Francesco Cameli is an analog-minded recording engineer known for working with Stone Sour, Ed Sheeran, and Avatar. A former mentee of Chris Kimsey and Glyn Johns, Cameli established the world-class Sphere Studios in London in 2001 before moving it to Los Angeles in 2016. 

After the recent sale of the Los Angeles studio, Cameli is now planning the next phase of the ever-evolving Sphere Studios dynasty. But throughout his tenure, there has been one constant: Prism Sound converters.

Having trusted Prism’s sonic transparency for more than 15 years, Cameli recently selected the new Prism Sound Dream ADA-128 modular converter system as the nerve center of his next studio. Despite not knowing precisely what the next iteration of Sphere will look like, the ADA-128’s modular and futureproof design ensures that Cameli is equipped for anything.

We caught up with Cameli in the midst of hunting for a new studio building to learn about his transatlantic path through the music industry, the importance of simplicity and transparency in recording, and what’s next for Sphere.

How did you get started in music, and what led you to become an engineer? 

I started out as a musician. I went to Berklee College of Music, moved back to London, became a session player, and gravitated toward spending more time in the studio rather than on the road. I never really had formal training as an engineer; I was just interested by the guy sitting at the desk. I sort of watched and observed what the folks were doing in the sessions I was playing in and found myself wanting to sit closer and closer to watch more and more carefully what they were doing. But more to the point, I could hear what they were doing and it interested me.

After that, I started my own little place and just went straight into engineering. I found very quickly that a little place wasn't attracting the kind of clientele that I wanted to work with, so I built the first Sphere Studios in London, which opened in 2001. And then, rather surreptitiously, I ended up falling under the wing of one Chris Kimsey, who produced The Stones, Marillion, The Gipsy Kings, and many more. He taught me most of what I know, and then handed me off to Glyn Johns. That was his teacher, who also kind of took a shine to me and proceeded to teach me some more. I am blessed to have studied under two such monsters of our industry.

All the while, I was assisting at the studio and building my own engineering chops. Although I’d opened a big commercial facility, I didn't feel like I could justify my position as an engineer, so I sort of took a step back before I took a step forward again. It's kind of a roundabout way of going about it, but I tend to do things in a very roundabout way. I’m not your typical engineer.

What was your biggest takeaway from working under Glyn Johns and Chris Kimsey?

Simplicity; particularly when recording. I find that a lot of younger, newer engineers tend to overcomplicate things and do too much. The real massive takeaway from working with someone like Glyn is that the less you do and the more you get it right to begin with, the better. That’s kind of the polar opposite of what we're doing in Pro Tools today, which is like, “Just get it in there and then we'll mess with it later.” I just can't get with that. 

If I'm trying to get a tone for someone, it's got to be good enough that when you push the fader up, you hear what everyone was aiming for; not some random noise for you to shape later. Less is more—less microphones, less EQ, less compression. The right instrument in the right player's hands makes a massive difference at the front end. It just removes so many headaches at the back end.

What was the first iteration of Sphere Studios like? 

It was an 11 or 12-thousand-square-foot building in London with a big recording room, two mix rooms, and seven production suites. We were kind of the first bespoke 5.1 studio built in London when 5.1 was coming up as an audio format and everybody thought that all of our albums would now be listened to in surround, which didn't really work out. We ended up doing a bunch of movie work which justified the rooms, but most of our bread and butter was just stereo pop and rock, as well as lots of string sessions, brass sessions, you know—sweetening sessions.

When I moved to America almost 10 years ago now, I sold it to a developer, so it's now an enormous apartment block.

After moving to the U.S., what was your next step?

When I first came over, I actually became Don Gilmore's engineer for two years while I was trying to figure out my next studio, so I’d follow Don around wherever he was producing. That was another fantastic learning experience. I really landed on my feet with my various mentors. I decided early on that I was very happy and comfortable being a recording engineer and had little desire to become a producer, simply because of the politics and headaches I'd see all of my bosses go through. I like to point microphones and make things sound as nice as I can, and then hand them off to a mixer to do whatever it is they do—which, sadly, is not always pleasing! But that’s a whole other discussion.

There was a period when I was renting a space while I was trying to get permits for the next studio, and we went through this two-year song and dance with the city of Burbank about parking. I had 24 parking spaces and they wanted 26, and until I could magic two parking spaces out of thin air, they either wanted me to remove half of the earning space in the building or not build it at all. 

Then I heard that Linda Perry was deciding to downsize her studio, so I bought Kung Fu Gardens from her and substantially restructured it. I sold the other building to my then-neighbor, who had run out of space in his building, and we opened Sphere Studios in Los Angeles in 2016.

When you finally got the opportunity to start fresh with a new studio, what was your approach? Was there anything you wanted to do differently?

