L.A. Grapevine

The street construction that has plagued the Hollywood stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard for several years is finally complete. Much to the relief of

The street construction that has plagued the Hollywood stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard for several years is finally complete. Much to the relief of such area businesses as Warner Hollywood Studios, the landmark Formosa Café and the eastern branch of Westlake Audio (the other branch that houses Studios A and B is on Beverly a couple of miles to the west), they're now situated on a broad and easy-to-navigate thoroughfare. Meanwhile — perhaps inspired by the neighborhood's upgrade — Westlake/Santa Monica has been undergoing some construction of its own.

With five studios and a busy pro audio sales business (including the Westlake speaker lines) housed under one roof, the complex has always bustled. “Our Beverly location is very quiet,” comments VP of recording Steve Burdick. “Here at Santa Monica, there's a lot more activity, which some clients like to be around and some don't. We recently relocated our technical services shop to an adjacent building, and that's now made this building much more appealing to those who don't like as much activity. The old shop area is now a lounge for Studio E.”

Several projects have kept the joint jumpin' in 2002: A renovation of Studio E, completed in May, included a complete cosmetic makeover and the installation of a 72-input SSL 9000 J Series console. Now, a combination of dark-walnut speaker cabinets, new lighting and carpet, a 43-inch Sony Plasma flat-panel computer screen and a ton of new gear including Pro Tools|HD has re-energized E, which, since its upgrade, has been playing host to such luminaries as producer Walter Afanasieff and ex-A&R exec/bass player-turned-TV star Randy Jackson.

Another big change at the facility is that the technical services department, which supports the studio and retail businesses and provides outside equipment repair, has moved into its own self-contained area. Service customers no longer enter through the studios, and the real estate that formerly housed Westlake's large roster of bench techs has been redesigned as client lounges.

Studio D, considered Westlake's signature studio, has been left almost untouched by the changes at the facility. D, originally built for Michael Jackson sessions with input from Jackson, Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien, still has an expansive control room fitted with a John Musgrave-modified, 72-input Neve VR with Flying Fader automation. The skylit main recording room, used for tracking, overdubs and up to 40-piece orchestral sessions, still features wood floors and a drum riser backed by a choice of mirrors or curtains. D has long been a favorite for its private entrance and three lounges, one now outfitted with a treadmill and other workout gear, compliments of Missy Elliot who booked D for much of 2001 recording her solo project and cuts for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.

Studio C, which also boasts skylights in both its control and tracking rooms, as well as variable surface walls that allow tailoring of the tracking room's sonics, is also fitted with an SSL 9072 J Series desk. C is a favorite of veteran engineer Humberto Gatica, an SSL 9k maven, who has done numerous projects with Celine Dion. For the most recent Dion recording, Studio C's tracking room was transformed into a living room, complete with a cozy multimedia area outfitted with couches, soft lighting and a semi-formal dining area.

“It is pretty nice,” Burdick admits, settling onto a couch and surveying the decor. “At first, it seemed strange to me — having living room furniture in a tracking room — but really, most of what we do in C is vocals and mixing, so it works out great. Everybody likes it so we've kept it. On the days where we need to do full tracking, we just take out the furniture.”

It's obvious that creature comforts have become a priority at Westlake. Another small TV/computer lounge is also part of the Studio C suite, and plans are in the works for the entire back area of the facility to become a large atrium-style lobby and game lounge. Burdick, who started with Westlake Studios as a runner in 1986, definitely sees changes in the kind of amenities that have become important to clients. “There are so many more things you have to pay attention to,” he comments. “Beside lots of lounge space, there are new client-service priorities. People aren't using production coordinators as much, so we do a lot more management kinds of tasks for our clients. Booking manager Charity Lomax and I really work as a team with them to make things happen.”

Along with the major sessions booked in the three main studios, its two small production rooms also generate buzz at Westlake. Production 1 is generally used for vocals and guitars by the budget-conscious, although in 2001, Sheila E recorded most of her latest CD — including percussion parts — in 1. The console in 1 is a 36-in Sony MXP-3000 modified with eight API mic pre's and eight API EQs, which, according to Burdick, is “no hassle and sounds good; it's perfect for this room. We thought of putting in a digital board, but for these purposes, people don't want to work multilayer; they want to just come in, push the accelerator and take off.”

