The main showroom at VKLA, with mic room behind the drum kit.
Photo: Robert M. Knight
In a technology industry that has maintained its foundation built on boutique gear, VKLA makes sense. The mom and pop pro audio stores, the ones based on personal contact and trusted opinion built up over years, have all but disappeared, replaced by larger retailers with discounted prices and vast selection. That’s how the world works, and it has happened in nearly every industry. VKLA, however, has chosen to swim upstream in this age of Amazon, opening a brick-and-mortar showroom based on comparison shopping and instant evaluation. In the relatively tiny retail world of pro audio, their bet is paying off.
The concept is deceptively simple: A producer/engineer/artist makes an appointment and brings in whatever audio they like, in whatever format they prefer; then they can play back and compare whatever gear they want, from mics to pres to effects to monitors, instantaneously, evaluating units at the switch of a button in a controlled listening environment.
“It’s not easy hearing the nuance of all this classic—and modern—gear,” says Vintage King co-founder Mike Nehra. “Not everyone is capable of deciding on their choice over the phone or via Internet sales. Many customers want to feel comfortable, no pressure, in a dedicated and semi-private space, A/B’ing and comparing gear. Many bring their own sessions on hard drives, dongles, iPods, booting them up on a variety of listening stations/DAW rigs we have. We just set our customers up with the type of gear they want to demo, then leave them alone to A/B and compare for a while…Have fun.”
It seems a no-brainer, especially in the heart of L.A. But the six-month history of VKLA is rooted in the 20-year history of Vintage King, the slow-growth, high-impact, now-paying-off venture of the Nehra brothers, Mike and Andrew, out of Detroit. They had a 4-track Portastudio as teens, were in a band, Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, that had some success in the ’90s, and they had a studio, The White Room Studio, with clients like early Kid Rock and a local reputation for quality sound. They started out buying vintage gear (beginning with classic Neve modules) for their own use, then quickly realized that if they reconditioned their surplus and turned it around, there was a market out there of producers and engineers and artists just like them that wanted gear that “worked” with a great warranty to back it up. They established Vintage King Audio in 1993, and the business grew, first by phone, then over the Internet; it is still based out of Detroit, where they maintain a vast inventory and a dozen full-time techs. The equipment guarantee is personal.
Jeffrey Ehrenberg was in the Nehra brothers’ next band, Chrome Fills, when he joined the VK staff. After five years in Detroit, he proposed taking VK back to his home state of California and establishing a sales presence in L.A., the world’s largest recording market. He moved in 2003, and for eight years he loaded his car, then van, and visited studios, auditioning and selling gear. In 2005 he simultaneously opened Infrasonic Mastering with partner Pete Lyman, continuing with studio visits and gear demos/sales during the day. He saw the limits in what he was able to show, and he started to think about bringing his two worlds together. VKLA, all profess, was his brainchild.
“The idea for the showroom was in my head almost from the beginning,” Ehrenberg recalls, thinking back a decade. “It took the eight years of running around Los Angeles with demo gear in my trunk for the business to organically grow and justify such a large step forward. There were two principles from the start: The equipment needed to be presented on an even playing field and our clients had to be able to easily bring in music they are familiar with for the comparison.”
Finding the right building, one that would house the showroom and new multiformat mastering suites, took more than a year. It needed to be centrally located for the West Side, the Valley, Hollywood, Burbank-Pasadena…they found a spot, serendipitously enough, at 1176 West Sunset, in the Silverlake/Echo Park district, not far from Dodger Stadium or downtown.
The main studio, dubbed the Critical Listening Room, on this month’s cover (with near-fields rotating in on motorized lifts) provides the main attraction. More than 5,000 pounds of sand and various isolation techniques have been pumped into the front wall, allowing critical playback from soffit-mounted ATC, PMC, K&H, Dynaudio, ADAM and Focal monitors. Any and all near-fields, from the likes of Barefoot, Focal, Genelec and ProAc, can be popped on the monitor lifts on-demand. A variety of high-end converters handle program material at whatever resolution, switched for A/B through a Z-Systems router; the two consoles are an API 1608 and SSL AWS948.
But the VKLA team has found equal and increasing interest in their microphone vocal booth, with all associated mic pre combinations available at the flick of a switch through a complex distribution system based around the Manley MicMaid. The other stations were developed around a design by VK tech Tim Mead, who designed and built custom distribution amplifiers that take one input, and cleanly mult it out to 48 channels. The output from a high-grade D/A converter feeds the distro, then an entire rack of gear simultaneously.
Just imagine how long that would take to hook up in a working studio to audition as many mic/mic pre possibilities for a new female vocalist, or to compare summing mixers. That ability to instantly compare is repeated at each of seven stations in the main showroom: mono/stereo compressors; EQs; DAWS; post-production tools; channel strips; plug-ins; mic pre’s.
The popular mic booth with every vintage and modern model you could think of.
Photo: Robert M. Knight
“Our vast mic collection is where many people start,” says Tom Menrath, a retail veteran and now VK head of strategic development. “The fact that they are all patched to a huge selection of the finest mic pres and channel strips available makes it very easy to select the perfect vocal chain for a particular singer. Over 120 500 Series modules are also in this station; that’s a very popular category for us. The key word is ‘instantly.’ Being able to quickly switch between different pieces of gear, in a controlled setting, allows our clients to make informed decisions very efficiently. They leave with confidence that they made the best choice.”
That’s what it boils down to: Choice. Vintage is in the company name, but they sell a ton of plugs and a ton of Pro Tools. But so do a lot of companies. The level of customer service and gear knowledge, combined with the widest array of new, used and vintage is what makes VKLA unique. A complete hands-on experience.
“We’ve found that even with the continual progress of amazing digital hardware and software, good old analog gear has a charm that users feverishly support,” Nehra says. “Whether it’s great vintage gear from decades past or some of the new high-quality re-creations of classic designs, to new inventive creations, users are in love with the sound and the ability to ‘touch and feel’ what they are using, beyond just a mouse, touch screen or keyboard. Real faders, real knobs, transformers, transistors, Class A, A/B, tube, or some great IC circuits…there is a love affair with it all that’s real and undeniable. Simply put, it sounds great. It may not all be recallable, but who cares, that’s not the point in every facet of making music. Let’s write some great songs and record a brilliant performance by musicians as the backbone of music.”
Just outside the mic booth is the wall of mic pre’s and more than 120 500 Series modules. The channel strip and plug-in stations are to the rear.
Photo: Robert M. Knight
“We’ve learned that the recording community greatly appreciates what we have done,” concludes Ehrenberg. “Not only the demonstration space but also the community building events we’re putting together, like ‘Meet the Maker,’ where the recording community has a chance to meet industry icons such as Rupert Neve. We’re constantly improving, tweaking and massaging the place to be the best pro audio showroom in the world.”