When I was 16 years old and any time my car first had some trouble, I was recommended to go to a family friend who owned an auto body shop. The shop was deep in a pretty seedy area of the San Fernando Valley. It was an area that was infested with some infamous Los Angeles gangs…as well as a pretty good Russian Mechanic. My mechanic seemed to get dollar signs in his eyes every time I would come by. I’d go there for something relatively small like an oil change or new brakes, but I would end up always leaving with a bill of like $500 or more. Usually some work that he would insist HAD to be done “or else my car would breakdown on the freeway.” I swear every time he would see me pulling up to his shop, he would tally up how much he needed to take his wife on their yearly vacation, and would make up whatever difference they needed by finding “necessities” that had to be fixed on my car. Due to my (little to no) knowledge on the mechanics of automobiles, I was easy to sell to. Little did I know that when I was going to him to get my car fixed all those years, I was driving by one of the most legendary and important recording studios in the world. Like I have said in many of my previous blogs, I have always been a music fan. If I knew that right down the block from my mechanic was THE Sound City recording studio that music legends like Tom Petty and Nirvana recorded at, I probably would have gone to great lengths to cause problems to my car, just so I would have an excuse to drive by the studio. Being obsessed with music for pretty much all my life, I was aware of many legendary recording studios in Los Angeles. Places like Can-Am, where Death Row Records artists like Snoop Dogg and 2Pac recorded at. Studios like Sunset Sound, where the Doors and Van Halen cut their landmark debuts albums. Capitol Studios, where I not only worked for a few years, but where Ol’Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra made his best songs! The Record Plant, where artists like Guns N Roses and Jimi Hendrix recorded. Even Paul McCartney and John Lennon had their last jam together in 1974 at The Record Plant. Anytime I bought physical copies of music, I immediately read the liner notes. I was really into reading who produced what, and where it was recorded. I knew of Sound City, but never knew where it was. I assumed it was in Hollywood, because after all that’s where everything happens right? But who would think that some of the biggest songs and albums of the last 40 years were recorded right near the Budweiser plant (well if you think of rock stars in the 1970’s, that kind of makes sense!). For the obvious reasons, legendary recording studios have a tendency to be relatively hidden (privacy anyone!). Sadly Sound City, the studio by my lovely mechanic, closed its doors to the public in May of 2011. Studio rats like myself mourned that day. With the advent of home recording studios, and lower production budgets, high-end facilities like Sound City and a slew of other studios could not keep their doors open anymore. Some totally closed down, others were bought and remodeled (or I call it being ruined by people who have relatively no knowledge of how to make music) by their new owners. Some studios were turned into completely different business establishments (imagine going to have lunch in the studio where Jim Morrison recorded LA Woman). Any music or pop culture fan is easily saddened by the news of a legendary studio closing down. Each one has their own characteristics, vibe, aura, soul, and legendary gear (gear that is now becoming increasingly rare) that contributed to the sounds you would hear on the records recorded there. I always wondered why it seemed like none of the musicians who were part of those studios histories cared. I don’t recall hearing anyone doing something to try and keep the studios open or try to salvage much of the irreplaceable recording gear from one of those iconic studios that were shut down. Someone finally did! Dave Grohl (of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame) who pretty much recorded one of the most important and influential records in music history at Sound City not only purchased the AMAZING sounding custom NEVE 8028 Recording Console from Studio A (among many other items) he used to record on, but Dave also just recently made a much buzzed documentary and a companion soundtrack as a tribute to the legendary recording studio. Grohl did the first screening of his documentary titled “Sound City” this week at SXSW. I can’t wait to see this documentary. Wonder if I am in it?!
Formerly located at Cabrito Rd, Van Nuys, CA, Sound City was originally the showroom for British musical products company VOX. Most known for their legendary Amps which were used by the Beatles. The AC15 and AC30.
Sound City was incorporated in 1969, and officially became a public studio. Some of the first notable recordings that came out of Sound City were Spirit’s “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” and Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush.”
