Facilities

On the Cover: Conway Recording Studios, 40 Years at the Top

The core Conway team in 2016, from left: Doug Tyo, chief engineer; Susan and Buddy Brundo, owners; Emily Kerpelman, assistant manager; and Stacey Barnett, studio manager. Photo: Chris Schmitt

The lush, tropical gardens are both striking and comforting. The palms and ferns and flowers in rich, vibrant colors stand in contrast to the bustle of Melrose Avenue outside the gate, on the edge of Hollywood. Inside the gate, on nearly an acre of secure private grounds, it’s open and airy and green, full of trees, wood and outdoor patios tucked into quiet spaces. Inside the gardens, hidden by the foliage and accessible along brick-lined paths, sits the world-class, three-studio complex that is Conway Recording Studios.

There’s really nothing like Conway in the world—a recording oasis, inside and out, smack dab in the middle of an urban jungle. But when Buddy and Susan Brundo, pictured on this month’s cover in Studio B, purchased the business and equipment 40 years ago, it was nothing more than a small studio with a high ceiling in a nondescript house and backyard. Brick by patio brick, parcel by neighboring parcel, they built the place, staying within their means and keeping true to their original vision to build a studio that was comfortable for them, and for artists, whether recording or relaxing.

The original Conway room, Studio A, with Neve 88R.

 

“I had worked at enough studios that were almost cave-like,” says Buddy, recalling his early days in Los Angeles. “The minute we bought Conway we went with glass doors. We put windows in. Everything we’ve built from there on out is outside-inside. I have to be here. I want it to feel like Hawaii, so we planted all those trees, the lawn. The bankers disagreed with me from day one. As I started buying more property on the block, they said, ‘Buddy, why do you need that? Rip the lawn out and build another studio.’ I can’t do that. I like the fact that it’s an acre of land, and its 80 percent green and trees and bricks. I’m happy here.”

You get the sense that Buddy Brundo is happy wherever he is, though an office overlooking a world-renowned recording facility is a far cry from the unemployment checks, food stamps and bus rides of 1972, when he and Susan left Buffalo to pursue the music dream in Los Angeles.

It’s hard to keep a marriage or a business together for 40 years; Buddy and Susan Brundo have done both. And they have thrived—through the riots, the gas crisis, the downturns in the economy, the advance of home recording and everything else that has driven many major studios under over the past couple of decades. Today, all three rooms are filled, two with long-term bookings; all three are occupied by major artists, which we’re not allowed to name in print, as the paparazzi is an ever-present concern. Hence, the gates and grounds. This is the top of the recording food chain.

“I think that our success, if you call it that has to do with the way we treat our staff, which then translates to clients,” Buddy says. “I’m proud of the fact that engineers and runners that leave Conway can get a job anywhere in the world by using our name. It’s dedication to the craft, trying to do as much as we can without jeopardizing our financial future. We don’t have a corporate backer or rich parents. Most of my competition is corporations or rich people. And we have to compete at that level. We’ve been very fortunate to have the kind of facility that nobody else has. That’s what we strove for from the beginning.”

The most recent addition, Studio C, with keyboards set up in the control room.

 

The beginning was 1972, when Buddy, a bass player who worked in his father’s music store, and Susan, a singer whose parents owned restaurants, came west with a “little dinky studio” that they quickly found would serve no purpose in Los Angeles. Through a family friend, Buddy was invited to a scoring session at Universal, where he met the engineer on the session. He invited Buddy over to visit Conway, then owned by scoring engineer Phil Yeend. Soon, Buddy was sweeping the floors and learning everything he could about engineering.

At the time, Conway was both a film and music house, complete with Moviolas, projectors and a Foley pit. They did a lot of sound effects creation and editing. A lot of Roger Corman pictures came through the doors. For music sessions, they would close one of the doors on the weekends and set up the bands, primarily for demo sessions. The board was an API.

By 1976, Buddy had gained some experience engineering and had worked at other facilities around town. He began to think about stepping out with offers from A&M and Motown and approached Yeend honestly. Four days later, Yeend asked whether he would be interested in buying Conway. The first thing he and Susan did was get rid of the moviemaking gear. They wanted to do music only.

A year later they bought the property from Bruce Morgan, son of Hite Morgan, who had established the studio in the early 1960s as the first independent stereo mastering room in Los Angeles. Over the next 40 years, as Buddy says, everything they did went back into the studio, growing little by little, always within their means.

“Back then it didn’t cost me anything to run the place,” he recalls. “Susan and I didn’t make any money. There was no such thing as runners or second engineers. I set the place up, we had a session, then I tore it down. We were doing three sessions a day, with an hour in between. We did it all ourselves for a number of years. Susan ran the business side and saved every penny; she’s good at that. I’m engineering. We were working and working and working. We did 15-hour days for weeks and weeks, year after year. I knew that eventually it would pay off if we worked that hard.

