Issue: Issue Fall 2010

Recording Studio Mecca

For some 70 years, the recording studios of Hollywood have given us many of the biggest hits on the music charts and classic albums by world-famous talent.  However, the past two decades have seen dramatic changes in the industry. From technology and the rise of digital recording formats and artists with home studios to a changing market and major record companies downsizing has brought about shifting business models for music as a whole.

Some of the legendary studios of Hollywood are long gone, such as Gold Star, where Phil Spector produced his classic hits with the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and many more which closed in 1984,. Other studios, not as well known as Gold Star, but around for decades, have gone under in recent years. Those that have survived carry on by adapting to adopting new technology and finding new ways to bring in business.

Perhaps no existing recording studio in Hollywood is more famous than Capitol Studios in the distinctive, circular Capitol Records tower, now an historic city landmark. The studio launched in 1956 and witnessed Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, the Beach Boys, Steve Miller, Bob Seger and Duran Duran among the many who recorded there.

"In addition to genres of music, we've also done film, TV and advertising," says Senior Director Paula Salvatore. "We do many film soundtracks, too.  We're not as large as a soundstage, so it's more economical, but we can still hold a 50-piece orchestra or open up Studio A and B to get an 80 piece orchestra in there, for things like award shows."

Sunset Sound has a Mickey Mouse history, literally, with Disney soundtracks starting in the '50s and into the early '60s, such as "Bambi", "Mary Poppins" and "101 Dalmatians".  But then, rock came along with new owner Paul Camarata. Sister studio The Sound Factory, acquired in the '80s, has its roots in the 1950s as well.

Between the two, the roll call of artists and albums is stunning. For Sunset Sound, albums by the Rolling Stones ("Beggars Banquet,") The Doors, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Prince; the Sound Factory has delivered classic releases from Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Little Feat in the '70s to Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Crowded House, and Bonnie Raitt in the '80s right on up to present-day with Norah Jones, The Black Crowes, Beck, Tom Jones, Kid Rock, My Chemical Romance and Cold War Kids.

"Sunset Sound is the world's oldest independent recording studio still under its original ownership," says manager Craig Hubler, offering a brief history of Hollywood recording studio evolution.

"There were only a handful of commercial independent studios in L.A. in the late 1950's and 1960's. So they became the residences for most major artist recordings of that era. From about the mid- 1970's onward, there was an explosion of additional commercial facilities into the market with many studios competing for bookings," Huber explains. "As technology progressed more and more recording projects were being done away from the large commercial studios, and at lower costs. This put pressure on the rate structure of the for-profit studios. With the introduction of disc-based recording and editing -ProTools-- in recent years, that pressure has increased.

"Now we are seeing a thinning of the ranks, with many once commercial facilities going private, the record labels' reducing artist rosters and budgets due to the effects of downloading and piracy," Hubler says. "The business is rapidly shrinking. We may eventually see a return to just a handful of the very same commercial studios that existed in the 1960s."

Conway studio owner Buddy Brundo admits business is certainly not like it was in '90s and prior. "Nobody's raking it - we're all in survival mode," he says.

Brundo and his wife Susan bought old studios that became Conway in 1976. Set inside a 54,000 square foot complex, the studios within are surrounded by tropical and desert gardens, which makes it stand out from other area studios. Among those who've enjoyed this environment are Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Guns N'Roses, U2, Blink 182, Santana, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Marilyn Manson, Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne, and the latest "it" girl in pop, Katy Perry. "It's most like a home studio. The control rooms look to the outside," Brundo says.

Recordings made at Ocean Way Studios have sold more than one billion units. The building dates back to the late '50s, when it was United Recordings. Ocean Way owner Alan Sides was mentored by Hollywood engineering and studio legend Bill Putnam, who first sold him both United and Western United just a few doors down, which recently became EastWest.

Over the years Ocean Way has recorded Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, the Stones, Paul McCartney, Lionel Richie, Green Day, Radiohead, Mary J. Blige and just recently, Josh Groban.

