RECORDED MUSIC SHEFFIELD LAB : Masters of the Game : The label’s recording style embodies a daring approach that yields a pristine sound and has won a devoted following.
To find the biggest little record company in Santa Barbara, you hang a right at the Baskin-Robbins in Montecito and head down the driveway. If you run into the animal hospital, you’ve gone too far. If don’t run into the animal hospital, you’ve found the unassuming three-office suite that is mission control for Sheffield Lab.
“It looks like your Allstate office, if your agent was a little messy,” said General Manager Andrew Teton recently.
But Teton, who has held down the fort here since the late 1970s, knows better. The “lab” is an internationally known recording label with more than 30 titles to its credit and 14 Grammy nominations in 22 years. The label is distinguished by its recording style, a daring approach that yields a pristine sound and has won the company a devoted following among audiophiles.
The most recent Sheffield Lab project on store shelves is “The Usual Suspects,” a collection of pop-jazz and R & B tunes recorded by numerous first-rank studio musicians. But the Sheffield catalogue runs from classical to pop.
“The Moscow Sessions,” which featured an American and Russian repertoire played by the Moscow Philharmonic, was significant culturally and musically in that a U. S. company braved Soviet bureaucracy and penetrated the Iron Curtain before glasnost.
Thelma Houston’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” recorded in 1975, tapped an unexpectedly rich commercial vein. Despite the fact that Sheffield Lab recordings of that time were selling for twice the normal retail price, the album has sold 300,000 units to date.
“The catalogue is so eclectic,” said Teton, “because it followed some ‘70s (credo) like ‘Record what you want and the money will follow.’ ”
Recording style is what makes Sheffield different. Over the past three decades, recording technology has grown ever more complex, enabling musicians to layer scores of separate tracks to be mixed and edited onto a final “master.” From the beginning, Sheffield Lab has eliminated the middle steps, recording live performances straight onto a master, from which direct pressings are made.
The process delivers a special sound and immediacy to listeners--and demands much of the musicians, who can’t cover their mistakes.
It all began in 1969, when Lincoln Mayorga and Doug Sax, both musicians and hi-fi aficionados, hit upon the direct-master idea. For musicians weaned on studio overdubs, this may have seemed revolutionary. For veteran performers, the idea wasn’t so daunting.
“When we did an album with Harry James, who had been on the road for 36 years, 280 dates a year,” Teton recalled, “he came in and Doug said, ‘Now, this is pretty unforgiving. You’ve got to be able to play live.’ Harry James squinted his eyes and said, ‘Son, I know more about live playing than you do.’ ”
On the other hand, Teton said, “there will be about 40% of the artists we work with who know in their hearts that they can’t record live. They don’t have the technical skills. Many artists we’ve recorded will have an unnerving moment, as an athlete would, where they wonder, ‘Can I do it?’ We know they can. We’re very meticulous about planning and engineering options . . . The producers we use are generally good as psychologists to keep people reasonably contained.”
Most of the label’s musical work takes places in Los Angeles studios, but the enterprise’s business home has always been in Santa Barbara. The lab name, in fact, grew from Mayorga’s local driving habits: he took the Sheffield off-ramp from the Ventura Freeway in order to visit his mother, Nancy, on Ortega Ridge. In the early days, his mother was the chief distributor, filling orders from her garage.
In the process of developing their new company, Mayorga and Sax set up The Mastering Lab, one of the first independent mastering labs in Los Angeles and still one of the busiest. The Mastering Lab helps subsidize the record label, Teton said.
Two decades and three dozen albums later, Sheffield Lab has become known as a cottage-industry success story, a rare case of a small label that has survived in an industry prone to thinking big.