“After a couple of years when we had a grip on it, we hired someone to run the office, and Susan went back to college to get her degree,” he continues. “Then she went to get her master’s in psychology. We did that just in case the studio didn’t work out. One of us would have to have a job, we figured, because you just never know...”

It seems almost comical today that Buddy, who relies on his ears in making his equipment and room and mix choices, didn’t like the sound of the studio from the outset. A chance introduction to studio designer Vincent van Haaff, through mutual friend Peter Chaikin, changed all that, and changed the fortunes of Conway.

“When I met Vincent in 1977 or ’78, the studio had a kind of compression ceiling built for quad,” Buddy recalls. “At that time Tom Hidley was building all these compression rooms in town, but to my ears, I couldn’t make sense of a compression ceiling. Then I met Vincent and I loved him immediately. I liked his ideas, the fact that he thought about things differently.

“So I met him in his apartment on Beechwood and said, ‘Everything that you look at acoustically, it doesn’t look like compression, it looks like anti-compression. If you look at a concert hall, the ceiling soars up from the stage. If you look at a speaker, the cone goes from the center out. Everything is expansive.’ And Vincent ran with that. He started drawing circles and lines and came up with the expansion ceiling. And that was the end of that. After Studio A was built, everybody on the planet liked that feature. And the back wall he designed with midband diffusion, the way the trapping works in the sides and ceilings—all that was from his brain, the way he thinks. A different way of thinking. I’ve been thrilled with it. All three rooms here, and so many rooms around the world, are built this way. Vincent died two weeks ago and everybody is just heartsick about it.”

The expansion ceiling in Studio A was repeated in Studios B and C over the ensuing years, and it was just one of many “firsts” for the Brundos, Buddy in particular eager to embrace new techniques, Susan keeping him in check “when I wanted to go nuts,” he says.

“I bought the first of everything,” he laughs. “I bought the first EMT 250, the first TAD drivers, the first expansion ceiling. I had the first Focusrite console, the first VR, the first VR3, VR 4, then the first 88R. I bought the first Mitsubishi X880. When I bought that, people asked me why. It didn’t sound that great, but we did very well on rentals. Back then you had to have two 24-track machines and two racks of Dolby. When digital came out, you needed one machine and no Dolby.”

Susan and Buddy Brundo, with the Conway gardener, Tim Galardi of Riviera Gardens. Photo: Chris Schmitt

 

Today, Studio A houses a Neve 88R, B has an SSL 9000K and C has another 88R. All three have nearly identical, and extensive, outboard packages, as Brundo tends to ”buy three of everything and lock them down so they don’t walk out the door.” All are outfitted with Pro Tools; there, too, he was an early adopter, seeing the writing on the wall in terms of the cost of storage.

“To stay at the top you have to spend a lot of money,” Buddy says. “We just spent a ton of money to replace 6,000 switches on all three consoles, back to factory spec, over three months. That’s the kind of thing it takes. When an engineer comes in and presses a button, he doesn’t want to hear a crackle. It takes money. The amount we spend on food…Even gardening! What we spend on gardening!” He laughs.

The one sure thing he has never skimped on is maintenance and service, and he regularly praises his techs in conversation, from John Musgrave and John Hearst, to present-day chief engineer Doug Tyo. “You have to have a tech there every day, every minute, whatever it costs you,” Buddy says. “I’ve always been about getting it done; I want something fixed right now. If something’s broken you fix it. That goes for everybody—the office people, the techs, the runners, the interns. You get it done now. No delaying. Now. Doug is an amazing all-around tech. He knows carpentry, electronics, computer systems, he’s a quick thinker. Fantastic. Stacey Barnett, our studio manager, the same thing. She gets things done. Now.”

It would be easy to characterize the Conway story as a rags-to-riches fable, extolling the virtues of hard work and commitment, with the wise ones passing down the knowledge to the next generation. But the story is still very much alive and growing, and Conway is as vibrant and vital as ever. It’s more a story of Buddy and Susan Brundo, who came west, in love, built a dream and keep on living it. Still in love, still firing the passion at home and at work.

“From the beginning, Susan’s run the office, I’ve run the studios, and together we discuss everything,” Buddy concludes. “During the building years, she held my hand and we did everything together—laying bricks in the backyard, talking about expansion, talking about money. Fiscally how we do this or that. There’s never been a major decision made in that studio without her, from day one. Even when she had a separate career. She talks to staff. She understands human behavior. She’s taught all our traffic managers and staff in how to relate to people, how things should go in interacting with people. It’s been of incredible value, and we work so well together.

“I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon. People say, ‘Buddy, you’re still working?’ And I say, ‘You call running a recording studio work?’”

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