FROM MOTOWN TO TINSELTOWNSIGNET STUDIOS BUILDS ON FABLED LEGACYSignet Studios, tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined street near the bustling just-west-of-La Brea media district, has been doing an enviable mix of projects for some years now. One of the select few Los Angeles studios to combine film music scoring, post-production, album and commercial work, Signet has developed a reputation for high standards and technical expertise. The facility has also managed to maintain its comfortable and friendly atmosphere through several corporate transitions, the latest being the acquisition by Liberty Media Group, becoming part of Liberty Livewire Audio.
Built in the 1960s and home for many years to Motown Hitsville's studios, the Romaine Street complex was designed from the ground up to be a music recording studio. When, in the early '90s, it became Signet, a master plan was developed to expand into film and post-production, while maintaining the record business operations. That's an elusive goal, one that many studios have formulated, but few have realized.
These days, Signet, with its three main Neve VR/Flying Faders-equipped studios and a wealth of support systems, churns out music for feature films, commercials and high-profile recording artists. Frequented by top film scoring mixers like Dennis Sands, Bobby Fernandez, John Richards, Frank Wolf and Steve Kempster, notable composers such as Alan Silvestri, Thomas Newman, Marc Shaiman and Trevor Rabin, as well as by musical artists like Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Stevie Nicks and Eric Clapton, the facility is truly multipurpose.
Signet general manager David Dubow, who started his career as a musician and recording engineer, cut his management teeth at Richard Perry's legendary Studio 55. When asked to explain his secrets for so successfully combining a diverse clientele, he laughs. "What do you need to do this? Incredible techs and eight billion different equipment formats. We have Sony 3348s and analog 24-tracks with Dolby SR, but we also have DA88s, MMRs, Pro Tools, Genexes and Albrecht mag recorders. We do it all. We don't necessarily have everything in house, but we have the technical experience to deal with all of it well.
"For example, Dennis Sands will often be doing a score album for a project at the same time that he's doing the film mixes," he continues. "That means he may be recording on two analog 24-tracks and a digital 48-track and mixing to Pro Tools and a couple of Genexes. Then there's video, a couple of DATs and a half-inch 2-track - all happening at the same time.
"Our assistants at Signet are excellent - they have to be. They don't just lock machines together with a Lynx; they understand KCU controllers and sophisticated offsets, and they regularly deal with mountains of equipment."
All three main rooms are set up for 5.1, and Studio B can also be configured for 7.1. Studio A, 40 by 40-feet with 22-foot ceilings and three iso booths, is the main tracking and scoring room, also used for ADR, overdubbing and mixing. The THX-certified Studio B, also fitted with a 72-input VRP as well as a custom SSL stem mixer and video and film projection, is one of the favorite dubbing and mix stages in town for both film and television. Last year alone, the music scores for, among others, American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, Tarzan, Me, Myself & Irene and What Lies Beneath were mixed in B. Studio C, with its VR60 and Sony Super Bright video projection system, is used for music mixing and overdubbing, as well as for film and television dubbing; this season it was home to five shows a week for MTV's Undressed.
Also in the complex are Studio G, a 5.1 editorial suite, and, housed in what were originally Motown Studios' basement live echo chambers, six busy edit bays with Pro Tools and Waveframe workstations.
One obvious reason that Signet participates in both album work and film scoring is that many of its clients also do both; cross-pollination is the norm these days for many musical artists. "We've worked with Bette Midler on many film projects and a couple of different record projects," notes Dubow. "She's done a lot of different things here, most recently some of her latest album with Don Was producing. We worked with Phil Collins on Tarzan as well as on other projects. And Eric Clapton was in working on the score for The Story of Us, and we're hoping to have him back for an album."
Signet became part of the Soundelux family in 1995, and that fact has proved beneficial for the facility.
"It's a big company and there's a lot of technology and equipment there," comments Dubow. "There's also Bill Johnston, who used to be chief tech here and is now the director of Liberty Livewire Audio Engineering, who stays up on what's going on. Then there's the Vine Street facility, which is state of the art in dubbing technology, one of the first places in town to go with MMRs. It's all been a help in keeping us in the forefront."
There should be plenty more cross-pollination coming up, with the Soundelux, Pacific Ocean Post, DSP, Todd-AO and 4MC companies now all under the Liberty Livewire Audio umbrella. Amid all that film and post-production technology, Signet finds itself the musical center of the amalgam.
"We can do it all," states Dubow. "Final dubs on films, record mixes, commercial mixes, ADR - I do think that with the addition of all these companies that have so many dubbing stages, we may be heading back to our origins. Because, even though there are so many facilities affiliated with us, the only two places among them that really record music are the Todd-AO scoring stage, which pretty much specializes in large orchestras, and Signet."
To that end, and with an eye, as always, on improvement, recent doings at the complex have included the addition of two iso booths to Studio A, whose main recording space comfortably holds 40 musicians. Console modules in all rooms have been upgraded for lower noise, Genelec 1034B main LCR monitors are now soffitted in Studio A, and both Studios A and B are retrofitted to accept the Martech 24-channel extender, making both rooms 96 Flying Faders-capable. In addition, Mad Labs center section post panels are scheduled for installation in all three Neves. "Several of our clients requested the Mad Labs upgrade," Dubow notes. "They feel it will make what our consoles are able to do equivalent to, or even, in some cases, superior to, what SSL 9000s can do."
Other recent projects have been refurbishment of the many lounges and the outside patio, which will soon include a putting green so that all those busy mixers with no time to practice can hit a few balls while on break. Another nod to clients' needs has resulted in omnipresent computer hookups for online access or tie-in to Signet's central server.
"Every engineer has their own computer," says Dubow. "And the producers and the coordinators have theirs also, so we have lots of separate areas for them that can accommodate either IBM or Mac. They can go right through our server, print out cue sheets, edit lists, whatever they want.
"If a client suggests something to me," he adds, "normally I just do it - whatever it takes to make it more comfortable for them.
"First and foremost, I'd say technically, we get the job done. Then, we have a good staff and atmosphere, and we accommodate people well. I think people like to work here because we attend to their needs, whatever they are. Our forte is probably mixing; but music is our specialty. For example, Thomas Newman recorded the majority of the scores for American Beauty, Erin Brockovich and The Green Mile in Studio A and mixed them in Studio B. Phil Collins recorded his drums, as well as the banging on pots and pans he did for Tarzan, in A and mixed in B.
"We really are an all-around music studio. We like to say that we're one of the few purpose-built studios in Los Angeles. Most places are taken over and made into recording studios, but this building has been a music studio from the beginning, over 30 years ago. A lot of great records have been made here, from The Jacksons and The Commodores to Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina Aguilera. And a lot of great soundtracks have been done here. Our goal, really, is just to continue serving our clients so that they can continue to turn out great music."