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Where Legacy Becomes Future

When we last featured Capitol Studios on the Mix cover, in November 2012, we invited a whole gang of L.A.’s finest engineers and producers...

When we last featured Capitol Studios on the Mix cover, in November 2012, we invited a whole gang of L.A.’s finest engineers and producers, friends of the Capitol family, to stop by and fill out our gatefold spread. Inside we told the story of the new Neve 88R in Studio A, and the tweaks to the acoustics in the control room. There were hints at a new direction coming to the famous Capitol Tower in Hollywood, and there were a few more EMI folks milling about, along with a bit of construction on some of the middle floors. Still, there was no hint of the rapid and full-body makeover the company, the building and the studios would undergo over the ensuing two years. Perhaps we were a bit too early.

That same month the cover came out, two months after the final sale of EMI to Universal Music Group, Steve Barnett was named Chairman/CEO of Capitol Music Group. Things started to happen, and happen fast. The upgrades that began under EMI ramped up. The entire Tower, an iconic studio/office space, was completely remade. Money was earmarked to upgrade the rest of the studios, along with the wiring, power, hallways, carpets, walls, bathrooms, lounges, scheduling systems—everything a client might see and not see.

New people were hired, staff moved in from New York, and new partnerships were formed—with the likes of producers RedOne and T Bone Burnett. John Mayer has been in for months working on his next record. Last month producer Alex da Kid (on UMG label Interscope) took over most of the second floor. The Tower very quickly became the worldwide headquarters of Capitol Music Group, under the UMG banner.

For regular visitors, the physical transformation was profound. What once looked dated, now looks modern, with glass offices, natural light and a consistency throughout the building. The Platinum and Gold Records came down off the walls and artwork went up, a physical reminder that the future had arrived. The company culture was changing, in a most positive way. Morale throughout the building picked up.

On the artist side, meanwhile, the company signed Sam Smith, then Bastille, then Beck and others. On Grammy night 2015, Capitol Music Group cleaned up. Everything was fresh and new.

And yet, this is Capitol Studios, and Capitol Records, with one of the most storied legacies in all of music. The home of Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys, and so many others over the past 70 years. It’s no mean feat to balance that rich legacy—and its associated catalog—with the instant demands of the present, with all the streaming and downloads and 5-minute attention spans. How do you convince people that you’re cutting edge when they want to talk about Sinatra’s Telefunken U47?

“If you go back to 1957-58, Capitol was definitely on the cutting-edge,” says Art Kelm, Capitol Studios VP/General Manager/Chief Engineer. “It just so happened that they were using Neumann tube microphones and custom consoles. Then the cutting edge meant that you built your own stuff. So we’re building off that past, continuing the legacy.”

“The way you honor the legacy is to continue moving it forward,” adds producer Don Was, president of Blue Note. “They are inextricably linked together.”

So there you have it. All 13 floors of the Capitol Tower are buzzing. The past has become future. And all of it will be out in hi-res audio soon. Vinyl, too. Bet on it.

Tom Kenny, Editor, Mix