During my first visit to Cosmic Zoo I witness a session that sums up the spirit of this new creative hub, a recording studio located in the Atwater Village neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
Daddy Kev, the L.A. underground linchpin who founded the studio in late 2012 with longstanding partner MC Nocando, is going over mastering notes for the latest record on his Alpha Pup imprint. The artist is King, a young producer from South Los Angeles whose music is inspired by the sounds and community that Kev has been nurturing in the city for the past decade under the umbrella of the Low End Theory club night.
Sitting in front of the studio’s mixing desk, the pair cut a contrasting set of figures. Kev is lean, wrapped in a black tee shirt emblazoned with Zappa in red, his long hair tied in a bun. King is shorter and muscular, his frame sticking out of a white tank top, his curls ballooning into an afro. Afflicting his usual relaxed demeanour, a reflection of the city’s mellow vibe, Kev is sitting in the studio’s control chair, hovering above the desk’s many knobs, switches, faders and buttons. King is hunched over from the side position, his body language indicating both a deference to Kev’s experience and willingness to learn. They discuss the album’s running order and final elements that King would add to certain tracks. The conversation is calm and focused with Kev explaining the need for certain changes while King supplies context for the tracks and their inspiration. The hope is that this will allow for a final round of mastering that can bring everything together and give the best reproduction of King’s music combined with Kev’s sonic know-how.
King’s album, Let Flavor Manifest, is the latest release in a list of over 300 that Daddy Kev, real name Kevin Marques Moo, has had a hand in as either producer, mixing or mastering engineer since the late 1990s. “I’ve been fortunate to touch a lot of records,” he explains later that day. “They all have something in common besides me: this idea behind great independent music, a code. And almost all the records I’ve been able to work on abide by the code. Aesthetic, integrity, the direction we’re supposed to be going, which is against the grain.” Cosmic Zoo is dedicated to upholding this spirit of independence that Kev has built his career around. It is a place where generations meet, where knowledge is shared and where everyone walks always feeling better for it.
It’s about curating a collective vision everyone can agree on and be behind. I don’t think L.A. would be where it is today without a collective mindset.”
Now in its third year, Cosmic Zoo is hitting its stride. The studio grew out of a previous, smaller home effort by Kev and Nocando in the nearby Eagle Rock area. It’s the first commercial space Kev has operated since entering the world of sound engineering nearly 20 years ago, a medium-sized studio that means he can work without worrying about juggling the needs of his family and that of his clients. The Alpha Pup offices are located beneath it. The Airliner, home of Low End Theory, is a short drive away via the I–5 South. Cosmic Zoo slots into the existing community the founders have been growing with ease. There’s always a steady flow of artists popping in and out, whether to work or simply hang. Cosmic Zoo provides a quieter, more productive counterpoint for people to come together outside of the clubs and myriad home studios spread across the Californian metropolis.
Los Angeles has long been a hub for recording studios on the West Coast, especially for pop and rock music. The rise of home recording in past decades pushed a lot of medium-sized rooms out of business as the quality of equipment and services on offer struggled to compete with cheap technology and accessibility of knowledge. The result is a city split between large and small offerings, with little in-between for artists with big ideas but no big budget. Cosmic Zoo, with its two studios and a recording room in between them, is filling that gap with a careful selection of high-end equipment and prices tailored to independent musicians. Since opening they’ve attracted a growing clientele from the electronic and hip-hop scenes that the founders inhabit with plenty of local artists, such as Flying Lotus, Ras G and Jonwayne, alongside the likes of El-P and Killer Mike’s Run The Jewels project and electronic duo Odesza.
The jewel in Cosmic Zoo’s crown was delivered to Studio B, the larger of the two rooms, nearly two years after it first opened. It’s a Solid State Logic XL desk, the newest small-sized console from the British manufacturer, famous for its 4000 series introduced in the 1970s. Cosmic Zoo was among the first U.S studios to install the XL desk this past December and it was Kev’s excitement at the prospect of working with a tool at the cutting edge of digital and analogue technology that brought me there in the spring.
