We recently sat down with Bryan to talk a bit about Golden Bear for our new Studio Spotlight series. Continue reading below to find out about the history of the studio, his experience in the industry and the gear he relies on for every session.
Tell us a little about Golden Bear and how things got started for you.
I was the guy who was recording bands in my dorm room with an original Mbox and a crappy mic in the early 2000s. It had always been a huge passion of mine, but for years it never progressed further than a modest bedroom setup, mainly because of apartment living in Los Angeles.
Things started to get serious when we recorded our first full-length album. We decided that instead of booking a big studio, we should try and record it ourselves. We rented a bunch of gear and set it up in our bass player's house (which has since become quite a sought-after recording destination called Ear Gallery) and I instantly knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Over the next few years, we stuck it out in LA but knew that if we wanted to build something like Golden Bear we needed to consider moving somewhere more artist-friendly. We figured we could either stay in California where it would take us 20 years and millions of dollars, or we could move to Des Moines and do it right now. So we packed up, bought a house for a buck-o-five and built Golden Bear.
You’re based out of the Midwest. What’s the musical climate like where you are located?
Pandemic aside, Des Moines has a really hip and vibrant art scene. Audiences are really tuned into the cool things happening and the artists themselves are very inclusive and supportive of each other. In big music centers like Los Angeles (probably due to the high stress environment), we’ve found that many musicians and artists tend to feel threatened by each other as if there are only a few seats left on the bus. We found it difficult to find a community at first. The reality of the music business is when someone in your community succeeds, everyone succeeds! And in Des Moines, it feels that way. Artists help each other out and are excited for each other’s successes. It feels easier to tap into your creative spirit when you remove yourself from the desperation of “making it” that big cities tend to have.
What genres are you seeing musically, client-wise?
A lot of clients hear about us because of our band, so we tend to attract similar genres like folk/pop/Americana. But I’ve been lucky enough to record quite a bit of rock, jazz, country and even the occasional hip hop artist. As most of your readers can relate, I REALLY enjoy what I do. So even when I’m recording music that I don’t typically gravitate towards, the process itself really feeds my creative spirit.
I could do an entire record with a Neve 1073LB and a decent mic. And people are! It’s pretty cliche at this point, but there’s a reason it is. I keep adding more to my lunch box because they just sound so good. The first time I heard one was long before I knew of its significance. We were A/B’n mic pres, and every time we came across the goofy-looking pre with the big red knob everything sounded perfect to me. It was the first thing I bought when we started building our studio. It’s certainly a “sound,” but it's the sound I’ve always been after. We also just bought a Neumann U67 Reissue. There are a lot of beautiful sounding microphones in the world, but this is probably the most beautiful.
I’m also crazy about vintage instruments and unique noisemakers. Everyone is using the same gear and plug-ins nowadays and that’s probably a big reason why everyone’s music tends to sound the same. Whenever you can use a unique piece of hardware or instrument, it makes your recordings sound that much more captivating. Since moving here we’ve built up quite a collection of vintage electric pianos and keyboards, mostly by obsessively watching Facebook Marketplace. We have a Wurlitzer 140 that we use on almost every recording. I bought a 66’ Slingerland kit that had been in a dude’s basement for 40 years, and it's the coolest sounding kit I’ve ever heard. I also have a Benson Studio Tall Reverb unit that has become my go-to reverb when mixing.
What plug-ins do you find yourself constantly reaching for?
I think every engineer should know Melodyne backward and forward. Not every artist has the budget to spend days perfecting their vocals. Tightening things up fast makes clients really happy. VocALign and Quiet Art’s WaveRider are also such great time savers too. My favorite go-to compressor is the Slate Digital Fairchild (or pretty much any Fairchild plugin). It’s fast and easy to dial in and super versatile.
I detest having to do surgery with EQ plug-ins. If I need to, it usually means I didn’t record it very well, or it was the wrong instrument/mic/or mic placement for what the recording needed. I really like the Waves Scheps 73 and PuigTec EQP-1A, and I also tend to use a few super bright EQs in parallel to brighten up my vintage warm-sounding instruments and mics.
For reverbs, I really enjoy the Waves Abbey Road collection, especially their plate reverb. You can keep it tasteful or get real gross with it and crank the vibe to 11. I also recently bought the Soundtoys bundle for fun and I’m SHOCKED at how frequently I use them for “not pop or EDM” music! Little Alterboy is used constantly, same with the Decapitator and Echoboy.
In addition to being a recording facility, you operate a label as well. Can you talk about what that entails?
Having a studio in our house provided us with some unique opportunities to produce some music just because we liked it. We had just built the space back in 2016 when we heard a performance by a great songwriter from Boston named Kaiti Jones. We heard this amazing song she wrote, and just felt compelled to call her up and offer to produce it pro bono, which turned into a whole album. Recording is often the biggest expense for indie bands, and it's been really fun being able to take that off the table when the music and timing is right.
The Well Pennies "Ooh La La" - Sessions fueled by Campari and tonic. A bit of shameless self-promotion, but this is why I got into production! I also thought I would give this as an example of a song created entirely with just a pair of Neve 1073 preamps, two cheap pencil mics and a mid-level LDC. This was one of the first tracks we recorded when we built Golden Bear and it got people paying attention to our studio as a potential place to record.
D. Smith "Hello Hello" - Sessions fueled by Laphroig. This was a very special recording experience. Dustin came in with these beautiful songs, his incredible smokey voice and the best band you could hope for (all of whom have become regular session players at the studio). Everything with Dustin happens effortlessly, and it was such an easy process. This is one of those records where everything went through Neve 1073LB mic pres. We were going for big thick vocals, and a rich and dark sounding band. I had Dustin sing into a Blue Cactus for most of the record and we used those Abbey Road Plate Verbs on everything. Dustin is a much-beloved singer-songwriter and bandleader in the Midwest and having him record here made us feel like locals.
Louise Lately "Drive" - Sessions fueled by herbal tea. This is a classic example of how a great hook produces itself. We must’ve finished recording and mixing this song in an afternoon. She sang into a Blue Cactus and I sent it through a Neve pre and hardly touched the EQ at all! We put our Wurlitzer 140 through a Strymon Big Sky to get that cool hook at the beginning, and all the guitars and bass went direct. Bass went through a Summit Audio MPC-100A, and Louise’s guitars went through the API 512Vs. I also recall using a really minimal three mic setup for drums and then layering a ride and a bell tree after the fact because we thought it sounded cool over the chorus. That cool vocal sound at the end is just Louise singing thru a super vibey tape delay.