Gear: The Smeezingtons' Soul Factory

This little room has birthed massive hits for Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green and more

"It's a studio made for songwriting," Ari Levine says of Levcon, the creative home for the Smeezingtons--the Grammy Award-nominated songwriting/production trio comprising mega-star Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence and Levine. The lattermost member serves as audio-engineer/production guru of the team-the central force behind Mars' two solo albums, 2010's "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" and 2012's "Unorthodox Jukebox," that turned Mars into a pop icon (Mars just scored his fifth No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "When I Was Your Man"), as well as A-list hitmakers-for-hire for chart dominators like Travie McCoy's "Billionaire" and Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You."

The vibe is definitely high-tech man cave: Upon entrance, visitors are greeted by an enormous painting of a tiger that wouldn't be out of place on a '70s porn set, flanked by two inviting leather chairs.

"It's comfortable--fun, not too serious," Levine says with a laugh, picking up a stray tambourine. "This is the 'Nothin' on You' tambourine," he says of the Smeezingtons-penned and -produced B.o.B hit from 2010. "We've used it on every song."

Eight years ago, Levine and his brother Josh found this ramshackle cottage on a seedy Hollywood side street through Craigslist. They then turned it into an ad hoc recording studio, which they leased out for bargain-basement rates. "We charged, like, $200 for a 12-hour block," Levine recalls. "The first person that walked in was Phil." The then-aspiring songwriter brought along his buddy Mars, who'd just been dropped from his first solo deal by Motown and needed to lay down some demos. The group's chemistry proved instantaneous: The trio's first session together produced K'naan's triple-platinum international smash, "Wavin' Flag."

To get the creative juices flowing, Levine keeps Levcon's compact square footage rammed with a hodgepodge of digital and analog gear, some rare and vintage, but most of it humble in origin (and price). "We just have a bunch of toys to get a song started from a blank slate," Levine says. "We're usually working really fast when everything starts coming together, so we set the studio up for efficiency and speed. Every keyboard is positioned so there are multiple places for people to jam: It's all designed so we can run around like crazy and pass instruments around."

Sometimes they're not even instruments. "On 'Locked Out of Heaven,' Bruno was like, 'We need a 'dep-dep-dep-dep' sound,'" Levine recalls. "I said, 'Sing it into the microphone,' and then I chopped it up. It sounds like it's an instrument, but it's really his voice. We do that a lot."


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