Studio Spotlight: Decibel Studios
At a young age, Jesus Martinez began learning the art of the requinto (a unique tenor guitar with Latin roots) under his father’s tuteledge. This passing of the torch moment would inspire a love for the music of his familial homeland and lead Jesus to study at the Berklee College of Music.
After attending Berklee, Jesus became a founding member of Tres Souls, a group that embraces the sounds of 1940s bolero music. While plotting out an EP release, the budding engineer and producer decided to start his own studio and Decibel Studios was born.
More recently, Decibel Studios has started a music series, "The Breakfast Table," which provides a space for musicians to play live music in a time of social distancing. Whether it's arranging, mixing or curating music series, Jesus always looks to capture what he calls "the authentic sounds of LA."
In this installment of Studio Spotlight, we're sitting down with Jesus to talk about what's going on at Decibel Studios. Continue on to learn about Jesus' workflow in the studio and his plan to fuse the sounds of Latin music with modern hip-hop and R&B.
How would you describe your studio workflow?
An important part of my workflow begins with having a clean space. It gives me a clear mind to create and problem solve. Sessions start with having a conversation with the artist on what they want to accomplish. Depending on what hat I'm wearing that day (engineer, producer), I make suggestions. I have a good sense of what mic/preamp combinations sound good in my room, so I faithfully choose a combo that will satisfy the source.
Organization is key. In front of me are my Manley ELOP+ and Universal Audio Apollo x8p. The interface is what connects all your gear to your computer therefore it's essential to have it at your fingertips. On the right side of my desk, you'll find outboard preamps and to the left is my SSL Fusion. This setup makes it easy to dial in a nice tone with the preamps(Neve 1073, BAE 1073, Rupert Neve Designs 511) then turn on the Elop+ to compress a bit to tape, finding the sweet spots in each source.
When I arrange, the work begins before the recording session. I do my best to practice my arrangements to stay away from punching in so much. Since requintos are tuned higher than guitars I use the Mojave MA-300 on the 12th fret. The tube mic tames the sharp sound the requinto can produce. On the bridge, I use the Neumann KM184 to capture the body of the requinto. Both of these mics go through the Neve 1073 preamps with no compression to maintain all of the dynamic range.
When I mix, I do most of the processing in the box. Some of my favorite plug-ins are Universal Audio's LA-2A, 1176, Pure Plate Reverb, and Oxide Tape Recorder (secret sauce on vocals). When I do some outboard processing it's to compress vocals and bass with the Manley ELOP+. And for some mix bus love, I compress with the Elysia Xpressor then output that signal to the SSL Fusion. The Fusion does an excellent job in adding harmonics, shine, and depth to my mixes.
When we were chatting earlier you said the Mojave MA-300 was your latest gear purchase. What are you digging about that microphone?
The Mojave MA-300 is the newest member of my collection and rapidly becoming one of my favorites. It not only has an amazing look but it provides the abilities for easy tracking. With its rich tube sound, it complements my requinto very well because it tames the harsh high frequencies of this unique instrument. The 300 is also lovely on vocals, I feel it specifically shines on female voices providing a 3D sound. Overall, this microphone sounds great on nearly every source.
What would you say is the most essential piece of gear to your process?
Every piece of gear I own brings its own magic to the studio but an essential piece would be the SSL Fusion. Since I do most of my mixing in the box, the Fusion gives me a touch of analog harmonics, EQ and stereo imaging. I work a lot with folk music and I feel that this piece of gear shines with acoustic instruments. This is one of those pieces of gear I did not know I needed until I had it. There have been times when I need to do a quick mix on an older song and the Fusion delivers even when the mix needs a good amount of help.
What's an album that really changed the way you look at music?
I Want You by Marvin Gaye has been an eye-opener for me. His soulful performance is what caught my ear. I have to say what makes this record exceptional are the stacked harmonies. He was one of the first to take the stacking technique to the next level. The build-up of the harmonic content starts with one harmony and ends with drones and intricate harmonic placements. It has a cinematic feel to it. Marvin was a visionary, he made a bold statement in making this type of music. Even when the record label didn't want him to make these more "experimental" records, he stood for his art. And that is what I strive to do with the music I work on.
How do you stay fresh in the studio? What motivates you?
One of the things that keeps me motivated within music is continuing my culture. My parents originated from Oaxaca, Mexico, a region with vibrant music. My father who was a musician taught me how to play requinto. For those who may not know, the requinto is a soprano guitar that involves using a classical fingerpicking approach.
In the late 1980s, my parents decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a better life. Due to financial necessities, my father decided to change his occupation and became a gardener, but he never stopped playing music at home. He gave up his dream so I could live out mine and that motivates me every day. This specific music is taught from generation to generation, it isn't taught in any major school and there is no written sheet music to have as a resource. So I feel it's my duty to continue to create this type of music and teach the next generation.
Being raised in Los Angeles I was exposed to many different genres and cultures. These different sounds have shaped my musical direction. A way I like to stay fresh in the studio is by combining different genres in one. Listening to hip-hop, I fell in love with the sampling that is used, specifically how Wu-Tang sampled kung fu movies to help tell their story. I used this technique when combining samples from Mexico's Golden Age of Cinema with bolero songs (Latin ballads). On the flip side, I used a Talib Kweli lyric to make a full bolero song when I wrote "La Luna Eres Tu" with Tres Souls. Crossing genres keeps me on my toes and pushes me to be more creative.
What's something you would like to accomplish in your audio career?
First and foremost, I want to create music that is honest. A dream of mine is to fuse R&B with boleros. I feel there is common ground in these genres and it can be a good tool for artists looking to crossover from English to Spanish or vice versa. Working with local artists has motivated me to reach out to well-established musicians. I would love to help them produce a unique sound by blending these genres. I also want to continue to create requinto arrangements for artists. It would be an amazing opportunity to have some work placed in TV and film.
Another one of my goals is to expand my studio. Having a bigger space will give me the opportunity to provide more services here at Decibel. Slowly but surely I'm building my rig and mic locker. I want to be able to track full mariachis or bands to capture a live performance. And someday, a couple of Grammys wouldn't hurt.