Sound at risk, Capitol says

Times Staff Writer

No! No-o-o-o! No-o-o-o-o-o! That plea from Hollywood is reverberating through Los Angeles City Hall as officials try to decide whether a 16-story tower should be built next to the landmark Capitol Records building.

A Marina del Rey developer hopes to construct 93 condominiums, 13,442 square feet of commercial and office space and a 242-space underground parking lot next to the landmark, 13-floor, record-shaped building.

But Capitol executives are trying to stop the multimillion-dollar project because of fears that pile-driving and excavation for the three-level underground garage will damage one-of-a-kind, below-ground echo chambers that are used for high-end recordings.


The developer has denied that the project would harm the reverberation equipment and has pledged to try to limit noise and vibration during construction.

The famed echo chambers were designed by guitarist Les Paul and have been used by recording artists ranging from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Chris Botti, Natalie Cole -- who just finished an album there -- and Brian Wilson, who used them last week.

EMI Music North America, which operates Capitol Records, has appealed the city’s preliminary approval of the high-rise, which is proposed for the southwest corner of Yucca Street and Argyle Avenue. Until 2005 that was the site of the KFWB-AM (980) radio station.

“As a major employer in the Hollywood area, Capitol Records is extremely concerned about the viability of us being able to continue to run Capitol Studios in the face of the admittedly significant adverse impacts that will be caused by construction,” said Maureen B. Schultz, a senior vice president at the recording company.

In a letter to City Council members, Schultz explained that the echo chambers are on the east side of the record company headquarters at the corner of Vine and Yucca streets. They are buried 18 feet from the proposed excavation site.

“We are not anti-development, and understand and support that Hollywood is changing and new development is part of that change,” she said in the letter.


But “the sound in the studios is one that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The echo chambers are as much a part of the Hollywood history as the Capitol Tower and the Hollywood sign.”

The eight concrete chambers, built 30 feet underground, vary in shape to give different sounds. A speaker pipes music into one end of each chamber and a microphone picks up the reverberation at the other end.

Capitol employees say their three recording studios are booked by artists who know the Vine Street echo effect is something that cannot be duplicated electronically or at any other studio.

Although it is not part of EMI’s appeal, record company workers and others in Hollywood also oppose the 16-floor tower because it would overshadow Capitol’s iconic building by three stories and block views of the landmark from the nearby Hollywood Freeway.

The Capitol tower was designed by architect Welton Becket and finished in 1956. It was the world’s first circular office building. Music fans immediately embraced its look, which resembled a stack of vinyl 45s on a record turntable. Its spire is said to blink out the name “Hollywood” in Morse code at night.

EMI’s appeal of the project is one of two that have been filed. A separate objection has been lodged by Hollywood resident Jim McQuiston, who has lived for 48 years across the street from the tower site. He objects to it on seismic grounds.


“It would affect me when it falls over on me,” McQuiston, a Caltech-trained engineer, said Tuesday. In papers filed with the city, he asserted that “the so-called Yucca strand of the Hollywood Fault poses an extreme hazard” to the condominium tower.

Developer David Jordan could not be reached for comment Tuesday. However, a lawyer representing the project dismissed McQuiston’s concerns.

“That seems, quite frankly, like an implausible scenario,” Dale Goldsmith said of the tower toppling in an earthquake. “His apartment building would collapse before this one would. It would be built in accordance of latest earthquake standards.”

As far as Capitol Records’ echo chambers are concerned, Goldsmith pledged that they will be safe during construction.

“We’re confident there won’t be any long-term damage,” he said. “We’re prepared to indemnify them. They have a right to be concerned, but their concerns are exaggerated.”

Steps will be taken to limit vibration and noise, he said. “There are a series of mitigation measures to be taken during construction. Muffling devices, dewatering techniques, taking noise-generating equipment as far away as possible from Capitol,” Goldsmith said.


An acoustical study done for Jordan by an Oakland firm acknowledged that “without the mitigation . . . ground-borne noise from construction activities may temporarily impact operation of the echo chambers.”

But it suggested that “digital signal processing and other digital audio recording techniques can simulate almost every echo chamber effect.”

Capitol officials plan to refute that when the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee reviews their appeal May 13. The entire council is expected to take up the issue May 27, committee Chairman Ed Reyes said Tuesday.

Digital reverberation can’t compare with a real echo chamber, Capitol recording experts say. That’s a claim they’ve shot down over and over and over again.