"We've changed as the music business changed," says Sides. "We do a lot of artists that still need to work at an A-level studio, with large orchestras, whatever it happens to be.  To get the job done, our studio is unusual. One day it might be Andre Previn, another day 50 Cent. We have a diverse clientele;  Dr. Dre, Eminem, we did Kayne West's last record."

Though now called EastWest Studios, the former United Western Recorders was created with the backing of Bing Crosby and Sinatra, whose post-Capitol recordings there include "My Way," "That's Life" and "Strangers in the Night." The music for Elvis Presley's 1968 Comeback Special is part of the history. The Mamas and The Papas tracked "California Dreaming" and "Monday, Monday" there and it was the site of Brian Wilson's Beach Boys masterpiece "Pet Sounds." TV and film music produced in the control rooms include themes from "The Beverly Hillbillies,"  "Hawaii Five-O," " Mission Impossible," "The Monkees,"  "The Partridge Family," "M*A*S*H," and "The Godfather."  Ah, if walls could talk.

"We've done scoring for TV and film - the music for 'Glee,' 'Human Target,' the new Julia Roberts's movie and NBC's 'The Event,'"says EastWest manager Candace Stewart.

"We're doing well, the primary difference these days are changes in technology, the amount of time people spent in the studio recording," Stewart says. "Instead of coming in for eight months, people track what they can't do at home, then take it home to work on it."

The greatest boon and threat to these studios has been digital technology and each has welcomed that brave new world of home recordings for artists and producers though many agree it loses the richness found on LPs and even CDs.  

"I do think tech is amazing, talent is talent, but what has happened with people's ability to make, record their own music is most everyone thinks MP3 sounds fine because it's what they know," says EastWest's Stewart. "The younger generations are not familiar with analog recording; they only know digital. Pro Tools on computers replaced tape machines. You can get amazing sounds, but when compressed down into MP3 and you're listening from the web, you're not hearing sound reproduced as well as it can be."

Conway's Brundo also believes the MP3 and iPod era may have been great for new areas of business, but has also made people expect less from audio.

"It's the quality level because of downloads," he says.  "It's so bad; the music sounds like a movie would look--out of focus."

Capitol's Salvatore says that while home studio work has often become part of the process for artists, they often can't get the same results.

'You can't have that peer alliance in a home studio; that creates its own energy," says Salvatore. "Now, people come here and lay rhythm tracks, strings and horns - things you can't do at home - and spend time at home doing overdubs and things like that. They don't come in for a month or months to work on an album."

These top recording studios have lasted into this new age, through adaptation and vision.

"If we hadn't adapted, we'd be out of business," says Sides. "Probably three quarters of studios that existed in Hollywood 15 years aren't here."

Sides credits various factors for his success including a wide variety of clients and a collection of vintage equipment available to create a specific sound or atmosphere.

 "We've branched out into software and very elaborate systems," Sides says. "We did Dave Grohl's studio; George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch control room. We have a lot of clients who have fairly elaborate home studios. They come here to do the basic tracking, do the vocals at home and then come back for the mix. We also have sample libraries like the Ocean Way drum library.  We've diversified. You have to."

Interest in vintage equipment and approaches with analog recording from veteran, younger and new artists are part of what keeps Sunset Sound and Sound Factory busy, says Hubler.

 "We are primarily a live tracking studio, with medium to large recording areas that can accommodate up to 30 players at a time. Musicians still relish playing as an ensemble, grooving together in the same room." he says. "Most of these home studios are digitally based whereas we offer a hybrid of analog and digital equipment. We are generally more versatile. All of these factors keep us humming along in this turbulent industry"

Brundo is somewhat wary of the future. "We've been here so long; we've been able to stay. But making big money is a thing of the past."

For an in-depth, lengthier look at legendary recording studios, search out the now out of print book, "Temples of Sound" by William Clark and Jim Cogan (Chronicle Books). DH