Things of classic and enduring value are increasingly difficult to find. One change evident in the past few years has been the closing of many once-great recording studios. Ironically, in Los Angeles — a city often reviled for its lack of interest in historical preservation — there are more historically important recording studios than anywhere else in the world. Recently, I revisited three of them: Henson (previously A&M), The Village and Record Plant; all in business for over 30 years and all going strong, making the welcome statement that there's still a place for quality in this world.
Back in 1998, A&M Records' studio complex — the site of classic recordings by Herb Alpert, The Carpenters and Burt Bacharach, among many others — was in danger of disappearing. As the record company was enveloped first by PolyGram, and then by the IGA/Universal umbrella, the studio was jettisoned and up for grabs, but there were few players capable of taking on the five-room facility. A dark period ensued; almost the whole staff was laid off and the studio went quiet, while, upstairs in his office, manager Ron Rutledge kept working the phone and keeping the faith. When the Jim Henson Company purchased the entire A&M lot, a decision was made to reopen. Now, as the facility heads into its third year as Henson Recording Studios, the good vibes are back.
On the September morning that Rutledge and studio administrator Faryal Ganjehei showed me around, the joint was definitely jumping. In Studio B, or “The Crystal Room” as it's known, thanks to a large geode on prominent display, David Lee Roth was recording new material (along with a very interesting remake) on the SSL 6056 E Series with G computer that Rutledge says, with a laugh, “has been here forever and sounds great — our clients love it.” Alex Gibson was engineering, and Rutledge notes that, in the grand old tradition, Gibson had started out assisting the project and had been bumped up to engineer.
In Studio A, on the SSL 9080 J that was installed when the facility became Henson, the lovely Vonda Shepherd, a longtime client, was cutting tracks for her own project, as well as for her regular gig as Ally McBeal chanteuse and pianist — which speaks well for the quality of Henson's Steinway and Yamaha pianos.
Meanwhile, Studio D was playing host to songwriter/producer Matthew Wilder (No Doubt, 98°, Electrasy), who, with engineer Csaba Petocz behind the board, was cutting a David Campbell-arranged horn section for Dreamworks artist Dana Glover. Studio D now boasts an SSL 4072 G Plus with Ultimation, replacing the 4072 G formerly housed in the room.
In “The Mix Room,” producer Bob Marlette (Saliva, Full Devil Jacket, Alice Cooper) was camped out working with Boston-based Heidi, a four-woman band polishing their debut Warner Bros. release.
Studio C, Henson's only non-SSL room, is a 5.1 surround suite fitted with a 96-channel Euphonix CS3000M, where producer Jude Cole and new Warner Bros. artist Lindsay Pagano were just finishing a long stretch. Cole is one of several producers and songwriters — including Rupert Hine, Tony Hoffer, John Shanks and David Kahne — who have set up production suites at Henson in what were previously mastering and copy rooms. “It works out well,” comments Rutledge. “We rent the rooms to the producers, who also book our main rooms when they need to.”
In an example of the cool kind of cross-pollination that sometimes occurs at the complex these days, administrator Ganjehei informs us that Sir Paul McCartney, while recording in Studio A with producer/Warner A&R exec Kahne, met up with Pagano, working in C with Cole. The result: Pagano cut a version of McCartney's “So Bad,” with the gentleman from Liverpool himself contributing backing vocals.
Obviously, key to Henson's success is the eclectic variety of musicians who feel at home there. Other recent projects have included Metallica with Jah Rule and Swiss Beats, DJ Quik and J Dub, as well as Mariah Carey, Ozzy Osbourne and Alanis Morissette. Another element in the studio's renewed success is round-the-clock maintenance, by a team that includes Danny Buchanan, Mark Tindle, Gary Mannon and Dave Bright.
The Village has always had a great Westside location and a great history; on the day I dropped in, it also had a great energy buzz going — a regular occurrence at the venerable facility, due to a bustling business that combines high-profile rock and pop projects like Bush, The Wallflowers, ‘N Sync and Aerosmith with work for film and television scores including Something About Mary, Moulin Rouge, Ali and HBO's Six Feet Under. Part of that day's buzz, however, was something very new: the installation of a Neve 88R analog console into Studio D. The 72-channel, 152-automated-input desk features remote-controlled 1081 mic preamps and a VSP film mixing section that allows up to 7.1 mixing and monitoring.
