Mad Muse Studios Inspires With Vintage Gear And Famous SSL Console
Formerly known as In Flight Music Studios, Mad Muse recently moved to a new location and rebranded during the COVID-19 crisis to help bring focus to their recording services and create separation between its ownership group, which offers a wide range of entertainment services.
We recently had the chance to chat with Matt Salazar (CEO), Zulma Tercero (COO), and Lucas Flood (CMO) of In Flight Music Group about what it was like building a new studio from the ground up. Read on to learn about their impressive collection of vintage gear and what it’s like working in a non-traditional studio with an open floor plan.
Tell me a little bit about how Mad Muse started.
Matt Salazar: We actually just rebranded the studio during this whole COVID ordeal. Initially, we were In Flight Music Studios, which was a studio we put together in the arts district. We had a 1,000 square foot base where we were building our catalog and doing commercial sessions, but at a much smaller degree.
When we lost that space, we found the warehouse we’re in now, and the work became more and more commercial. People were getting confused about the difference between In Flight Music Studios, which was the studio, and the parent company, In Flight Music Group, which provides label services, publishing, live events and more. To clear things up, we rebranded the studio as Made Muse Studios back in July.
Tell me about your weekly songwriter’s night, Writer’s Block.
Lucas Flood: That actually started on a whim when we were in our previous space. We were in a large complex and there was a brewery at the end of the hallway that asked if we worked with any songwriters because they were looking for some live entertainment.
So that sparked an idea in our minds to connect the studio to the grassroots community of Los Angeles songwriters. We built our own stage and mixed our own show, to which a total of five people showed up to. Fast forward three years, and we now have shows at all of the most prestigious venues in Hollywood, New York, and Nashville. We were just about to get set up in Austin before the pandemic shut us down.
Writer’s Block had quickly taken on its own identity and spawned a new branch of our company — the events division, which is what I now directly handle. We showcase literally thousands of artists and songwriters every year from around the world, with labels, publishers, and agencies sending us their new signings to be showcased in front of our music-loving crowd. This has directly impacted our label and publishing ventures, as well as our recording studio.
MS: More and more, whether I was in studios or working with people in production rooms around town, it seemed like people were changing the way they wanted to record.
When I came up in the big studios in L.A., everything was pretty traditional. You’ve got your control room, your live room, and your booth. There’s a traditional way of recording, and traditional roles between the musicians, engineers, producers, and so on. But now there’s a totally different thing going on.
I find that vocalists either want to be hidden away from everyone and don’t want to be seen through the glass, or they want to be in the control room with you. The whole concept of going into the booth and singing into a pane of glass just wasn’t working anymore. I was inspired by The Church Studios in London with a big open floor plan, and a few other studios that were starting to embrace it.
I wanted to make the ultimate musician’s dream studio. When I was a teenager, what did I think was cool? How could everyone work together and remove the stigma of the glass with that separation between the people in the control room and the live room? I wanted everyone to be able to work together like they were in a big bedroom, but still have all of these technical facilities to be one of the best studios in the world.
Do you think people are more interested in open floor plans because home studios are so popular?
MS: One hundred percent. I think people are just used to that way of working. They’re comfortable working that way, so as they graduate up they have almost exclusively been working in home studios.
When musicians come into our space and see it’s all open, it’s less intimidating and more fun. There’s a certain vibe with the room and it’s more inviting than intimidating or pretentious. Even those of us who’ve been doing it for the last 20 years are starting to get used to it. Everything has changed.
I think it’s awesome to be able to talk to the band in the room. Everyone is set up in a large circle and there’s no need for talkback mics or anything — communication is just so much easier.
If you’re looking for the experience of recording at a traditional large studio, you’re not going to get that here. And if you’re looking for the experience of recording at Mad Muse, you won’t get that anywhere else.
Were there any challenges in creating a studio with an open floor plan?
MS: There’s no separation between the control room and the live room. We don’t use any gobos or anything like that, but there’s still pretty good isolation between all the instruments during a session.
When we’re tracking I wear an in-ear system. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t do that years ago. It’s awesome to be able to run out onto the floor with the band and adjust microphones around the room while hearing precisely the tonal changes you’re making.
There are some drawbacks to that system. Like, you can’t just solo the kick drum on the NS10 while the drummer is going at it. There’s a give and take. There’s a risk in doing something very different. We had to be willing to just dive in and not look back.
What was the construction process like?
MS: We wanted to do it ourselves, but we didn’t want to anchor anything to the walls or floors, which is kind of odd in a recording studio. I came up with this modular idea that uses large acoustic diffusers. The acoustic panels come together as modular walls. Each panel had different properties to achieve what we wanted the room to sound like.
Nothing is actually attached to the flooring. They’re all attached to the ceiling beams, so they’re structurally sound, but nothing is built like a traditional facility. It’s more for acoustics than isolation, to help avoid frequency build-ups.
Each panel has different diffusion or absorption properties to target different frequencies, but also let the low frequencies travel through them uninterrupted, which turns the whole space into a massive bass trap. You could have someone 50 feet away from you and when they hit the kick drum, you feel it in your chest. That’s not normal, but the way the room was designed makes it possible.
We took on the space in March 2019 and had our first session before we completed construction. That was back in early May. It took another two months to get the studio up to a complete functional level, but we still continue to add on over time and refine the sound.
