Seated at a massive mixing console inside of Echophone Recording Studios — the Shreveport recording studio founded by Brady Blade and known, until recently, as Blade Studios — 46-year-old mix engineer Chris Bell looks, honestly, kind of intimidating. A tall, slender guy with shoulder-length hair and a serious countenance, Bell has worked with the likes of Destiny’s Child, U2, The Eagles, Erykah Badu, and Earth, Wind and Fire, just to name a few of the bigger names on his resume.
In 1998, he was nominated for a Grammy for his work with contemporary soul artist Kirk Franklin, and the fantastic 2014 album Landmarks by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, which Bell engineered, was a Grammy nominee for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. His youthful looks belie the fact that Bell is a recognized veteran with 25 years of experience in the recording industry. He currently serves as a governor and co-chair of the producers and engineers wing of the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy, the national association of music industry professionals that oversees the Grammy Awards. He also currently serves as dad to an 11 year-old daughter, who has recently — for the first time – expressed an interest in accompanying him to the Grammy Awards ceremony.
“We’re discussing the Grammys this year,” Bell said with a wry smile. “She asked ‘Are you gonna take me this time?’ She’s never asked that before so, yeah, I’m gonna take her.” Bell was born in Seattle and moved to Dallas at age 11, where he grew up surrounded by music. His mother was a vinyl record collector who would reward him for good behavior with a trip to the local record store, where he would pick up records by KISS, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. His grandfather, who Bell describes as “a jazz guy and an audiophile,” unknowingly set Bell on his career path by handing down a reel-to-reel recorder to his grandson, who used the machine to record guitar licks with his friends.
“I was playing with tape machines when I was really young, like 12 years old,” Bell said. Despite his grandfather’s best attempts to interest him in an architecture-related career, Bell found himself without a clear path after high school. He’d begun teaching himself multitrack recording, and an ex-girlfriend encouraged him to pursue recording and mixing music for a living. “I remember saying ‘Is that a job? Can you actually do that for a living?’”
He enrolled in a local community college that had recently introduced a recording arts program “to get a handle on the basics of studio engineering.” His instructor saw potential in Bell and invited him to accept an internship at a local recording studio. As it turned out, that internship — which Bell left college early in order to accept — was with Sound Logic, the first 24-track recording studio in Texas.
Before long, Bell was working nights running sound at a Dallas nightclub called The Basement — where hard rock bands like Pantera and Drowning Pool were just beginning to build a local following — and days at a five-room recording facility that was as popular among rap artists as it was among orchestras and television producers. Bell recalls one busy day at that studio:“I was doing a 30-piece orchestra, a hip-hop group, a rock band and additional dialogue recording for a film all at the same time. That’s how I cut my teeth, working 80-hour weeks and being thrown into every imaginable situation at once. I’d have a hardcore rap group in one room and the TV show Barney recording dialogue in another room.”
That familiarity with various genres paid off for Bell when, while recording additional dialogue tracks for the film Cider House Rules, he met neo-soul singer Erykah Badu.
“When I first met Erykah, I didn’t know who she was,” Bell said. “I didn’t know that she already had a hit record. We set up a live session and that was the first recording of Mama’s Gun.”
Mama’s Gun was released on Motown Records and became a hit for Badu, who would tap Bell for a follow-up album and later introduced him to many of her friends in the world of hip-hop, including Amir “Questlove” Thompson (founding member of iconic hip-hop collective The Roots and band leader for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) and acclaimed rapper/producer Guru. On paper, these years look incredibly busy for Bell, and include studio time with everyone from Destiny’s Child to indie rock superstars The Polyphonic Spree. It’s easy to see how his early exposure to a variety of musical genres made Bell a more flexible studio engineer.
In March 2008, Bell was visiting Stockholm, Sweden with a friend when guitarist Doyle Bramhall II contacted him and encouraged him to meet up with drummer and producer Brady Blade, Jr., who was living in Sweden. They met and became fast friends, with Bell eventually being brought in to help plan a new, state-of-the-art recording studio in Blade’s hometown of Shreveport. Though Bell had spent his entire adult life in Dallas, he’d never been to Shreveport.
“Literally, I rented an apartment on the Internet, drove to Shreveport and we started work on this place. I knew nothing at all about Shreveport,” Bell said. “It was an adjustment at first, because I’d previously lived in downtown Dallas. Of course, hanging out with Brady in Shreveport, he takes you to all of the cool spots.”
To understand why Bell would uproot his life and career in Dallas and move to Shreveport, it helps to first understand his style of production. Where many modern sound engineers are entirely dependent upon digital audio workstations like Pro Tools, Bell takes more of an oldschool craftsman’s approach to the process of making a record. At Echophone Recording Studios, Bell was given the chance to build his dream studio, a place that incorporates both cutting-edge digital audio technology as well as the hard-to-find vintage recording equipment that he feels a special affinity towards.
