Battered by coronavirus, L.A.'s legendary recording studios prep for a post-shutdown ‘resurgence’
In the six decades since the late recording legend and Disney sound engineer Salvador “Tutti” Camarata opened Sunset Sound Recorders in the heart of Hollywood, the studio has been continually powered up and ready for whatever musical inspiration may come its way.
Across that expanse of uninterrupted hours, months and decades, Sunset Sound’s rooms and machines at 6650 Sunset Blvd. have been the birthplace of hundreds of essential recordings by the Beach Boys, Prince, the Doors, Barbra Streisand, Bill Withers, Toto, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Janet Jackson, Linda Ronstadt, Elliott Smith and, more 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, prompted by the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, ordered Sunset Sound, its sister studio the Sound Factory and all other non-essential city businesses to close their doors.
“This is the first time in our history, in 60 years, that we’ve ever had to shut down,” says Paul Camarata, studio owner and son of Tutti.
For context, he adds, “My father had some issues in 1973 during the oil embargo. We had to go on a conservation diet and let people go.” Even then, Sunset Sound never shut its doors.
As the center of the global music business, Los Angeles’ professional studios employ thousands of sound engineers, back-line workers and IT experts. The city’s office of finance lists nearly 2,200 businesses licensed to provide sound recording services.
“California, geographically, has been a magnet for creative souls since its birth,” says Jeff Greenberg, who owns the famed Village Studios in West Los Angeles. “The labels are headquartered here, so recording studios in Los Angeles have long been a draw.”
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Across Los Angeles, studio denizens accustomed to providing all-hours access for musicians on creative benders have been wandering hallways and pondering ways to deafen the silence. At home, they watch as artists adapt 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 with a business partner, the producer and musician Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Sky Ferreira), to assume control of famed Van Nuys recording facility Sound City Studios.
Until the pandemic, the calendar for the studio’s two wings hadn’t registered an empty day since the two signed a long-term lease. They recorded albums by Perfume Genius, Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief in rooms formerly occupied by artists including Nirvana, the Grateful Dead, Metallica, Mavis Staples and Guns N’ Roses. Berg calls the closure “devastating. We can’t book sessions.”
He now does his production 20 miles southeast in Eagle Rock, where he has a smaller home studio. There, Berg has been exploring the new frontier by collaborating on his first remotely produced album. He calls the long-distance sessions, for bluegrass guitarist-banjoist Molly Tuttle’s forthcoming album, “a very strange experience.”
Before the virus hit, Tuttle was supposed to track 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 of whom had a home studio, and equipped the Nashville-based Tuttle with microphones and a pre-amp.
Berg outlines the workflow: “She does her performances. She sends them to me. I tailor them a little bit. I send them to the musicians. Each contributes his part and sends it back to me. I massage that.”
He describes the process as “building the record as five astronauts might.”
At Kingsize Soundlabs, owner Dave Trumfio describes a shutdown involving “a lot of running around and treading water.” The company, born in Chicago nearly 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 pre-pandemic, but his main rooms are silent. Trumfio says his effort at working through the red tape for federal relief “feels like banging my head against the wall.”
Unlike Camarata’s Sunset Sound, Kingsize hasn’t been approved for a small business loan. Trumfio has filled out the same paperwork three times. “They’re not making it easy, let’s put it that way,” he says.
He too has been working remotely. His first L.A.-area Kingsize studio is in his Silver Lake home. As well, Trumfio partners with Gold-Diggers, an East Hollywood boutique hotel, bar and performance space, to operate its recently opened production facility. That’s closed during the pandemic, but many of Kingsize’s smaller facilities are single-client-occupied and not affected by the shutdown orders.
Trumfio hasn’t been producing intercontinental sessions in real time. He has, though, been file-sharing unfinished songs with clients and then getting on FaceTime to confer. “Nothing beats the in-person session. It’s a lot easier when somebody’s sitting in the room and says, ‘You know, I really don’t like what you’re doing,’” he says with a laugh.