“Believe me, this was not an easy decision,” comments The Village CEO Jeff Greenberg. “I chose the 88R because I had clients, like Rick Rubin, who work in Studio A and who love the sound of our vintage Neve 8048. They didn't feel that the Neve VR, which was in D, or even a new SSL sounded as good. So, when I found out a year-and-a-half ago that Neve was working on a desk, I called them. They sent us some preliminary modules, and I had clients like Steve Kempster and Al Schmitt do listening tests. The reports we got were that it was going to be an extraordinary-sounding console.”
Studio D, of course, is the legendary suite rebuilt in 1978 for Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. It boasts a large control room, a capacious recording space with four iso rooms, and audio and video tielines to The Village's second floor and its approximately 3,000-square-foot performance space, complete with stage, drapes, chandeliers and 30-foot ceilings. For several months prior to the new install, Guns N' Roses had been locked in D with producer Roy Thomas Baker, and there was only a one-week window to pull the existing Neve VR SP and commission the 88R. A heroic effort by Neve, Village chief tech Mitch Berger and their respective crews pulled off the feat; on the day I visited, the band was loading back in for more tracking.
GNR isn't the first band to take advantage of the upstairs theater; it was also used by Eurythmics and Fleetwood Mac. This time around, though, the space had been newly soundproofed, with insulated ceilings and walls shot with cellulose, allowing for loud recording, while business as usual went on in the other production suites that inhabit The Village's second floor.
While the 88R was being put through its paces in D, the compact Studio F was given a redo, with a design by Vincent Van Haaff that includes a floated ceiling, floor and walls, and, according to Greenberg, “about 50,000 pounds of sand in the floor!” Studio F, now outfitted for 5.1 surround and equipped with a Sony DMX-R100 console, was the site of the bulk of the recording for Melissa Etheridge's Skin, as well as for recent projects by Master P and Missy Elliott.
Back downstairs, Studio A, with its Neve 72-in 8048, had Korn recording with producer Michael Beinhorn and engineer Frank Filipetti. Studio B, which houses a Neve VR Legend, remains a favorite of Billy Corgan and LeAnn Rimes, as well as urban artists such as New York-based producer/engineers Jimmy Douglass and Claude Achille. All of The Village's studios are now fitted with Pro Tools systems, which are linked with a Fibre channel SAN system.
The only studio in town in the same location and the same owner since 1968, The Village has learned the secret of reinvention and continues to attract a top clientele. “It's simple,” says Greenberg. “We're just absolutely trying to be the best we can be for our clients.”
For today's top-echelon studios, providing an artist-friendly environment that also features state-of-the-art equipment is pretty much the norm. But even its competitors will admit that the concept of client service in a recording studio originated with Record Plant. Back in the late '60s, when RP founders Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren went into business, studios were sterile, utilitarian places. Engineers wore jackets and ties (or even lab coats!), and musicians performed under fluorescent lights and acoustical tile ceilings while seated on folding chairs. Amenities — if any — consisted of bad coffee and a few ashtrays. Record Plant broke that mold in a style that is now the stuff of legend: think Sly Stone's “Pit” at Record Plant Sausalito, and the “Bedroom” at the Third Street/L.A. location (rumored to be put to good use by The Eagles). Back in those days, the studio had three branches and was famous for taking technological leaps, tolerating wild lifestyles, and most of all, for making hits, from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and The Eagles' Hotel California to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life.
Although Record Plant has changed owners and locations over the years, it hasn't changed philosophies. There's still a concierge service to address clients' needs, plenty of well-trained runners and even an on-site chef. Record Plant president Rose Mann Cherney started working for the facility 25 years ago; it's under her direction that the “family” vibe of the now four-room, all-SSL facility thrives. That family environment was particularly evident one Sunday in September when two major benefit recordings were happening at the Hollywood complex on the same day. In the SSL 8096 G Series-equipped Studio 1, Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst was orchestrating a rock mix for the “What's Going On?” all-star CD Artists Against AIDS Worldwide; Perry Farrell, Jennifer Lopez and Scott Weiland had also dropped by to contribute vocals. And, up front in Studio 4, with engineers Richard Hilton and Ed Cherney behind the SSL 9080 J, writer/producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers had assembled another celebrity cast for a redo of Sister Sledge's “We Are Family,” with proceeds earmarked for the Red Cross and several organizations dedicated to promoting racial tolerance.
“In this case, we just wanted to do something to help,” Mann Cherney comments. “But even in ordinary times, Record Plant always tries to give something back. We believe in being good citizens of the music community and of the community at large.”
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