Remembering the Fallen

I found a note in the mail the other day announcing the demise of yet another outstanding recording studio. This time the decedent was O’Henry Studios (this link might not be good for long, so click it now), in North Hollywood, California. It was one of my favorites, and one of the best.

When I started out in the recording business, back in the late 70’s, things were very different. There were no desktop PCs with digital audio software, there was no MIDI, no samplers, no digital reverbs – pretty much no digital anything. When people wanted to make a record, they had to go to a studio, and they actually had to play musical instruments. In order for the sound to make it onto the tape (yes, we used 2″ 24-track analog tape back then), the services of an engineer were required. That was my job. I worked at a studio called Power Station, on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, where I worked my way up through the ranks to become a staff engineer.

Because there was no practical way for artists to make good-quality recordings at home back then, the studios could count on steady business, and the better ones could charge a pretty penny for their services. As a result of that, the first-tier studios could afford to spare no expense for equipment, design, and staff. Power Station had outstanding consoles (Neve 8068s and various SSLs, for you cognoscenti out there), a fantastic assortment of signal-processing gear (including 24 of the now-legendary Pultec tube equalizers in each room), and a truly phenomenal collection of microphones (just the Neumann u87s alone numbered over 30). We had tech support on-site round the clock, and best of all some of the best acoustical spaces ever built.

My boss, Tony Bongiovi, was a seasoned studio veteran – he had started out in his teens, mixing records for Motown – and he and the staff engineers who became my mentors took the art of recording very seriously indeed. There was a great deal of money and prestige at stake. We all worked absurdly long hours, and while I won’t say we loved every minute of it – listening to a coke-addled rock star attempt Take 33 of his solo at 5 a.m., 28 hours into the session, is not always as much fun as it sounds – we took serious pride in our craft. It was an honor and a privilege to learn from such great engineers and producers as Bob Clearmountain, Neil Dorfsman, Al Schmitt, Phil Ramone, Tony Visconti, Nile Rodgers, Manfred Eicher, Eddie Kramer, and so many others, and to work on (and occasionally even sing or play on!) the recordings of the endless cavalcade of renowned artists who came through our doors. As staff engineers we never knew what we might be called up for next – once, in the space of a single month, I made recordings for a Haitian “compas” band, the Count Basie Orchestra, several TV commercials, David Bowie, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But things began to change. The advent of digital recording and signal processing made it possible for artists to start building “project” studios at home. The quality was poor at first, and the cost quite high, but as the gear improved artists moved from relying on their home studios only for making demos to doing more and more of their albums there. If a record can be made at almost no hourly cost in a home studio instead of paying $200 or more an hour at a place like Power Station, the decision becomes pretty easy, even if the quality suffers.

Another change was in musical fashion itself. The first generation of home-studio equipment, along with the advent of programmable synthesizers and drum machines, spawned a wave of “outsider” artists – people who made records in their garages and bedrooms with a single sampler, a keyboard, and a cheap microphone for vocals. The crude sound of these recordings were part of their edgy, streetwise appeal, and gradually the craftsmanship and skill we had all been trained for began to fall out of fashion. I actually had people say to me “now don’t make it sound too good!”

Adding to the climate change was the fact that as time went by there was an ever-growing world of prerecorded sounds that could be reused as samples. Any record out there was fair game to be mined for usable sounds, and high-quality sample libraries were flooding the market. More and more, records were becoming mere collages, the difficult work of making the recorded sounds already having been done.

Finally there was the explosion of Internet filesharing. Record sales, save for the most durable stars, fell off considerably, with a resulting downward pressure on record budgets. This, for many studios that were already struggling, was the final nail in the coffin, and many simply closed their doors. In New York, my home base, we lost Skyline, Record Plant, Sorcerer, Hit Factory, Media Sound, A&R, and even the august RCA studios, with its legendary “big room”. Many engineers left the business altogether.

Power Station, too, came perilously close to oblivion. The studio was put up for sale in the mid-90s, and two simultaneous auctions were held – one for the individual pieces of equipment, and one for the whole studio as a single lot. The idea was that whichever auction brought in more would prevail: if the item-by-item sale won out, the vultures would flap off with the gear, the building would be sold, and that would be that. Allah be praised, a buyer appeared for the entire kit and caboodle, and the studio was reborn as Avatar. It is still one of the finest places on earth to record music.

But many, many are gone. I know that is just the way of the world – things do change, everything has its time, yes, yes – but it is still very sad.

O’Henry was a fine recording studio, and I did some of my best work there.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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