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Inside the Underground World of LA's Home Recording Studios

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Photos of three home recording studios by Elizabeth Daniels

In the ancient 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 a pricey commercial studio to ply their trade. But as recording budgets have dropped and computers and audio software have become cheaper, smaller, and more effective, music pros have gone DIY, stepping out of the big studios and into their garages, guest houses, and add-ons, converting home spaces throughout Southern California.

Now LA and neighboring cities comprise arguably the country's largest enclave of professional-level home recording facilities—some permitted, many not—a fact that's taken a big bite out of the commercial studio business that once reigned supreme.

"They did take a hit, definitely," says Ellis Sorkin, president of Studio Referral Services in Calabasas, CA, a company that's been matching clients' recording needs with the appropriate studios since 1980. Of the roughly 30 major commercial facilities that existed in the area a decade ago, a third have closed or been sold "to producers and artists that had the wherewithal to buy these million-dollar-plus facilities and have their own complexes," Sorkin says.

His company, which deals with some 700 studios worldwide, includes in that number LA residential studios that are "significant. There are a number of them that are pretty serious professional set-ups."

Which makes sense, given that within LA County beats the dollar-pumping heart of the entertainment business. Now a huge portion of the music you hear is coming out of what insiders estimate as thousands of area home studios.

Though the construction and modification of some are legally permitted, most are reportedly not, a huge impetus for engineers, producers and musicians to keep their rogue garage studio quietly passing for a garage. Apparently, the keep-it-quiet technique actually works. Luke Zamperini, Chief Inspector for the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, says he's heard of "maybe four or five" studio-related complaints over his 23-year career.

"People convert their garages to other uses, and sometimes people make recording studios," he says. "If music is someone's hobby, that's not a problem, as long as they can provide the required two off-street covered parking spaces elsewhere on the property. But if it's a professional recording studio it needs to be in a commercial zone."

Commercial music studios aren't the only business excluded from residential zones, according to Article 2, Section 12.13.5, c. of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. Among the verboten are bootblack stands, rubber or metal stamp stores, typewriter or adding machine repair concerns, and, of course, "baths, Turkish and the like."

The code is evidently ignored by pretty much everyone with a professional home recording studio in LA. "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're not going to work," says producer/engineer/musician Greg (who requested that only his first name be used, as his studio is off the city's radar), who has garnered platinum and gold albums for production over a 20-year career.

"The big studios I worked in during the '90s were $1,500 a day minimum, and they'd have to pay me my $600 a day rate, so they were looking at $2,100 a day just to have an engineer/producer and a place to record in," 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 insane amounts of recording gear, but you have to know how to run it and have the ears."

Greg and his platinum ears work out of a studio on a tree-lined Pasadena street where the squawk of feral parrots huddled on gnarled branches is louder than any sounds emanating from his discreet 1920s garage. The musician began morphing the detached 20-by-20 structure from its original studs-and-stucco in May and, roughly $10,000 and six months later, was busy mixing and recording.

When it comes to cracking down on zoning issues, Pasadena, like LA, offers the option of creating covered parking in lieu of a garage. Though his yard lacked sufficient parking space, Greg went ahead with his conversion project, building a rectangular room within the garage walls to ensure air gaps—"the best sound insulation in the world"—adding multiple layers of sheet rock, vibration-dampening Green Glue noise-proofing compound, interior hardwood walls and bass trap panels, upgraded electrical power plus dimmer-switch track lighting to insure the mandatory mood of rock. It all adds up to nary a sound escaping, a key factor in the number one rule of the home studio owner, especially if your studio is off the books: keep the neighbors happy.

"When I moved in, the first thing I did was introduce myself to everybody," says Pete, a veteran composer/player/producer/engineer with a studio at his Studio City crib. "I said, 'I'm your new neighbor, and if you have any issues let me know.'"

The multi-hyphenate has scored an Oscar-nominated short film and recorded household-name artists in his own household. Post-construction on his space, he left cupcakes for his 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 things by the book, erecting his permitted work space "from the grass up" as an attachment to his home in 2010, adding 900 square feet—at about $100 per, he says—to legally claim the space if he chooses to sell the property.

Buying and selling homes equipped with studios has become a niche real estate market, one that chopper-riding, long-haired, tatted and nose-ringed Russell "Rozz" Gallaher has been dealing in for over a decade. He came to Los Angeles from Cleveland in the 1980s, a hair metal practitioner in a band called—wait for it—Liquor Sweet. When the sexy wore off that ride, he bought a truck and began delivering music gear to homes with studios. That exposure, and an ex-wife who was a broker, ultimately led him to a career in rock real estate, focusing on studio homes in LA County.

Gallaher says most home studios he deals with are not permitted. "Here's what I suggest to anybody converting a garage. I'd get it permitted as whatever they will let you permit it as—usually a rec room or a home office—and build it. The city is going to come by and check the electrical, then you throw up the drywall and you're done." That, presumably, is when the home office or rec room becomes something wholly other.

For those who want studios but are squeamish about the zoning risk, there's always the option of renting. Then, on the off chance that the Department of Building and Safety comes snooping, the issue is in the lap of the landlord. Vincent Jones rents a San Fernando Valley house equipped with a permitted studio that began life as a guesthouse, an accommodating room about the size of a five-car garage.

A long-time session musician, composer, and producer, he's played keyboards with Sarah McLachlan since 1997 and co-wrote the theme to the NBC show Parks and Recreation using a laptop, virtual instruments, and Apple's recording program Logic Pro, all on the dining room table of his previous abode.

"You can make music on an iPad or iPhone now," says Jones with an ear to the future, "and I think the quality of audio conversion is going to continue to get better and things could potentially get smaller." Who knows? Someday musicians may be doing their business in Smart cars, but we're not quite there yet. "I needed a place I could just move into and work," says Jones 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."
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