AES Section Meeting Reports

Pacific Northwest - June 19, 2012

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The PNW Section's June meeting took a closer look at CBS Records' 30 street NYC studios, with emcee Dan Mortensen (PNW chair) and retired CBS engineer and AES Honorary Member Frank Laico. The meeting was broadcast over the internet as a webinar, and two special guests participated by phone from the east coast USA, Dave Simons, author of the book, "Studio Stories" and Steve Epstein, former CBS Masterworks producer. A variety of historic photos, music and video clips, and remarks from Frank, Dave and Steve traced the history of the famed studio, now long gone. 19 AES members and 58 non-members attended at the Crista Rehabilitation Center in Shoreline, WA, where Frank lives.

Archival photos showed some of the history of the building at 207 East 30th St, NYC, which CBS used as their flagship recording studio from 1949 until 1982, when they closed it and sold the property for a condo tower. Dan had researched the history of the building which was originally built as the Adams/Parkhurst Presbyterian church in 1875. By 1949, CBS was looking for a large studio, and when Mitch Miller (working for CBS) was shown the place, he liked the sound and said to make no changes at all to the building or decor - no cleaning, refurbishment, nothing - to preserve the acoustics. As Frank noted, the main room was about 100 feet by 100 feet by 100 feet, but somewhat irregularly shaped, with plenty of 1875 architectural elements and subsequent decorations over the years. Several photos of sessions in the studio were shown (Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein recording with orchestras, Glenn Gould on piano).

A few changes were made over time, such as the control room, which might be odd considering Mitch Miller's directive of "no changes." Comparisons photos showed the old control room (circa 1949-61) vs. the newer, larger control room (through the 1970s) and finally to 1982, as well as some console changes.

Several audio and video excerpts demonstrated the sound of the studio and showed how it looked, with many famous artists seen.

Dave Simons noted that he loved the reverb. When writing his book in 1999, he found Frank and interviewed him. Many recordings from that era had a distinctive CBS sound due to their use of reverb and their reverb ("echo") chamber. It was considered their secret weapon. Frank spoke about finding an unused 10x15x8 storage room in the basement, where he cleaned out a lot of junk and installed an ordinary speaker and a Neumann U47 mic. The sound became much envied in the biz.

Frank said that the studio was painted and cleaned in the 1960s, and he immediately noticed the sound was completely different. Management's first answer was to build a new console, then they decided to build a new control room.

After intermission, Dan tried to discuss some questions taken from the webcast participants, regarding microphones used, and if Frank did final mixes or not.

A few non-Columbia artists managed to record at 30th St. even though they were not supposed to. Dave Simons told a story about being with Frank and Mitch Miller in 2003, and Frank "confessing" that they'd recorded non-CBS artist Frank Sinatra. Mitch was taken completely by surprise.

Frank said he got along great with Tony Bennett, both being of Italian heritage. A photo was shown of Frank, his wife Collette and Tony at the NYC Copacabana Club, where Tony was performing and had invited the Laicos.

Turning to some of the equipment used, a Neumann M49 mic pops up in many photos, apparently a favorite of Frank's. Photos of various mixing consoles through the years were shown.

Excerpts of the film documentary of the soundtrack recording of the Sondheim musical, "Company" at 30th St. showed much of the studio in the 70s with Frank's co-worker Fred Plaut. Frank is shown doing a final overdub of Elaine Stritch in studio B on 52nd St.

Steve Epstein started working at CBS Masterworks in the 70s, and spoke about working at 30th St. for many classical sessions. The standard Altec A-7 monitor speakers were replaced with KLH 6s for his sessions. He recalled some deep rumble in the building that had to be filtered out, and radio interference from the nearby Empire State Building antennas that precluded using some microphones.

Dave Simons, speaking from his home, told how he was inspired to make his own home studio reverb chamber after meeting Frank and writing the "Studio Stories" book. While a photo was shown, Dave stuck his head into his chamber and gave us a demo over the phone. Some musical examples were played of Dave's home chamber, as well as some Tony Bennett classics done at CBS' 30th St and 7th Ave. studios reverb.

Finally, Frank retold his account of recording "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" with Tony Bennett. Hearing of his health problems, Tony had chatted with Frank recently on the phone.

It was a long and rich evening, with special thanks due to the Dansound Inc. crew, Crista Rehabilitation Center, and Frank Laico and his family.

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