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L.A. Grapevine, March 2009

Read Mix Los Angeles columnist Bud Scoppa interview with Sound City recording studio manager Shivaun O'Brien

Mood lighting at Sound City

There’s a lot of history embedded in the funky walls of Sound City, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. So this is the perfect time to check in with Tom Skeeter, who’s owned the place since 1970, and Toronto-born Shivaun O’Brien, who’s functioned as studio manager for going on 18 years now. “When I took the job, I questioned my sanity,” O’Brien admits. But it’s turned out to be quite a ride.

When I dropped by recently, I wasn’t surprised that nothing had changed since my last visit two years ago, or any previous visit I’d made there since the late ’70s. That’s because Sound City’s loyal clients — including artists Tom Petty and Ry Cooder, as well as renowned producers Rick Rubin and Jim Scott — demand that those walls never be repainted nor the linoleum floors replaced for fear that the sounds that pass through the two iconic Neve consoles lose their legendary magical quality.

Among those who have shown their belief in the magic of Sound City’s accidental perfection by tracking all or part of their latest albums at Sound City are Metallica, Weezer, Nine Inch Nails, Elvis Costello and Mavis Staples (with Cooder producing) — not too shabby (pun intended).

“Nobody ‘designed’ that room,” says producer Scott of Studio A, where such landmark albums as Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 debut were tracked. “You walk in and bump your head on the speaker — nobody designed that. It’s very homemade, but very rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s a lot of soul here.”

The nondescript facility, located in an industrial park in a section of Van Nuys whose prime attractions are the Budweiser brewery and Dr. Hogly Wogly’s BBQ, became a studio in 1969 when Vox Instruments sold the building to a couple of neophytes. After a year in which the clients included Neil Young and Charles Manson, the owners sold Sound City to a West Virginia holding company that included ex-Marine Skeeter. “They were looking to put some Hollywood glitz into the stock,” he says with a laugh, peering out at the cinderblock structure that’s been his baby ever since.

“It didn’t take long to realize that it wasn’t going to happen unless it was upgraded to state-of-the-art,” Skeeter continues. “So we took out a loan and bought a Neve console. Keith Olsen, who was our staff engineer, picked it and helped customize it. That turned out to be the smartest thing we ever did because that same original console is still sitting there in Studio A. Rupert Neve said it was probably the only console of that vintage that’s been in the same spot since it was manufactured.”

That would be Studio A’s centerpiece, a 28-input, 16-bus, 24-monitor 8028 with 1085 EQs and no automation. Studio B boasts an 8078 with a GML Mac interface that O’Brien picked up from Memphis’ House of Blues. This is a righteously old-school setup, to say the least.

Sound City has proved to be an excellent training ground for engineers and producers. Among the notable studio artisans who started out as runners or assistants are Greg Fidelman, Joe Barresi, Nick Raskulinitz, Mike Terry and Billy Bowers.

When O’Brien took the gig in 1991, the place was in shambles. She sold the 8068 that was then in B to Rubin “to get the studio out of debt and restore the Studio A console,” she explains. The producer’s interest was piqued when he stopped by, and he wound up cutting two tracks for Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits in A, including the awesome “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Those sessions coincided with the huge buzz surrounding Nevermind, and all of a sudden the joint was jumping again. “We went from pretty much starving to coming into the office and finding 50 messages on the machine,” says O’Brien. “We went from no bookings to booking six months in advance. It was insane, but it was a really exciting time.”

In the decade-and-a-half since, the place has maintained its rep as one of the last major all-analog studios. Sound City doesn’t even own a Pro Tools rig; when a producer requires Pro Tools, the cost of the rental is incorporated into the rate.

O’Brien also operates her own company, Platinum Samples, in which A-list engineers like Andy Johns, Barresi and Scott create drum samples working with virtuosos like the Heartbreakers’ Steve Ferrone and the Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith.

Improbably, the studio’s shabby/chic look has actually influenced the décor of other L.A. facilities. Faced with patched holes in the ceiling and walls that couldn’t be repaired lest the magic disappear, O’Brien put up tapestries and brightened up the rooms with Christmas lights. Then there was the aroma. “When he was doing Wildflowers, Tom Petty said, ‘Sound City smells like 40 years of sweat, pot smoke and cigarette smoke,’” O’Brien remembers. “So we started burning Nag Champa incense at Rick Rubin’s suggestion to get rid of the smell.”

She insists that Jack Joseph Puig’s transformation of Ocean Way’s Studio A into a rock ‘n’ roll Fantasyland was inspired by what she’d done with Sound City. “And we just did it because we’re the funkiest studio in town,” Shivaun says with a laugh. “J.J.P. stole my vibe!”

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