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April 21 2010 Capitol Studios Tour - Courtesy The Recording Academy

Author:  wynnesome [ Fri May 07, 2010 10:48 am ]
Post subject:  April 21 2010 Capitol Studios Tour - Courtesy The Recording Academy

On April 21, I was privileged, via my membership in The Recording Academy, to take part in an exclusive tour of Capitol Recording and Mastering Studios in Hollywood. There were only about 50 people brought in for the tour, and it was an incredible opportunity to be immersed in the atmosphere and past and present accomplishments of this beautiful facility.

Here's a blog entry that I wrote about my experience of the event:


If I tried to write down everything that made tonight's tour of the Capitol Records Studios facilities amazing.... this blog would never end. The event reaffirmed every bit of the studio magic that made me want to become a recording engineer myself. It was a fantastic "back to my roots" experience, returning to the "big studio" environment, seeing the equipments and setups so much like the studios where I first learned and worked as an engineer before taking the independent route that led me to where I am now, a studio owner myself.

Capitol is a full-time working recording studio, and the only remaining major label to have its own studio facilities. It's not only a visual landmark at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, but an immense repository of musical history. While some of the studio's rooms have been structurally revamped, others are still as-built, and contain much of the same equipment as was used to record albums by Frank Sinatra and The Beatles, and master Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

The event was hosted by Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Wing personnel, as well as Capitol Studios staff members. In addition to the head of operations and head of mastering, we had the opportunity to observe in session and ask questions of multi-Grammy award winning engineer Al Schmitt and mastering engineer Ron McMasters. If these names don't mean anything to you, do a quick Google search. Chances are, no matter what style of music you listen to, you have more than one album they've engineered in your collection.

The major portion of the event was a session in Studio A, put together especially for this evening. Musicians included drummer Sergio Gonzales, piano/keyboard player Jeff Lorber, and an awesome bass player whose name I shamefully cannot remember. The trio rocked through a hot jazz fusion set, improvising and interweaving together with the polish and flair of the elite musicians that they are. A highlight was watching Lorber play Rhodes and piano at the same time, left hand on the Rhodes, and right hand on the keys of a Yamaha grand piano set at right angles. Event attendees spent half the session in the live room, observing the player dynamics, live drum and piano tones, and mic setups, then half the session in the control room, listening through the vintage Neve VR console, and sharing open Q&A time with engineer Al Schmitt.

The tracks recorded tonight will eventually be uploaded to the Grammy365 web site, offered for Academy members such as myself to listen to, download, remix, and repost! I know I will have a blast mixing these tracks here at my own studio once they are posted!

After the studio session, we were shown in groups through the other areas of the facility. Studio C is a mix room only, with a custom Neve VRQ console. Studio B is set "face to face" with Studio A, with a four-panel wall separating the two live rooms. The wall can be opened up to allow both live rooms to combine into one, for recording up to a 70-piece orchestra. The two studios can also be used independently and simultaneously, with near-perfect isolation. It was interesting hearing Capitol Studios Head of Operations Greg Parkin (himself from Long Beach!) talk about a few times where a very loud band was in session across the wall from a very quiet performer, and the accommodations that were made in those cases.

The control rooms of Studios A, B, and C are equipped with multiple racks of tube preamps, compressors, and equalizers, including Summit Audio preamps, Pultec EQ's, and the analog versions of the 1176 and Fairchild compressors I use daily in plugin form here at the studio through the Universal Audio DSP cards. When I asked him, Schmitt was quite complimentary toward the plugin versions of these pieces of gear, and while of course I trust my own ears that tell me the UAD plugins do a great job, it's fantastic to hear this opinion echoed by such a top engineer.

In both Studio A (for the event session) and Studio B (where a crew was tearing down gear and I had overheard in passing that drummer Greg Bissonette had been recording that day prior to our tour), I saw many of the same microphones that I learned recording with. The kick drum for our "demonstration" session was miked with an AKG D-112, the same mic I use for every drum session here. Other "familiar faces" included AKG 414's and 451's, Neumann M-149's (a pair of these $5000 apiece tube mics used to mic the Yamaha grand piano Lorber performed on), and others. While a $5000 microphone is simply outside of my own budget, having myself used this exact equipment in the past means I can well evaluate equipment that I can afford, and hand pick gear with the qualities most similar to the "big league" beauties that I can for now only dream of owning someday.

In this day and age, Capitol has its choice of recording media. Default is a series of robust ProTools systems, but it still owns a full complement of 2" analog tape recorders available upon request. Schmitt spoke knowledgeably about a recent Norah Jones release where recordings were made on both digital and 2" analog systems, played back to back, and no one could tell the difference. While there are many pertinent factors that go into shaping a recording, the recording medium itself is no longer king in determining the sound quality of an album.

In addition to the recording studios, there are two mastering suites. We met up with engineer Ron McMasters, who talked to us about his workflow, and showed off the studio's beautiful Neumann cutting lathe upon which he regularly masters to vinyl in addition to "modern" PMCD mastering. And, the second mastering suite is where Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was originally mastered. Both mastering rooms feature magnificent Neve and Sontec EQ's, with the latter room also containing a gorgeous array of Manley, Tube Tech, and TC mastering equipment very similar to the equipment I worked on in my own mastering training at Airshow Mastering in Boulder, CO.

Our tour concluded with a walk through the tech room (Schmitt says Capitol Records' 24-hour tech department is the best in the industry, hands down), the archive room, where cased master tapes and hard drives labeled with star-power names covering 60 years of music fill shelf after shelf, and a mini-tour of the underground reverb chambers.

Capitol, with the support of The Recording Academy and the music industry and communities at large, recently fought off an effort to build a hi-rise condo in their parking lot, which would have replaced these chambers with underground parking. Capitol's 8 underground reverb chambers are a series of 10'x15' miked chambers designed by the great Les Paul. Each chamber has been fine-tuned over the past 50 years to create a distinct and irreplaceable sound all its own. We did not get to descend the narrow, wall-mounted metal ladder leading what looked to be about 20' or so down to the chambers, but we did get to see the reverb send controls and take a look down the chute to get the vibe. Apparently being in the chambers can sound utterly ghostlike, especially, so we were told, when historical vocal tracks are played solo into the chambers.

Of course all of this history, equipment, and space comes at a price. Hourly studio rates range in the areas of $230 per hour for time in Studio A, to $325/hr in the large mastering room. And recording studio time on this level is studio-only, with the engineer's fee not included. So, the per hour rate just for the studio time at Capitol is almost as much as our own full day rate of $250, which does include my engineering services.

Most of us will never be able to afford to record at a place like Capitol, and this is why to me it's so important to do what I do here at D. M. Gremlin Studios. Using the knowledge and experience I've gained by working and learning in studios and with equipment of this caliber, we are bringing high-end recording quality within the reach of the self-financed artists who bring their music here.

I could go on even further with stories and anecdotes from the evening, but I hope this has shared a little bit of what was a great experience for me tonight in touring Capitol Records Studios. And, the Studio Tour series is continuing this spring and summer. Having this event turn out to be so much more than I expected, I will definitely attend further events - including one I know I am already looking forward to, a tour of Ocean Way Studios a couple of months from now.