L.A.’s Unsung Studio Heroes - Mixonline

L.A.’s Unsung Studio Heroes

Remember when engineers weren’t even credited on albums? Labels haven’t always acknowledged the essential role players on both sides of the glass. But at Mix, it’s what we do: focus on individuals and technologies behind the scenes. With this in mind, for our L.A. issue we talked to a few of the people even further behind the music, whose names definitely don’t end up in the liner notes (inasmuch as there are still liner notes).
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Keith Albright

Photo: Courtesy Tom Weir/Studio City Sound

Remember when engineers weren’t even credited on albums? Labels haven’t always acknowledged the essential role players on both sides of the glass. But at Mix, it’s what we do: focus on individuals and technologies behind the scenes. With this in mind, for our L.A. issue we talked to a few of the people even further behind the music, whose names definitely don’t end up in the liner notes (inasmuch as there are still liner notes).

The Piano Tuner

At age 90, studio legend Keith Albright has been keeping L.A.’s pianos in tune for more than 60 years. Though he no longer rides his bicycle to gigs as he used to, he’s as in-demand as ever.

Albright learned his craft in 1948 and then worked at Baldwin Pianos Company for the next 22 years. “In ’74 I began tuning in as many as 60 recording studios, where I learned to tune under pressure, often with multiple downbeats in little time,” he says. “I developed the solve-the-puzzle techniques to find the state of the piano—how to bring it to the best sound in temperament with all the interval beat comparisons, pure unisons, special touches for the type of music.

“Tuning has been a sport for me, a challenge of strategy, skill, speed and flexibility,” Albright continues. “I love making the piano sound as beautiful as it can. I enjoy knowing the people in the studios—the sound engineers, and of course the studio managers and owners who have been so wonderful to me through the years and still are!”

Albright’s client roster includes Capitol Studios, Westlake, EastWest, Entourage Studios, NRG, Studio City Sound and many more. “With Baldwin I tuned the concerts—Hollywood Bowl, et cetera,” he says. “I brought the bike to the stage of the Academy Awards. I’ve worked for artists from Liberace to the Beatles, the Doors, Michael Jackson, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. A lot of people came and went. It’s still a joy tuning for Stevie Wonder. I’m going to tune to 100, God willing!”

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Ross Garfield

Photo: Joey Carman

The Drum Doctor

Ross Garfield, known by his company name, The Drum Doctor, is the go-to repair and tuning expert for many of the city’s top studios and players. A drummer since the age of seven, Garfield found his niche like a lot of engineers do: He moved to L.A. seeking a music career, but became indispensable as a technician instead.

“I started as a drum repair guy in a music shop,” Garfield says. “Every time I’d do a repair, I would also tune the drums. One day, a drummer picked up a repair and went to his session, and I got a call: ‘The drum sounded great when I brought it in, but I knocked it out of tune and I can’t get it back to where it was. Can you come down and tune it for me?’”

The rest is history. Garfield has been tuning drums at Henson Studios since it was A&M; at press time he was on call to keep Coldplay’s album sessions on track. Other studio clients include Ocean Way, Conway, Sunset Sound and Bruno Mars’ personal facility. He’s also proud to have worked with greats such as Jim Keltner for more than 30 years.

“I don’t think anywhere has as much action as the L.A. scene,” Garfield says. “We have probably the best, or some of the best, studios in the world, and we have amazing support services for people. And if I have a slow day I get out to the beach. That’s my idea of fun.”

The Problem Solver

Studio managers have long told Mix that the assistants who rise to the top must be long on people skills and initiative. Anyone who wants to succeed in the music business has to want it enough to fill whatever role is needed, and still keep a sense of humor.

Design FX Audio’s Chris Pitzel fits this description to a T. When Pitzel joined DFX as a delivery driver eight years ago, the rental/service/remote recording company had a large staff, including a full-time maintenance tech, and they were busy early till late. But like many businesses, the company has had to scale down, finding ways to stay lean but keep fielding equipment to music studios such as Record Plant, Lurssen Mastering and The Village, and picture studios like Warner Bros., Paramount and Fox.

“When things slowed down, we didn’t have an in-house tech anymore, so I tried to do what I could,” says Pitzel, who worked at Enterprise as an assistant before moving over to DFX. He quickly went from driving and cabling gear to doing most of the maintenance tech work on DFX’s vast inventory. “I just kept, little by little, figuring things out,” Pitzel says. “I’ve never had any formal training, so some stuff does get out of my league, and when it does, we’ll send it out. But now I fix gear, I take orders, I deliver orders. It’s a small operation, so everybody does everything.”