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The Solar Surfer

by Christopher Walsh As an avid surfer, Hawaii born Jack Johnson is quite naturally conscious of environmental conservation. His Los Angeles based studio, the Solar Plastic Power Plant, and the adjacent offices of his Brushfire Records, provide a template for

by Christopher Walsh

As an avid surfer, Hawaii-born Jack Johnson is quite naturally conscious of environmental conservation. His Los Angeles-based studio, the Solar Plastic Power Plant, and the adjacent offices of his Brushfire Records, provide a template for similarly green-inclined audio professionals.

 Johnson, his manager/Brushfire partner Emmett Malloy and engineer Robert Carranza have created an eminently functional, comfortable and energy- and resource-efficient space for Johnson, his Brushfire label mates and outside clients alike. “Since Day One,” says Malloy, like Johnson a surfer and filmmaker, “we’ve chosen our own line of how we wanted to do things, and really tried to make decisions based on what felt good and meant something to us.”

Eco-conscious down to the smallest details, Johnson has become a leader in environmentally friendly touring practices and the packaging of his music. “We had an artist where a company like Universal would support what we were doing,” Malloy says of Johnson. “They understood that the big picture was more important than fighting over a couple cents on a record because we wanted to use this type of material. You can look at Jack’s touring, and the influences he’s picked up on from Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Eddie Vedder, and see the decisions that he makes through the course of his touring. They’re very progressive, and have become far more prominent–you see them a lot more in everybody who’s on the road. I think we’ve even made humongous steps to shift companies like Live Nation and AEG.”

With the Solar Plastic Power Plant, Malloy adds, “all we’ve done is just an evolution of where we wanted to be since the beginning.” The building, purchased in 2007, demonstrates the degree to which a business can reduce its carbon footprint. Solar panels generate all power required for both the studio and offices; any additional energy requirements are offset by purchase of renewable energy certificates. The flat roof was repurposed with energy-efficient Duro-Last roofing. Insulation in the walls is made with cotton from blue jean scraps, and shingles were replaced with a green, recycled shingle option.

The building features energy-efficient lighting. Original hardwood floors were refinished with a low toxic/low solvent formula made from natural and renewable ingredients; similarly, paints and primers are low and/or zero VOC (volatile organic compounds). Even the office furniture is second-hand, and low-flow toilets were installed for minimum water consumption.

“It was really just natural for us to do it this way,” says Malloy. “We started going through the checklist like we always do: ‘how can we do this the right way?’ That’s where we’ve landed. It’s not like people walk in and say, ‘this is amazing!’ It’s the subtle things that people are reacting to, things they can’t even see. I feel like the vibe is modest and simple and comfortable, and it sits with everything else we do. Every band that’s been in here compliments both the way it sounds and the way it feels.

For equipment, Malloy adds, “you can buy a old vintage gear, which, technically, is using something that already exists.” Indeed, a Studer A827 was purchased for the recording of Johnson’s Sleep Through the Static

, released in 2008. “We pretty much recorded everything to tape,” Carranza recalls, “and everything was mixed off tape. No computer was harmed during the making of that record!”

The Solar Plastic Power Plant houses a Solid State Logic AWS 900 console, which is used for playback and mixing, Carranza explains. “I don’t track through it.”Rather than the console’s preamps, says Carranza, he employs a selection of API, Neve and Universal Audio pres. “I grew up on Neve and API [consoles],” he explains, “and the UA stuff. I go with what the classic records were made with. Those work, and I love the sound they give me. We use the Dangerous 2-Bus for reverb returns, because it’s super-clean, and a Dangerous Monitor for speaker selection.”Carranza “can’t live without” the Chandler Limited TG1, he admits. “One of my favorite new pieces is the Thermionic Culture Vulture. It’s an incredible box: you can run anything through it and make any tone you want–hard distortion to soft distortion to just giving things size. And I use the new 500 Series Level-Or from Standard Audio, a crazy, two-knob kind of distortion/compressor box. They’re just incredible. I have some vintage 1176s that I’ve had for 15 years, dbx 160x’s, 165a’s, and some good old LA-2A’s.” The studio also houses a Pro Tools|HD rig and various plug-ins, says Carranza. “I’m a big fan of Waves, and of the URS stuff. Plug-ins are a great thing and have changed the way we create music. It’s been ‘soft’ revolution, in a way, a quiet revolution in the background that slowly took over. But I guess I’m just old-school; I use more outboard than plug-ins.”Likewise, “I rely more on microphones than I do on preamps,” he says. I think a microphone is more like a photographic lens–use the right one for the job. We were lucky enough to hook up with the new Telefunken USA. They supplied us with Elam 251s and U 47s. I’m a big fan of the Royer 121 and 122. We also have a couple of AKG 451 reissues that sound fabulous on anything. I’ve been fairly endorsing Audio-Technica mics for awhile, because they’re a rugged microphone that sounds really good. We’ve been running the 4050s with everything. Good old [Shure] 57, 58, SM7, the [Neumann] 47 FET I found years ago, and an AEA 44 reissue–those come out for the delicate stuff. I wouldn’t pump rock and roll through it much, but for certain things they work really well.”The Solar Plastic Power Plant, Malloy summarizes, “functions just like a normal studio, and it has cool things going on that are responsible and good examples to set. We invested in something that seems to be getting a real positive reaction.”Solar Plastic Power Plant