When Megasound Studios owner Sam Maxson is caught drooling on his keyboard, his wife, Bobbi, understands there’s no cause for alarm. Chances are pretty good that what’s got her husband in a sweat has nothing to do with sex. Maxson’s favorite “porn” site is e-Bay and what he’s looking at is way too big for a G-string.
“I like to daydream about the great consoles that have made rock history,” explains Maxson.
Back in 2009, when all hell broke loose in the financial markets, Maxson made the difficult decision to cut his losses, close his recording/rehearsal studios and move his family to Florida. Megasound, at that time, was adjacent to Instrumental Music in Ventura, where Pet Barn is now located. In a little more than a year, it had become a clubhouse of sorts for young musicians — most of them being of the hard rock and metal persuasions — and its all-ages live shows were an oasis for the city’s emerging bands.
Sam Maxson powers up the Neve for a recording session.
Photo by: T Christian Gapen
Then sometime in 2013, rumors of a Megasound reboot began circulating and what seemed nearly impossible, if not insane, was in fact happening: the Maxson’s were back and knee-deep in drywall dust at the old Garfield’s/Johnny Dingo’s location in midtown Ventura. The Florida lifestyle had proved no match for Ventura’s and the Maxson clan was homesick. “We realized Ventura was our real home, sold off our stuff and headed west to put Megasound back on the map.” It all happened so quickly that the Maxson family was still staying in a hotel when they secured the new Megasound space at 2789 E. Main St. “It was like it was meant to be,” he recalls. “Within days I had a lease, and boom! ”
The long-abandoned space was a disaster — a health hazard that would have sent most people running. But Maxson, a contractor, wasn’t intimidated. “There was a huge bee hive which the landlord got rid of. The inside was full of pigeons — nests, babies, dead birds. The floor was 4 or 5 inches deep in bird droppings. We were sick for weeks from the cleanup. Everyone in the family helped out and we filled eight contractor bags with poop, bug bombed it and started construction.”
About halfway into the process of rebuilding Megasound Studios, Maxson was engaged in his typical Internet browsing, ogling large-format recording consoles, when he stumbled upon an old Neve. Brought into the public eye by Dave Grohl in the documentary film Sound City, Neve “desks,” as they are referred to by engineers, were used on many of the greatest and best-selling records of the ’70s and ’80s. The particular Neve he was coveting, an 8108, was no exception. He would also come to find out it had surprising ties to Ventura.
DIGITAL THINGS ARE EVIL.
“When I found it on e-Bay, the auction was to close on a Wednesday,” says Maxson. “So I showed up two days before that with a trailer and a handful of money and bought it for less than the opening bid.” Stored in a warehouse for a decade, the Neve 8108 had been orphaned by the digital age after years of service at two famed studios: Conway and Music Grinder. The seller told Maxson that people were interested in “parting it out,” a common way to recycle working components of antiquated equipment. But Maxson had a personal agenda for the Neve. “My son, Butch, is an up-and-coming musician and I wanted to make his record with a vintage console.”
“It took five trips to pick up all the parts, there was so much of it,” says Maxson. On the first trip, they brought back 50 or so channel strips in the back of Maxson’s truck. By the time he got it all to Ventura it was completely disassembled and Maxson had no idea where to begin. Armed with schematics and diagrams, but no step-by-step instructions, Maxson started with the chassis — bolting it together, sanding and painting it. Faced with somewhere in the range of five large Rubbermaid totes full of ribbon cables with individual functions, he began the complex process of running wires. “By trial and error,” he says, “I had to figure it out.” Imagine putting a small book back together from shredded documents and you get an idea of what Maxson was up against.
“It took a year and a half to assemble this beast,” he laughs. “To clean every part, every switch, and then learn how the Neve works.” He’s taken it apart and put it back together five times.
