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30 Years / 30 Studios is a new blog series highlighting some of the studios Vintage King has helped during our three decades in pro audio. We'll talk with studio owners, engineers, and producers about how they got their start, where they are heading, and all the gear they've picked up along the way.
Learn more about Vintage King's 30th anniversary here.
A mutual love for vintage gear brought producer Eric Valentine and Vintage King together when they were starting out thirty years ago. Since then, both have become leaders in their fields. Eric has produced commercially successful and award-winning records for artists like Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Slash, Good Charlotte, Queens Of The Stone Age, Grace Potter, and Maroon 5, to name a few. He also founded the pro audio company UnderTone Audio which designs and builds an array of high-end outboard gear that uses Class A circuitry.
As part of our 30th Anniversary celebrations, we sat down with Eric recently to talk about his journey in music, his long relationship with Vintage King, and his newest studio, which combines his love for a vintage sound and the flexibility of a modern workflow.
What was it like buying gear when you were coming up and building out your early studios?
I've always been attracted to vintage equipment because those are the recordings that are still the most appealing to me. Early on in my career, there was a network and community of vintage audio equipment brokers–one of which was Vintage King–that I would go to when I was looking for stuff. I'd read an article about a particular mic, compressor, preamp, or console and I'd start searching around; this was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, before the Internet–I'm that old. [Laughs] Now it's all changed and a lot of the searching is just done on my laptop, but back then I was very, very reliant on the brokers.
I remember there was a tape machine that we were purchasing through a broker and the person refurbishing it was taking really long but we were okay waiting for it. What ended up happening is, because of the terms of the purchase agreement, the timeline expired and the broker said they didn't have to deliver the tape machine anymore! We were like, “We were waiting for you!” The guy was a total crook. So we had to get our managers and lawyers and a bunch of people involved to try and rescue us from that situation. We were literally going to lose, I don't know what it was, something like a $10,000 deposit that we put on this thing. Some of the brokers were pretty nutty!
There really was some crazy stuff at the time–I bought a Quad Eight console that had belonged to this televangelist preacher named Oral Roberts and it ended up recording albums for people that make music that is pretty much as far from that as you can get. [Laughs]
Acquiring equipment is a lifelong process; it's more of a journey. I've been through all kinds of equipment over the decades and at this point I kind of have a rule–if I haven't used it for over five years, then I probably don't need it; I'll sell some stuff and then find new things to inspire me.
How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?
I bought stuff from Vintage King very early on and my dealings with them were always really good. There's a Neumann U 67 microphone that is still part of my collection that I bought from them in the early to mid ‘90s. I talked to the Nehra brothers about the U 67 microphone and as we got talking some more, I found out they had some original Helios Type 69 mic preamp/EQ modules and ended up buying four of those from them as well, I believe in the same purchase. I think they had a Helios console in the studio they had set up way back in the ‘80s, so that was the beginning of my relationship with Vintage King.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you have purchased from Vintage King?
I'm putting together a whole new recording facility at our place in Vermont and when I was designing the new studio I knew I was going to be using a bunch of the equipment that I already owned but I also required some new pieces and so, to make it easy, I put everything on a list, sent it to Vintage King and bought it all from them. [Laughs] I bought, I don't know, twenty or thirty thousand dollars worth of 500 Series EQs that I wanted to try and this SSL Sigma automated summing mixer and some other things as well that I can't remember right now, but I only had to go to one place and just put together a whole order, which was great!
When I'm doing a larger purchase, like for my new studio, Vintage King does the best they can on pricing, which I appreciate. It's all just very well organized–they keep track of everything and as stuff comes in and becomes available, they ship it all out. They've always been really great to deal with and I have a great relationship with them both as a buyer and as a seller as well because they carry our line of UnderTone Audio products.
What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?
The one thing I like about them is that they started dealing only in vintage equipment and then transitioned into offering newly made equipment so I think there is still a real appreciation for vintage equipment there and it is still a part of the collection they offer.