The first Sphere evolved a lot over the 12 years that I had it because when I first built it, I was very green and didn't really know what I wanted. We built some great rooms, but I didn’t have the depth of knowledge or a desire to build the rooms in any particular way, so we had great-sounding rooms that were functionally just “okay.” Looking back, the initial space was a bit bland to me. 

Over the years, I refined the rooms and became really particular about the ergonomics—where all the gear is and how it's laid out. When you have a 500-square-foot room that has 30 compressors and 20 outboard EQs in it, plus 15 guitars and a 72-channel mixing console with a Pro Tools rig, it gets crowded. So, when I took over what became Sphere LA, I spent a lot of time making it ergonomically comfortable, and I think a lot of our clients really picked up on that.

It wasn’t as easy in the main room as it was in the mix suite, because we had this gorgeous vintage Neve that I had completely refurbished by an incredibly talented tech from England by the name of Nick Mann. But I couldn't bring myself to do what I did to my SSL, which was basically chop it in half and put a massive Pro Tools station in the middle. That was awesome for mixing and working, but I didn't want to do that to a vintage Neve, so we still had two Pro Tools trolleys: one on each side, so the assistant could sit at one and the main engineer/producer could have the other, and either one could drive the rig at any point. That seemed to work quite well to bring the analog side of what I do to the fore while incorporating the computers that we are kind of stuck with.

What prompted you to sell the current building?

I wasn't looking to sell the studio, but right in the middle of the pandemic, someone just put a ton of cash on the table and said, “I want your studio.” I said no for the longest time, but they just wouldn't take no for an answer. Eventually, the number on the table got stupidly large, and after a heart-to-heart with my wife, I took the money and walked away. 

Then, I was like, “Well, shit, what do I do now?” Since then, I've just been working in various studios, which it's nice because I've been able to go around various places in town that typically I wouldn't visit since I'd always be in my own place. It’s been super nice not to have to worry about a big structure and staff. I can just show up, record, back it all up, and leave at the end of the day. Somewhat easier, right?

What made you choose the Prism Sound Dream ADA-128 as the nerve center of your next studio?

I've been loyal to Prism for 15 years or so. As soon as I got my ADA-8XRs for Sphere London, I ditched all the other converters that we had because they were just getting in the way. Those were fantastic and sounded better than anything else we'd tried, but when I sold my last studio, I had to leave them there. Besides, 48 I/O of ADA-8XRs is a massive tower. They're two rack spaces for only eight inputs and eight outputs, and you need to leave breathing space between each of them, so by the time you get to 48 I/O you've got a sizable rack of just conversion.

The ADA-128 is also two rack spaces, but it will do up to 64 in and 64 out, which is impressive. I currently have it configured with 40 inputs and 48 outputs as well as eight channels of AES, because I wanted to have as much analog I/O as possible to go to and from the board with as little coloration as possible. I also have a couple of Lavry A/D and D/A converters that I use, so I needed AES in and out of that. I wanted something that I could fit in a small flight case and take to studios with me where I didn't particularly enjoy their conversion and go, “Just plug mine in, please.”

Hence choosing Prism—for years, they have been the only converters to my ears that seem to do that transparently enough. Everything else seems to have a “vibe,” which is great if that's what you want, but when you run commercial rooms as I have for my whole career, you don't want a vibe. You want the rig to disappear and let your client decide what the vibe you put down on tape is. Going with a converter that has more top end or more bottom end never seemed like the right choice to make for my rooms. 

Ease of use is the other benefit. If it behaves, all of it tends to behave; whereas before, you’d be chasing multiple units and going, “Why am I getting a clocking issue? Which one is it?” 

Speaking of clocking, have you found a use for the QCLOCKS feature that lets you run four separate clock domains?

I want to be able to do that with my Lavry mix converters so that I can print all of my mixes and stems at 96 kHz while leaving the sessions at whatever they’re at. At the moment, whatever sample rate I’m asked to record at or whatever files get delivered to me is what the whole rig is working at the entire time, so I think that's something I want to play with in the future.

Sphere in London had a central machine room that fed all 10 rooms in the building, so if this existed in 2001, it would've been perfect. I haven't really decided what I'm doing for the new place, as I'm still building-hunting. Until I find the right building, I don't know how complex it's going to be.

After a few major studio moves, I’m sure you don’t want to do it again anytime soon. What are you planning for the next iteration of Sphere?

That would be the plan. The first studio was built from the ground up, so that took two years. The second studio was substantially rebuilt; that took eight months or whatever it was. It's tiring!

Most of what I do now seems to be tracking organic stuff; mainly drums. I haven't quite wrapped my head around if I want more analog I/O yet, but I do want to run multiple rigs, so I’m still figuring out how that will look. I haven't really thought that far ahead yet, but I know it can be done.

In keeping with what I've always done before, I’ll probably have one main tracking space and a few production rooms that I can just rent out. That has always been a really good way to keep the doors open and the power connected. You just get income from space that you rent to people, and then you have the commercial room doing its thing.