Check out Neil Young’s sweet, sweet song “After The Gold Rush” below…
Later that year, the infamous Los Angeles murderer Charles Manson recorded some music there as well. Sound City really started to take off in the 1970’s, with a string of mega successful albums recorded there. In the early 70’s artists like Elton John, Leon Russell, Dr. John, Buckingham Nicks (Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks first group prior to joining Fleetwood Mac), among many others laid down tracks at Sound City. The mid to late 1970’s is when Sound City really earned its stripes as a top tier-recording studio in Los Angeles. That is when it went from a newbie, to a music biz stalwart. Where major hit records were getting recorded. Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Foreigner, Grateful Dead, War, Cheap Trick, and many more tracked there. The 1980’s saw the studio continue to churn out FM radio hits. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers essentially made this place home. Rick Springfield cut the 1982 hit “Jessie’s Girl” there. Punk rock legends Fear recorded their seminal album “For The Record” at Sound City. Even the godfather of metal Dio cut his landmark “Holy Diver” album at Sound City. In 1991, rock music changed forever, and Sound City was an integral part of it. Nirvana cut their major label debut “Nevermind” in Studio A. The 1990’s saw the success continue. Many artists chose Sound City because of it’s history. Artists Like ‘Rage Against the Machine’ who recorded their groundbreaking debut at Sound City chose it, according to drummer Brad Wilk, “because Nevermind was recorded there.” Johnny Cash cut his comeback album in Studio A. Tool, Weezer, The Black Crowes, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers chose Sound City as the place to record. In the 2000’s the studio was mostly occupied by one of the most important producers of our time – Rick Rubin. Rubin used Sound City as his main studio to record majority of his biggest records during the 2000’s, and up until recent years. Metallica, Kid Rock, and even Josh Groban called this “shag carpet” walled San Fernando Valley studio home for a period of time. Aside from Rick Rubin and his productions, Sound City had an extensive resume of artists that recorded hit records there. Nine Inch Nails. Queens of the Stone Age. Pat Benatar. Guns n Roses…really, the list could go on and on. It’s mind boggling to think of how many MAJOR songs that dominated major radio over the last 40 years were recorded at Sound City. There must have been something in the air there. Maybe it was the luck of my Russian Mechanic being about a block away.
There was really something magical about this place. It had a notorious reputation of looking pretty rundown. But, that eventually become the appeal and part of it’s unique Rock ‘n’ Roll characteristic. Tom Petty was noted as saying when he first entered Sound city, “what is this place, I don’t know that we can make a record here.” The common consensus was that would you would either love it or hate it. Nirvana’s producer Butch Vig said without hesitation, “it looked kind of dumpy” when he first scouted the place. But it had this sound that was undeniable. The walls and construction created a unique resonance that no other studio in LA could match. The amazing sounding analog custom console allowed producers and engineers to capture sound that became a standard for rock n roll records during the 1970’s and up until present day. Even so much that home studio owners spend thousands of dollars to buy plug-in packages that contain features like drum samples recorded at Sound City, and virtual outboard gear that mimics gear available at Sound City. None of the celebrated artists who recorded at Sound City allowed the management to do upgrades or renovations. They feared touching anything in the place would alter it’s magic. Any changes would cause Sound City to lose that classic sound that made it so unique. During my time working at another historic and legendary studio, Capitol Recording Studios (which by the way is still managed by one of the previous managers of Sound City, Paula Salvatore), I had the pleasure to meet Sound City’s manager Shivaun O’Brien and pay the studio a visit. Shivaun was sweet enough to show me around one day and give me the VIP tour during Metallica’s down time while the recording “Death Magnetic.” I have to say, it really was not what I expected. But, at the same time…it was exactly what I imagined. It definitely was rundown, but once you walked in you felt this palpable energy that permeated from the walls. Most studios have to advertise their history with lines of plaques, awards, and pictures and a slew of other items covering the walls. Sound City had many plaques up as well, but its vibe did most of the talking. When I first went there, only a few of the staff members were present. Metallica and their crew went to lunch. All their gear was packed along the halls and in the rooms. Although it was empty, I felt as if I just entered a party. As if I just entered a place that was jam-packed with people having the time of their life. I felt that indescribable energy you feel when you are at a concert and your favorite band plays your favorite song, and you and the whole crowd are singing along. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I walked into the control room and looked over to my side and saw the couch that Kurt Cobain sat on while he sang “Something in The Way” on acoustic guitar for their album Nevermind. (Check out the song http://youtu.be/jDyvClUsCJU) I had goose bumps…just like I do now from merely writing about it. The place sort of felt haunted. Not by ghosts, but by creative energy. One could easily tell me, well Dave this is only your imagination. They could tell me that I created this feeling in my mind because I was already aware of the studio’s history. But remember something. At the time I was working at another legendary studio, Capitol Studios. I was not a novice to being in a historic studio where landmark songs and albums were recorded. I had stood in the same room, in the same spot, looking into the same EXACT microphone that Frank Sinatra sang his hit songs like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Night & Day”, and “Come Fly With Me”…with the piano Nat King Cole played “Unforgettable” on just right beside me.