I go there when I am looking for vintage stuff but I think even the line of newly made equipment that they carry is very often equipment that is inspired by the vintage equipment that I really like. It's in the name of the company and I think it's part of the aesthetic of the company; they just carry a lot of the things that are appealing to me, for sure.
Let’s talk about some of the memorable artists you’ve worked with over the years.
I've been extremely fortunate and very lucky to work with a bunch of wonderfully talented people that are just super fun to work with so I have a lot of favorite moments. The thing that's been the most special for me is just the diversity of artists that I've been able to work with, ranging from a progressive bluegrass band like Nickel Creek, to hardcore punk rock like the Dwarves, to a super pop band like The Jonas Brothers, and everything in between.
And there has been no shortage of crazy moments in the studio, for example, with the Dwarves, it was not uncommon for a good portion of the band members to end up naked in the sound room while they were recording. They're famous for being naked when they perform live and they're not shy in the studio either. [Laughs] I really enjoyed working with Slash, who I made a couple of records with. He's widely recognized as an extraordinarily accomplished guitar player and he truly is that; he just simply loves playing guitar and would play it all the time–in between recording he would be figuring out parts, and working out new ideas. And he's just one of the sweetest, loveliest, warmest, friendliest people you'll ever meet.
There can also be really scary stuff that happens in the studio; I had one young artist, who was struggling with drug addiction, literally almost overdosed in my control room on the couch right behind me. That was pretty terrible. I mean, there's a lot of psychology that goes into working with artists: knowing how to communicate with artists to try and keep them inspired and in the creative headspace can be very challenging. If it's a younger artist, like for example, I worked with the band Good Charlotte when they were very young, not even 21 yet, on the first record I made with them and that experience was more like me being a camp counselor than a producer. [Laughs] They were wonderfully talented, even when they were that young, but there were lots of moments where, when they were trying to hash out parts, it would degenerate into the two brothers yelling back and forth at each other, saying, “You shut up!” “No, you shut up!” “No, you shut up!” And then I'd have to go, “Everybody shut up!” [Laughs] You have to adapt to what the needs of the artists can be.
Tell us about the new studio that you're building out in Vermont–what is the vision for this studio and what are you doing differently this time around?
The new studio is called Sonic Forest and it is definitely the most ambitious studio I've built, by far. It’s about taking everything that I've learned in the last 30 years of working in and building studios and applying it to this one because I really got to build this one completely from scratch. I worked with a longtime collaborator, an architect, who helped me do a general layout and then I got to design all of the wiring and interconnectivity of the rooms and it's been incredible to have all the connectivity that I've always wanted in a studio space–you can use any space in this building as a recording space.
It's in a 9000 square foot structure, has a huge recording space that's roughly 75 feet by 30 feet wide, with a 30-foot ceiling; it has an additional smaller sound room and a reverb chamber. The sound room is jaw-droppingly beautiful and the isolation is amazing. I think it's the simple reality of just the volume of air space in the room–there's so much space for the sound to travel that I get a lot more isolation. There's no glass between the control room and the sound rooms, it's all done with cameras and video monitors.
In the control room, patch bays essentially create a console; the normalization of the patch bays creates channel strips where there's a mic preamp, an equalizer, and a compressor that all normal together in a channel strip. This setup also incorporates analog tape machines and optimizes a workflow that I've settled on where I can capture both versions of the mic preamps, just direct digital into the computer, and also capture an analog version where that signal goes through the tape machine and gets processed with all of my outboard compressors and equalizers and I can use all of my vintage equipment.
I think this is definitely the last studio I'm ever going to build [laughs] and I'm grateful that it's actually working. The best test for me, to see if I'm really going to like a studio, is to set up a drum set in the sound room and put a microphone–it can be any microphone–just about head height over the drums; I’ll listen to that one mic and know in two seconds whether that sound room is going to work or not. Fortunately, this room passed with flying colors. I couldn't be happier right now, I'm kind of floating on a cloud of satisfaction with my new studio.
