LA recording studios hope to reopen soon after coronavirus
In the six decades since recording legend and Disney sound engineer Salvador “Tutti” Camarata opened Sunset Sound Recorders in the heart of Hollywood, the studio has been continuously fueled and ready to go. any musical inspiration.
Across this expanse of uninterrupted hours, months and decades, the halls and machines of Sunset Sound at 6650 Sunset Blvd. have been the birthplace of hundreds of essential recordings by Beach Boys, Prince, the Doors, Barbra Streisand, Bill Withers, Toto, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Janet Jackson, Linda Ronstadt, Elliott Smith and most recently Haim, Death Grips, John Legend and Beck.
The studio’s impressive 22,000-day streak came to an end in March, when city officials, driven by the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, ordered Sunset Sound, its sister studio the Sound Factory and all other non-essential municipal businesses to close their doors.
“This is the first time in our history, in 60 years, that we have to close,” says Paul Camarata, owner of the studio and son of Tutti.
For context, he adds, “My father had some problems in 1973 during the oil embargo. We had to go on a conservation diet and let people go. Even then, Sunset Sound never closed its doors.
As the center of the global music business, Los Angeles Professional Studios employ thousands of sound engineers, back-line engineers, and IT experts. The city’s finance office lists nearly 2,200 companies licensed to provide sound recording services.
“California, geographically, has been a magnet for creative souls since birth,” says Jeff Greenberg, owner of the famous Village Studios in West Los Angeles. “The labels are headquartered here, so the recording studios in Los Angeles have long been a draw.”
Across Los Angeles, studio dwellers accustomed to providing permanent access to musicians on creative benders have wandered the halls and pondered ways to muffle the silence. At home, they watch performers adjust to a #SafeAtHome world without soundstages, engineers, mixing consoles or echo chambers, joining fans absorbed in acoustically insulting bedroom concerts.
“It’s like we’ve become a world of retirees,” says producer and musician Tony Berg, who has worked with hundreds of artists including Aimee Mann, Ozomatli, Air Supply, Weezer and the replacements. A few years ago, Berg teamed up with a business partner, producer and musician Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Sky Ferreira), to take control of Van Nuys’ famous recording facility, Sound City. Studios.
Until the pandemic, the schedule for the studio’s two wings had not recorded an empty day since the two signed a long-term lease. They have recorded albums by Perfume Genius, Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief in venues once occupied by artists such as Nirvana, the Grateful Dead, Metallica, Mavis Staples and Guns N ‘Roses. Berg calls the closure “devastating.” We cannot book sessions.
He’s now doing his production 20 miles southeast at Eagle Rock, where he has a smaller home studio. There, Berg explored the new frontier by collaborating on his remotely produced debut album. He calls the remote sessions, for bluegrass guitarist-banjo Molly Tuttle’s upcoming album, “a very strange experience.”
Before the virus hit, Tuttle was supposed to follow the album in person with a band. But after what Berg calls “a few weeks of frustration and inertia,” the team reached out to a handful of musicians, each with a home studio, and outfitted the Nashville-based Tuttle with microphones and a preamp.
Berg describes the workflow: “She does her performances. She sends them to me. I adapt them a bit. I send them to the musicians. Everyone brings their share and sends it back to me. I massage that.
He describes the process as “setting the record like five astronauts could.”
At Kingsize Soundlabs, owner Dave Trumfio describes a save involving “a lot of running and floating”. The company, born in Chicago almost 30 years ago, operates 30 studios and production rooms in Glassell Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood and surrounding areas. Trumfio’s overhead is the same as it was before the pandemic, but its main rooms are silent. Trumfio says his efforts to overcome the bureaucracy for federal aid “is like banging your head against the wall.”
Unlike Camarata’s Sunset Sound, Kingsize has not been approved for a small business loan. Trumfio filled out the same papers three times. “They don’t make it easy, let’s put it that way,” he says.
He too works remotely. Her first Kingsize studio in the Los Angeles area is in her Silver Lake home. Additionally, Trumfio is partnering with Gold-Diggers, an East Hollywood boutique hotel, bar and performance space, to operate its recently opened production facility. It’s closed during the pandemic, but many of Kingsize’s small facilities are occupied by a single customer and unaffected by shutdown orders.
