dream. Prepare yourself to do that. Learn how to make the right decisions for the artists.
Toale is brushing up on his Spanish to live in Mexico for a few months while he teaches music production. He is bilingual, but he learned Spanish from the street and needs to know the non-slang terms for every day use (you don’t call your 3-year old nephew “dude” – he is sobrino). He calls BedrockLA “a music school without classes”. When he comes back I will ask him how he brought that spirit to the classroom in Mexico City. I have no doubt that he will.