Photos: Inside Hollywood's Legendary Capitol Studios
We took a tour of Capitol Studios, the Hollywood birthplace of some of the world's greatest recordings, as it prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary with a rare public open house this weekend.
Capitol Studios turned 60 on February 22. Frank Sinatra was the studio's first artist, with the recording of Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poem of Color.
Ursula Kneller, Director of Special Projects at Universal Music Group, tells LAist that nearly every day, someone comes to the iconic building looking for a tour. However, those who have been allowed inside these halls have typically been those there on business. After all, it is a functioning and busy studio.
This weekend, they're going to do something different. In celebration of 60 years, they're offering a rare opportunity to take tours, attend demos and hear tales from some of the studio's most notable recording sessions. There will also be the WAX Record Fair, where you can pick up some new vinyl for your collection while enjoying artist appearances, panels, food vendors and a beer garden.
We stopped by in advance, on a weekday, to meet Paula Salvatore, VP of Capitol Studios. who has been with the company for 26 years.
The tower wasn't around when the label was first formed. Capitol Records, the first label based on the West Coast, was founded in 1942 by Johnny Mercer, Buddy DeSylva, and Glenn Wallichs. The 13-story tower was designed by Lou Naidorf of the Welton Becket Firm when he was just 24, and opened in 1956. It was the first circular office building, and though it may look like a stack of records, that was not the designers' intention. Around the holidays, the tower is adorned with a Christmas tree made out of lights, and if you've ever wondered about the blinking light at the top of the tower, it employs Morse code to spelled out "H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D."
"The circular building made functional sense, but was also unique and interesting because it gave everyone a window and preserved the view of Hollywood," Salvatore says.
The first spot Salvatore takes us are the three famed studios—A, B, and C. It's at first deceptively quiet. However, as we approach Studio C, we can hear the faint sound of strings emanating from the chamber.
We enter Studio B first. Of the trio, this one is what Salvatore calls the "rock 'n roll room." Typically, full bands record in this room, and it still holds Nat King Cole's 7-foot Steinway.
"Groups come in here like Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, John Mayer. [Michael] Bublé did work here," she says. "They come here and camp out."
While some of those names may not be particularly synonymous with rock 'n roll for modern audiences, you may be interested in knowing that Beach Boys also once recorded here. Frank Sinatra, too, recorded in that room and the stool that sits outside is one of his. Salvatore explains that the ultra suede leopard print that now covers the chair was not its original upholstery. "It's basically just a metal chair, but you'll see it in all the old, classic pictures on Sinatra's albums, so we kept it around," she says.
The room was built along with the rest of the studio in 1956, and renovated between 1989 and 1990 after the CEO's wife suggested an upgrade. Renovations included better sound baffling. Salvatore points to a gobo, as they're called by studio types: an acoustic isolation panel that can be moved around. They work by absorbing and diffusing sound. The gobo panels in this room use glass, and they can be folded in half for different sounds. The console in Studio B is a vintage Neve 8068 console designed by Rupert Neve, and Salvatore says people come from all over just to work on that board "because of the lush, deep pocketed sound it creates."
The consoles got bigger as technology advanced, which took up some of the room's space. As such, the wall that separates Studio A from Studio B can be removed, opening up the space for full orchestras. Each year, the orchestra for the Academy Awards will record here.
"We do the rehearsals and pre-records, and then they do a backup pre-record just in case something happens [during the live show], and they bring it to the [production] truck," she says.
For three years, however, they did it live. Meaning, the orchestra set up at Capitol, and crews ran fiber optic lines from Capitol to the Dolby Theatre down the street. They did this because the stage producers wanted to use the stage elevator at the Dolby, which meant they also took over the orchestra pit. During the ceremony, the orchestra played at Capitol, while the singers sang at the Dolby.
"Everything [was] live simultaneously," Salvatore says. "There was a millisecond delay, so you couldn't hear it."
The orchestra has since returned to the Dolby.
In Studio A sits a 9" Yamaha piano. This is where Paul McCartney recorded Kisses on the Bottom,, and there have also been a number of videos shot here. Justin Timberlake shot parts of "Suit and Tie" here, and the scene in the 2004 biopic Ray where Jamie Foxx, as Ray Charles, performs "Georgia" was filmed here, too.
