In December 1999, Los Angeles' Larrabee Studios celebrated its 30th anniversary in a big way, making the quantum leap from four studios to seven. Larrabee North expanded with new lounges, a large atrium-style common area and a third SSL 9000 J-equipped room designed for 5.1 mixing. Then, Larrabee owner Kevin Mills-previously a die-hard SSL maven-made his first serious foray into the vintage Neve recording side of the business with the purchase of Doug Perry's Andora Studios, renaming it Larrabee East. The combined properties now encompass more than 30,000 square feet of studio space and almost 40 employees.
These are bold moves, but Mills has never been one to accept the status quo. Larrabee has maintained a top rung on the L.A. studio ladder since the early '80s, when the original facility on Santa Monica Boulevard, now Larrabee West, became a bastion of mixing for dance and R&B music. Many of the first wave of superstar engineers made themselves at home there, and on any given day, the hit-driven energy in the place was palpable, with chart-topping projects ensconced in the rooms. Big snares and effected-vocals ruled, and Larrabee had the consoles and the gear to get the best of them.
In 1991, the company expanded north into the San Fernando Valley, taking over and renovating two rooms that had previously been Giorgio Moroder's oasis and renaming the complex Larrabee North. Now, with the addition of Andora's two Neve 8078 rooms and large tracking area, Larrabee is the largest music studio enterprise in Los Angeles.
The story began with the two small 16-track rooms in Santa Monica and Larrabee in West Hollywood, which were originally owned by songwriter Gerry Goffin. In 1969, Kevin Mills' father, Jackie, a music producer with multiple hits for Bobby Sherman and the Brady Bunch, together with his wife, Dolores, purchased the studios from Goffin. "My father was, like so many people are these days, into a lot of different areas," recalls Mills. "He was a producer, an A&R man, and he had his own production companies. When the studios came available, he saw them as a business opportunity. My parents purchased them, and they struggled along for a while, until in the early '70s, they happened upon The Sonny and Cher Show. All the music for that show was done at the studio, along with Cher's solo albums."
Mills got his first taste of the business some time after that, handling night receptionist chores while attending UCLA. The late '70s brought a transition to the industry as disco became popular. Larrabee's West Hollywood location, convenient to dance clubs and disco record companies like RSo and Casablanca, made it an obvious place for artists like Donna Summer and Hall & oates to work.
It was also in the late '70s that Larrabee began its longtime association with Solid State Logic, purchasing one of its first available consoles. "It was, I believe, the eleventh SSL ever sold, one of the first E Series in Los Angeles," Mills says. "We became known known for the SSL and for disco mixing, which then led to a lot of R&B work. What came along next was Dick Griffey's label, Solar Records. Solar had a bunch of hits with groups like Lakeside and Dynasty. Also on Solar was The Deele, which, of course, was Kenny 'Babyface' Edmonds and L.A. Reid, and we participated in a ton of that music. A lot of those early R&B producers started out as members of bands on Solar Records. They worked with us, and that's how one thing led to another."
Larrabee was successful, but at the time, Mills himself was determined to avoid the music business. After college he became a stockbroker, working his way up to associate VP at Dean Witter Reynolds. He didn't come back into the picture until 1986. "I'd wanted nothing to do with the record business," he laughs, "but when my parents wanted to sell the studios they had no takers. They were thinking of liquidating. Instead, I decided to leave Dean Witter and take over. We made an agreement that I would buy it from them over five years."
Once he decided to get involved, Mills became a hands-on owner. one of his early decisions was to implement the concept of lockout mixing as the specialty of his studios. "No hourly rate, just lockout," he elaborates. "I also set about buying lots of outboard gear and including it in the rate, which, in those days was something that other studios didn't do. We were one of the first studios to have a total focus on mixing. I remember at that time seeing a big headline in one of the trades that read, 'Diversify or die!' But that wasn't what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be everything for everybody. My motto was, 'Specialize: Carve out a niche and do it well.' And our niche was lockout mixing for records and music. To this day, I've never really tried to do anything else."
After purchasing Moroder's North Hollywood facility in 1991, Mills shut it down for six months to construct a commercial facility. Shortly after it reopened as the two-room, all-SSL Larrabee North, Michael Jackson took up residence in the studios for almost a year to make the Dangerous album. During that time, in 1992, West was shut down for eight months for a major refurbishing, although the classic and popular SSL 4000 Series consoles were kept. In 1996, Larrabee became the first studio to purchase an SSL 9000, which was installed in North's Studio 1, followed shortly by a second 9000 installation into North's Studio 2. Since then, the studios have continued to churn out hits from a who's who of the industry, among them Madonna's Ray of Light album, which was both recorded and mixed at North in '99. In 1998, Billboard named Larrabee the top studio for the number of chart-topping hits in both the pop and R&B categories. In 1999, it was second.
Now, eight years after his last efforts, Mills is back in construction mode. "If you haven't been to Larrabee North in the last six months," he states, "then you haven't been there at all. It's over 100 percent larger. Previously, it was about 7,000 square feet; now it's 16,000, and most of the new space is dedicated to lounges. It's really a completely different building."
Some of that new space is also dedicated to Gearworks, Mills' just-launched equipment rental company. "I'm not trying to compete with the rental companies that are already out there," he explains. "It's a different sort of company, specializing in vintage gear. When people think of Larrabee, they don't usually think in terms of vintage equipment; they think of modern gear like SSLs, reverbs and delays. But we've been in business 30 years, and I'm a collector. We've actually got one of the largest inventories of vintage equipment in the world. A lot of the pieces are esoteric items, like Langevin, Helios and Trident A-range EQs, items that have been available to our clients and are now available for rent outside."
The two-Neve 8078 studio complex that is now Larrabee East definitely targets a different clientele than the SSL mixmasters who usually frequent Mills' rooms, and he's excited about that challenge. Upgrading was implemented almost immediately at East, with the addition of a new cue system for the tracking room, along with the inclusion in the studios of some of that vintage Gearworks outboard. Mills has been taking suggestions from previous clients of the facility and plans to redecorate and remodel, creating a reception area and a private lounge for the mix room. He also intends to enlarge the consoles, leaving the original 1078 modules and upgrading to 40 inputs with automation. East will be, as the other studios are, booked by studios manager Jamie Way, with an on-site location coordinator to handle logistics.
"We plan to upgrade East to provide Larrabee-style client services," notes Mills, "with full-time front desk people, runners, maintenance and great assistants. It's easy for me to talk about accomplishments and growth, but it's the employees and their dedication and work that make Larrabee what it is. our employees are great; traditionally, by the way, about 20 percent of our business comes from producers and engineers who are ex-employees.
"I figured out a while ago that I can't always be worried about what my next-door neighbor is doing," he concludes. "The Los Angeles recording industry is vibrant, growing and always evolving. I have a great deal of respect for my competitors. But I can't focus on what other studios are doing or not doing. Instead, I try, month by month and year by year, to provide a better studio in terms of service and facilities. I'm going to continually build, improve, retool, reorganize and always try to make Larrabee a better company than it was six months ago."