As more and more music is produced digitally, with drum machines and synthesizers replacing live drums and instruments in many studios, Bell has moved in the opposite direction, specializing in microphone placement, tracking live instruments and making use of the warm, full tone provided by analog recording equipment. Jazz artist and Shreveport native Brian Blade recorded his Grammy-nominated 2014 album, Landmarks, at Echophone Recording Studios with Bell as engineer.
“I have worked with many engineers, and what makes Chris so good is not just his understanding of the science of recording sound, but also his ability to create a productive environment in the studio,” Blade said. “He brings focus and energy to the studio, as well as good humor and flexibility. His love of the recording process, as well as his attentiveness to the folks in the room through very long and intense days of recording, is of immeasurable value.”
Recently, legendary songwriter and Eagles front-man Don Henley invited Bell to engineer sessions for Henley’s new solo album, Cass County, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top Country Albums list. Bell had previously worked with Henley to engineer The Eagles’ hit comeback record, Long Road Out of Eden. Cass County has a lush, vibrant and timeless sound that has won over critics and fans alike. It is a beautifully crafted record.
“With someone like Don Henley, he knows what he’s doing,” Bell said. “I respect him immensely, he’s one of the best songwriters in the world. When I’m on his team, I stay in my lane. It’s not my place, really, to tell him anything.”
While that may seem like a simple statement, it embodies the work ethos and personal philosophy that has made Bell a successful engineer: Use the right gear, capture the best possible recording and stay out of the way of the creative process. That creative process can mean long nights at the studio, stressful exchanges between artists and all of the standard trappings that come with creative collaborations between a group of individuals. When Bell is working on a big record and he begins to feel burnout setting in, he’s got a tried-and-true method of clearing his head.
“That’s why I’ve got a motorcycle,” Bell said. “You get on the motorcycle and there’s no music, no one can call you. You’re by yourself and you can think clearly. You’re focused on one thing, and that’s just driving the motorcycle. It’s almost like meditation.”
Bell’s passion for motorcycles is more than a hobby. When he lived in Texas, he raced Grand Prix bikes and even placed second in a state championship race. His grandparents retired to Monterey, California, where Bell and his mom would attend races at the Laguna Seca Raceway during visits. Watching the Grand Prix bikes roar past at speeds of up to 170 miles per hour, Bell thought: “I could do that.”
“You can learn a lot when you’re racing a bike,” Bell said. “It teaches you responsibility — you could die out there. There’s also a real camaraderie between you and the other guys who are out there doing 100 miles per hour right next to one another.”
When his daughter was born, he sold off his racing gear. Recently, he took an inventory of his life and asked: “What’s missing?” The answer was a motorcycle. These days, Bell is the proud owner of a Ducati Panigale, which he describes as “the perfect motorcycle.” He occasionally participates in long-distance rides with the Ducati Club of Houston or, when he just needs to feel the open road, takes the bike out for a ride along largely empty stretches of I-49 North. “I forgot that I missed that so much,” Bell said. “I’ve just come to the realization that I’ve gotta have a bike.”
Shreveport may not seem like the most natural base of operations for a music industry insider with a taste for Italian motorcycles, but Bell has found his groove here. He doesn’t go out as much as he once did, but his favorite hangouts include places like Stray Cat and Brass Monkey. He’ll drop in to catch live sets from local bands like Hydrogen Child and Seratones. The size of Shreveport, which is large enough to feel like a proper city, but small enough to feel less oppressive than a metropolis like New York City or Los Angeles, suits him. It also suits the artists who visit Shreveport to record at Echophone.
“They love it here. They love the people, and they love the fact that it’s not over-developed yet. Shreveport has character,” Bell said. He recalls a visit from Dave Matthews and Jakob Dylan, when both musicians fell in love with the downtown Shreveport bar Stray Cat and Dylan (lead singer of popular rock group The Wallflowers and son of Bob Dylan) surprised Bell by developing a fascination with walking along local train tracks.
“Jakob was like ‘I just went walking down those railroad tracks again, that’s so cool.’ I said ‘Man, be careful where you’re walkin’, but yeah, it is pretty cool,’” Bell said with a laugh. “The character and the vibe here in Shreveport go a long way. Especially if you’re a creative person. There’s just a feel in this city. You feel the beginning stages of something cool.”
Bell is quick to point out that Echophone doesn’t solely cater to huge, established acts. He’s always had a passion for nurturing new talent, and wants the aspiring musicians of Shreveport to know that he’s interested in working with them. In a way, he feels that his track record of working with household names has led unestablished artists to wrongly assume that they’d never be able to work with him. He points to the debut album by local act The Randians as one of his favorite records that he’s engineered during his time in Shreveport.
“I’ll work with anybody. If you don’t have a lot of money, but I’m into what you’re doing, we’ll find a way to make it happen.”