MS: I had been talking to Jeff Ehrenberg about getting a console for a while. I was used to working on SSLs, but I kind of stopped for a bit when the industry started to change around 2010. Jeff found a console that happened to be owned by Eminem and sent me the specs. As I was looking them over, something seemed really familiar about that console, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Years earlier, I had a studio in Burbank, LA called Sound Gallery, which had a large live room. We had started the initial recording sessions for Michael Jackson’s last record, but Michael wanted a smaller, more intimate studio to record vocals. Allen Sides was helping with advice on building out the smaller studio and one day as we were driving over from Ocean Way to my place, Allen mentioned that the 100 channel SSL G+ that was installed in Record One was being moved out by Dr. Dre who was taking the console with him after locking the studio out for 10 years.
As I was looking over the specs for the console Jeff sent me, it dawned on me — this was the same console that Allen was describing 12 years ago! It must have made its way to Eminem, who was now selling it to me. Eminem’s engineers ended up driving it out to us, all the way from Detroit to L.A.
It took a bit of back and forth, but we knew that it was the perfect console for us. It was in pieces at the time and in the process of being modified from its original 100-channel design. I had it further modified to a 64-channel frame. We also ripped it apart and replaced every capacitor and a lot of the chips, we basically refurbished it from the ground up.
Mad Muse also has an impressive outboard gear collection. What are some of your favorite pieces that you’ve acquired over the years?
MS: They all kind of have their own special uses, but I have a pair of Neve 2254 limiters that I got as a kid that I love. When I was a teenager, I would buy broken audio equipment on eBay, ditch school, and drive out to Dave Marquette’s repair shop in Hayward where he would help me fix it. Dave has his own gear company now called Mercury. Those are really dear to me. When I look at the rack, I think about how long they’ve been with me.
But everything serves its purpose. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of stuff from Mike and Jeff at Vintage King. Vintage gear like UREI 1176s and LA-3As, AKG C12s, a sequential pair of Pultec EQP1 EQs, and a bunch more.
We just changed our converters out to the Antelope Audio Orion 32 HD Gen3 units, which sound incredible. They take up barely any rack space and there are no fans. The Avid HD I/O converters were already really good, but these Antelopes are crazy good.
MS: The amp heads all live in the control room, but they’re connected to speaker lines out to the large recording space, as well as load boxes for going direct. There’s a Little Labs PCP guitar splitter in there as well that allows me to take a DI as well as re-amp and send a single guitar to multiple heads at the same time. We also have a speaker patch bay so we can quickly patch the amps signals to the live space or the load boxes.
The reason we wanted to have all the amps and pedals wired up was for convenience when creating and producing. Some guitarists are really open to wanting to do new sounds, but often, they want to work with their own effects. Before building Mad Muse Studios, I always felt like a dictator whenever I had to come out of the control room to tweak settings.
With everything on the wall, it’s almost like a candy shop. It’s so easy to pull stuff down and try things. Zulma, our studio manager, built these display racks with storage for the pedal power supplies. We also set up Voodoo Labs Pedal Power for every guitarist or bassist so that even if the artist isn’t using pedals initially, I can quickly introduce them into the chain.
I hated having to go dig for pedals. It would take 10 minutes and by the time you get back, the energy dies and the vibe is gone. Now that everything is out and ready to be put to work, it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the session.
What are some of your favorite mics to use while recording?
One of the things that’s great about working in such a large space is the room sound. I always run a combination of Wunder Audio CM49 S, which I got from Vintage King years ago, with a Neumann U47 in the center and a stereo AEA R88 a bit further back in the room. I sum that down to a stereo channel and all of the mics work together really well to make the space sound kind of ethereal. Those go up for pretty much any tracking session.
Beyond that, we use a lot of the basics, Shure SM57s, Royer R-121s, and Coles 4038s on guitar. I really love using a single Neumann U67 about a foot back on Fender combo amps. A vocal mic I’ve been using a lot lately is the Sony C37a. It has a very unique tone, I can’t believe I hadn’t used one until recently. It’s very different from the typical Neumann or Telefunken sounds.
What’s a typical session like at Mad Muse?
When we’re tracking bands, we have a good idea of where to place things within the room, but we also do a ton of video work, which also has a very different setup every time. Zulma really runs the show for the video shoots, and the audio is secondary.
Depending on the scene we’re shooting, we might have some unique set-ups. Yesterday, we had two acoustic guitarists, a violin, and kick drum percussion. So there are definitely unique challenges when you’re doing live sessions and want to keep it acoustic with a live energy.
For a typical rock band or vocal recording, I definitely have go-to chains. I may change something like the drum overheads to work for the song, for example, on rootsy or dry stuff, I’ll use Coles 4038 ribbons on the overheads. For a more modern or aggressive sound, I’ll use C12A tube condensers on the overheads, but otherwise, a lot of the setup stays the same based on what I’m recording.
Everyone over there is so easy to work with and professional. All I have to do is send an email and they’re always quick to offer any advice or assistance I need, especially with the console. It’s not as simple as buying a microphone, there are a lot of moving pieces involved, and Jeff really helped us out.
We had some complications with shipping and Jeff really made sure everything was fair for everyone. I know we were happy and it certainly seemed like the sellers were really happy too. It was just a good vibe, and I think that without Jeff, it probably wouldn’t have happened. He really went above and beyond to help us out.
What’s in store for the future of Mad Muse?
Zulma: Because the large open recording space works so well to shoot in, we’re getting more and more requests to record live video performances. People are reaching out and saying they love the look and sound of the videos we’ve done in the past. A lot of times, people will come back for production, mixing, and mastering too. We also have vocal sessions pretty much every day.