Not only did Sound City have a very unique and killer vibe to the place, it also had fantastic sounding rooms. The sound of what we call a “live room” in recording music is extremely important. Sound City took pride in the fact that they had a very particular sound when it came to recording drums. Personally, recording drums is one of the more important parts of making a record. In today’s music business, anyone can get a decent vocal sound, track guitars, or keyboards at their home. But getting a knockout drum recording is what makes you pro (refer back to my blog on 5 mistakes artists make when recording an album for more on this topic). Producer Greg Fidelman (known for his work with Rick Rubin, Metallica, Slayer, Adele, and Red Hot Chili Peppers) did an experiment to help Metallica decide where to record their last album, “Death Magnetic.” He recorded the sound of a bass drum from each of the big recording studios in the Los Angeles area. He then played the sample for Metallica without telling them what studio each sample was recorded at. Based upon this sample, the band chose Sound City to record their album. When Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails asked Dave Grohl to be a guest drummer on some songs for Nine Inch Nails recent album, Dave Grohl agreed only if the songs were to be recorded at Sound City. I have recorded music at many big studios in Los Angeles. My first priority is where can I get the BEST drum sound. Without a doubt I always wanted to record at Sound City. But unfortunately they were always totally booked. Here is an example of a classic song recorded at Sound City. Do you know it?
Tom Petty &The Heartbreakers “Don’t Do me Like That”
The fact that Sound City has been a seminal studio for rock ‘n’ roll, inspired Dave Grohl to create a very personal documentary. The documentary “Sound City” that Grohl not only is featured is, but is also the director of, is about the history of the studio with an extensive all-star cast of musicians sharing their stories from the studio. The documentary was first shown at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 2013. It was also released on video-on-demand and in theaters on February 1, 2013. The film goes over the history of Sound City; the highlights of its legendary past, and some obvious rock ‘n’ roll debauchery mixed in for fun!
It then follows Dave Grohl’s purchase of the studio’s custom Neve console. It shows how he then moved it to his personal studio, Studio 606. The film follows its all-star cast of musicians recording at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 to make a new album using the legendary console. The music recorded at his studio turned into a companion soundtrack titled “Real to Reel.” The soundtrack has 11 songs, from artists ranging from Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, members of Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine, a reunion with Grohl and fellow Nirvana member Krist Novoselic, Stevie Nicks, and many more superstars.
The film has received some outstanding reviews so far! Kenneth Turan from the Los Angeles times gave the film a positive review. Turan said it was “High-spirited, emotional and funny, ‘Sound City’ is, of all things, a mash note to a machine. Not just any machine, however, but one that helped change the face of rock ‘n’ roll.” Sebastian Doggart of The Daily Telegraph gave the film five out of five stars and said it is “an exhilarating exploration of the creative process.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine spoke of Dave Grohl in his review, and said “In his directing debut, Dave Grohl shows the instincts of a real filmmaker. ‘Sound City’ hits you like a shot in the heart.”
Check out the trailer for the movie:
Check out this scene from “Sound City” with my former Capitol Studios boss Paula Salvatore:
During this past summertime, I started to go back to my “old reliable” family mechanic. It was pretty sad for me each time I had to go there. Not only because my car was ringing up a mighty high bill, but because I drove by the building that used to house Sound City. Sadly, now it has been completely renovated and stripped of all its character. I have heard the new owner has no interest in preserving its legacy or it’s original characteristic. Thank God for Dave Grohl stepping up to save some of it’s gear and making a film about it. The last time I went inside that studio was for a close friend and mentor’s memorial, Don Smith. Don was a renown producer and engineer with credits that include names like Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Cracker, Stevie Nicks, Traveling Wilbury’s, and he even mixed one of the albums I produced. I guess if I have a choice of where my memorial would be, I would also have it at a famous recording studio. The memorial was obviously sad. But it also had a very positive side to it. We celebrated Don’s life in his favorite recording studio where he built his career. I am close with Don’s son Paul, who is carrying on the tradition of great recording started by his father. But Paul is living in a different era of the music business. Studios are closing done one by one. Most people cut their albums at home studios, or smaller studios with no storied past. The end of Sound City can be attributed to the advent of Digital recording. Sound City never evolved. It stayed as a purely analog studio (where tape machines were only being used). People moved to recording digitally, and even in some cases taking advantage of the great technology to make up for their lack of talent. The new technology allows anyone to record music at an affordable price. This is obviously an advantage. The disadvantage in many independent recordings is the lack of chemistry between people during the creation process. Some people depend so much on technology today, that they have eliminated the chemistry among artists, producers, and engineers that was responsible for many classic recordings. As Dave Grohl said in his film ‘Sound City’, “In this age of technology, where you can manipulate anything, how do you retain that human element?”
Sound City had a vibe and soul of its own. A big part of it was its storied past. Legendary studios like Sound City inherently inspire artists to reach to their highest level. When you are standing in the middle of a room where some of the most influential and groundbreaking music was made, you have no choice but to be inspired to elevate to your highest level. You don’t want to be one of the artists that made a bad record there. You want to be part of that elite club of hits. You want to be part of the storied past. You want people to walk into those rooms and hallways and feel the energy you left from creating your music. I know that I always want future musicians and artist to walk into studios where I worked and to be inspired with the energy I left there. That’s what influenced me. The artists, producers, engineers, studios, and executives who came before me and created the music that made me dream of working in the music business. It inspired me to make my mark and leave an impression on this world…just like Sound City did.