Trumfio did not produce real-time intercontinental sessions. He did, however, share files of unfinished songs with clients and then took to FaceTime for a chat. “Nothing beats the in-person session. It’s a lot easier when someone is sitting in the room and saying, ‘You know, I really don’t like what you’re doing,’ ”he laughs.
Across town in the Village of West Los Angeles, Greenberg began to take precautions before official statements. In early March, it began taking clients’ temperatures before they could enter, and it closed a week later. He and his 36 employees “immediately started going virtual. We send microphones and flight packs everywhere. He nicknamed the operation “The Virtual Village” and says he has a lot of equipment circulating in the city. The Village works remotely with artists to set them up. The 52-year-old studio received emergency aid through the CARES Act, which allowed Greenberg to continue paying its full-time employees.
Alicia Keys’ chief engineer and album project manager Ann Mincieli opted for a different strategy. As the extent of the disruption became apparent, the New York-based producer, who owns Jungle City Studios there, did not start the sessions remotely. Instead, she headed west with a pair of coworkers and rented a location in Laurel Canyon with an unfinished studio.
“I wanted to find ways to keep the momentum going,” she says.
Describing “a lot of pivots just to stay one step ahead,” Mincieli and two colleagues jumped on a plane to get closer to Keys, who is dividing his time between the ribs. The engineer recounts an unprecedented experience of hiring a moving company to drive his equipment to New York “as the roads closed in some states.” At Laurel Canyon, Mincieli secured the rest of his setup in a rushed race. “I was the last person at Guitar Center and Vintage King before LA was locked up. My equipment was riding cross-country. We pivoted.
Mincieli, who is the co-chair of the executive committee of the Producers and Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy, said forced studio closures had affected thousands of engineers across the country. MusiCares, the academy’s non-profit organization whose mission is to help musicians during crises, has seen an increase in requests for help.
She adds that as the face of the Recording Academy, the Producers and Engineers Wing has been raising awareness in the form of Zoom sessions. An upcoming event will put her in conversation with producers or engineers Young Guru, Manny Marroquin, Ivan Barias and others.
In the video chat, she expects a strategy-focused conversation to come. “We’re all going to have to find ways to adapt. I already have custom Jungle City masks, ”she says, and I’ve stocked hospital grade cleaning solution and disinfectant dispensers. “The big question is to know in which phase [leaders] allow recording studios to come back online? In Los Angeles, this question will finally be resolved by Mayor Eric Garcetti.
What the studio landscape will look like in the new normal remains to be seen, but most agree that the art of recording music will undergo fundamental changes. Temples of sound like the Village, Sound City, Conway, and Capitol, with their high overhead, property taxes, and facility maintenance, can they make it work?
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” says Trumfio, who adds that the first two months of 2020 have been “one of our busiest times as a studio in Los Angeles.” Gold Diggers booked 100 sessions in February alone.
The Sunset Sound Camarata is not worried. Like all historic production facilities, the studio has gone through fundamental changes over the decades as home recording technology democratized the process. He said Sunset Sound survives as what’s called a “follow-up setup,” where artists capture their basic recordings and then retreat to smaller studios for tweaks, overdubs and mixes. There will always be a demand for his company’s services. “We have three bedrooms and they are large. Most of our work is done by bands coming in to record, and it’s not very practical to do in a house or a small studio for private use. Then they’ll leave, go to their home studio or their laptop or whatever.
He adds that it may be another year before artists can support themselves through touring again. Camarata believes that as studios resume – he hopes from mid-May to the end of May – “there could be a resurgence because the only thing [artists] can do is register and sell a product. He fills his calendar, but “we keep pushing it from week to week”.
Every day the studio receives calls and emails from musicians ready to go.
Mincieli says she and Keys are treating the issue of reopening as “a strategy and a challenge.” Keep the momentum going so that when it all comes back on, listeners are paying attention. “Some artists just don’t do anything. How do you get out of the door once everything is done? ”
Trummio agrees. “I think people are going to be anxious to go there,” he said. “The comforts of home are great for some parts of the process, but going to a real studio makes people a little different. “