As it turned out, Megasound house engineer Ross Stein had intimate knowledge of the Neve 8108 from his days at Music Grinder. “It was like seeing an old friend,” he says. “As far as I know, there are only three or four in existence.” Further into the gnarly assembly process, Megasound staffer Shannon Parsons (vocalist for Preachers and Pornstars) showed photos of the Neve restoration to his friend Duane Baron, who had been producing some of the band’s music. Baron, who lives in Ventura with his wife, vocalist Karen Eden, immediately recognized the Neve from his tenure at Conway Studios in the ’80s. It was the exact same board he’d recorded some of the era’s biggest records on.
“It was like seeing a ghost,” Baron told VCReporter. “You could see the spot where I blew it up!” Baron was referring to the time he spilled a drink on the Neve causing it to sizzle. Among the albums he remembers engineering on the Neve are Motley Cruë’s Girls, Girls, Girls, Poison’s Greatest Hits, Alice Cooper’s The Last Temptation, L.A. Guns’ Cocked & Loaded and Blow My Fuse by Kix. “We had Conway booked out for two to three years solid,” remembers Baron. “I was on that [console] every day for three years. I lived on that board.”
Upon hearing that his old console was alive and well in Ventura, Baron dropped into Megasound to say hello. “It was like watching old friends get reacquainted,” Maxson wistfully recalls. At that point the Neve was partially assembled, and Maxson was toying with the idea of scaling it down, but Baron disagreed. “He told Maxson, ‘No, you’ve got to put this back together. You need the big board.’ ”
As word spread, Maxson says, people came out of the woodwork, including a technician from New York who happened to be visiting the area and was champing at the bit to get a look at the board he had actually modified way back when. “He was calling people in New York and Chicago, and he was giddy to see the board. Since then I’ve been getting random calls from industry people,” says Maxson. Ex-Tourniquet guitarist Eric Mendez dropped by Megasound and promptly called former Metal Blade Records VP and producer Bill Matoyer who told Maxson the 8108 was his favorite Neve.
While the name Neve seems to elicit a sort of nostalgic fervor among music geeks, not everyone in the recording world is as keen on them as Dave Grohl and Sam Maxson. The mythology that’s developed around the Neves has earned them the “N-word” tag in related discussion groups, and outside the Megasound camp, the 8108 is considered unworthy of its pedigree, by many.
Unlike Grohl’s 8028, Megasound’s 8108 wasn’t actually designed by Rupert Neve as he had sold his company prior to the creation of the 81 series. Launched in July 1978 for approximately $500,000, the 8108’s estimated value today is between $2,500 and $30,000, depending on a host of variables. Often maligned among engineers for being buggy and a maintenance nightmare, it’s even been called the worst-sounding thing Neve ever made. But those who love it, and there are plenty, talk about its warm sound and sensational equalizer.
“A Corvette owner would never be caught dead in a Mustang,” says Maxson. “The thing people didn’t like about the 8108 was the touch-pad Matrix. The center section doesn’t have knobs, and the routing is slightly different than the previous series. So in a nutshell, it’s comparing apples to oranges. They are both great but they taste a little different.”
“I think it’s amazing,” says Baron. Subscribing to the industry dictum “It’s the ear, not the gear,” Baron explains his position regarding recording on the Neve 8108. “It’s an art. You can make anything sound good and anything sound bad.”
Stein says he’s unaware of any negative discussion regarding the Neve 8108. “Considering all the major artists’ gold, platinum and Grammy-winning albums [recorded on it] how bad could the Neve 8108 be?"
With his precious Neve up and running and the new Megasound fully functional, Maxson is optimistic about the future. “The Neve has stepped up the profile of the studio to where we can make really serious recordings because it’s a vintage analog console,” says Maxson. “We put in a post-production room, control room, tracking room, vocal booth and lobby.” While he has yet to hear from Dave Grohl, he’s dreaming of being featured on the Foo Fighter’s television program Sonic Highways. “That would be epic!”
In the meantime, he’s keeping busy recording his son’s band, Mind Warp, getting the studio booked and feeding his audio porn habit. “I’m always on the lookout for another vintage Neve.”
For more information about Megasound Studios, visit facebook.com/megasoundstudios.