May 21, 2016

Photo Essay: Capitol Studios Turns the Big 6-0

If Hollywood has a skyline, the mid-century Capitol Records tower at Hollywood and Vine is pretty much it.

Designed by Welton Becket, it was the first circular office building in the world—and at 13 stories high (the height limit at the time so as not to be taller than City Hall), it was Hollywood's first high-rise office building to be air-conditioned.

Which is something.

I've been wanting to get into the Capitol Records building ever since I first saw it on a business trip to LA, when I myself was working at a different record label on the other coast.

But, like many office buildings, unless you've got a meeting there, you're hard-pressed to find a way in.

Then again, as I always say, there's always a way in.

My access today came by way of the 60th anniversary of Capitol Studios...

...and, as part of the celebration, a small group of 10 of us got to spend about two hours exploring the hallowed (and probably haunted) halls of this legendary factory of hit records.

I remember working in the classical department of Atlantic Records during the label's 60th anniversary. It was a really big deal. We all got our photos taken with Ahmet at a big celebration. I was doing a job that my dad could understand—and at a company he actually recognized.

And while I've spent some time in some recording studios throughout my oddball music biz career, nothing compares to the experience I had today.

In Studios A and B, I got up close and personal with Nat King Cole's Steinway piano...

...and Billy Preston's Hammond B3 organ that he used to play with The Beatles.

I sat on a stool that had been made to Frank Sinatra's specifications...

...face to face with one of his microphones.

I got to listen to isolated tracks from Tom Petty's "American Girl" and (completely unintentionally) Sam Smith's "Stay With Me," which sounded amazing.

Sam Smith recorded his album here in Hollywood, and took advantage not only of Capitol's vintage Neve 8068 sound board (signed by Rupert Neve himself), but also some of the studio's eight subterranean "echo chambers."

Constructed out of reinforced concrete in a trapezoidal shape (and original to the building), the echo chambers are a surprisingly analog approach to creating reverb in a digitally-equipped age. The music is piped into them, and the echo of it is piped right back out and recorded in the studio above it.

Then again, all three of the recording studios at Capitol are analog. As one engineer said, it's easier to physically grab onto something to make a change rather than have to pull it up on a computer.

They even still use the tape machines sometimes.

A lot of this equipment has created a lot of high-quality sound recordings that have stood the test of time...

...and sound just as pristine—and relevant—now as they did back then.

I've never heard The Who's "Pinball Wizard" or Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" better than I did today in Studio C's surround sound.

Maybe it's because our engineer, Charlie, told us to crank it up as high as we wanted.

Music types always like their music loud.

Capitol's studios aren't just about recording the songs—but also finishing them off, adding effects, and sending masters off to be manufactured—so we got to visit a couple of mastering suites as well.

And here's where my mind was really blown, because we got to watch the process of lacquer mastering for vinyl (also known as "vinyl cutting"), as demonstrated by legendary vinyl mastering engineer Ron McMaster.

He's been cutting records for Capitol since the 1980s; but when vinyl sales went into a slump and interest in LPs waned, he switched to mastering CDs.

Now that interest in vinyl is resurging, Ron is back in the phonograph business—with two vintage Neumann disc-cutting lathes that he practically had to rescue from being scrapped when it seemed like they'd become obsolete. And it's a good thing, too, since nobody makes those machines anymore (and when Ron needs a spare part, he's got to search the internet for it).

I'll be honest: I didn't really understand what I was watching when Ron used the machine to cut a 45 RPM (a.k.a. a 7-inch) of "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" from The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (which just turned 50 years old this month). The song was playing, and the grooves seemed to appear on the 10-inch vinyl disc as if by magic.

It was the perfect ending to a tour inside a building that itself looks like a stack of vinyl records.

Of course, I'm not done with that building yet. The rooftop observation deck still beckons me, its red blinking beacon spelling out H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D in Morse code.

Unfortunately, it closed to the public after 9/11. Fortunately, I'm not your average "public" citizen.

Here's a great little video on the construction of the tower, initially dubbed "Project X":

Related Posts:
Christmas in August
Putting Pop Music on Pause
Photo Essay: Music, Architecture, and the Rescue of the Heifetz Studio

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