Playing weddings was a safe, steady gig for musicians. Until coronavirus. Now wedding bands, DJs and planners wonder when their next gig might come.
Across town at the Village in West Los Angeles, Greenberg started taking precautions ahead of official pronouncements. In early March he starting taking clients’ temperatures before they could enter, and he shuttered a week later. He and his 36 employees “started going virtual right away. We’re sending microphones and flight packs out everywhere.” He dubbed the operation “The Virtual Village” and says he’s got a lot of equipment moving around the city. The Village works with artists remotely to set them up. The 52-year-old studio has received relief aid through the CARES Act, which has afforded Greenberg the ability to keep paying his full-time employees.
Ann Mincieli, Alicia Keys’ head engineer and album project manager, opted for a different strategy. As the extent of the disruption was becoming apparent, the New York-based producer, who owns Jungle City Studios there, didn’t commence remote sessions. Instead, she headed west with a pair of colleagues and rented a Laurel Canyon spot with an unfinished studio.
“I wanted to figure out ways to keep the momentum going,” she says.
Describing “a lot of pivoting just to stay ahead of the curve,” Mincieli and two colleagues hopped on a plane to be closer to Keys, who divides her time between coasts. The engineer recounts a white-knuckle experience of hiring a moving company to drive her New York equipment “as roads were closing in certain states.” In Laurel Canyon, Mincieli secured the rest of her setup in a rushed spree. “I was the last person at Guitar Center and Vintage King before L.A. was going on lockdown. My gear was driving cross-country. We pivoted.”
Mincieli, who is steering committee co-chair of the Recording Academy’s producers and engineers wing, says that the forced studio closures have affected thousands of engineers nationwide. MusiCares, the academy’s nonprofit organization whose mission is to help musicians during crises, has seen a surge in requests for aid.
She adds that as a face of the Recording Academy, the producers and engineers wing has been doing outreach in the form of Zoom sessions. One upcoming event will feature her in conversation with producers or engineers Young Guru, Manny Marroquin, Ivan Barias and others.
In the video talk, she expects a conversation geared toward strategies moving forward. “We’re all going to have to figure out ways to adjust. I already have Jungle City custom masks,” she says, and has stockpiled hospital-grade cleaning solution and sanitizer dispensers. “The big question is, in what phase will [leaders] allow recording studios to come back online?” In Los Angeles, that question will ultimately 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 experience some fundamental shifts. Can the temples of sound such as the Village, Sound City, Conway and Capitol, with their high overhead, property taxes and facilities upkeep, make it work?
“I’ve been mulling that over a lot,” says Trumfio, who adds that the first two months of 2020 were “some of our busiest times as a studio in Los Angeles.” Gold Diggers booked 100 sessions in February alone.
Sunset Sound’s Camarata isn’t worried. Like all historic production facilities, the studio has experienced fundamental shifts over the decades as home recording technology has democratized the process. He said that Sunset Sound survives as what’s called a “tracking facility,” where artists capture their basic recordings and then retreat to smaller studios for tweaks, overdubs and mixing. There will always be a demand for his company’s services. “We have three rooms and they’re large. Most of our work is made by bands that come in and record, and that’s not very convenient to do in a house or a small private-use studio. Then they’ll leave, go to their home studio or laptop or whatever.”
He addsthat it might be another year before artists will be able to again sustain themselves through touring. Camarata thinks that as studios power back up — he’s hoping mid- to late-May — “there might be a resurgence because the only thing [artists] can do is record and sell some product.” He’s filling in his calendar, but “we just keep pushing it back week by week.”
Every day, the studio fields calls and emails from musicians ready to get rolling.
Mincieli says she and Keys are treating the question of reopening as “a strategy and a challenge. Keep the momentum so that when everything turns back on,” listeners are paying attention. “Some artists just aren’t doing anything. How do you come out of the gate once this is all over?”
Trumfio agrees. “I think people are going to be raring to go,” he says. “The comfort of home is great for parts of the process, but going to an actual studio makes people perform a little different.”
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