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Capitol fears for its sonic signature

A planned high-rise next to the Hollywood recording landmark is called a threat to its studios' unique sound.

June 18, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

They were singing the blues in the legendary Studio A at Hollywood's Capitol Records tower.

"Losing this place would be a big deal. There's nothing better than this anywhere in the world," said recording engineer Al Schmitt.

Schmitt, a 19-time Grammy winner, was standing over the banquet-table-size mixing board in the Vine Street studio's control room. Punching a button on the console, he played back a silky smooth track recorded minutes earlier by jazz singer Roberta Gambarini. The sound was flawless.

Those involved in Hollywood's thriving music scene fear that's about to change.

A developer plans to build a 16-floor condominium and 242-car underground parking garage next door to the landmark cylindrical Capitol Records tower.

The Los Angeles Planning Commission has signed off on the project, but Capitol Records' parent company, EMI, has appealed to the City Council to overturn the approval. The council's planning and land-use committee is scheduled to consider the issue Tuesday.

Musicians, producers and sound engineers warn that the project would produce noise and vibrations that will make quality sound recording impossible at Capitol's famed studios.

At risk are Capitol's unique echo chambers: concrete bunkers that allow recording engineers to sweeten tracks with a rich reverberation.

The eight chambers are built 30 feet underground and are about 18 feet from where pile-driving and excavation work would be done for the condominium project.

"There is nothing like these echo chambers anywhere. Nobody can replicate them," Schmitt said.

He ought to know. He has mixed and recorded for the likes of Elvis Presley, Henry Mancini, Rosemary Clooney, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Madonna, Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and George Benson.

"I come here 200 times a year," said Schmitt, a Bell Canyon resident. "This is a big deal. That intrusion could shut this building down. It would be a shame to have the history of this studio gone like that. People want to come here to work."

Some travel across the country to use the studios.

"We're here from New York to do this," said record producer Larry Clothier. "We can record in New York; that's where everybody lives. We could, but it wouldn't be the same. The chambers under here are legendary. They're the best in the world. Nothing can replace them. It would be a travesty to lose them."

Next door in Studio B, musicians were recording for the Rockettes' Radio City Christmas show. Producer John Porter bemoaned the disappearance of Hollywood's recording studios.

"The sad thing is there were a lot of historic studios turned into parking lots and office buildings without anybody saying anything," said Porter, of Malibu. "There aren't that many rooms left set up to accommodate as many musicians as this one."

Capitol's Studio A and Studio B can be combined into a single room with space for 75 musicians. That allows the recording of movie soundtracks and orchestral music.

Studio workers said such items as Frank Sinatra's chair and favorite microphone are still in use in Studio A. So is Nelson Riddle's wooden conductor's stand and Nat King Cole's piano.

Designed by architect Welton Becket, the 150-foot-tall Capitol Records tower opened in 1956. From the beginning, elimination of noise and vibration from the building was a goal.

To prevent the hum of fluorescent lighting, the fixtures' ballasts were mounted outside the studios. The heating and air-conditioning system used "decoupled ducts, sound traps and soundproofed vents," as the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society report put it in 1957.

Exterior walls are 10-inch-thick concrete. A 1-inch air gap separates the outer wall from the studios' inner wall, which in turn stands on a floor which "floats on a rubber-tiled, 3-inch concrete slab. This upper slab floats on a layer of cork, which rests on the 6-inch concrete foundation slab," according to the engineering journal report.

The studios' interior walls were built with shutter-like baffles. One side is birch wood, which creates a hard sound, and the other is fiberglass, which has a softer sound. Ceilings are suspended beneath thick, rock-wool, soundproof insulation.

The echo chambers were even trickier to build. Designed as trapezoidal rooms by recording artist and sound expert Les Paul, they have 10-inch-thick concrete walls and foot-thick concrete ceilings. With speakers on one side and microphones on the other, they can provide reverberation lasting up to five seconds. Sound engineers "use them like an artist's palette," as one Capitol worker put it.

As the City Hall showdown has grown closer, the chorus of Capitol supporters has grown louder.

Council committee members have been flooded with letters, such as the one from Professional Musicians Local 47's Linda Rapka, who pointed out that during the last few years Los Angeles has lost the Todd A-O scoring stage, Cello Studios and the Paramount scoring stage.

Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, national executive director of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, warned that the proposed condominium project could result in "an enormous loss to the music and entertainment community."

Added Maureen Droney, executive director of the Producers & Engineers Wing of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences: "One cannot overstate the importance of Capitol Studios within the Los Angeles music scene and, indeed, to the history of recorded music."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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