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Talking to multiple Grammy Award winner Allen Sides, it rapidly becomes apparent his respect for history, art and the best the past has to offer extends far beyond the huge collection of vintage recording gear and classic microphones that has helped make his Ocean Way Studios justifiably famous in the recording industry. He speaks as lovingly of the project of restoring his Santa Barbara-area home to its original specs as he does of the qualities of a classic tube mic or EQ.
It's not just about vintage, though. As he says, "I probably have the largest collection of esoteric tube mics in the world, but I only collect mics that sound great. I don't care if they're old or they're really beautifully made. I only care if they sound good. I don't care if it's transistor. I don't care if it's tube. All I care about is what it sounds like at the end." Sides has been building that collection since he was a teenager, playing in a band, recording music and designing speaker systems. "When I built my first studio, I really built it as a demonstration room for my speakers, but also to make impressive sounding program material to play on those speakers," he explains. "It was very hard to find recordings that really knocked you out, stuff that really just sounded very impressive, so I started recording things myself. I found that since I knew exactly where I wanted to go – what I needed sonically to do – because I was also a musician, I was able to record things that sounded much more impressive. And when I played these recordings on my speakers, people bought them."
As a sideline, to keep his own studio equipped, Sides bought and sold recording gear. "I was always buying and selling equipment because in order to get the things I wanted you had to do a lot of wheeling and dealing," he says. "I happened to make a couple of fairly big deals with the people who owned United Recording and over a period of time I became very good friends with Bill Putnam. He would come down to my studio in Santa Monica Canyon and listen to my speakers. He loved my system and we just kind of clicked. We were two peas in a pod, sonically. We loved the same stuff."
That connection with Putnam, a man who has been described as the father of modern recording, paid off in a big way. "What happened was people became very interested in my recordings and I ended up shifting gears a bit. Before I knew it I was doing hundreds of albums. So speakers became somewhat secondary and I ended up being a recording engineer and a producer, building studios, designing studios, and that sort of thing."
Putnam, more concerned with designing new equipment for and growing the business at UREI than with the day-to-day running of United and Western, the studios he had founded in L.A. in partnership with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, was only too glad to have a young engineer ready to step up. "First I took over one room in Studio B at United Recording," says Sides. "Then I took over Studio A. Then I took over parts of Western. Then I took over all of Western. So eventually I bought all the real estate and everything for both buildings and that became Ocean Way Studios."
Although Sides has steadily updated the technology at Ocean Way over the years to stay current with the needs of the modern world, he knows what not to touch. As he notes, "The acoustic spaces, like Studio A and Studio B where they recorded all the Sinatra albums and such—the physical spaces—were really quite remarkable. The control rooms have been changed quite radically from what they were originally, because of course, the concept of a booth then was literally, 'a booth'; but the actual physical studios are what they were when Bill had them. I mean, we're doing this new Beach Boys record right now. All the original members are back in again and they're back in a place they know, doing the record, and it sounds rather like it used to, kind of fun."
As both an engineer and producer, Sides is relentlessly aware of the value of capturing, not just the sound of a singer's voice, but their personality and essence as well. He draws on his knowledge of earlier recordings to pass along techniques that sometimes receive short shrift today. "Part of what I do is work on singers' microphone technique. I mean, years ago I was recording Sinatra and I was very surprised, because I hadn't recorded Frank before. We did a take with Quincy [Jones]. Sinatra ran down the tune off-mic and then he walked to the microphone. Just, okay, we're recording. So I didn't have any preparation. I had no idea what we're going to do, but I pretty much knew I had a compressor in line I could insert if I needed to. I'd already been out there, checked the mic levels, had the headphones all set. He walked up to that microphone and his vocal technique was unbelievable, because he came from days working with big bands where he had to deliver a incredibly clear performance because there was no one to fix it."
Sides explains further, "When he was singing quietly he had to come in closer to the microphone, he actually used a little less chest to make his voice sound super clear so the proximity effect didn't get in the way. HIs microphone technique was developed to a point of perfection so that he delivered what he wanted to deliver. A lot of younger singers haven't got that all down yet. So as a producer-engineer, part of my job is to get them right on the money so that they get the best possible vocal sound I can get."
Once a singer's mechanics have been worked on, Sides focuses on the equipment. "What I find is oftentimes there's no one microphone that's the perfect microphone. Each singer has certain characteristics and certain singers. The best microphone in the world may be the totally wrong mic for them because it's accurately producing something that you don't want to produce, or it's emphasizing certain elements of their voice that's not what you're looking for. So I have a certain group of mics that I would normally use—four or five mics that I think really cover the range of great sounding vocal mics. Usually I'll listen to a singer and I'll pick maybe three mics that I think are going to be pretty close and I'll put them up. I'll have the vocalist sing a little into each microphone and usually it doesn't take me 10 minutes to figure out which one's going to work for them."
The quest for that great-sounding, versatile vocal mic is what led Sides to collaborate with Sterling Audio on developing his signature ST-6050 mic. Asked about what his goals were, he replies, "In some respects in designing this microphone I was looking for something that was somewhat neutral, in regards, that would cover a lot of range. And I think that this microphone has a midrange presence that I think is very important for most singers, but it doesn't have too much sibilance issues. Doesn't have too much highs where it becomes an issue. Some mics have so much top that it becomes really unusable. So you're looking for clarity, but you're not necessarily looking for excessive high frequency information in certain ranges.
"I think what's interesting about this microphone is that sometimes what we're looking for is the biggest possible sound we can get. So in certain respects, we don't necessarily want totally accurate reproduction. Sometimes you want something that's slightly impressionistic; that actually enhances the sound of the singer and makes them sound a little bigger than life. I think that's kind of what we've achieved here, something that gives you a little extra, adds a little extra warmth and gives you a little extra [top] and I think that sounds really -- really adds something beyond just the generic microphone."
Another concern of Sides for the ST-6050 was consistency and usability. He spent a lot of time with Sterling working on quality control to make sure that any two mics grabbed at random would match. "One of the things we were trying to do," he says, "is come up with something that has consistency because it's very hard to get two microphones to sound exactly the same. And so when I took this on we ended up putting a tremendous amount of time getting to a point where we could get within this range. I said, 'If we can't get in this range we can't do it.' The other thing, too, is that in order to make the mic at a price that would be affordable, I said, 'I don't need multiple patterns,' and I set the gain structure in such a way that a pad's not necessary. I want a killer cardioid microphone. I don't need any other things."
"I mean in the end, I guess you could say I'm a bit of a snob sonically. No matter where I happen to be recording; in somebody's house or in my studio, it has to be at a certain level or it's not acceptable. And so this is a microphone that I could be using on a vocal in any of my studios and be very happy, but it's also a great microphone for a lot of artists that we help set up home studios. They're always looking for something that is good; a mic that's consistent, that they can have to do their vocals, and to do guitars and other things at home, which they'll then bring into our studio. This is something that I could be comfortable they can use and it's going to be at the level I need it to be.
Despite the decades designing and collecting great audio gear, engineering and producing award-winning recordings, and working with some of the biggest artists in the world, Sides still gets excited about new projects. "I think I have pretty broadband musical taste," he says, "I like everything. I work with Green Day. I work with Alanis Morissette. And I come from a background of recording people like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. I do a very wide range of music. A great song is a great song is a great song and when it comes along it's a joy to do. If it's a great piece of music or amazing guitar player or an amazing singer makes the whole job still fun for me."