The SSL XL desk was designed with engineers such as Kev in mind, the company taking input and suggestions to develop a final product he calls “the most highly evolved offering they make.” The principal appeal for Kev lies in its use of the 500 Series modules, a tool originally devised by API in the 1970s when they became one of the first manufacturers to allow consoles and modules to be racked. The result was the Lunchbox, an innovation that allowed musicians and engineers to take prized modules such as EQs or pre-amps into the wild. Today the 500 series market is booming, a sort of high-end Pokemon for audio professionals.
With a built-in 18-slot rack that can receive any combination of modules the user wishes, the XL desk is the first console from SSL to allow such customisation. And it has made all the difference for Kev. “It allows you to pick and choose whatever you want, so I’ve got my perfect line up installed, a mixture of API, Rupert Neve and SSL modules. It’s unique. You can get a sound that is almost identical to a Duality or AWS console, which are much more expensive. They sell the consoles pre-loaded with all SSL modules but I decided to do my dream configuration as I already had a few. As it stands today it’s pretty close, but I still wanna swap a few things out.”
Beyond the nerdy appeal of the tools themselves, an analogue console gives music a quality that no amount of digital emulation is able to replicate. Digital consoles and virtual plug-ins have gotten better but there remains something in the wirings of analogue equipment, a randomness inherent to physicality, that may never be replicated with 1s and 0s. One such ineffable quality granted by analogue gear is saturation. In a digital environment, artists and engineers click away at a virtual representation of a fader to control volume. On an analogue board that same fader not only controls volume but also feeds the potential for saturation and harmonic distortion. For Kev a primary advantage of the console is its ability to saturate all the channels, or in the words of SSL, to bend them: “When you push the channels on an SSL, the stereo image starts to bend a little. The nice thing about this console is that you can do it on the individual channels and the busses, so you’re able to do it twice. Doing it at just the right gain structure, taking advantage of the saturation, makes a profound difference to something that’s only worked on in the box.”
Do something for long enough and you’ll come to a new understanding of both your skill and workflow. After nearly 20 years of engineering, Kev has come to believe that equalising (EQing), the process of modifying frequency response in a signal, is an immovable cornerstone of the job. “Sometimes I’ll be compressing or using dynamics on sound when really I should be using EQs, I constantly remind myself of that. Come back to EQ as the most fundamental solution, it’s the most important part of the process.”
On the Cosmic Zoo desk four stereo lanes of EQs are set up: API 550A, Electrodyne 511, Elysia X Filter, and Avedis E27, part of Kev’s perfect line up of tools. Each EQ is best suited to a different task, from touching up drums to mastering. Using them adds a tone and warmth to the audio and is used depending on what they’ll bring to the music. “Every time you add gain to a signal, an amount of distortion is being added. Even here. But it’s about what kind of distortion are you adding? Is it noisy or is it harmonic, something that will add to the depth of the sound.” Those decisions are made based on what music an engineer works with, and in the case of Cosmic Zoo it’s almost always about bridging the growing divide between the digital and analogue worlds in electronic music. “That’s what I’m trying to do here, enhance digitally-sourced stems and give them a depth and sonic dimension that is almost impossible in the box.”
Since Cosmic Zoo opened, Kev has been known to take to Twitter to share insights and opinions on engineering, a continuation of his previous inclination for jumping into threads on music forums to set the record straight. He’s not one to hoard the knowledge, and in person he talks about his work with the same passion and seriousness an artist would use to discuss their music. It’s that love for what he does that brought him to the revelation that audio mixing and engineering is about balancing ego and objectivity. It’s the song, the music itself, that knows what’s best for it and not necessarily the artist or engineer. “I found that if I can get out of the way, get my head and my personal bias out of the way, all that ends up meaning is a better mix, a better result. I think engineering ultimately should be about objectivity,” he affirms. “People laugh sometimes when I say that it’s not the time to get creative. Engineering has a scientific aspect to it, and it has less to do with personal feelings than with correct audio. I really believe that. My whole philosophy is governed by that. Trying to not put my stamp on it, the stamp is already there so it’s about letting the vision fulfil itself. It’s a big part of my approach.”