Studio C—the studio with the lush string sounds—is where Salvatore says a lot of scoring for films is done. Recently, they mixed Adele's "Hello" there as well as music from The Revenant.
"We usually tell people to record in A and convince them to mix in C," she says. "Stick around for awhile!"
There are also eight echo chambers located 20 feet underground that were designed by Les Paul.
When it comes to the mastering process, Ron McMaster, true to his name, is the expert. He's been cutting vinyl for 30 years, and is casually introduced to us by a colleague as the "Wizard of Wax."
That particular day, he was working on an upcoming Catalog Christmas record that came out in 1987, and contains tracks from the likes of Stevie Nicks, Run D.M.C., Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. It was the first in a series of such star-studded compilations. Christmas might seem far off, but the backup for records is now so long that December records have to go to McMaster in May.
"This is a great record," he says. "We're just making sure the files are matching up with the record for when I cut it so that when people buy it again, it will sound just like it sounded years ago."
To cut the records, he uses a lathe the company brought in in the '70s. It's not made anymore, so they have to be careful with it and take good care of it, relying on the Internet to track down parts if needed. Capitol recently tweeted that it's the same lathe that cut Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
When McMaster started, records were generally only about 15 to 18 minutes long, but he says that nowadays, people try to "push the envelope," particularly if they can't afford to put out a double album. "But it's all right to push the envelope or cherry pick the songs and make the record a little longer than the CD," he says. "It makes it a collectible item."
On the inner circle of the record is the selection number that identifies sides A and B. McMaster will handwrite this notation, and sometimes, bands may ask him to also write an inside joke or phrase.
"Some of the older records will have that—a lot of Eagles albums. It'll be something that nobody understands but that particular group. I also request that they make it kind of short," he says with a laugh.
In the library, two and three track masters are being transferred to high res and transcribing old notes. There are about 4 million physical assets among the collection at Universal Music Group, Capitol's parent company. This room alone has shelves pack with Beatles and Beach Boys masters, among other artists, in alphabetical order.
The rest of the tower holds the record company, production suites, mastering, as well as the company's other labels. The circular halls allow for various musicians to run into one another, making the studio something like a bustling community. "We're so busy we're booked seven days a week in some shape or form," she says.
The tower also occasionally host events on the roof, and they also record various artists in live performance for their Top of the Tower series. Here's Best Coast:
Though the music industry has certainly changed over the past 60 years, Capitol persists. Salvatore figures people still have to make music, no matter the format, be it vinyl, cassette or digital. In particular, after the '80s ended, Salvatore says she noticed that people began moving back to live instruments after a decade of synth.
"Everything got technical in the '80s, but I think there was a demand for this music that opens up with horns and strings," she says. "I noticed that came back with soundtracks. Everyone listened to Star Wars with John Williams. People started liking orchestral music again."
Patrick Kraus, SVP, Head of Studio, Production & Archive Services/ Universal Music Group, says, "Even 25 year sago, you had to go to a studio to do most of your recording. You couldn't do it any other way. But technology allows you now to do everything at home. But one thing that hasn't changed is that you need expertise and good people, and good rooms, to make a good record."
Kraus also noted that even artists that are not on Capitol's label record at the studio.
I asked Salvatore to give us one interesting anecdote from a recording session, and she quickly thought of the studio's first guest.
Frank Sinatra, who came back to the studio for the first time in 10 years to record Duets in 1993, desired to be in the midst of the band. But, producer Phil Ramone said that his vocals were likely to feed back. It was decided that they'd build a booth for Sinatra to record in, something akin to little hut with a roof.
"Frank walked down there, said, 'I'm not getting in that thing,' and left," Salvatore says. "And the band was like, 'what do we do now?' We didn't know if he was coming back."
Ultimately, they ditched the booth and provided Sinatra with a hand-held mic, with no speakers, which made him happy. They were able to record with a sound guy running the mic.
If you've always been curious about what's inside, or how it's all done, you can get tickets for one of this weekend's tours here. General admission tickets are $50, and include tours of studios A B and C, photo opps and entry to the WAX Record Fair. VIP tickets are $100, and include the tours and hte record fair, plus interactive studio experiences and demos of hi-def audio, stem and surround sound, and vinyl cutting. Access to the record fair only is just $10.
Capitol Studios is located at 1750 Vine St. in Hollywood.