Most people in town know that Charlie Bolois of Vertigo Recording Services, along with his chief tech Kevin Kaiser, are the only authorized Studer service reps for the Western U.S. Those in the know are also aware that Vertigo's staff does a lot more than just repair tape machines. They cover all technical aspects of the studio business, doing systems design, installation and support for a client roster that includes Babyface, Glen Ballard, Mark Isham, Van Halen, Hans Zimmer, Future Disc Mastering, MCA Music and many others.
Is your API console getting a little cranky, or is your room plagued with ground hums? Planning a Euphonix installation in a brand-new room? Need a custom mastering console? Or maybe you just have a problem with your Studer 800 and your MCI JH-24 needs a tune-up. These are the guys to call; "No job too large or too small" might be their motto.
Established in 1981, Vertigo had grassroots beginnings, only moving to its present Sherman Oaks location in 1997. "I started at Charlie's garage workshop in the valley, with no air conditioning," Kaiser recalls with a laugh. "I'd be sitting there wiring harnesses with the door wide open."
"This was before Mogami cable," Bolois adds. "You had to make your own Mogami and tie it together to make 24-pair wire."
Originally from Pennsylvania, Bolois took his electronics degree in hand and came to California to be in the music business. His first job was at Motown. "Mostly I was in charge of fixing Barry Gordy's stereos," he says. "There were about 16 of them in his house." After Motown, he became part of the technical staff for MCA Recording Studios and then went on to work at the legendary MCA Whitney Studios in Glendale. "I was there at a great time," he remembers. "The main room was usually booked with Barry White, and the other room was locked out with Mike Chapman producing Pat Benatar, Blondie, The Knack..."
In '81, Bolois decided to open his own business, and he's never looked back. Now, the company has more than 30 large-scale Euphonix console installations and over 100 other studio installations, both analog and digital, to its credit. Bolois is also the inventor of the patented Vertigo patchbay cleaning tools, which have been widely used by clients such as the Grateful Dead and the CIA.
Besides Bolois and Kaiser, the staff includes wiring experts Eric Fischer, Hiro Watanabe and Michael Bradley. A tour of the neat shop proves that analog is alive and well. Workbenches line the walls, and tape machines, consoles and compressors of all makes and ages fill the room. Tech support is the mainstay of the business. The proliferation of home studios and the trend in commercial studios toward cutting in-house maintenance makes plenty of work for guys this experienced.
The Vertigo team seems to enjoy all aspects of their work, from the fine tuning of machine electronics at a composer's project studio to large installations in Austria and Brazil.
Problem solving is a specialty. Among other things, they're known for their expertise in curing ground hums. "When Euphonix first came out, and were being interfaced with so many keyboards, we worked on a lot of their grounding issues," Kaiser says. "Part of our success in that came from perseverance: We keep working until we find the exact problem. We kind of became experts, and everyone started calling us for help."
"People come to us almost like to a shrink, sometimes," laughs Bolois.
Not surprisingly, installation horror stories abound, and although the crew is too discreet to name names, I got them to mention a few memorable jobs. "One time, we were called in to wire after the construction was done," Bolois recalls. "The wall treatment was completed, the glass was in, the ceiling was done. But the studio designer, who had no clue about the specs of the console they were putting in, had built tiny little troughs...it all had to be ripped out." Then there's the one about the master synthesist whose control room was built with special furniture for his banks of keyboards, but with no AC outlets in sight.
For these reasons, Bolois prefers that Vertigo gets called into a project at the beginning. "It's so much better if we can be involved early on," he states. "We work with the designer and the contractor to make sure that it's right. People are very happy with their studios if there's a combined effort between us, the electricians, builders and designers. More than once I've gotten a phone call from someone at the end of a project who says, "Would you come out and help us with this, and please, please promise that you won't say, 'I told you so?' Well, no problem, but it really will save time and money if you call us a lot earlier."
Recent projects that Vertigo has worked on include two new digital rooms for Burbank's Advantage Audio featuring Studer D950 consoles, installs of a 96-in Euphonix for Santana producer K.C. Porter and a 72-in SSL 9k for Eddie Van Halen, an all-Pro Tools film mix room for composer David Newman, and various studio projects for Jeff Lynne including the installation of a Pro Tools system that was used by Paul McCartney for his latest release.
