Inside the Underworld of LA’s Home Recording Studios

In the old days of recording technology – say, 10 years ago – musicians, composers, engineers and producers feeding the insatiable appetite of the entertainment industry had to travel to an expensive commercial studio to ply their trade. . But as recording budgets plummeted and computers and audio software became cheaper, smaller, and more efficient, music professionals went DIY, moving out of big studios and into their garages, guest homes and add-ons, converting domestic spaces throughout Southern California.

Today, LA and surrounding cities are arguably the largest in the country. largest enclave of pro-level home recording facilities— some allowed it, many didn’t — a fact that took a big bite out of the studio business activity that once reigned supreme.

“They’ve taken a hit, no doubt,” says Ellis Sorkin, president of Studio Referral Services in Calabasas, Calif., a company that has matched customers’ recording needs with the right studios since 1980. major businesses that existed in the region ten years ago, a third have closed or been sold “to producers and artists who could afford to buy these million-plus-dollar facilities and have their own complexes,” Sorkin said.

His company, which deals with some 700 studios around the world, includes residential Los Angeles studios in that number that are “significant. There are a number of them that are pretty serious professional setups.”

Which makes sense, given that LA County beats the heart of the entertainment industry. Now, much of the music you hear comes from what insiders estimate at thousands of home studios in the area.

While some are legally permitted to be built and modified, most would not be, a huge boost for engineers, producers and musicians to make their rogue garage studio quietly pass for a garage. Apparently, the technique of silence actually works. City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety Chief Inspector Luke Zamperini says he’s heard of “maybe four or five” studio-related complaints over his 23-year career.

“People are converting their garages to other uses, and sometimes people are doing recording studios,” he says. “If music is someone’s hobby, that’s fine, as long as they can provide the two covered off-street parking spaces required elsewhere on the property. ‘a professional recording studio, it must be in a commercial area.

Commercial music studios are not the only businesses excluded from Residential Zones, per Article 2, Section 12.13.5, c. of the Los Angeles municipal code. Among the verboten are boot shine stands, rubber or metal stamp shops, typewriter or adding machine repair businesses and, of course, “baths, turks and the like”.

The code is obviously ignored by just about everyone with a professional home recording studio in Los Angeles. “It’s gotten to the point where if you’re a producer or an engineer or a musician and you don’t own your own studio, you are not going to work“says producer/engineer/musician Greg (who requested that only his first name be used, as his studio is off the radar in town), who achieved platinum and gold albums for the production over the course of 20 year career.

“The big studios I worked at in the ’90s cost at least $1,500 a day, and they had to pay me my $600 a day rate, so they were looking at $2,100 a day just to get an engineer/producer and a place to record,” he says. “Very few people have that kind of budget these days, and anyone with a credit card can walk into Guitar Center and buy crazy amounts of recording gear, but you have to know how to make it work and have the ears.”

Greg and his platinum ears work in a studio on a tree-lined street in Pasadena where the cry of wild parrots huddled on gnarled branches is louder than any sounds emanating from his low-key 1920s garage. to transform the detached 20 by 20 structure from its original studs and stucco in May and, roughly $10,000 and six months laterwas busy mixing and recording.

When it comes to cracking down on zoning issues, Pasadena, like LA, offers the option of creating a parking garage instead of a garage. Although his yard lacked sufficient parking space, Greg went ahead with his conversion project, building a rectangular room into the walls of the garage to provide air voids – “the best soundproofing in the world” – by adding multiple layers of gypsum, vibration-dampening bonded noise-damping compound, hardwood interior walls and bass trap panels, upgraded power and dimmer track lighting to provide the obligatory rock vibe. It all adds up to no sound leaking out, a key factor in the home studio owner’s number one rule, especially if your studio isn’t on the books: keep the neighbors happy.

“When I moved in, the first thing I did was introduce myself to everyone,” says Pete, a veteran songwriter/player/producer/engineer with a studio in his hometown of Studio City. “I said, ‘I’m your new neighbor, and if you have any problems, let me know.'”

The multi-hyphenate scored an Oscar-nominated short and recorded well-known artists in his own home. Post-construction on his space, he left cupcakes for neighbors. “And a bottle of wine will do a lot in the long run,” he says. “People are very nice when you do that.”

He did it the proper way, erecting his licensed ‘grass up’ workspace as an attachment to his home in 2010, adding 900 square feet – at about $100 per, says -he – to legally claim the space if he chooses to sell the property.

Buying and selling homes with studio apartments has become a niche real estate market, a chopper-riding, long-haired, tattooed and ring-nosed market Russell “Rozz” Gallaher been in business for over a decade. He came to Los Angeles from Cleveland in the 1980s, a practitioner of hair metal in a band called – wait for it – Liquor Sweet. When the sexy wore off, he bought a truck and started delivering music gear to homes with studios. This exposure and an ex-wife who was a broker eventually led him to a career in rock real estate, focusing on studios in LA County.

Gallaher says most of the home studios he works with aren’t licensed. “Here is what I suggest to anyone converting a garage. I would have it licensed as whatever they will let you authorize like– usually a playroom or home office – and build it. The town will come by and check the electrical, then you throw out the drywall and you’re done.” That’s probably when the home office or playroom becomes something entirely different.

For those who want studios but fear the risk of zoning, there is always the possibility of renting. Then, in case the Department of Construction and Safety comes snooping, the matter is in the hands of the landlord. Vincent Jones rents a San Fernando Valley home complete with a licensed studio that began life as a guesthouse, an accommodating room the size of a five-car garage.

A longtime session musician, composer and producer, he has played keyboards with Sarah McLachlan since 1997 and co-wrote the theme for the NBC show. Parks and recreation using a laptop computer, virtual instruments and the Apple Logic Pro recording program, all on the dining room table of his old home.

“You can make music on an iPad or an iPhone now,” Jones says with an ear for the future, “and I think the quality of audio conversion will continue to improve and things could potentially become smaller”. Who knows? One day, musicians may make their business in Smart cars, but we’re not there yet. “I needed a place where I could just move in and work,” Jones says of his current rental. “Having a studio is essential these days, and I have a newborn, so it’s nice to be close to home.”
Restricted Features Archive [Curbed LA]