“This is a historical place and people should know the history of it,” says Different Fur Studios owner Patrick Brown.
It’s true -- the discography of the San Francisco-based recording studio reads like a list of the most influential albums of all time.
Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters brought the futuristic sounds of the Moog synthesizer to jazz fusion. Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is often cited as one of the earliest albums to make use of sampling. Devo recorded demos of what would become Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! in the live room. It’s port-of-call for Primus, who cut Sailing the Seas of Cheese on the studio’s SSL 4000 console. It’s where producer Billy Anderson reportedly mixed Sleep’s monumental stoner rock opus Dopesmoker, an album so heavy it was recorded in 1996 and not properly released until 2003. But before all that, it was a five-dollar-an-hour bedroom with an eight-track and a Moog modular.
In 1968, San Francisco State English professor Patrick Gleeson got booted from the university on account of his subversive political activity and subsequent arrests following his participation in rallies held by the Third World Liberation Front and the Black Panther Party. However, during his time in academia, Gleeson made frequent visits to nearby Mills College which had recently acquired one of Don Buchla’s modular synthesizers and was at the forefront of American experimental and electronic music. Around the same time, Gleeson befriended local synth guru John Viera and the pair would lug Viera’s bulky Moog 3 to film-scoring and commercial gigs in professional studios around the Bay Area. But it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. So, they set up a synthesizer and tape machine in Viera’s closet and charged five dollars an hour -- laying the groundwork for the home studio revolution a decade before Tascam introduced the Portastudio and twelve years before McCartney II.
The synthesizer entered the mainstream in the late ‘60s thanks to Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach (1968) and soon everyone from Jan Hammer to the Rolling Stones became fascinated with the limitless potential of this new electronic instrument. Suddenly sound designers like Gleeson and Viera were hot enough of a commodity that the pair was able to open their first commercial studio, Really Different Fur Trading Company (later abbreviated to Different Fur) in a handshake deal struck in 1968.
In 1971, Herbie Hancock enlisted Gleeson to program his Moog and offered him a gig with his Mwandishi band who tracked most of Crossings, Sextant, and Head Hunters at Different Fur. Since then, the studio has hosted artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder and B.B. King, Mr. Bungle, Bobby Brown, Huey Lewis, Earth Wind & Fire, Bill Frisell, the Residents, and the Peanuts -- pianist Vince Guaraldi recorded soundtracks for the classic animated films here, and Peanuts creator Charles Shultz once drew a “Different Fur-themed Snoopy” in the studio.
Today, Different Fur is owned and operated by engineer and producer Patrick Brown who began as an intern and is custodian of the studio’s legacy. There’s even a time capsule. The current control room configuration revolves around the SSL 4000 desk installed in the 1986 with a few modern additions made by Brown and company. Audio signals typically pass through either Shadow Hills Golden Age microphone preamps or the 1073-flavored Aurora GTP8 on their way to the Studer A827 tape machine or Pro Tools. An Empirical Labs Fatso and a pair of Distressors -- among Brown’s earliest purchases after becoming owner -- provide a mixture of modern punch and analog grit useful when working with digital audio. “When working in digital, not piling up harshness is a big thing,” says Brown.
On the other side of the glass, head engineer Sean Paulson says he “likes to get really nerdy about guitar tones,” and his technique is as dialed-in as the final mixes. Starting with amplifiers, Paulson works with guitarists to identify their ideal tonal palette -- clean, big, loud, broken-up, and so on -- which is then sweetened with effects pedals, if necessary. When mixing, Paulson prefers to set up a mono submix which is sent to an aux send, through the pedals, and returned to the SSL. His go-to EarthQuaker Devices in post-production are the Palisades (“I’ve had success on vocals and drums,” he says) and the Disaster Transport SR, which he prefers on vocals, keyboards, and horns.