Production 2 is a digital audio edit bay that serves two masters: the sales group and the studio. “Sales does demos in here,” explains Burdick, “including the twice-weekly sessions that Tom Brown from Digidesign puts on. We also do editing, transfers and Pro Tools work, as well as, on a daily basis, backups and hard drive maintenance.”

A perk for some clients at Westlake/Santa Monica is the proximity to the sales department, which provides, of course, access to the newest in equipment, from speakers and workstations to microphones and consoles. “Some of our clients are gearheads who really love that aspect,” Burdick notes. “They can talk to the sales people and get turned on to the latest and greatest.”

In addition to Celine Dion, projects at Westlake during recent months have included Wilco, Rod Stewart, LeAnn Rimes with Desmond Child producing, Child and Cathy Dennis producing American Idol Kelly Clarkson, Josh Groban with producer David Foster, Randy Jackson producing Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake with producer Timbaland, Liz Phair with producer Michael Penn and Rick Rubin producing Palo Alto.

The Brand Avenue area of Glendale is full of little shops and unique restaurants and still retains a bit of old-fashioned, small-town vibe. Not far away, Front Page Recorders has also been busy upgrading and now boasts an SSL 9080 J Series, a Euphonix System 5 and a Euphonix CS3000. Owner Biff Vincent and studio manager Diana Nitz walked me through the facility's recent changes.

“Studio A is basically a new room,” states Vincent, “although we didn't change the fundamental structure. The studios here were built incredibly well, back in the early '70s, for Yamaha R&D. You couldn't afford to do today what they did, in terms of solidity and isolation, to build something from the ground up with this kind of quality. It's just too expensive to do that kind of construction now. So what we did was, we gutted it on the inside and while we were at it — since we've been doing a lot of movies in the past couple of years — we rebuilt it for 5.1.”

George Augspurger originally designed Studio A's control room, which houses the 80-input SSL 9k; the new update was by Carl Yanchar of Wave:Space. Studios A, B and C are now fitted with a custom 5.1 main Augspurger monitor system built by Wave:Space. A's control room also has new textured-ceramic slate floors and a 40-inch Sony LCD flat-screen monitor. The tracking room was also redone cosmetically and a third more reflective iso room was added.

Studio B, which two years ago installed L.A.'s second Euphonix System 5 console, has been developing a scoring clientele, hosting such composers as Ed Shearmur, Nick Glennie Smith and John Powell and films such as Shrek, Charlie's Angels, Blue Streak, The New Guy and We Were Soldiers.

“The guys that know it love the System 5,” Vincent comments. “It's big — 140 inputs — it's got really great 5.1 capabilities, and everything is automated. Film people are basically all-digital, so they like the fact that their program goes in digital and doesn't get messed with again. And they love the ease of it — it's incredibly simple to set up for multiformats. You can do at the same time your 5.1, your stereo and all of your stems, with up to 48 outputs available at once. It's an amazing console, which is why you find it at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, Soundeluxe Toronto — top-of-the-line places. It really is the best thing out there.”

With a 9k for rock, pop and R&B clients like Beck, Korn, Lit and Natalie Imbruglia, and a System 5 for film customers, Vincent feels that he is positioned to cover all of the bases. His third room holds a Euphonix CS3000 used this year for, among other projects, Chris Fogel's mixes of Alanis Morissette's chart-topping Under Rug Swept. Similar to what Westlake Studios did for Celine Dion, Front Page turned the tracking room into a lounge for the duration of Morissette's mixes.

Vincent, who started in the business with a home studio and then moved to a commercial facility, has dug in for the long haul. Observing the current trend for producers to do much of their projects at home, he offers some perspective: “For my first 10 years, I had a place in a house,” he says with a laugh. “And I can tell you, having a studio in your house is like owning a boat: The happiest day in your life is when you get it, and the next happiest day in your life is when you sell it!”

Studio manager Nitz adds, “We've been lucky at Front Page to have so many different kinds of clients, from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who mixed their Thug World Order album on the 9k, to Joe Strummer from The Clash, who was in writing for the Academy Award-nominated movie Black Hawk Down. Joe's quote about our studio was, ‘Good vibe, good studio — we don't find this everywhere. We know it is rare. We arrived defeated and we emerged victorious!’ We try hard to take good care of our clients, so it's really great to get that kind of feedback.”

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