L.A. Grapevine

A wave of mortification swept over me on a late-fall evening as I approached the gleaming new home of Levels Audio Post (http://levelsaudio.com) at 1026

Levels Audio Post’s Mix1a—one of five rooms in the elegant 13,000-square-foot complex

Photo: Edward Colver

A wave of mortification swept over me on a late-fall evening as I approached the gleaming new home of Levels Audio Post (http://levelsaudio.com) at 1026 Highland Ave. in Hollywood for the facility's grand-opening party. Pulling into the line of Benzes, Jags and Beemers creeping toward the entrance of this high-tech Taj Mahal, I wondered whether the valet would scowl at the sight of my grimy 10-year-old Ford Explorer and wave me on. But he took my car, a smiling young woman admitted me into the party and I was handed an electric-blue cocktail in a martini glass as I tried to look like I belonged there. Once inside, it was easy to spot the host: Levels owner Brian Riordan was working the room like a spinning top, wearing the same sort of euphoric grin you see on the faces of new fathers.

Riordan's baby is a 13,000-square-foot shrine to state-of-the-art audio and video hardware, set off by mood lighting, brick walls, exposed beams and ultramodern furniture of his own design. I wandered into Mix 1, the biggest of Levels' five mix rooms, and managed to avoid spilling my cocktail on its centerpiece, a Digidesign ICON D-Control console — “the big boy,” Riordan calls it — which allows him to do stereo and 5.1 mixes for both standard and high-definition telecasts. The other four rooms are outfitted with D-Commands, making this the first all-ICON post house in town, according to the proud owner. These impeccably appointed environments have the feel of contemporary recording studios, thanks to the design of renowned architect/acoustician Peter Grueneisen of studio bau:ton fame (now of nonzeroarchitecture), but the theater-sized Sony 1080i HD projector on the far wall of each space and the Sharp Aquos LCD monitor mounted directly in front of each ICON console identify these rooms as high-end A/V workspaces.

The facility is also equipped with outboard gear from companies such as Avalon, BSS and TC Electronic, as well as ADAM reference monitors and a Martinsound MultiMAX EX surround monitor controller. All mix rooms feature Pro Tools HD Accel rigs enhanced by plug-ins from Waves, Digidesign and other top-line outfits. This place is pimped-out, to say the least.

“A lot of people think I've just absolutely gone off the deep end,” Riordan says of his new home, revealing that several million dollars went into the design, build-out, engineering, equipment and furniture alone. “But I'm looking at this as a very long-term investment. Between real estate; banking; architectural and acoustic design; overseeing construction, budgets and schedules; moving facilities; keeping all existing clients happy; and having a newborn baby at home, it has been one hell of a year. I can honestly say it definitely wasn't boring.”

This stunning edifice is the realization of a dream that was beyond Riordan's wildest imagination six years ago, when he signed on to handle audio post-production for Fox's American Idol. As the show exploded into a cultural phenomenon of the first order, Riordan's star rose right along with those of Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks, whose vocals the sleep-deprived mixer painstakingly optimized during the course of five arduous but rewarding seasons.

“I have not slept a whole lot in the last 10 years,” says the high-revving mixer/sound designer/entrepreneur. “This is partly due to our crazy turnaround schedules and partly due to my disease — I can't seem to sit still for very long. I'm a workaholic by nature.” He'd better be, considering that during each season of American Idol, he typically works straight through from Saturday until Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the week's episode airs. “We are definitely in a fast-turnaround business,” Riordan says. “Nowadays, it seems that budgets and schedules continually run over, yet the airdates remain the same, so our mix time ends up getting squeezed pretty hard a lot of the time.”

Riordan and his staff of mix engineers presently handle series such as ABC's The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Fox's So You Think You Can Dance? and NBC's Identity, along with a full slate of music-intensive televised events, including MTV's Movie Awards and Video Music Awards; VH1's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Rock Honors and Big In '06; and the jewel in the crown, the Academy Awards, which recently became a Levels client.

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Levels Audio Post’s lounge, where recent client American Idol can relax

Photo: Edward Colver

“It really all boils down to having the right team,” Riordan says of the labor-intensive approach that put Levels Audio on the map. “I guess I developed our reputation by acting more as a producer than simply a mixer. Each show we mix gets treated with 100-percent care and attention from our senior mixers from beginning to end, as opposed to many facilities, which take more of an assembly-line approach. Because of the insane schedules our clients fall victim to, we position ourselves in a way that we catch and correct any mistakes that could have been made either in production or in post. So I guess we're as much ‘fixers’ as we are mixers.”

Riordan came to his dual-platform expertise through a combination of intent and serendipity. A lifelong music lover, he began playing piano and guitar at a very young age and began teaching himself about engineering and mixing while studying composition at Boston's Berklee College of Music. After graduating, he produced and mixed various music projects in Boston until relocating to Los Angeles in '92, when he made the transition from rock and pop projects to mixing TV commercials. “Working in the commercial world really made me understand the full-service, ‘one-man-band’ approach,” he says. After working on hundreds of national advertising campaigns, Riordan segued back into music by developing a clientele of awards-show and music-special producers. By 1998, he'd accumulated enough advertising and TV-special clients to warrant opening his own facility at 1606 Highland Ave., near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard, enabling him “to do things 100 percent the way I thought they should be done.”

When a long and painful Screen Actors Guild strike crippled the advertising industry soon thereafter, Levels' TV-special clientele had grown to the point where Riordan was able to fully transition out of advertising and into long-form television. He later expanded the facility, building a large dub stage, machine room, additional client lounges and editorial rooms. Then, two years ago, Riordan decided to take the big plunge to keep up with the ever-growing demand. He acquired the property at 1026 Highland Ave. in August of '05, broke ground last January and opened doors in July.

When I ask him whether the finished product, two miles and several million bucks from Levels' former location, is what he'd envisioned going in, Riordan slows down momentarily to reflect. “I'm not in this thing for a short turnaround,” he says. “I'm a relatively young guy, and I plan on working for a very long time. If I've got a 20-year run at this thing, I firmly believe that I've just built the best facility possible, and that's a good feeling. It was a risky move, and I'm just hoping that it stays lucrative. I just want to do it right one time, and I hope never to have to do it again.”

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