How has the industry changed since you set up your first studio and how have you adapted to those changes?
It’s changed so much from when I first started when there was no way to have a recording studio without a console and a tape machine–you had to have that and now it's very questionable whether it makes sense to have those things at all. I’m definitely over the whole console part; I can't justify that at all–they just take up way too much space, use up a lot of electricity, heat up the room, they’re difficult to maintain, and it’s very difficult to get your monitoring to sound great with the big giant metal thing in between you and the speakers, so I've moved on from that. I'm incorporating the tape machines but in a sort of modern, hybrid way.
I'm still obsessed with the sound of an earlier era of recording; I love the sound of records from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s so I will always be incorporating that texture in the recordings, but I don't limit myself to that workflow. My process has always been about figuring out how to incorporate that sound into a modern workflow and that was really the inspiration for how I set my place up–no console, lots of outboard gear, where the tube compressors, preamps, equalizers, and tape machine all have this beautiful coloration and the computer does a great job of very faithfully capturing those sounds without altering it. The way I have it set up, I can capture performances on playlists and comp things together and get all of the advantages of a modern workflow that a computer offers while capturing all the beautiful texture and coloration of the old equipment–it's really that simple.
Looking back on the past 30 years, what are you most proud of or excited about in terms of your history in the music business?
Like I mentioned before, I was very lucky to have connected with so many really, really talented artists, and there's no way I could single any one of those out as being a standout for me–I'm really grateful to have worked with all of them. I had sort of a unique path in my evolution as a record maker; I didn't go to a recording school, I didn't intern at another studio, so I really had to figure it out for myself. There were little bits of information here and there–at the time I would read any article I could find about how Led Zeppelin was recorded or what Mutt Lange was doing and things like that but the information was very, very limited. Back then, I was just left to experiment and figure a lot of it out on my own; it was a long process of me just fussing around in the studio with things not sounding very good and eventually stumbling on to something that actually kind of worked and got things to come out of the speakers in a way that sounded good to me.
That was challenging and it took a long time for me to discover and develop my own skill set. The upside was that I really did develop a skill set that was uniquely my own and I think it's the thing that I'm the most proud of–that there are techniques that I developed for myself that I hadn't seen anybody else do and I just did them because they worked and sounded good to me. The thing that was the most satisfying was to feel like, “Okay, I came up with something that was kind of unique and different and it works and it has ended up being useful for other people too.” I'm grateful that I took that long road.
Looking forward, how do you see studios evolving to fit the landscape of the music industry?
I think there are a few things that are really going to be part of the future of recording–it really does appear as if immersive audio is going to stay. I was skeptical at first because I've been through all the rounds of things like, “Oh my God, surround is going to change everything!” And then it didn't. But there are things about this new generation of immersive audio that definitely give it a much better chance of becoming a new standard. I didn't build it in initially when I started this process two and a half years ago, but immersive audio has become more essential over the last two years–with both projects that I finished in those last two years, they’re asking for Atmos versions of the projects and I've got to figure out how to do it so I’ll probably add that to this place.
The other thing that I think is going to be really important moving forward is adding a visual aspect–I'm finding more and more that artists want to document their creative process or capture live performances and having a set up that can accommodate that can make a huge difference. So having a place set up to capture visuals as well as audio is going to be important moving forward.
Are there any projects that you're working on that you're able to share with us?
There is a record coming from Grace Potter–this will be the third record that I've made with her–and I think it is by far her best record; it best represents her as an artist, how adventurous she is, how unique she is with her musicality; this is an amazing achievement for her compositionally. Her performances are just totally at a new level–I couldn't be more proud of her and I couldn't be more excited for people to hear it. I’m very excited about that album.
Want to hear more from Eric? Watch Parts 1 and 2 of our Make Your Mark video below: