Precious few studios in L.A. (or anywhere else, for that matter) can boast that they’ve been around 40 years and are under the same family ownership. Yet that is the remarkable achievement of Hollywood’s beloved Sunset Sound — founded in 1962 by Walt Disney’s director of recording, Tutti Camarata, and owned today by his son Paul. Factor in that this year also marks the 20th anniversary of Camarata’s ownership of Sunset’s “sister” studio, Sound Factory, and you’ve got a strong case for dubbing the Camaratas the First Family of L.A. Recording.
In the early days of Sunset Sound, which was built on the site of a one-time automotive repair shop, everything was recorded in mono, and much of Camarata’s business came from his former employer, Disney. Soundtrack work for such classic films as Bambi, Mary Poppins and 101 Dalmations kept Camarata and his small staff busy. But just as the rest of the recording world embraced rock ‘n’ roll in the post-Beatles age, Sunset found itself increasingly catering to that market, too, while continually modernizing the studio to accommodate the rapid changes in technology in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
During most of the ’70s, the studio was usually buzzing 24 hours a day, as L.A.’s emerging rock demi-gods churned out smash album after smash album there, and Sunset remained a magnet for film music work, as well. But truly, there’s never been a period when Sunset hasn’t been one of the busiest studios in town. The list of artists who have used the studio for tracking and/or mixing through the years is staggering: Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees, Prince, Whitney Houston, the Beach Boys, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, Elton John, Alanis Morissette, The Doors, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, The Wallflowers, Beck, Lauryn Hill — the list goes on and covers every style of music imaginable.
Sunset Sound is justifiably famous for being musician- and engineer-friendly — a comfortable place to work, with great-sounding rooms and top-notch, well-maintained equipment. Studio 1’s control room has a custom discrete console with Flying Faders and API 550A EQ modules on every channel; Studio 2 houses a Neve 8088; Studio 3 is based around an API DeMideo custom console, also with the API modules. There are also plenty of top microphones and a fine selection of outboard gear to keep engineers coming back to Sunset. It’s no wonder that so many musicians, producers and engineers sing the studio’s praises.
Though the neighboring Sound Factory has been under Camarata control for the past two decades, its history actually goes back further. It was originally built as a studio for Moonglow Records in the ’60s, but by 1969, it was bought by the famed engineer/producer David Hassinger (Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, et al). With help from engineer Val Garay, Hassinger turned it into one of the most popular rooms in town during the ’70s, when it hosted the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Little Feat and many others. By 1980, though, the studio was set to close when the Camaratas stepped in and reopened the facility — which is just a couple of minutes from Sunset Sound — in 1982. Here, some of the draw is the wonderful-sounding API consoles that grace the control rooms of A and B; they’ve helped attract such diverse artists as Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, The Pretenders, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, James Taylor, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, X, The Bangles, Richard Thompson and scores of other greats.
There are flashier rooms in L.A. than Sunset Sound and Sound Factory, but few command the loyalty and respect of these venerable institutions.