L.A. Grapevine

Hollywood's Studio 56 has reinvented itself several times since opening in 1986 on the Santa Monica Blvd. corner that was the site of the old Radio Recorders.

Hollywood's Studio 56 has reinvented itself several times since opening in 1986 on the Santa Monica Blvd. corner that was the site of the old Radio Recorders. Now, with the help of industry vet Roy Cicala (engineer, producer and former owner of the legendary New York Record Plant), the facility has renovated Studio E, the live recording space at the rear of the complex. ("E" is for Elvis, commemorating the fact that "Jailhouse Rock," All Shook Up" and several other of the King's hits were recorded there.)

Featuring studio designer Vincent Van Haaff's "The Wall," a portable, drop-down control room complete with TAD monitors, the studio offers a refurbished Neve 8028, a 27x32-foot recording space with an attached 13x25-foot iso room, a comfortable lounge and lots of privacy.

The control room, a space-within-a space that looks a bit like a stage set and can be set up in about three days, has an overhanging ceiling decorated with stars and planets. It comes in approximately 12 pieces, including the soffitted speakers and an amp rack, which are attached to modular scaffolding that's bolted into the floor.

One of the first acts to record in Studio E was Edgar Winter's band, with the recently un-retired Cicala engineering. "Yes, I tried to get idle, but I'm back in it again," he says with a laugh. "When I closed Record Plant in 1990, I moved to Brazil, which I loved, but, really, how many times can you go to the beach? Then Paul Simon came through on tour and I went to visit him, and he talked me into going back into the business.

"I ended up recording again and built a studio called IIWII (It Is What It Is) in New Jersey with my partner John Hanti. The studio has gotten very busy, but now I've got an engineer working there for me, so when [former Record Plant New York studio manager and former director of Sony Studios New York] Paul Sloman said, 'Let's go to California!' I came along. Then Vincent [Van Haaff] called and said, 'You've got to come over and hear this,' and I found myself involved in this project."

There are, as usual, a lot of other things going on at Studio 56 and 56 Productions. After 12 years as a tenant, owner Paul Schwartz has now purchased the property, with the accompanying upswing in energy and plans. "Since I bought the real estate, it means more," Schwartz asserts. "Now we can really feel like it's a home."

A drummer himself, Schwartz swears by the drum sound in Studio E and tells us that the Studio 56 staff is thinking of putting together a compilation CD of historic songs-including "Mack the Knife," "Love Letters in the Sand" and "Purple People Eater"-that were recorded at the site when it was Radio Recorders.

Schwartz and president of studio operations Claudia Lagan gave me a quick update tour of the rest of the facility. Jeff Fargus, who has been associated with Schwartz for 16 years, has a film sound pre-production room on-site; Kenneth Crouch has his own writing and demo room; and Studio B, fitted with a Trident 80B console, is set up for dubbing work. Studio A, with its Neve VR 60 Series console and two Studer A820s with Dolby SR, keeps busy, often with hot mixer Booker T. Jones III, whose recent work at 56 includes mixes for Coolio, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Toni Braxton and Brandy.

Tucked away in an antique-filled, converted turn-of-the-century train station just a few blocks from the fashionable shops and restaurants of Old Town Pasadena, CMS Mastering has also been making some changes. The mastering suite itself was acoustically revamped by Steve "Coco" Brandon in June, new studio manager Kristen Farris was hired, and in September mastering engineer Ron Boustead came onboard. Boustead, who had previously spent five years at Precision Mastering, has an eclectic resume that includes releases by Counting Crows, Tom Petty, Seal and the Rolling Stones. "At Precision we did a lot of high-end alternative rock," he comments. "At CMS in addition to major label work we also do a lot of independent records, and it's very diverse-from classical and jazz to Latin and Hawaiian. I like it all, and it keeps it fun."

The main mastering suite at CMS is a streamlined, clean space with natural lighting. "It's been tweaked and tweaked," Boustead says. "It's a very good-sounding room." Boustead's workspace does not include the traditional mastering console. "There are different ways to go about it," he explains. "A lot of engineers have an old custom-built console, but in this room I work with components. That allows me the flexibility to gauge a project, figure out what it needs and then apply the tools that I think are necessary. Then I can leave everything else that isn't needed out of the chain for that specific project. To that end, I have a lot of two-rackspace units-Manley, Tube-Tech and high-end digital like TC Electronic. I mix and match based on what the project seems to call for."

Boustead's mastering approach comes in part from his background as a singer/songwriter-he sees his empathy with the artist's perspective as a useful tool. "I'm coming at this business in a bit of a unique way," he says. "I've been doing it for about 13 years, but I didn't go to school and study electronics or engineering; I started as a musician. Originally, I got engineering and editing gigs on the side to support my music habit. I was doing digital editing out of my house for a while, then I got the opportunity to go to Precision. I think being a singer/songwriter definitely helps me to get along with clients. I understand that they may have spent a year or more of their life on their project, and I know how much it means to them. I know that you have to treat their work with a lot of respect.

"I recently read something that Bob Ludwig said that kind of sums it up for me," he continues. "Your job as a mastering engineer is to evaluate a tape when it comes in-to listen to it and imagine how great it can be at its best. Then you figure out which knobs to turn to get it there. Hearing the potential, then knowing exactly what tools to use to get it there is what it's about. It's that simple."

The overall vibe of CMS reflects a personal touch. Studio manager Farris evinces a great deal of knowledge about clients and their preferences, and says, "We try to make people comfortable-I think that's part of why we have so many repeat customers. We have plans for growth in both the facility and personnel in 1999, but we intend to keep our style the same."

"We're a small shop here at CMS, and we're very service-oriented," adds Boustead. "That's reflected, I think, in the fact that 90 percent of our sessions are attended, which I'd guess is unusually high for the business." Recent projects completed at CMS include a live album for Hollywood Records' Fastball, a new Rolling Stones single, Peabo Bryson's Christmas single release "A Family Christmas," titles for the new gospel label MCG, editing for a Spice Girls single, and compilations for Virgin Records, including Cracker, Spice Girls and the Geto Boys.

Dan Vicari's equipment rental company, LAFX Recording Services, made a foray into recording and mixing about a year ago when it opened its own studio. It seems that the venture has been a success, with projects in that have cut across the board stylistically: Recent acts working at LAFX have included Flesh from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, VideoDrone produced by Korn's Fieldy on Korn's new Elementree label, Roger Nichols mixing a James Taylor tribute album, and projects engineered by Tommy Vicari, Al Schmitt and Ethan Johns.

The studio features a pristine 88-in, 16-bus API console (with 40 550A EQs and Flying Faders automation) that was previously owned by Christopher Cross and rebuilt by Brent Averill. The 17x20-foot control room looks out on two tracking rooms with contrasting acoustical properties that offer a choice between "ambient/live" and "intimate/ close" tones; each tracking space also has its own iso room.

The facility has a Yamaha grand piano, and formats include Sony 3348, analog 24-track and, not surprisingly, as many ADAT XTs or Tascam DA-88s as needed, with a large selection of microphones and outboard also available from the LAFX rental stock.