To those studio owners worried about maintaining their cherished analog tape machines, Bolois offers some insights: "I don't anticipate any problem in parts support for the 827. First of all, they don't break much, and the things that do break on them are readily available. I walked into the parts storage area, and there are tons of individual things. I'd say for the 827 there's no worries for a long time. Now, the A800 is 21 years old-that's more difficult."
He also reports that some parts for MCI JH Series are getting rare and, in some cases, even impossible to find: "The transport motherboard, which used to be a very common thing, is no longer available. Neither is the autolocator circuit board. We can get around these things. Motors can be rebuilt, heads are still for sale, there are people like Athan Corp. who make key elements like pinch rollers-we can still fix almost anything."
Bolois has faith that analog recording will remain with us for a long time to come. "There's a real love and a reverence for it," he comments. "Scoring mixers who record orchestras for film are the best example. They have the budgets, they could record to anything they want, and they still choose analog 24-track with Dolby SR. Because, from the purist, top-quality point of view, and for reliability, nothing touches it."
It was a typical day at Record Plant when I stopped in to congratulate Amy Burr on her promotion to studio manager. Typical for Record Plant, that is, where rock, pop, rap and country seem to coexist much more happily than anywhere else. On the day I was there, all four rooms were jumping-Christina Aguilera was in with Ron Fair producing and engineering, Kenny Loggins and Olivia Newton-John were working on a duet with Nathaniel Kunkel engineering, producer/mixer Toby Wright was behind the board for hip hoppers Rehab, and the world's busiest engineer, Mike Shipley, was in with Enrique Iglesias and Hawaiian artist Hoku.
Burr is starting on her seventh year at Record Plant, having worked her way up the ladder from receptionist to front office manager to traffic and operations, taking on more and more responsibility. "I was 'girl-with-no-title' for a long time," she says with a laugh. "It was, 'There's Amy. She's the glue of the studio.'"
Asked to describe why she likes her job, Burr obliged with, "It's fun to feel like you are somehow a small part of the music that's being made. Even though you might not be the musician or producer or engineer, you've helped put that project together in some capacity, and that's a buzz. It takes a lot to get to the level that many of our clients are on, and it really is exhilarating to be around people who are so talented and strong in what they do."
Extending the scope of the Left Coast, I checked in with TK's True Kiss Disc Studios in Hawaii, where Troy Gonzalez, former ace staffer at Sony Studios in Santa Monica, is now chief engineer. TK-actually the hit Japanese producer/musician Tetsuya Komuro (called by some the "Babyface of Japan")-has, as those who know him will not be surprised to hear, spared no expense to build a world-class resort studio on Oahu, not far from Honolulu.
Designed inside and out by studio bau:ton and almost two years in the making, the two-room facility features views of a blue marina from both studios and control rooms, and is equipped with dual SSL 9000J series consoles (Studio A's has 112 inputs and Studio B's 96). The facility includes three Sony 3348HRs, a Pro Tools|24 rig in each control room and a very full complement of outboard equipment.
Special attention was paid to wiring and sync routing in the design of the control rooms. "The Pro Tools systems are fully integrated with both analog and digital AES/EBU patchbays," Gonzalez tells us. "There's also word clock in the patchbay, so you can patch word clock back and forth from the 3348 to the Pro Tools or to the DAT machines-it's really easy to get around sync-wise. The routing of this studio is the best I've ever seen."
Since opening, clients in at TK Disc have included Columbia's Blaque, produced by TK and Tone from Trackmasters and engineered by Chris Puram; engineer Ken Kessie mixing singles for Namie Amuro; Tom Durak engineering for new group Nina, with Kate Pierson from The B-52's; and Japan's top-sellers Globe, with Gonzalez and Prince alumni Steve Durkee recording and Eddie Delana mixing.
Mixing engineer Kessie sums up the TK Studios/Hawaiian experience: "Looking out the window of my hotel mini-suite, blues and greens to rival Myst, that more-than-languid air temperature-I almost forgot I was there to work, until a few minutes later. I'm flying north in [TK music production manager] Riki Melwani's Jeep. He's honking with one hand while simultaneously fielding two cell phones until we pull up at the studios. There I find A-list equipment and multiple iso rooms with lagoon views. The Bob Hodas-tuned mains sound great, chief engineer Troy Gonzalez has everything working perfectly, and after I plug in my secret weapon, the RNC (Really Nice Compressor), my mix proceeds smoothly, broken up only by frequent trips outside to savor the balmy weather. I can't wait to go back!"