“EQ is the most important part of the process.”
Home recording and the evolution of computer technology have made producing music easier than ever, yet one crucial element of the process remains its most arduous. Monitoring is an important part of a studio and setting it up right takes time, money and effort. Making music at home is one thing, ensuring it sounds good when played back on a variety of devices is quite another and that is where many bedroom producers often fall short. At Cosmic Zoo, the monitoring set up packs a unique kind of punch.
Studio B is set up with two monitoring systems. The first is a standard Focal system, using a pair of Focal CMS 65 monitors and a sub woofer. It’s the system used daily for both mixing and mastering. However, the room also boasts a secondary system that towers over the desk and was inherited from Kev’s career as a promoter. It’s composed of a pair of QSC KW 153 speakers connected to JBL dual 18“ sub woofers that create a four-way system similar to what you might experience at Low End Theory. It offers the studio’s clients a chance to actually hear and feel what their music would sound like on a real sound system. “When Run The Jewels was recording and producing here that’s what El-P loved the most about this room,” Kev remembers. “He even tweeted that the system sounded larger than certain festivals he’s played at. I’d thought about selling it as it was originally bought for a club I was doing with DJ Nobody. When we moved in here I was ready to do that but he convinced me to install it so we could see what the music sounded like in a club without being at Low End. It’s a little overkill for a tiny room but that’s part of the appeal for people to record here. I believe it’s also the only SSL console in the country, maybe in the world, hooked up to a pair of dual 18″s.”
The introduction of the CD in the 1980s gave the music industry a chance to cash in on its products all over again while also kickstarting a trend towards ever louder audio known as the loudness wars. Driven by new technology and a misguided industry belief that people preferred louder sounding CDs, music began to be manufactured with loudness at the centre of the mastering process. The move from CD to digital files did nothing to abate this obsession and it’s only been in the past decade that we’ve begun to see a push back against loudness and a return towards more dynamic audio, which sounds more natural, in certain parts of the music industry.
Over the years Kev has earned a reputation as a mastering engineer who cuts loud records, sometimes taking flak for it. When I ask him about his position on the loudness wars he readily admits to having shifted his opinion over the years though, like any engineer worth their salt, he believes that dynamic audio is better. “I think sometimes people out there believe that it’s ultimately the engineer’s decision to make it loud but in fact it’s almost always the artist’s,” he admits before giving the example of Nick Diamonds, of Islands fame, who had his previous record mastered to be more dynamic. One day he was in a cafe when one of the songs came on and he realised it was barely audible between the ones that preceded and followed it. “It bummed him out. He didn’t want to be in that situation again and while he understood the idea of preserving dynamics he could’t deal with it being weak. That changed my philosophy again. I think there’s a middle ground but you have to be competitive. Does it need to be smashed? No. But I do believe that for it to sound modern it has to have a certain amount of compression and limiting at the mastering stage.”
Cosmic Zoo is the logical culmination of its founders’ drive to remain independent in the face of growing adversity. Much like the labels they run, Alpha Pup and Hellfyre Club, and the club night they host every Wednesday, the studio has become a central place for the Los Angeles underground, a physical space where ideas can crystallise and relationships can be strengthened. For Kev, the studio also furthers his belief that his role in the scene is that of a facilitator, someone who can make things happen so that everyone else can benefit from them. As such Cosmic Zoo isn’t so much about its founders as it as about the community it serves.
“Sometimes people ask what my vision for L.A. music is and I surprise them by saying I don’t have one. That’s not one person, that’s not even ten people, it’s millions of people. It’s about curating a collective vision everyone can agree on and be behind. I don’t think LA would be where it is today without a collective mindset.”