Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Maureen Droney
Even in the maverick world of recording studio owners, Conway's Buddy Brundo stands out as contrarian. For one thing, Conway, which Brundo and his wife Susan bought in 1976, doesn't look like any other recording facility. As a matter of fact, unless you're actually in one of the control rooms or recording spaces, it doesn't look like a studio at all. The complex feels more like a tropical hotel, with three studios hidden along winding paths behind lush greenery and private patios. Conway was also one of the first recording studios to incorporate natural light and — back in 1978 — when everyone else was building acoustically dead control rooms with compression ceilings, Brundo had acoustical designer Vincent van Haaff of Waterland Designs come up with a more live, expansion ceiling design that was conducive to the sound of rock and pop. Most recently, while many studio owners have postponed major equipment upgrades, Brundo purchased a new 80-input SSL 9000 K Series console.
The Conway operation occupies a big chunk of real estate — approximately 48,000 square feet — just a stone's throw from the Paramount movie lot and the Raleigh Stages. Brundo's been adding to the property during the past couple of years, with the goal of building a fourth studio. Instead, with business tight, he's invested in new consoles for the existing rooms and leased out a portion of the compound. Now, at the opposite end of the property from the studios are offices occupied by Brundo's friends and collaborators van Haaff and technician/equipment designer John Musgrave. On the day I visited, Peaches and Herb's single “Reunited” kept running through my brain. Musgrave, before going out on his own and forming Mad Labs, was for many years the chief engineer at Conway, where he developed and implemented the patented Neve VR upgrades that contributed to Conway's reputation for high-quality sonics. Now, Musgrave's moved Mad Labs on-site and has also entered into a maintenance agreement for the Conway studios.
While Brundo is well known for his colorful personality, he's also recognized as an astute and conservative businessman. Some have been wondering if, after 30 years in recording and with the studio business uncertain, he'd be tempted to throw in the towel and sell his now extremely valuable property. Instead, he's purchased a new console, a particularly strong statement considering that more than a year ago, he took the leap of buying a Neve 88R console, with remote 1081 and “Air Montserrat” preamps, for Studio A.
“The Neve VRs we had were getting old,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I have to buy things right. I was the very first to sign on the dotted line for an 88R, so I got a good deal on it. With business in general not so great, I was also able to get a great deal on the K Series. Our SSL J Series in Studio C has been very successful, and I got good reports about the K. It's a big step up from the J: improved sonics and speed of operation. And there were no issues with installation. SSL has ironed out any problems. You just plug it in and it works.”
With state-of-the-art consoles and the recent acquisition of Pro Tools|HD systems, Conway is set for big-ticket items, and Brundo's hunkering down to weather the economic storm. “I guess you can get used to anything,” he comments. “I adjusted to the reality of the length of this downturn. I've reorganized my debt to make it more rational, we've cut expenses and we're through for now spending money on the property. When we purchased the additional property, we had demolition, grading, paving, landscaping…It was a big chunk of money. We got through that, repositioned ourselves and now we'll see what happens.
“With John Musgrave back, who was responsible for all of the stellar Neve VR modifications, we want to get into doing the same kind of enhancement to the consoles we have now. They're great, but everything can be improved. I'm interested in doing R&D again, and there are other people who've expressed interest in joining the team. The only thing I'm looking to purchase now is another apartment building where we can put more offices.
“Look,” he concludes, “our industry has numerous problems. The battle is not over yet, and this could go either way. But for now, we're still here.” And at Conway, there has been a diverse batch of clients: In Studio A on the Neve 88R was Luis Miguel with producer Francisco Loyo and engineer Moogie Canazio; A Perfect Circle with producer Billy Howerdel and engineer Steve Duda; and Vishiss, with engineer Michael Patterson. Engineer Peter Mokran has been locked out in B on the new SSL K Series, mixing for Dave Koz and Avant. And in Studio C, Fuel tracked with producer Michael Beinhorn and engineer Frank Filipetti; Alien Ant Farm tracked with producers Dean and Robert DeLeo and engineer Dave Schiffman; Blink 182 camped out with producer Jerry Finn and engineer Ryan Hewitt; and Jamiroquai tracked for Santana with producer Lester Mendez and engineer Ryan Freeland.
It was a typical weekday morning at Burbank's O'Henry Sound Studios: By 11:30 a.m., a string session for the day's first of two jingle sessions in Studio A had already come and gone, while Studio B's pop clients were just getting rolling. Owners Hank and Jackie Sanicola and their staff have worked hard to make O'Henry one of the few studios that successfully combines record dates with scoring for film, TV and advertising. Now with the completion of Studio C, O'Henry has become the three-room facility the Sanicolas have always envisioned, and Hank, who has been in charge, is retiring from day-to-day operations. Harold Kilianski, O'Henry's chief engineer for the past five years, has been appointed operations manager for the studio.
The personable Kilianski has the right combination of skills to wear both hats. A classically trained musician, he did post-graduate study at McGill University in the prestigious Tonmeister program (the European educational curriculum for recording engineering that combines study in recording theory, acoustics and physics with hands-on practice). He subsequently worked as a recording engineer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was a partner in a Toronto studio before relocating to Los Angeles.
Another reason Kilianski is a natural for the job is that, since hired on, he's been through nonstop renovation, design and construction projects at O'Henry. “Within a year of starting here,” he recalls, “we renovated Studio B and installed the SSL 9000. That console wasn't even online for a year before Hank decided to begin work on Studio A.”
Work on Studio A included the painstaking rebuild and enlargement of its popular custom API Flying Faders-equipped console into a 5.1 88-input mixing and monitoring desk that is one of the largest fully discrete consoles in the world. “It's an amazing console,” Kilianski states, “for both tracking and mixing. There will never be another console like it.”
At the time of renovation, Studio A's large recording space was also renovated, making it more friendly to rock and pop, as well as to orchestras. The changes paid off: There are still plenty of orchestra dates in A, and it's also become popular with acts such as The Eagles, Macy Gray and Lyle Lovett, who appreciate a quality acoustic environment.
“One of the things that Studio A has to offer — and The Eagles sessions are a great example — is that large tracking sessions can set up drums in the big room,” notes Kilianski, “with guitar amps, piano, etc., in the glass-walled iso booths surrounding it. You get a sound you just can't achieve by putting the drums in a small iso booth. For the same reason, a lot of string arrangers — like David Campbell and Paul Buckmaster — like to work in A. It's live, but very smooth with great character.”
The third room, Studio C, boasts a large control room, like all O'Henry Studios, and is fitted with a Yamaha DM2000 digital console and was built from the ground up in 2002. “Studio C is particularly good for clients who want to camp out on a long-term basis to do vocals or production,” comments Kilianski. “It has its own kitchen and bathroom, a separate entrance and even private parking.
“We made decisions with Studio C to build it in a more economical way, although,” he says with a laugh, “construction at the level Hank insists on is always first-rate. Instead of installing another large-format console, we decided on a Yamaha DM2000. We went digital because it's neutral, unlike analog where everyone has their own opinion about which sound they like. It's worked out quite well. We've had a lot of great people in C like Dallas Austin working with Gwen Stefani, and Samantha Ronson.”
For Kilianski, a perk of working at O'Henry is that L.A.'s finest session musicians are regular visitors. “I come from the music side originally, where I studied orchestration and composition,” he says. “It's still a complete and sincere thrill for me to work on a daily basis with such amazing musicians. It was actually very lucky that I ended up at O'Henry. I knew nothing about L.A. when I arrived; my first job was right here. In hindsight, it's the best possible place I could have landed.”
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